A Life Not Over-Rosalie Sorrels

I was looking for an exact quotation from Utah Phillips when I discovered, within 24 hours of his passing, that our old friend had spun his last yarn, and as another old friend, editrix par excellence admitted to me later, the announcement arrived here in Korea first, where our broadband knows everything almost before it happens. It made me sad. I get these cheap phone cards that encourage me, when I have a question Mr Google chokes on, to just phone up this or that old pal or personage to get the straight stories. I don’t mean the likes of John McCain’s has-been/wanna-be fakery, but the genuine article that can  be trusted only when they issue from the mouths of poets and folkies of my acquaintance.

It was one of Utah Phillips’s simple jokes I wanted; something like, “When snakes drink too much and get the DT’s, they see Dick Cheney.” So I fo to Utah’s blog, and there’s the obit, and it makes me blue, and I’m thinking, “Hell, if it makes me blue, and I never spent more than a few hours with the man, including attending his gigs, I reckon Rosalie can definitely stand a little cheering up about now”. It being eight years since the last time I lived in Idaho, her phone number had retired and moved to Florida, where, I hoped it might still occasionally be found scrawled at standing eye-level under the words, “For a good time, unless you’re as dull as most men, call…..”.

Instead, I called Dennis DeFoggi. I’ve always counted on him; he often knows some of what’s worth knowing that I don’t already know, and I’m pretty sure he’s already heard that Utah had caught his last “Katy”. To my surprise, he doesn’t know yet, illustrating my earlier point about being on top of the news out here on the frontier of the so-called “Free” world (Free? Hell, it ain’t even cheap!). Rosalie’s got a cell phone now, but Dennis doesn’t have that number, so he gives me the same one I have, the one for “Querencia” (“The place where the heart dwells”), the home on Grimes Creek that Walt and Nancy Stringfellow built together, and where they lived the rest of their lives; where their kids, Rosalie and her brother Jim, grew up into two of the finest performers and teachers of folk singing and dancing, respectively, that the USA has the right, (if not always the good sense) to claim and proclaim.

So I hung up on Dennis and dialed the number he gave me. After a couple of rings, a voice that sounded almost too weak to be Rosalie answered. It was her, and she was weary, and a little disbelieving and glad when I told her it was me in her ear. Since I sometimes have the opposite effect on people when I call,  I was gratified that, once she accepted that it was me and I was calling from Seoul, her voice filled out, spilling into the one that all who know her regard to be one of the clearest, strongest, most sensitive and pure brass instruments anywhere. She said, “I’m kind of surprised I answered the phone, because I came up here to get away from all the people calling my cell phone. I just feel like shit, and all these radio and TV and journalist types that I usually never hear from when I’m trying to get word around of a new album or a public performance. Now they want me to talk about Bruce. They have no sense or sensitivity for the loss I feel. That’s why I came up here.”

I imagined her, then, sitting on the fold-out sofa that she and Nancy sat on when I took the only photograph I have of them together, in ’76, looking out the big picture window and smiling at me, as I wandered around the incredible Eden of plantings that appeared under Nancy’s skillful hands after she retired from her job appraising libraries for The Book Shop in Boise. I had met Nancy before Rosalie, while I had work as an editor for a short-lived Boise periodical that was improved by anything Nancy submitted. When I met Rosalie, we got each other right away, becoming fast friends, in part due to my familiarity with the history of the US Labor Movement, the IWW, and the sizeable posse of characters we both had known for some time. Those included her brother-in-law, “Whitewater Bill” Stringfellow. Bill and I stopped drinking about the same time, and as part of that same secret brotherhood, would snake around the North End in his old brown step van, sharing roaches and yarns. Bill had been for some years persona non grata at Querencia from his enduring role as Walt’s main drinking partner for most of that career, with its Irish dimensions. Rosalie was touring at the time I met Bill, and we already had a lot of the same Bohemian friends, so we were dead certain to meet when next she visited Boise. I hadn’t long to wait.

That was then; this is now, and I’m thinking all of it over as I chatted with Rosalie about Bruce, and Gino and Ray and Ed and the rest of that cantankerous crowd drawn to her voice and persona over the years, like as moths to a candle. She had been especially dismayed by a recent encounter with a journalist who had the extraordinary, if not to say typical poor taste, of observing to Rosalie that, now that Bruce had left the stage, it marked the end of that era of old-timers. As you might expect, if your bodily orifices are lined up properly, this came as something of a surprise to Rosalie, who not too many hours before had appeared live, telling her stories and singing her songs on National Public Radio, including some of the same ones that she had taught to Bruce “Utah” Phillips back when, several years his senior, and already a veteran folk circuit performer, she had taken him under her wing, and other places, and taught him some of the most important things he would need to know, if he wanted to become the man he did eventually become, and to have people love him for it.

