All that Jazz (An Ode to Don, Gertrude and Damien) By Alex Pole

I was 16 years old. It was summer. And, I was paranoid.

            I got this thought in my head that someone could break into the house and try to murder me, even though we lived in the country and the chances of such a thing happening where infintisimal.

            But, that did not help me sleep at night. At the beginning of the summer, I tried. I would turn out the lights and close my eyes, but nothing. I kept straining my ears for sounds – sonds of a break-in. My muscles were tight. I needed to be ready to defend myself. I wouldn‘t or couldn‘t relax till dawn. The sun would rise and I would finally drift into sleep.

            My parents didn‘t seem to notice. They were cool that way. You ever see those meme‘s about growing up in the 70s (and earlier)? You know the ones where parents are the opposite of helicopter parents. Kids would play outside all day, risking danger, getting dirty, and never come home till sun down to get some crappy dinner, that never made them fat. Well, some of that was true. At least it was true for my parents and me. I suspect it was true for many of the people I grew up with.

            For my parents, it was a little more ideological…and personal. Their lives had been completely different. Their parents had interfered in everything they did. Their parents regulated their lives. Their parents were always telling them what to do and what not to do. Telling them what was right and what was wrong. And, when my parents had me, as I was their olderst, they had sworn an oath, to never do that to me.

            So, that summer, I did not go to sleep till the sun rose and I slept till noon. Of course, I never explained to my parents why and they never asked. Just I did as I wanted. And, they let me make my own decisions. They were not going to interfere as their parents had.

            And, for the most part, I am glad they did. Though, now that I have children, I have no idea how they slept at night. I am already worried about all the trouble my children are going to get into and they are not getting into trouble yet.

            But, as some things are taken away, new things are given. I was deeply paranoid. And, I could not sleep. This was taken from me. But, I discovered a whole new world. Que the music. I had discovered late night TV.

            Late night TV was a different breed. You see back then, before cable was a fixture in people‘s lives, and now, of course, the internet, there were standards for television programs. There was so much the networks could not do on a primetime television show. Those networks were as regulated as my parents‘ lives were. But, after midnight, those regulations seemed to relax. And, there were people at TV stations, probably all across America, who couldn‘t wait until the Late Show ended, so they could put something more exciting on the air. It was kind of like the Twilight Zone on local stations after midnight, all sorts of unusual, and in my 16 year old brain‘s point of view, creative about what was shown.

            I watched all kinds of crazy movies that summer, from movies about teanage drug use and pregnancy, to women‘s prisons, to horror movies that kind of messed with your mind, and all kids of dystopian and groutesque yet humorous stories. It was a twisted world of late night movies.

            Yeah, I couldn‘t sleep. But, really, the paranoia did come first, but late night movies were no help.

            Anyway, one of the movies that caught my eye that summer was the film version of Farenheight 451. I didn‘t like it as much as Deathrace 2000, which was an absolute scream, but Farenheight 451 was deeper and I felt it stornger.

            It was the ending. The part were the people went out into the fields to remember their one story so it would not be forgotten. The paper could burn but the oral tradition could live on.

            Man, that was a sucker punch to me. It still is. Power – the authority – whatever it may be – can burn the paper, but you can‘t destroy the spirit. There are so many things that we carry, that live within ourselves, that we want to see live on, despite the challenges to their existence.

            We may not be conscious of it but it is why many of us read and write. To make sure, those things live on.

            And, tha is why I set out on this purpose today, to keep the memory of one Don, who I have dubbed St. Don alive. (And, to talk about Gertrude Stein, and art itslef as well.)

            I first met St. Don at college. He was a grounds keeper. He distinguished himself from the other grounds keepers at the college in that he defied the university about the use of pesticideds on the university lawns.

            At that time, I was involved in a university student club dubbed the Environmental Action Group. Don wanted to join our club. I remember one day, the President of the Environmental Action Group told us that. She explained that Don was not a student. He was over 30 years old, much older than us.  And, then whether we wanted to be part of the group. Don was invited into the room and he introudced himself, explained his fight with the university about pesticideds, and whether he could join the group. We, of course, unanimously welcomed him. He was one of us.

            I got to learn more about St. Don‘s story. Don‘s parents had a family farm in Southern Ohio. And, when they got too old, Don took over the farm. It was in this small faming area that Don had met his wife, a girl more than ten years his junior. Don thought she was smart and she wanted to go to college. No one in Don‘s family had ever gone to college. So, Don married her, and he got a job at the university I attended, and then as the spouse of an employee, she got her tuition for free.

