Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams' Magic Mirror

The truth is, if anything, I'm probably addicted to laughter. —Robin Williams 1951-2014

It's really been upsetting reading the news with myriad gossip-mongers having a field day at Robin Williams' expense. Folks have been busy blaming Robin's turbulent drug-ridden past and/or a lack of money for his suicide.

According to his financial advisor, despite two divorces, Robin was not on shaky financial ground. He was solid. Royalties were coming in. He has three new movies about to be released. Income (or a lack thereof) wasn't the reason for his death.

Nor was vice the cause. His vices: he was clean from drugs having gone cold turkey since the day John Belushi died in 1982, and he was also sober for 20 years. Yes, Robin fell off the wagon in 2003 while on a movie set in Alaska, and when he began to fall off the barstool, with family intervention, he got back on the wagon in 2006—so he was eight years sober on round two.).

His vices didn't kill him; being bipolar is not a vice, it's an illness. Profound depression was the real enemy. I've seen what it did to my mother, the failed suicide attempts. When slitting his wrists failed, Robin hanged himself with his own belt, wedged over the top of the closet door. He could've saved himself, but death was the only escape route. The toxicology report is still out but I'm willing to bet it will come back clean.

Robin was also recovering from massive open heart surgery (2009), an operation that often leaves survivors profoundly depressed and suicidal. As if his plate wasn't full enough, we come to find out that he also suffered from early onset Parkinson's Disease, a neuro-degenerative disorder that affects balance, movement, and cadence; other symptoms include tremors, and facial paralysis.

One million Americans have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s; it affects as many as 10 million people worldwide. Men are more likely to get it than women. There is no cure. I wonder if Robin Williams had gotten a chance to talk to Michael J. Fox about his symptoms, if it would've made a difference? Or was being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease the final straw? With that prognosis hanging over his head, his future must have seemed like a bleak Godot.

Robin was a very prolific man, he's left behind a prodigious body of work with nearly 50 movies to his credit, and almost as many TV shows, not to mention comedy shows, and charitable work. In 1986 he helped found Comic Relief USA, raising $80 million for the homeless. He's won two Oscars Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Emmys, four Golden Globes, and five Grammy Awards.

His work literally defined who he was. Robin's very identity was wrapped up in his ability to mime and to mimic others. A man of a thousand voices and thousands of  characters. The magic mirror itself was shattered. And no amount of drugs or superglue could fix that.

RIP, Robin. You had the courage to dream big. You made your life spectacular. And we are all the better for it.

Oh, Captain, my Captain. 

There will be a one-minute worldwide standing ovation (preferably while standing on your desk or on your car roof) to celebrate the incomparable Robin Williams on Monday, August 18 at 1 PM, PST. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Spotting

Robin Williams at Redwood High School ca. 1969.

I met Robin at College of Marin in 1970. Even then, he was mesmerizing. I used to follow him everywhere around campus. Especially when he did silly walks while wearing a swimming cap and not much more than skimpy green gym shorts. He was the pied piper. I was just seventeen.

Imagine Robin wearing a women's swim cap with strap dangling. (Redwood HS ca 1969)

To my mother's delight (she was an actress at the Gate Playhouse in Sausalito), I joined the College of Marin theater department so I got to see Robin in all his zany roles. He did an incredible yellow-stockinged cross-gartered Malvolio that absolutely stole the show. He also stole my heart way back then and never gave it back. I was too frightened to audition for roles but I did costume design and ushered shows.

Robin was a brilliant actor. The comedy angle, he just couldn't help himself. It was always bubbling over. Robin would spontaneously riff on Shakespeare solliloques until we wet ourselves laughing. He drove director James Dunn nuts but we all loved Robin. College of Marin was like an extended childhood—we both attended CoM for three years. 

Offstage, Robin was just about as shy as I was, so at cast parties we'd sort of sit there looking down at our feet kicking rocks and go au-um. I absolutely adored him. I think he knew it too because he once invited me to a party at his house in Tiburon. I hopped into in my old Volvo panel truck (at least it started), and followed his VW Bug to Strawberry. We gassed up at the station, he dropped a rolled-up dollar bill and took off. The wind fluttered it to my feet. I picked it up. Portent of things to come.

I remember going over to the Trident restaurant on the Sausalito wharf just to watch Robin who was working as a busboy/waiter. He'd juggle plates, knives and glasses, do cartwheels, and a side dish of stand-up comedy while bussing dishes. It was always hilariously entertaining until the owner shooed us out.

I was no stranger to the Trident. In the mid-60s, my actress-mother was once a famous Trident waitress wearing little more than a bustier and fishnet stockings—she knocked 'em dead nightly with those showgirl legs—Bing Crosby autographed a napkin for her. Even in the 70s, Trident glitterati included: Grace Slick, Carlos Santana, David Crosby, Bill Graham, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and Bill Cosby.

Another favorite Robin-spotting pastime was watching Robin-the-mime greet perplexed shivering tourists at the end of the trolly car line in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square. Or watch him improv at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I saw him once at The Boarding House, but by then his fame was growing, and it was crazy jammed, so I left without saying hello or goodbye.