We talked some more about how, when you reach a certain age, in some people’s minds, you’ve already died, or at least become a walking ghost, unseen and unheard. This is hard news for someone who’s still wanted on NPR, (if few other places, which betrays a lot about modern media). Someone allowed, this time, to perform without any restrictions on the amount of storytelling you do before you play a song, and letting you play a song from beginning to end, without interruption by lame commentary from people who think what they have to say is more desirable to listeners than the performers who make it possible for them to have the job to begin with.

I told her about my recent visit with Ray Obermayr, one of the most humane and honest of men, and how he was still painting and studying and writing with a vigor artists two generations younger might envy. His wit, always sharp, had not been at all dulled by his 85 years, his army experiences in WWII, when he was landed on a Normandy beach on D-Day-plus-one, or by his three marriages. I told Rosalie the story about Ray that Glen told me he’d witnessed on the occasion of a poetry reading at Will Peterson’s Walrus and Carpenter Books in Pocatello, where Ray was a regular featured reader. After he read, a woman emerged from the crowd and made a beeline for Ray beaming as she came. “Hi, Ray. You look and sound wonderful!”, she gushed, before wrapping him in an embrace that he shrugged away from after a moment, out of deference to the feelings of his beloved Maggie, who was present.

Ray thanked her for the compliment, and after the woman had withdrawn, having a chance to ask someone standing nearby, sotto voce, “Who was THAT?” The reply, “Ray, that was S_________” (his second wife). With but a moment’s hesitation to consider the import of that discovery, came his snappy rejoinder, “Well, I guess I’m over HER”.

At that, Rosalie laughed the familiar, lusty, knowing and thoroughly genuine laugh that so many recognize is inseparable from her stage persona, and in good and normal times is never too distant from the real person, and we reluctantly let each other go, both of us feeling a little better for having shared this long-distance grieve together. After I hung up, I started pawing through my stuff, looking for some of her recorded disks; I knew I had at least four of the twenty or forty she’s cut over the years. I was thinking all the while about Rosalie, and Stan, and Whitewater Bill, and Jim and Nancy and Rosalie’s daughters and sons, and my own genetic family. I marveled at how the lines between blood and spirit wash into and overlap each other, braiding together until the lines become indistinguishable parts of the whole. I thought about my dad, who died in ’04, and how, on his and Mom’s 50th wedding anniversary I, the downright least competent and unaccomplished a cappella crooner in two hemispheres, had gathered my courage to sing one of Rosalie’s songs, unaccompanied, as my part in the anniversary program. It went okay, I guess, but I’ve always been glad the salad bar had been removed by the time I finished.

So, thinking of that time, I took the song Rosalie made for Nancy, called “A song for Daughter-Mama“, and pulled together some of the snapshots I took at Rosalie’s 65th birthday party (and 75 was just around the corner at the time of this writing), and I added some stock  shots of Idaho skies and mountains and people we know (or knew), and I made this video on this date to remind all who stumble across it that Rosalie is alive, and she is strong and she is going out on tour again soon. She’ll be releasing an album of Bruce “Utah” Phillips songs she has recorded, and she is enjoying one of the truly most favored little corners of wild and cultivated nature to be found,  somewhere up on Grimes Creek, in Idaho.



The Way of Faith

For three days past, I have been thinking of my cousin, Emily, and the hasty round of spiritual Ping-Pong we shared on Facebook before I went out for the day. She may doubt it, but her quiet faith inspires me, though a similar one has never been visited on me, personally. Hers is of the sort that gives, but without pushing or pulling.

We were in a hurry, Missus and I, to visit our friend, Mr. Choi in hospital. I introduced him here last October, after he was horribly injured at the auto repair garage where he is lead mechanic. Also our neighbor, he had long kept our series of aging heaps in tune. An old and defective gas bottle exploded next to him as he was working. The blast tore away every shred of his clothing except the leather belt that held up his trousers. In the next instant, his nude body was engulfed in a ball of flames.