            I don‘t know how serious their marriage ever was. I never cared. That was between them. It takes all kinds. But, soon after starting her studies, she started to date, and then live with another man. Don said he knew about it and didn‘t care. He had promised her a college education when they got married and he was a man of his word. He just wanted her to be happy, and they were not going to divorce until she graduated. I came to know her as well. She onced loaned her computer to a different group I was involved with. She had that same generous spirit he had. She had a big heart and she did what she could to help others.

            Sometimes, I would meet St. Don on campus. I‘d be going somewhere and there he would be doing some kind of gardening (he eventually won his fight to use natural laternatives to pesticies) or maintenance or whatever it was he would be working on on campus, and he would offer me a joint. Sometimes, we would take me under the stairs and we would just pass that joint around. He always seemed to have one on him. I don‘t seem to remember him otherwise. I even sometimes would seek him out and he would always smoke me up.

            And, that was the thing about St. Don. He was so giving. Money meant nothing to him. He didn‘t desire to posess anything. He gave away freely.

            The Environmental Action Group had a big campout. We were all excited to get back to nature and spend some quality time with each other. We all tried to bring something to the party. I think I brought a tent to share. Lori, who had just been to North Carolina, had brought some fresh shrimp. And, St. Don, you know Don, had baked two trays of brownies with an 1/8 of an ounce of weed in each cut brownie, and if you know anything about edibles, you know those space cakes are going to send you into orbit.

            Edibles are an amazing thing. It is so cool that these days edibles are making a comeback. It is much better than smoking. My parents once gave me the book Alice B. Toklass by Gertrude Stein. They told me that they thought maybe I would like it. Of course, it is famous for reasons it shouldn‘t be famous. All people remember is that it includes a recipe for marijuana brownies. Alice B. Toklass, of course, was Gertrude Stein‘s lesbian lover. People started calling marijuana brownines Alice B. “Toke-less“ brownies after her.

            Gertrude Stein was the masculine one of their relationship. Her brother had become a famous art dealer. He had come to know a number of Impressionist artists and had made a nice sum of money from their sale. Artists can have mixed feelings about their agents. On the one hand, they take a share of the artist‘s soul -their artistic creations. On the other hand, the artist might not be discovered or made a bunch of money without the agent. It is hard to lose one‘s soul without some money taking part. This the Devil knows. He knows it well. It is the Devil‘s game. And, the artist plays his or her part in this game.
            Gertrude, through the connections of her brother, set up a salon in Paris and was soon the muse to many famous artists, including Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway. Many others as well. Gertrude was an amazing and strong woman. She could help a diverse group of artists, not just painters, and not just writers, but any artist that made her accquaintnance.

            Her house was one of the places to be in Paris. They discussed art. And, if you are to believe Gertrude, she played her part in many an artists‘ life. Artists are not easy people. They can be quite sensitive and they need encouragement and feedback. They need to be introduced and discovered. They need to both seek out new experiences and new visions and to have a storng hand to reel them in when they go to far out into the ether of their creativity. Gertrude was tough and strong and she could do all that. 

            And, maybe Sconnie Books can do that as well. It is the 21st century and maybe we don‘t have to go to Paris. Gertrude Stein has long been buried. And, Alice B. Toklass, alas, is only remembered for her subversive recipe. Now, we can go online and find our salon. Our place to nuture are art. To find someplace where we can share and experience art, and help find the ecouragement and recognition for the selling of our soles.

            Maybe Damien will be our new Gertrude or more.

            Anyway, most of us had already had two Alice B. Toke-less before Don was like you might want to ease up on your Brownie eating. We were all turning into zombies. Incoherent sentences. Moaning. Barely being able to move one foot in front of the other as if our muscles were too far relaxed for such strenuous actions. My one friend never left the tent. He was too into his own mind. Somehow the rest of us built this huge bonfire. There was even a light rain but the heat from the fire we built kept it at bay. We watched mesmierized as the flames danced their back and forth go-go moves to the cracks of sparks leaping higher from the flames that brought them to life, only to disappear like dimmed stars in the night sky. Shrimp was flamed broiled in butter. Soon other snacks appeared. Homemade smokies (smoked meat) made thier rounds. Food was scarfed like there was no tomorrow. We just ate and ate and watched that fire and smoke a few more joints until we couldn‘t take no more and retired into tents.

            Don was that kind of a guy. He was so generous. He had such a green thumb.

            And he started to make quite a name for himself. He started to become prominant in the budding Green Party movement at the time. 1990 was the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day. It was a big deal. The Environmental Action Group played a prominent role in the festivities that took place that year. It all seemed to come out of nowhere but people were suddenly taking environmental issues more seriously.

            (I played my small part here as well. When environmental activists around Cleveland where looking for meeting space to hold their convention to draw up the Cleveland Green Party Constitution, they wanted to use the university for conference space. As a student leader, currently enroled at the university, I was the one who filled out the paperwork to make the request for space for them.)