Robin took the LA comedy clubs by storm, and in 1973, he was accepted to Juilliard along with other classmates of mine, Mark Rasmussen, and Joel Blum (a 2-times Tony winner), but Robin always kept up his west coast connections. Marin was home.

Robin Williams & Joel Blum in the wild west version of Taming of the Shrew, directed by James Dunn,  1971, went on to win the Best of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that summer. Many of us helped raise funds (car washes) for the tour, but didn't go with the cast. Harvey Susser was also my drama teacher. It's his photo. Don't know why the Daily Mail is claiming it.  Great interview with James Dunn, though. 

I only saw Robin once again in 1981 at a concert after he got famous. Backstage, after a Bread & Roses show at The Greek Theater (I was the resident calligrapher for Mimi Fariña), I ran into Robin later with Michael Pritchard, and Eric Idle. Robin did a wild ribald set with Michael Pritchard that had the audience rolling in the aisles.

Robin Williams & Michael Pritchard at the Other Cafe reunion in SF (photoNathan Nayan)

I watched the show from the wings. Robin came offstage and recognized me...which shocked me. He gathered me up in his arms saying, I know you! I know you!!! and kissed me soundly. I said: Eww! Gross. Stop. Sweaty! swatting him off...

I got to hang out backstage with Robin, Mike and Eric Idle and watch them crack each other up. I don't remember what was said, one-upmanship was involved, and I had laughed myself senseless. Somewhere I have photos of the show.

Robin said he'd keep in touch. Never happened. 

I always thought I'd see him one more time again.

special thanks to Nathan for letting me use his photo.

Squirrel Bath

The red squirrel left three green acorns at the bottom of the half-full glass on the fence so I filled it up with fresh water. They no longer have a potable water source, so my pint beer glass wedged in the fence is their only wellspring. They run up the fence from the street trees for their daily drink. Next morning, the glass was half-empty again and the water was filthy. The acorns were gone. The squirrel went snorkeling to get them back. I guess the bottom of the glass wasn't such a good place to hide his nuts after all. But he's now one very clean squirrel.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Half a Hole

Math puzzle: If it takes 6 men 6 days to dig 6 holes, how long will it take 3 men to dig half a hole?

How can you possibly dig a half a hole? That's sort of like being half-pregnant. Or like running a half-distance race (where you never, ever, ever get to point B).

A hole is a whole hole no matter how misshapen or shallow it might be. Some holes are holier than others, but they're also in the dark. They don't see the light. No! No! Don't go toward the light!

I have some questions: Were the 6 men digging for 24 hours each? Or are we talking 8-hour days here? Did they get time off for lunch and two ten-minute breaks? Union? Non-union? Were they US citizens? Were they assholes? Did they dig all the way to China? What about doughnut holes?

You can probably tell I never did well on the verbal math tests—too many variables and then there's the conundrum to consider. I'll take that doughnut hole now, I prefer the chocolate glazed ones, TYVM. But I'd be happy to share half my doughnut hole with half of those three men digging those half-holes. How many pieces would that be, if eaten over a three-day period?


One AM phone call: a man slurred: 
"You'd better come get me. 
I can't make it." And hung up. 
Wonder if he ever made it home?

Bum Steer

Sometimes our neighbor Les Stone would put us up on Ralf, the Jersey milk cow and she'd buck and lunge like a champion rodeo bull. My friend Stephanie named her after the sound she made when she attempted to moo. Ralf had a big knotted abscess on her cheek and a lisp, so her I'm so lonely song came out RALF! RALF! RALF! 

Ralf was also a consummate escape artist. Her middle name should've been Cowdini. So my neighbors resorted to electric fences to keep the cow in. But come morning, there was Ralf straddling the electric fence, udderly devastated by the height of the fence and the fact that her full udder, in need of milking, wouldn't clear the hurdle—facts colluded. She'd stand there, with back hunched up to lift her udder off the electric fence, waiting patiently to be rescued, muttering ralf, ralf, ralf under her breath. 

Come spring, she'd charge right through that fence to find Old Grandad the Herfie bull in Nuneses' upper pasture on Mt. Barnabe. And she'd bust out again to have her calf in the woods. She'd hide out and blend in with the trees. I swear that cow could tiptoe. We'd have to go hunt her down hidden in the oaks with her newborn calf. We'd follow the calf's yellow fresh milk spoor. Busted!

Poor Ralf loved freedom and we couldn't explain to her why wandering the backroads was not a good idea for a fawn colored cow and calf—especially during deer hunting season.