The extent of his injury was near total; the skin and hair was burned away from 87% of his body. Gloves and a welder’s hat spared much of his face and hands. He was, as he would tell me, “barbecued”. By good luck and brisk effort by first responders, triage and stabilization were quick; he was taken to a top burn trauma unit in Seoul The consensus of specialists there was that the extent and severity of his injuries made his survival unlikely, to say nothing of recovery.

We left Korea in mid-November to join my Mom’s 91st Thanksgiving, not long after Mr. Choi emerged from the coma doctors induced to spare him the crushing pain certain to be his. The period of coma had been calculated to last a single week. It lasted two. After we left for the US, we had no more news of his condition until our return to Seoul on New Year’s Eve.

Imagine our delight to discover on our return that not only had he survived, but was healing well and allowed visitors. We were meeting a couple of old friends and colleagues in the city early Friday afternoon, and got permission to see Mr. Choi in the morning. Not so familiar with the maze of streets nearby Youngdeungpo Market, we made our way to the hospital and up to the recovery floor, where we learned he was in the room designated “Pikachu“, a wee Japanese rodent Pokemon character with electrical power. It lightened my apprehension for what we were about to face, unsure whether Mr. Choi still had one.

Yoboseyo!?” [Hello], Missus called out. Mr. Choi’s bed was one of four in the room, and nearest the door. I noticed, looking in, a small, bare white cross on the door-facing wall, head-high, signifying we were in one of the hospitals operated by a denomination of Christianity.

Nugueyo? [Who’s there?] a woman’s voice from behind the curtain that completely surrounded and concealed the area. Rustling sounds of hurry reached us, with a nervous quality as of surprise, unreadiness for visitors just then.

Missus answered first with her name, but was met with a quizzical sound in response, so she quickly added “Englishee“. Mr. Choi’s voice then answered strongly, “Wait a minute”. “English” was the title he had bestowed on me when we first met years before, and his words part of a modest repertoire of English phrases mostly learned from his children. Had our friendship ever depended on an ability to speak each other’s language, it wouldn’t have happened.

Ahhh, yeah, yeah…changkanman gidaryseyo!” [Wait a bit], the pleasure in his voice, strong, normal-sounding, my relief at hearing the sound took me to the brink of tears; we paced elliptic paths in the hallway, waiting for whatever was happening inside to be concluded. A tall young man approached and entered the room across the hall. His left arm was missing at the shoulder. We exchanged looks; his signaled the likelihood that he was not Korean. When our eyes met, a mutual nod confirmed it. Had he been Korean, he would have bowed.2015-01-16 11.50

The sound of the curtain being pulled aside brought my head around at the instant it revealed Mr. Choi sitting upright in his bed. White sheaths showed at the cuffs of his pajama top and bottom A smile chased the pained expression from his face, and I paused a long moment to behold him, as a flood of relief washed over me.

Had I not known my friend still faced ten or more weeks in that bed, I’d have thought him ready to go home, for the face of the man I saw in the bed had been so skillfully repaired that in the soft light my weak eyes found little evidence of what he had endured. His sister, who shared nursing turns with his wife, told us the latter  was on her way there. We waited, hoping her arrival would come soon enough for us to pay our respects.

2015-01-16 11.51To my growing delight, the worst of my fears were proved excessive. Mr. Choi’s effervescent joie de vivre was at maximum , I reckoned, for a man in his condition. We were soon cackling at each others jokes, as Missus looked on, interpreting each jest, pausing occasionally to explore linguistic nuances in our “humor”, never an easy challenge despite years of practice.

Growing serious for a moment, he spoke of his wife and the emotional toll his injuries had taken on her. It was the first and only time his composure would dissolve in tears.

2015-01-16 11.51We clowned for the camera in the manner to which he had accustomed me, much to the delight of his team at the shop, whenever I would pass on my walks about the neighborhood with dog or camera. A growing worry that we might not see his wife before we left for our Kangnam rendezvous, faded when she appeared. I had absentmindedly left home without my phone  making it impossible to notify my friends should we be late. They were coming from some distance to meet us. We had no choice but to leave soon after the lady arrived.

The two women spoke of our daughters’ status in their respective educational pursuits as we listened and looked on. I know enough Korean language to understand that, when she subsided into a brief minute of weeping, it came as she recounted her partner’s suffering, and the intense pain but partly relieved by medication.

