Friday, October 05, 2007

Farm School, Part 1

Joining my 11 and 13-year-old sons up on a mountain ranch above Dry Creek Valley this week, I entered an agricultural paradise carved out of hills every bit as forbidding as the Alps above Nice.

For the first time since Gilette in August, I walked under olive trees. But there was so much more. Pomegranates, persimmons, apples, lemons, nuts, and figs ripened on branches amidst the olive trees.

Corn, tomatoes, rosemary, basil, mint, peas, beans.

Gourds, pumpkins,lovely bay trees, maple trees, oak trees, manzanita, mountain misery, ferns of all types, and the majestic redwoods.

Cat tails, with their medicinal qualities (fighting diarrhea) growing next to the pond. Blackberry bushes, edible plants, roots, and leaves of many varieties. Grapes, of course, of many varieties.

Later posts will examine the educational aspects of this visit, with pictures of children at Farm School.

This entire experience is possible courtesy of a couple, Russ and Arlene, who own this land, and welcome groups of school children to camp there a week at a time.

In an era where most kids (including mine) grow up in cities, without any contact whatsoever with the countryside that supplies us with our food, Farm School is a singular blessing.

I grew up in a different place and a different era.

Then, maybe 20% of the population was still engaged in farming, as we had been since time began.

Now, less than one percent in the U.S. are farmers and they support all the rest of us.

I remember my father's generation, those born early in the last century. Most of them not only knew how to grow food, they also knew how to fix machines, build houses, and gather edible foods from the land.

My Uncle Ed, for example, knew mushrooms, which were edible and which were poisonous. (Both looked the same to me.)

Of course, one week at Farm School is not enough for children today to acquire this kind of knowledge. No, but they can perhaps to start to learn to not be afraid of grasshoppers, lizards, or mysterious noises in the night.

Maybe they can learn to no longer be afraid of the night itself, its blackness and its unknowableness.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007


I figure to date I've written some 1,047 distinct headlines on my three main blogs over the past 18 months. Yep, it's a year and a half today since I launched this, the grand-daddy of my blogging channels. That works out to a new headline popping out of my furry head every 12 hours or so.

Where do these synaptic bursts come from? We've all got bits of poetry, jingles, one-liners lying dormant inside our under-utilized brains, I figure. Birthing them is the trick; how to set them free?

Music, obviously, for me is the main source. I crib lines from song-writers all the time, usually consciously, but not always. Being a writer, I always want to give credit to the person who created the phrase, or at least the one who first brought it to my attention.

In the magazine & news businesses, a good headline writer is money in the bank. We live in such a sped-up news cycle that unless a headline is snappy, your story (regardless of merit) may well suffer from the disease of neglect.* On the other hand, if you write a catchy hed, your piece will most likely be checked out by your time-crazed audience.

Here, courtesy of my buddies at MyWire, is an excellent example of pretty fair headline writing. Sting in tail as wife sends scorpions in mail . It's rhythmic. The story's pretty neat, too. But, alas, not all stories contain such fascinating material.

It can be damn difficult to spruce up a piece on Medicare, for example, even though Alan Greenspan says that's the biggest economic crisis facing our nation. Forget sub-primes, they're just a hiccup. If I had to write a hed for that one, I'd probably go with: Greenspan's Latest Warning: Everyone's Gonna Die!

My buddy Gary Kamiya at Salon figured this out years ago. In the mid-90s, as we were getting used to the new ability, courtesy of the Internet, to see precisely which stories resonated with our readers,he came up with a sure-fire formula to boost our page-views.

"Build 'oral sex' into a headline, and they will cum."


* R. Zimmerman sings of "the disease of conceit."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Stoning Rollers

You can't really blame the mainstream media for labeling the Baby Boomers as the "me generation," I suppose. After all, from the perspective of those who controlled the message when that label took hold, their role models included the likes of Jann Wenner, my first boss and the first guy who ever fired me.

At this point, I should explain that the photos in this particular post do not correlate in any way with the words I am choosing. I'll reconcile the obvious contradiction in good time (I hope).

This past weekend, in San Francisco, at RSX, the reunion of those who built Rolling Stone magazine into the 40-year-old cultural icon that it still is, a representative slice of the Baby Boom gathered here next to the Bay.