The last afternoon waltz is over.
Revelers leave the Rancho Nicasio in droves
and gun their pricy cars lining the square. 
The wild turkey chicks straddling the fence, 
chime in with pullet-sized "feed-me" peeps 
and teenage angst squawks at passers-by
or maybe they 're hoping to audition 
as backup singers for the band. 
Mama deer parades her twin fawns, 
their spots like constellations in the dry grass 
as they head down to the creek for their evening drink.
They watch, amused by all this Sunday hubbub. 
The turkeys risk crossing the road: 
they have a lot to say while holding up traffic 
at the 2nd base outfield.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Math Whiz, Not

My personal strength is visual acumen. I can remember faces and images. I score high on those kinds of equations. As long as it doesn't involve numbers. I had to take the CBEST test and failed the SIMPLE math portion. SIMPLE...yes? I scored @ 60%, so I got a math tutor studying for her (she, not he—very important) PhD. She was fascinated by how I solved the problems. She said I was bored with simple math, but had somehow taught myself algebra & geometry—that my reasoning was sound. But I did odd things like add figures in the subtraction columns, I flipped numbers (6/9, and 4/7), etc., a classic case of dyslexia. But I passed the blasted test. Tears were involved. And the spectre of Coach Harry Roche lobbing chalk and erasers at Johnny Kaufman and Mike Frank, didn't boost morale, of course. My grandfather had an eidetic memory. He could speed-read any book and had perfect recall. I have it too, but only partial recall. However, when it comes to math, I reverse numbers....and get all jumbled up. No matter that I've been clocked with an IQ of 138-40, math is my Achilles heel. And I have math whizzes on both sides of the family. The gene's there, but it's all damseled about. Even the late, great Olympic runner Archie Williams who broke track records with Jesse Owens, couldn't teach me a lick of math. And my mother's cousin was a mathematician on the Manhattan Project. So it runs in the family. It just ran away with me. Or more like from me.

Monday, July 28, 2014


A deer ambled up to the kitchen window
popped down roses as if they were potato chips.
Beautiful blood-red petals slid down her throat.
She gobbled them up not even taking time to savor them.
I rapped on the glass but she kept on munching away.
We were inches from each other. Eye to eye.
But she knew the difference between glass and roses.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Old work, new vision

Lately I've been uploading old work—mostly poems from the 1980s and 1990s. It's a bit of a surprise to revisit one's old writing all at once like that. I started at the beginning. Only work that made the electronic cut was uploaded. It's been a tedious process fraught with technical difficulty (read: incompatible formats) and more than a few poems weren't all there. As in physically not all there (no that's not a value judgement.)

And of course, I don't have hard copy for any of my old work, my big clippie-board mss binder has gone on walkabout. So I can't fill in the missing words and lines, nor date some of my old work. I'm sure there are myriad formatting typos. Long dashes (em lines) reverted to accented ós, and line breaks disappeared. I've been burning the midnight oil—nay, more like 2AM, removing those pesky ascii artifacts. But some are insidious.

See my very first entry of 1979 to read all about it. But rereading and reformatting all those poems is labor intensive. (I'm up to 1993). There are gaps becaue I didn't date my earlier work—incestuous nepotism? It dated me and now it's haunting me. Everything's relative.

Yeah, there was a lot of love gone wrong stuff. Rites of passage. Painful stuff. Painfully funny stuff: comparing women to pears with PTSD, imagining myself as an asparagus stalk, eating white oil paint because it reminded me of ice cream. OK, so I was four, it was my first metaphor.

Weird to review ones life for the past 35 years via poetry—shuffling the poems into the right creation date has created an interesting timeline.

Don't know how much more I'll upload during this round. My eyeballs hurt. I've moved all the orphan poems to relative dates within a 2-4 year period. Usually to Jan 1,19xx, so I can find them later. I still have a rat's nest of early poems filled in 1994—that was the latest file date saved. Need to track them down too.

Too much circular reading. Sorry for the typos, Working on them.

When This Blog Really Began—Aug 2008
Old Posts, New Posts
The Paper and the Sonoma County Stump

Poem titles are in CAPITAL LETTERS, and you can search the blog, using the word 'poem" in the search box at the top or clicking on the word "poem" on
the hotlist below the dates. Other poetic categories too: haiku, ekphrastic poetry, collage, etc. Some poems also sorted by region: from the Andes to the USSR, and Zenia.

    found poem 


A surprise bonus:
recycling dishwater
forks in the planters.

Dumping dishwater
in thirsty planter boxes
a fork serenade.

Tossing the dishwater
a cacophony of forks
dig into the ground.

I'm giving up on
5/7/5 haiku lines
to count water drops.

When I tossed the dishwater into the garden
the plants drank in a cacophony of forks
A good tine was had by all.

The dishwater sang
tine-y bubbles whined about
a fork in the road

But the owl flew off
with a runcible spoon think-
ing it was a mouse.

When in drought save gray
water, the whales are dreaming
of rain on this plain.

Anonymous comments button turned off

So very tired of the spate of Anonymous commenters posting spammybits to my Irish Redheads post (my most popular blog post with 38,352 strikes—OK, so 5000 of those are probably Vampirestats). Like cuckoos laying their eggs in other birds' nest, these nefarious commenters sneakily embed URLs in their posts–which I can't disable. So the Anonymous comments button is turned off for now. Wish I could just turn it off for that blog post, But it's all or nothing. To leave a comment, you must now register, or have Open ID. So sorry. I hate captchas. Some of my best commentators have been Anonymous posters. (Sigh).