Their pure sympathy each for the others suffering touched me deeply. As we prepared, reluctantly, to take our leave, Mr. Choi revealed two things he longed to do. He wants to go fishing for the fingerlings that flavor maeuntang, a kind of fish stew, spicy hot as the manifold of Hell.

2015-01-16 11.53The other is to attend church together with his family, to express their gratitude for his deliverance, certain that  divine providence alone had spared his life and allowed him to remain among his loved ones.

It was still in my thoughts an hour later, moments before tucking into just-served meals, the two aged former colleagues paused to offer grace at the balcony table overlooking the bustle of the Central City Express Bus Terminal. Later, I learned that one, paraplegic when we met almost thirty years before, had narrowly survived two life-threatening illnesses in the fifteen years since our last meeting.

Listening as the third colleague narrated the story, I saw that I would dishonor him and all those others whose presence in my life had sustained, despite the absence of any similar variety of personal faith. I resolved then and there not to be so arrogant as to belittle or dismiss theirs, free of any trace of ideology for export as it was.

That’s the moment when I remembered my early-morning exchange with Emily, and her way of observing Christmas with her family, delivering gifts new pairs of clean, warm socks  to the homeless of San Francisco. Why should the faith of another offend or upset me in any way, when it makes them more humane, and more appreciative of their own life, and the lives of others?


On the road


Kickstarter update on the road away from prohibition.

This is an account of a one-day side-trip on the road in pursuit of the “Tales of Mary Jane”. Every day of that year-ending five-weeks was as interesting and satisfactory as (I hope you will agree) this one.

The first four chapters of the book have been distributed to the backers, and I’m polishing chapter 5 for posting soon.

Here’s to 2015 being better for you, and more productive for me.

Sincere best wishes,
Jack Large

PS to backers of either or both of my Kickstarter projects: Forgive the appearance of multiple identical updates, if you will. It takes a lot less time to apologize in advance than it does to forestall it when your tech skills are as sketchy as mine.

Prohibition of Marijuana

The Korea Times “report” that triggered this letter is poorly written and a waste of your time. but you can track it down if you want to see why I felt I had to respond.

Creative Thinking

Update 9: Tales of Mary Jane: The Children of Prohibition

Several isotopes of news and information have collided in my frontal lobe over the past few days and formed a new element. First came the surprising revelation that Cannabis is considered by the North Koreans to be merely a weed of occasional interest. The government position on its “recreational” use, incongruously uncharacteristic of them as it seems, can be best summed up as, “So what?” Okay.

Even more sensational are reports out of the US, (esp. Washington and Colorado), of explosive growth in Cannabis sales for all uses, and the concomitant growth in tax revenues suddenly being heaped on state governments. The picture includes reports of scarcity, increases in numbers of growers, grow facilities and acreage, with retail prices and demand holding high and steady.

Meanwhile, in geopolitical and global economic news, the governments of the two Koreas (“technically still at war”) and the United States, continue looking, trying and failing to find ways to lower tensions created by the appearance of the Pyeongyang Nukes on the scene. It is a mix that, in a game of Monopoly equivalent, a player buys Baltic and Mediterranean Avenue on his first trip around the board, and instead of building houses and hotels, trots out a Doomsday Weapon, stops shaking dice and instead just shakes down the other players whether it’s his turn or not.

South Korea, a comparative marvel of economic, social and political organization, given the number and type of negatives it has to work with, has a robust economy (too much household credit, but, meh!), productive and fairly diverse agriculture, well-advanced medical and educational sectors, and a high, manageable degree of civil order. To call it a “powerhouse” in today’s world would not be too far off. If it has a big negative, it is a tendency of government there, when the US farts (and when doesn’t it?) instead of moving upwind of the source, they suck it up and pretend it’s not so bad.

Out of such relations have come the South’s own draconian prohibition on marijuana, that a mid-level police official recently characterized in a personal communication as being necessary to prevent a situation where the people down tools and stop working. The oligarchs wouldn’t like it, in other words.

Back in the USA, meanwhile, the other 48 states where marijuana still lacks the full franchise prohibition’s end has brought the other two, move inexorably in the same direction, with the federal government somewhere back in the anti-science tea dust. One force driving the steady advance is the growing awareness in medical science that, in Cannabis resins are found an array of effective treatments, with minimal side effects, for an eye-widening range of painful and debilitating conditions, with few equals in the pharmacopeia.