My view of my generation is not that we are the Me Generation, but that we are in fact the first We Generation.

My sweet friend, accompanying me to the events this weekend, was struck by the unpretentiousness of a group of people who, arguably, changed world culture. She met famous people, brilliant people, people whose words and photos helped transform global culture.

But she didn't meet anybody who thinks of himself or herself as some sort of big deal. From the beginning, all of us sensed we were in this altogether. In time, historians will verify my hypothesis: for a set of complex reasons, the Boomers were the first group to see that if we are to survive as a species on earth, it is not what we do for our own benefit that matters most, but what we do for all people.

If that strikes too idealistic a note for your taste, please consider these photographs from my today. This was a day, courtesy of being unemployed, that I could volunteer in my 8-year-old daughter's third-grade class.

We built, as you can see, paper mache volcanoes. Then the kids ran around outside. I watched them and thought the thoughts I have set down above.


Monday, October 01, 2007

Everybody's Story

It's one of those truths that you cannot speak often enough, because most people don't believe you when you say it. But every human being has his or her own story, and by that I mean a rich narrative arc with dramatic structure, unique characters and experiences, and an emotional truth no one else can articulate.

This is the basis of my courses in memoir writing. This also is the basis for musical story-tellers like Dan Hicks (and a couple of his Hot Licks), who were surprise guests at Saturday Night's RSX No-Talent Show.

Hicks definitely violated the no-talent rule.

The reunion was a priceless opportunity for my younger kids to learn a bit about my life long before them. Many other ex-Stoners also had multiple children in multiple marriages -- four seemed to be a common number.

I didn't encounter anyone else with six, however. But every child brings new opportunities to re-experience life, through new eyes, and brings new special friends into your life. I love getting to know my kids' friends.

How do you empower your own children to believe in themselves so that, someday, they will trust their own voices enough to share their experiences and insights with the world?

I've spent so much energy encouraging my writing students that I sometimes worry I have not devoted enough energy on doing the same work with my kids.

Will they feel free to tell their own stories? I hope so, for all of our sakes. And I can say that about everyone else's child as well. Only when we all start not only listening to, but actually hearing one another, will we have any hope whatsoever of surviving as a species.


Sunday, September 30, 2007


The 30th reunion of those of us who helped build Rolling Stone here in San Francisco in the late 60s and 70s concluded with a sun-soaked picnic at Chrissy Field this afternoon. There were the usual group photo ops.

Here is a good one.

Wait! Entering Stage Right is a blurry figure. A little guy, with curly red hair, crashing the photo op. Caught in the act by an alert photographer.

Here this little man, appropriately named Dylan, makes his presence felt, over his father's right shoulder.

My buddy Christine.

My buddy Deborah.

All the above photos courtesy of Junko Sasaki


My two youngest boys now seem to think I may be marginally cool. After all, everyone has heard of Rolling Stone.

They were impressed that I have friends from that era called Banjo and Bond.

Most of the time, though, on outings like this one, they are lost in a world of their own making.

We can't even understand the language they speak.

Sorta like our parents felt, hey? You know, back when we creating our revolution. Rock on, my boys.



Marianne Partridge, Tim Cahill, and Joe Klein

Dr. David Felton

Ben Fong-Torres

Those of us former staffers attending this weekend's 30th anniversary of when Rolling Stone left San Francisco (and lost its soul) had a couple major events today. One at the Roxie in the Mission this morning and one at Sweetie's in North Beach tonight.

As I watched my former colleagues tell stories this morning and play songs tonight, I thought about our entire generation of Baby Boomers, the lives we've lived, the stories we tell, and the messages we will try to leave behind.

Since collectively we are entering our seventh decade now and therefore nearing what used to be called retirement age, this ought to be, by all rights, a time of nostalgia. And today, there were a lot of fond remembrances, funny (in retrospect) stories, and heartfelt testimonials.

But more than all that, there was a sense, at least for me, of unfinished business, of a generation still restless and unsatisfied, still striving for something ineffable, as if our lives have not yet quite happened.

The Boomers are by far the largest generation numerically ever seen, though now we are dying off. Rolling Stone was one of the main voices of our generation. Those of us who worked there had a sense at the time that we were at the center of one universe or another, but if you asked us which onee, we just really weren't quite sure.

For all of us, the beat goes on.