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Greedy squirrel knocks
my china cup off the fence—crash!
He's looking at me so guiltily 
he's beating his chest
as if to say mea culpea.


Our waterdogs were MUCH more stocky than this fellow, more like a coastal giant salamander but they weren't spotted. For all we know, they could've been a new species. —Wiki

When I was a kid, there were giant (Pacific Coast) salamanders that lived in a creek that ran down from the slopes of Mt. Barnabe, behind the Stone's house.

Three salamanders were dressed in different shades of liver, brown and russet. And they were built like small stocky bulldogs—about a foot long. They looked much bigger to us then, and of course we thought they were Loch Ness monsters, or Sumo wrestlers. We made our first unoriginal metaphor: we called them moving poops. Unfortunately Stephanie's little brother probably killed them. You know how it is with little boys and rocks and slow moving targets.

I still feel bad when I think of those salamanders. Even then, we knew it was wrong to lob rocks at them. We were probably 7 or 8 years old. We had no idea that they were rare prehistoric creatures. When teacher said that dinosaurs were extinct, we knew better, they were alive and well and living in the gorge at the foot of the mountain.

Apparently the giant salamanders can bark too. Hence the name: water dogs. It was probably their barking that attracted our attention. Because they were so far outside our experience of the known world, not like the regular salamanders—petite, delicate creatures that came out after a heavy rain, and they barked, I was shaken.

The terror of unknown was suddenly real. We hiked up the gorge many times looking for those strange monster waterdogs, but we never saw them again. They reappeared in dreams, barking, as if beckoning me towards the unknown. Or alerting me to danger.

I chalked the memory up to a collective bout of wild unreined childhood imagination, until Trane DeVore posted a photograph of a giant Japanese salamander, and at that moment I realized that my childhood monsters were indeed real, and they were barking like wild dogs.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Once, long ago, on an unreasonably hot day
like today, while waiting for the Anacortes ferry,
I jumped off the dock to cool off in Puget Sound.
Baby flounders scattered like rusted fall leaves.
One tiny fish swam into my palm—and settled in.
His eyes hadn't yet migrated all the way to one side,
so he watched me as carefully as I watched him.
When his jewel-spots changed to blend with my hand,
his eyes retained the dreams of sea and sky.


I suppose I could call it a blue-eyed flounder...
this poem prompted me to dig out some old fishy poems and upload them.




Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Alan Watts, early 1970s, Everett Collection, Brain Pickings

 —The only way to make sense out of change 
         is to plunge into it, move with it, 
         and join the dance.Alan Watts

When I was a child, I swear
Alan Watts was older than dirt.
Now from a photo, he gazes out 
looking younger than I am today. 
Sausalito in the good old days, 
when Varda lived on the old ferryboat 
and nailed his paintings to the walls, 
& from the captain's cabin,
Alan danced at the helm,
with his seadog legs braced
against the raging '50s tide, 
steering the '60s into oblivion.


With special thanks to Maria Popova, whose scintillating blog Brain Pickings, inspired this piece. If you don't know about Brain Pickings, you're in for a real treat. Mind candy.

LOL, I thought vampire stats & Technorati web crawlers had attacked my blog, this post got 500 hits—Come to find that Maria tweeted a link. I am grateful to all of you for stopping by. I'm lucky to get 20 hits on a poem.

♡ After reading a Brain Pickings article about Alan Watts (), a woman wrote this beautiful poem

Sunday, July 6, 2014


Deer browsing brush pile
red plum leaves taste good to her.
They taste good to her.

Young deer at old well
wallows in the dust. Her spots
slipped off midsummer.

An abandoned well
Young deer wallows in the dust
Look! her spots slipped off.

First summer berries
rattlesnakes lying in wait
I step carefully

My tongue sings sweet praise
to ripe berries. Snake rattles,
wants something sweet too.

Bluebird's maiden flight
grounded. Wait 'til your feathers
grow all the way in.

Birdlet, not the time
to fledge, the snake's dreaming of
feathering his nest.

Asleep on the couch,
3 AM—raccoons cleaning
the BBQ grill.

Raccoons arguing
all night cleaning the camp grill.
No point sleeping now.

Raccoons quarreling
over the grill. Either way
we'll have to clean it.

Greedy squirrel knocks
cup off of fence—crash! Guilty.
He's beating his chest.

I rushed home to catch 
a play only to have him 
cancel at curtain call.

Little girls screaming
in unison and in pitch
with the power drill.

Raiding the freezer.
Old cake with freezerburn, hey!
chocolate is chocolate.

Baby halibut
swims into my hands, looks up
with his sea-blue eyes.

Young halibut changed
his spots to hide—but not the
color of his eyes.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How Writers Write Poetry

Maybe someone else will have better luck accessing these craft talks. YouTube never works for me. You will need to sign up for this free online workshop led by Iowa Writers' Workshop.