My daydream, then, has formed thus: Seek to establish a rapprochement between the three nations with the specific actions to be undertaken by each. South Korea sends food and other goods to N. Korea, including what’s needed to establish a massive Cannabis-growing sector of its agriculture. The US (Colorado and Washington) send to N. Korea top -tier Cannabis experts, with clones of top strains for every known use, to help them launch a crash pot-growing effort. Build a fiber and oil processing facility to refine the non-drug biomass.

In exchange, the North exports its entire flower harvest to South Korea, to be systematically and methodically processed, and research begun into its effective properties, potency curve, medical applications, human testing for side-effects, all under strict control and the watchful eyes of the relevant ministry and the tobacco and ginseng corporation, with its deep experience in maintaining a lucrative agricultural monopoly.

Importers in the US would see retail prices fall there in the short term, while tax yield continued to grow steadily, based on increased sales. The benefits of such a program would appear immediately, forcing even the do-nothing US Congress to finally act to remove all legal constraints aside from regulations needed to protect the public from ever-present criminal abuses by unscrupulous actors. Almost overnight, a new, trillion dollar industry would be up and running, providing benefits well beyond the merely economic for the peoples involved.

Please, don’t wake me. Sure, it’s a pipe dream sans pipe. Once I do wake up, I hope someone will tell me what’s wrong with the idea, so I’ll have something to think about when I go back to sleep.

12 things white people can do now because Ferguson

This is just what is needed.

Tales of Mary Jane: What to Expect

I’ve been so busy trying to wring money out of people whom I esteem, that I haven’t properly acknowledged the feelings that course through me each time I open the mail to find another pledge of backing, often from someone no more capable of philanthropy than I. My humble gratitude is the most I can offer as quid pro quo until we see whether the goal is met. If it isn’t, of course, the credit card charges by Amazon payments will be withdrawn and we’ll all go on as if we dreamed the whole thing. All except me. I’ll spend some time scrawling letters on hand-painted sheets, that acknowledge my affection for you who tried to help.

I’m optimistic, still. There are three days left, and I’ll continue to nudge friends, family and strangers alike to respond to the appeal, in all its parts. Foremost of these is the fund and its intended use, in a word, “airfare”. It’s the most expensive occasional purchase we make, living where we do, the round-trip KoreaUS air ticket. One per year is the norm.

One of the ideas I toyed with in the preparation to launch this, came from a look back into history. When I was a young journalism student, I was fascinated to learn of the “Penny Papers” that appeared in 1830. A newspaper then contained news, short stories of fiction, long biographical stories and a myriad of other content that, today, comes spread among radio, TV, Internet, telephony, magazines and assorted other print materials. It cost about 6 cents then. In today’s money, several dollars. A newspaper selling for a penny, then, was an idea doomed to succeed, and for a time, while the competition hastened to adjust to the new business model, it thrived. It’s secret: sell advertisements (hence my choice of the word “doomed”). It altered the world of printed newspapers, and subsequently other types of reporting, forever. Those who advertise don’t want their pitch to appear alongside stories about the bad environmental practices of their industry, or their mistreatment of workers, or fatal results of using their products, or their violations of law in the sacrosanct name of business. You understand, I know.

So, for “Tales of Mary Jane”, my initial idea was to ask for ten dollars from each backer, and to offer each the reward of several-times-weekly windows on the world of prohibition, in real time, as I go about collecting the information that my informants have agreed to share, openly, or in confidence. Without giving away too much, I can promise there will be no follower of this trail of crumbs, if the money goal is reached, who will not hoist an eyebrow at some of these revelations of activities that have gone on, so to say, under our noses for many years. How could it be otherwise, when a switch is thrown by vote, from prohibition, to regulated permission, for this still controversial activity surrounding every aspect of cannabis in society?

If you are reading this, you may have already helped. In that case, I will always be proud to know there are such people as you, even if I don’t get to collect your backing. I’m determined not to give up trying before the last grain of sand is rolling down the talus. I’ll be asking my “friends” (quotes for FB connections i haven’t met face-to-face, but want to) one after another, to jump in for a buck, five dollars, ten. I am already amazed at the warm reception they have given the idea.

If each of them (or you) can convince one other person to do the same, as well as convince one more to follow suit and spread the word, three days is a large enough window for this animal to jump through. A little poke in ass with a sharp stick, and you may be the one to make it happen. I know one thing beyond a doubt; no person who is behind bars as the result of a marijuana violation, would not empty his or her pockets to support this project if they had a chance, especially if it might increase the chance for them to see their children again sooner.

Highest regards,