            The plan was to gather in public square in downtown Cleveland, where I was going to school, and march down to the Cleveland Zoo. At the Zoo, there would be booths and events. The Zoo sponsored everything. Permits were filled out. It was all a smashing success.

            And, the following year everybody wanted to do it all again. And, guess who was in charge of the whole shabang? None other than St. Don. I don‘t know how he had done it but even the Cleveland Zoo looked to St. Don to run this thing.

            And, it turned into an amazing thing. It was the pinnacle of St. Don‘s life.

            Don never thought much about marijuana. It was just another plant to him. And, he was good with plants. And, back on his family fam in southern Ohio, he had a whole greenhouse full of such plants. And, they grew and thrived and broke through the glass and plastic ceiling of his green house. He didn‘t know about this because he was busy up in Cleveland in northern Ohio, far from his farm. But, his neighbor knew this. And, Don was a bit of an annoying person to his neighbors, always complaining about something related to the environment. So, the neighbor called the police.

            First, there was a search warrant. And, then there was a warrant out for his arrest. Eventually, Don had to stand in front of a judge.

            Don never sold a thing. He never cared about money. You couldn‘t find a single witness out there who could say that he or she had ever given Don a penny.

            But, the government wanted its pound of flesh. That was the way things worked back then. There was this thing called zero tolerance. You could have a bud. You could have a metric ton. It didn‘t matter. The government could take your property. Could is the wrong word. The government did take your property. They wanted Don‘s farm. His family‘s farm that had been in his family for generations, so they took it. That was that. There was zero tolerance.

            It had been taken. St. Don‘s paper had been burned but his spirit did not die.

            Don never stopped taking marijuana. I had graduated from college and occasionally I would run into him, in other states of America, doing other things. I made it to my first Rainbow Gathering, the coming together of the Hippie Tribes acroos the U.S., and there was St. Don, with a joint in his hand, and a song in his heart. And, always giving both away for free. You could always count on Don.

            He even found a new girlfriend. She was prominent in the Green movement. It seemed like a good match, even if she were far too beautiful for the likes of him.

            Our paths continued to cross, until it didn‘t. It was the summer before I was to go to Korea to teach English at a small tutoring academy in the countryside. The news had been received. Don had had a heart attack. He was dead.

            Don would not live to see the 21st Century.

            It was twenty years ago today, Seargent Pepper taught the band to play.

            If he did, I don‘t think he could believe his eyes.

            Marijuana, not just for medicinal purposes, but for recreational purposes, is being legalized across the United States. There is talk about the Senate taking up federal legalization.

            And, now the President of the United States is talking about massive investments in green technology and lowering carbon emissions; the president says we have to take climate change more seriously.

            I wonder what St. Don would think of all this? Would he think the world had turned upside down? Would he feel that he was right all along?

            And, how do I feel? Somewhat angry at all the lives like St. Don‘s who had been ruined.

            But, it is also a miracle. It is like things that you never thought possible being possible. But, “miracle“ is not the right word. It is the end result of effort and struggle. And, think about it! The summer of Love was 54 years ago. The first Earth Day was 51 years ago.

            Change takes time. Art, too, can take time. We may never change people‘s minds in the momment. But, over time, slowly, people‘s ideas change, if we keep at it. If we learn from our mistakes, and refine our arguments. If we become less self-righteous, and more scientific and see every defeat as a learning experience.  As artists, we work hard at improving our craft. We may feel underappreciated. We may feel that nobody or few understand what it is we do. But, we don‘t care. Or we can‘t let us care what they think. We have to learn from our defeats and refine our expression.

            We need our Gertrude Steins to help us.

            Gertrude Stein wanted her words to describe the way a painter paints. She tried to write portraits of the people she came to know.

            Jack Kerouac wanted his writing to be like Jazz. His words should have a rhythm, a beat – he was a beat for a reason – like a Jazz beat. And, it should be improvisional like Jazz. Just riffing and riffing from the soul without restraint.

            I liked the way the Beatles could weave smaller snippets of lyrics and music into a larger tappestry of composition. Or how the Grateful Dead could sew different songs together, starting in one song, drifting into another, returning to the first, and you were like oh yeah, that is where I started. Time has less of a beginning and end. Things are not parts but wholes.

            And art can be discussed in 21st Century Salons like Sconnies. Maybe, it will become the place to be. Maybe, we will find our new Gertrude Stein.

            Maybe our paper will burn but our spirits will live on.

            God bless St. Don. May his memory live on.

            And all that Jazz…

Alex is our resident philosopy guru and he of the deep thoughts. Follow his articles here on the site by signing up with us.

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As always thanks for reading. Have a great week!

Published by Damien Lee Hanson

I am the founder of Damien Hanson Books. Come check out awesome authors right here at my website!

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