How Writers Write Poetry MOOC (Facebook link)

Talks on Craft and Commitment
The Course
How Writers Write Poetry, a six-week course beginning on June 28, 2014, is an interactive study of the practice of writing poetry.

How Writers Write Poetry Syllabus

Before the first class begins on Saturday, June 28, please watch our Preliminary Video Session: "Getting Started with Marvin Bell"
To meet your moderators, learn when they will be online, and find out how and when they will be leading workshops of your poetry, please see our Moderator and Workshop Schedule
Please also note our Rules of Workshop Conduct
Saturday, June 28
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
**All videos will remain available for the duration of the course, so once a video has been posted, you may watch (and re-watch) at any time.
Class Topic: Sketching Techniques
Video Session #1: Robert Hass
Assignment: Exercise #1
Monday, June 30
Due: Exercise #1​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Tuesday, July 1
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Collecting and Repurposing Lines
Video Session #2: Kate Greenstreet and Lucy Ives
Assigned: Exercise #2
Wednesday, July 2
Exercise #1 Workshops open
Thursday, July 3
Due: Exercise #2​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Friday, July 4
Exercise #1 Workshops close
Saturday, July 5
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Building a Poem
Video Session #3: Daniel Khalastchi
Assigned: Exercise #3
Exercise #2 Workshops open
Monday, July 7
Due: Exercise #3​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Exercise #2 Workshops close
Tuesday, July 8
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Mindful Writing
Video Session #4: Sridala Swami and Alexandria Peary
Assigned: Exercise #4
Wednesday, July 9
Exercise #3 Workshops open
Thursday, July 10
Due: Exercise #4​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Friday, July 11
Exercise #3 Workshops close
Saturday, July 12
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Prosody (Meter)
Video Session #5: Richard Kenney and William Trowbridge
Assigned: Exercise #5
Exercise #4 Workshops open
Monday, July 14
Due: Exercise #5​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Exercise #4 Workshops close
Tuesday, July 15
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Containing Multitudes
Video Session #6: Dora Malech and Tarfia Faizullah
Assigned: Exercise #6
Wednesday, July 16
Exercise #5 Workshops open
Thursday, July 17
Due: Exercise #6​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Friday, July 18
Exercise #5 Workshops close
Saturday, July 19
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Other People's Words
Video Session #7: Nick Twemlow and Kiki Petrosino
Assigned: Exercise #7
Exercise #6 Workshops open
Monday, July 21
Due: Exercise #7​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Exercise #6 Workshops close
Tuesday, July 22
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Poetry As Pleasure
Video Session #8: James Galvin and Kwame Dawes
Assigned: Exercise #8
Wednesday, July 23
Exercise #7 Workshops open
Thursday, July 24
Due: Exercise #8​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Friday, July 25
Exercise #7 Workshops close
Saturday, July 26
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Constraint Based Poetry
Video Session #9: Shane McCrae and Teemu Manninen
Assigned: Exercise #9
Exercise #8 Workshops open
Monday, July 28
Due: Exercise #9​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Exercise #8 Workshops close
Tuesday, July 29
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Sonic Association
Video Session #10: Carol Light and Larissa Szporluk
Assigned: Exercise #10
Wednesday, July 30
Exercise #9 Workshops open
Thursday, July 31
Due: Exercise #10​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Friday, August 1
Exercise #9 Workshops close
Saturday, August 2
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Looking Outward
Video Session #11: Michael Dennis Browne and Caryl Pagel
Assigned: Exercise #11
Exercise #10 Workshops open
Monday, August 4
Due: Exercise #11​ by 11:59 pm (CDT)
Exercise #10 Workshops close
Tuesday, August 5
Video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)
Class Topic: Free Verse | Prose Poem
Video Session #12: Marvin Bell and Mary Hickman
Assigned: Exercise #12
Wednesday, August 6
Exercise #11 Workshops open
Welcome to Class Session 1: Sketching Techniques
Saturday, August 9
Exercise #11 Workshops close
Course Closes
Final video class will be posted at 7:00 AM CDT (GMT - 5:00)

Saturday, June 28, 2014
Robert Hass discusses one-, two-, three-, and four- line sketching techniques.
Former Poet Laureate Robert Hass is the author of seven books of poetry, numerous critical articles, and many translated works. Hass is the recipient of numerous awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, for his 2007 poetry collectionTime and Materials.
How to Begin:
1) Watch the class video. Captions are available: press play and then press the cc button at the bottom right of the video for captions.
2) To read the writing assignment that was presented in the video, look below the video.
3) Join the discussion. To talk about the craft issues and writing processes presented in the video with Mary Hickman and our Moderators, click on the link below titled “Class Session 1 Discussion - Sketching Techniques.”
4) Submit a writing exercise. To post your writing exercise for discussion with your fellow poet-participants, click on the link below titled “Exercise 1 Submissions - Sketching Techniques” and add your poem as a new forum topic. **If you would like your exercise to be considered for workshopping, you must post it by 11:59 PM CDT (GMT – 5:00) on Monday, June 30.
5) Join the workshops. Workshops for this writing assignment will begin on Wednesday, July 2 and will end on Friday, July 4.

Using Robert Hass's sketching techniques, write a one-, two-, three-, or four- line poem. Submit it to our course forum via the link below the video marked "Exercise 1 Submissions - Sketching Techniques." You may submit as many poems as you like!

Monday, June 16, 2014


It never snows in Marin
except for when it snows. 
Then it snows all afternoon. 
I rode a green colt in the lower field.
It was June and it began to snow
all afternoon, in summer, it snowed.
The horse, a silly dapple grey 
with less brains than brawn, 
mistook his equipage for shadows
tried to kick the snow flurries away. 
Blackbirds wove tight circles
and sang in the branches of the oaks,
The pale dry grass listened 
to its own conclusion as the snow
turned to unseasonable blooms in summer.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Arbutus, Madroño, or a Strawberry Tree by any other name

Clusters of berries, leaves and flowers of the arbutus unedo.

A stand of Irish strawberry trees (or Killarney strawberry trees) are fruiting in front of my physical therapist's office in Berkeley. I climbed up on the hood of my car to reach the fruit, but didn't realize I couldn't get back down without loosing my "strawberries." I squashed them all over the place—they were like little golden suns with fiery coronas—when I nearly fell off the car. Would've been difficult to explain that injury to my PT. But I was gluttonous as a bear.

My grandmother often talked about eating the wild arbutus "strawberries" as a child, comparing their flavor to the haws of hawthorne trees. They don't taste anything like strawberries—they just look like them on the outside. In the inside, they're like little orange suns flecked with tiny seeds. The Irish do know the difference between strawberries and arbutus tree fruit. Wild strawberries also grow in ireland. It's a simile, sweetie.

Ripe arbutus berries are pebbly & red outside, golden & mushy inside.

My grannie, who hailed from Bantry, said that the Gulfstream, that warm Atlantic current that bathes the coasts of western Ireland, created an ideal micro-climate where tropical plants flourish—including palm trees. However, the arbutus, or strawberry tree, is also native to western Ireland but, curiously, not to England.

The Irish arbutus was introduced to England from Ireland during the 16th c., and one estate plant catalogue mentions "one very fayre tree, called the Irish arbutis standing in the midle parte of the sayd kitchin garden, very lovely to look upon." 

The broad glossy evergreen leaves are about three inches long, an inch wide with a toothed, or serrated edge. And the clusters of fragrant flowers are showy white or pink tinted bells—like most plants in the heath, or Ericaceae family, as arbutus is related to heather and bilberries.

Arbutus berries; the hard yellow ones are unripe. 

The story goes, that when the Spanish explorers landed in California, they recognized our native madrone (naming it madroño) as being related to their madroño or Arbutus unedo which is common throughout the greater Mediterranean basin from: Albania to Croatia, Lebanon to Sardinia, Portugal to Tunisia—even the Canary Islands...and in Ireland.

There's an anomaly of isolated arbutus groves in western Ireland—especially in Bantry and the Dingle Peninsula on the Kerry coast. Sligo has the most northerly stand of Arbutus unedo in the world, a remnant from the pre-Ice Age Atlantic period. (Or possibly brought to Ireland by the Iberian Bell-Beaker Folk, ca. 2500 BC—renown for their bell-shaped clay drinking vessels, stone wrist-guards, and gold lunulae. Their motto might have been: Don't drink that arbutus beer, and shoot arrows at the crescent moon. Or were lunulae really splash guards?)
The [arbutus] species is one of a select group of plants, fifteen in all, native to Ireland but not to Britain. Taken together, these special Irish natives have come to be known as the Lusitanian or Hiberno-Cantabrian flora, owing to the fact that their nearest relatives are to be found on the Iberian Peninsula. How this flora arrived to the blank canvass that was post-Ice Age Ireland is not well understood, but it is possible that they spread overland along the changing coast of the British Isles as they emerged from under glacier and sea. —The Strawberry Tree, UP Cronin

Dr. Cronin (M.Sc. in Plant Science, University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology, University of Limerick), writes that the eighth century Irish legal tract, Bretha Comaithchesa (laws of the 'hood) ranks caithne (arbutus) as a fodla fedo — or third division tree, used for manufacturing charcoal or making small pieces of decorative red inlay.

It's an Irish toponym: Ard na Caithne (Ardnaconnia), or Strawberry Tree Heights (a headland—also known as Smerwick, or Butter Bay) is located in the heart of the Kerry Gaeltacht, near Corca Dhuibhne—the tip of the Dingle Peninsula. Ard na Caithne (with its arbutus groves, laden with little golden apples of the sun) is a significant site: it's the home of Dún an Óir ('Fort of Gold'), an Iron Age fort; the site of sixth-eighth c. monastic settlements, the Gallarus Oratory (the oldest beehive hut in Ireland—I saw it from the road but my cousin wouldn't stop the car) and An Riasc; and for the horrific Siege of Smerwick (1580), where the surrendered Irish freedom fighters were slaughtered by the British Lord Grey. The sacred ground was stained by more than just arbutus berries that day.

Ard na Caithne was home to 17th c. Irish poet and harpist, Piaras Feiritéar, who surrendered to the English after the Confederate Ireland wars, was granted safe passage, but was hanged in 1653. The ruins of his castle still stand among the arbutus trees at Ard na Caithne and his poetry lives on in the oral tradition. 

Ard na Caithne was also home to Séamus Ó Muircheartaigh (1877–1927) who wrote under the pseudonym, An Spáilpín Fánach
(The Wandering Labourer—also the name of his song). Séamus Moriarty emigrated to San Francisco (via Butte, MT) and knew my grandparents through the Gaelic League. His son, Cuchulain was a civil rights activist with César Chavez—the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Father Cuchulain Moriarty Award is named after him. But I digress....

There are four Old World species, and six New World species of arbutus. Our hybrid ornamental street tree, Arbutus x Marina is named after the Marina in San Francisco where it was hybridized. Old World arbutus is related to our native madrone and its cousin, manzanita (Arctostaphylos). Our Pacific Madrone, or Madrona, is Arbutus menziesii. We often ate the tiny astringent berries that taste like sour crabapples. After all, manzanita means little apple in Spanish.

The Irish "strawberry" is called caithne in Irish, arbousier in French, madroños, alborocera, alborio, borto, or albedro in Spanish, corbezzolo, or albatro in Italian, koumaria in Greek, and bearberry, or Cain apple in English. I guess Cain used them to slay Abel. Or maybe he fed him unripe fruit loaded with tannins.

The fruit has a vague anise odor but tastes more like tangy rose hips—which it's related to. Edible prickly red armor on the outside and a creamy-mealy amber flesh, it's a superfruit (like acai) loaded with vitamin C and pectin. The fruits are high in sugar and contain bioflavonoids, malic acid as well as tannin (more here). But the yellow unripe fruit can cause nausea (so it is said).

Warty arbutus berries ripen on the tree tend to burst if you pick them.
When eaten in quantities this fruit is said to be narcotic, and the wine made from it in Spain has the same property. —A Modern Herbal
Berries will ferment right on the tree (berries have been measured up to 24.6° Brix, or 5 to 14% alcohol—and no liquor license needed); the birds get inebriated as they gobble up the beer-berries. A few peasants figured out that if the birds could get so blasted on arbutus berries, that they couldn't fly a straight line, then so could they.

My friend Chris Devine said, "There used to be a pub in Killarney called 'The Strawberry Tree'. Never understood why. 'Til now." The Strawberry Tree Pub, 23 Plunkett Street, Killarney.

The Greeks make a liqueur called koumaro, which is often added to tsipouro (a type of ouzo), the Portuguese say they are very brave trees and make arguardente de medroñho or medroñheira from the berriesand the Italians make many liqueurs: in Corsica they make a Liqueur a l'Arbouse, in Sardinia they make fior, and Acquavita di Corbezzolo

Sun-dried arbutus berries are like dried apricots, full of flavor.

You can also make marmalades, jams, jellies, pies, dried fruit, vinegars, pomaces, sorbets, and a grilled meat sauce (like cranberry, or quince sauce), from arbutus berries. You can plop those overripe berries into a bottle of red wine to make a killer sangria, or use the fruit as a red dye, and the bark to tan leather. I wonder if the prized red Cordova leather was dyed with madroño berries? Research for another time.

Because the fruit and flowers appear on the tree at the same time, the Romans thought the arbutus held magical powers: flowers were also placed on graves as a sign of respect. In The Tenth Labor of Heracles, the blood shed by the giant Geyorn was said to produce a tree with both flowers and fruit at the same time when the Pleiades were high in the sky—the arbutus.
Horace praises the tree for its shade and Ovid for its loads of 'blushing fruit.' Virgil recommends the young shoots as winter food for goats and for basket-work. Gerard speaks of it in his time as growing in 'some few gardens,' and says, 'the fruit being ripe is of a gallant red colour, in taste somewhat harsh, and in a manner without any relish, of which thrushes and blackbirds do feed in winter. —A Modern Herbal 
The Coast Salish used all parts of the sacred Pacific madrone for medicine. The Coast Miwok, made a tangy brew from madrone and  manzanita berries. According to the Coast Salish an anthropomorphic form of madrone tree sap went fishing at dawn but came home late one morning and melted in the sun; the other jealous trees stole all his sap. I don't know if this occurred before, or after they discovered that the berries could be fermented.

Hieronymus Bosch's painting (housed in Madrid since 1939), "The Garden of Earthly Delights," was originally called "La Pintura del Madroño", or "The Painting of the Arbutus." Why a strawberry tree? I bet something got lost in translation... The Tuscans use "strawberry" as an exclamation referring to ahem, the male anatomy.

The fruit above her head, identified as cherries, is a convenient explanation for popping the cherry, but if you look at the fruit, they're not cherries, but warty arbutus berries. Cherries elsewhere in the painting are painted smooth-skinned, with a reflective sheen. —Mo H. Image from Wiki

Strawberry trees. Clearly there is other symbolism going on. Either Bosch didn't know what they really were, or he had other ideas for including them. —Wiki

In Latin, Arbutus means "struggle." But because the bear is so closely associated with the arbutus tree in myth and lore, I suspect that Artio (Dea Artio) a Gallo-Celtic bear goddess was also involved. Near Berne, a bronze sculpture of the goddess Artio is seated beside a small tree, holding fruit in her lap, feeding the bear—with the inscription: Deae Artioni / Licinia Sabinilla. 

(Artos means bear in Celtic. (Delamarre 2003 p. 55-56), from Proto-Celtic *arto-, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, bear.) —Wiki

An Italian website on plants also hypothesizes that Arbutus may be a Celtic word:
The name "Arbutus unedo" probably derives from the Celtic. In fact, "ar" in Celtic means "bitter, astringent" and "unedo" is the name that was used in ancient times which probably derives from the three Latin words "unu-off edo" "I eat only one" to mean that one should not exaggerate and give in to temptation because of the pleasantness of its fruit which when eaten in excessive quantities gave nausea and constipation. —MEDICINAL PLANTS, Elicriso
A gluttonous bear eating arbutus berries from the strawberry tree figures prominently in the coat of arms of Madrid, Spain. In Puerta del Sol, the city center of Madrid, there is a statue of a bear gobbling berries from a madroño tree.

Pliny the Elder enigmatically explained that 'unedo' means unum edo or "I eat one", and so I did. And another. Whether he meant you could eat only one because it was so awful, or eat one and not be be able to stop because it was so good (and you'd get a hangover, or a bad case of the farts), we'll never know. But I can safely say no struggle (or bears) was involved. They're tasty.


ArbutusArbutus unedoArbutus menziesii, Wiki (3 pages).

Ard na Caithne Wiki

Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia. Vol. 1- John T. Koch, Bretha Comaithchesa (The judgements of neighbourhood), deals with trespass by domestic animals, fencing obligations, etc.

Words and Proper Names, from Celtica 11  The Old Irish tree-list, Kelly, Fergus: (1976), pp. 107–124.
Identifies 28 trees and shrubs listed in the eighth-century legal tract Bretha comaithchesa, divided into four groups of seven: 
1. airig fedo ‘nobles of the wood’: daur ‘oak’, coll ‘hazel’, cuilenn ‘holly’,ibar ‘yew’, uinnius ‘ash’, ochtach ‘Scots pine?', aball ‘wild apple-tree’; 
2. aithig fedo ‘commoners of the wood’: fern ‘alder’, sail ‘willow’, scé ‘whitehorn, hawthorn’, cáerthann ‘rowan, mountain ash’, beithe ‘birch’,lem ‘elm’, idath ‘wild cherry?'; 
3. fodla fedo ‘lower divisions of the wood’: draigen ‘blackthorn’, trom ‘elder, bore-tree’, féorus ‘spindle-tree’, findcholl ‘whitebeam?', caithne ‘arbutus, strawberry tree’, crithach ‘aspen’,crann fir ‘juniper?'; 
4. losa fedo ‘bushes of the wood’: raith ‘bracken’, rait ‘bog-myrtle’, aiten ‘gorse, furze’, dris ‘bramble, blackberry’, fróech ‘heather’, gilcach ‘broom?', spín ‘wild rose?'. 

The Strawberry TreeU.P. Cronin Madrid and Ireland

 A Modern Herbal: Arbutus (Strawberry Tree) publ. 1931, Mrs. M. Grieve, England.

of strawberry trees -liqueur recipe.

Strawberry Tree Curse -recipes

My Love’s An Arbutus

My love’s an arbutus
By the borders of Lene,
So slender and shapely
In her girdle of green.
And I measure the pleasure
Of her eye’s sapphire sheen
By the blue skies that sparkle
Through the soft branching screen.

But though ruddy the berry
And snowy the flower
That brighten together
The arbutus bower,
Perfuming and blooming
Through sunshine and shower,
Give me her bright lips
And her laugh’s pearly dower.

Alas, fruit and blossom
Shall lie dead on the lea,
And Time’s jealous fingers
Dim your young charms, Machree.
But unranging, unchanging,
You’ll still cling to me,
Like the evergreen leaf
To the arbutus tree.

Alfred Perceval Graves, (1846 - 1931)
(author of The Irish Fairy Book, and ACeltic Psaltery —both are free ebooks)
Published in Songs of Old Ireland, Charles Villiers Stanford, 1882

Modern Arbutus poems here. Trailing Arbutus (aka Mayflower, or ground laurel) is not an arbutus. Sorry. But if you were looking for The Trailing Arbutus, by John Greenleaf Whittier, this is the link.