Speaking of Afterlife, Did Pop Actually Haunt Me?


One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

Do you believe in ghosts? I’d like to say I don’t. Their existence isn’t rational. There is no scientific evidence that supports their presence. And yet, I’ve had a couple of ghostly experiences that are hard to explain rationally, other than my mind playing tricks (a distinct possibility). But consider the following:

In my last Friday essay on religion, I took readers to Alaska and a campfire discussion with my father. Pop lived for another eight years— and they were good years. He continued to read his Bible, smoke his pipe, paint pictures, and entertain the elderly women in his retirement complex with the photographs he had taken over the years. We had lots of opportunities to talk. I learned a great deal of his past and he never gave up trying to convert me.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

One night I had him over for dinner to meet my new friend and future wife, Peggy. She charmed him as much as she had charmed me. I had already told him I planned on marrying her if I could persuade her to say yes. When I took him home, we shook hands at his doorway and, purely out of instinct, I said, “I love you Pop.” He got one of his big grins and responded, “I love you, too, Curt.”

A week later I found him sitting naked on his toilet, dead from a massive heart attack.

Of course I was grief-stricken. His passing was the passing of one of the most significant parts of my life. And I also felt guilt. I had known he wasn’t feeling well when I left him that night. I’d called a couple of times and he hadn’t answered, but I had assumed he had just been out on one of his walks. I couldn’t help but think if I had stopped by that I might have made a difference. Still, he had lived a full and productive life, taken care of himself to the end, and gone out quickly. It’s hard to ask for more.

The next day I went over to clean things up. I probably shouldn’t have gone alone because I was so stressed. I was in the bathroom cleaning when a light in the front room went on. I went out, thinking maybe the building manager had come by. No one was there. I went back to the bathroom where I had left a faucet on. Just as I walked in it jumped from a trickle to full force. The errant light and faucet shook me up; I grabbed my things and departed, quickly. That night I left the lights on in my apartment. It had been ages since I feared things that go bump in the night, but why take chances.

Just as I was finally drifting off to sleep from exhaustion, I heard a voice in my head. It was Pop. “I am alright Curt,” he said. “It’s okay.” And then I saw a vision of the proverbial white tunnel. It wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel; it was the complete tunnel, the whole shebang— Pop’s spaceship. Were the light in his front room, the faucet, and the voice results of natural causes and my overwrought imagination? Probably. But who knows? Who knows what awaits us when the final bell rings? Maybe it’s a one-way ticket through the Universe.

Afterwards, when I thought about the experience, I was a little amused that Pop hadn’t taken advantage of the moment to say, “Read your Bible, Curt.” I would have started immediately. But maybe it wasn’t necessary. Maybe other fuel drove his spaceship.


In this series of essays, I have not argued against religion, I have argued against the abuse of religion. I have contended that the ‘leap of faith’ required by religions, combined with the concept of exclusivity (there is only one way to get to heaven), make abuse possible and even likely. Holding the keys to eternal life provides the holder with tremendous power. It’s something to die for. This power is an almost irresistible magnet to those who crave and need power for any number of reasons ranging from the sublime to the outrageous, from serving the flock to fleecing it, from helping the helpless to offing the opposition. When combined with fanaticism and government support, this mixture can quickly become a dangerous and deadly brew.

Religion has the power to do much good. I used my own personal example of how the Episcopal Church helped me get through difficult teenage years. I have a minister friend, the woman who married Peggy and me, who is known as the Disaster Pastor. She devotes her life to helping out where help is most needed, and has the full support of her congregation. My fellow blogger friend Bill, at Practicing Resurrection, is using his faith to encourage wholesome and humane farming practices, and healthy eating. Pope Francis is undertaking a major environmental initiative. There are thousands of examples.

To me, the greatest role religion can play is to enable us to see beyond ourselves, to understand that on some deep level we are all connected, not only to other human beings but to all life. Our salvation as a species lies in realizing that all of life is sacred and acting accordingly. Few of us have the capacity for sainthood but most of us have the capacity to see a bit further beyond ourselves than we normally do, and think through the long-term implications of our actions— whether it is being unkind, marching off to war, or wiping out another species.

I believe that the easiest way to counteract the negative aspects of religion is to modify the concept of exclusivity. Simply put, it’s okay for us to believe that the path we have chosen will take us toward whatever afterlife has to offer, but we also need to recognize that someone else’s path may be equally valid. Religious tolerance would eliminate one of the primary causes of conflict in the world today. Freedom of religion and separation of church and state are essential to obtaining this objective. Maybe the day will come when people of different religious beliefs (or none), can live next to each other in peace and prosperity throughout the world.

I’ll let Pop get a final word in. He once told me that he regarded his extensive reading of the Bible as an insurance policy. If he were right, it was his key to the afterlife. If he were wrong, what’s the harm? I granted him that. But I countered with the opposite argument. What if he were wrong? What if this is all we have? Then life becomes incredibly important. Each moment is precious. Yes, practice your religion if it is significant to you— read your Koran or Bible or Bhagavad Gita— but live each moment as though it were your last. Be kind, make sure that your loved ones know that you love them, give back to the community, have adventures, expand your mind, practice tolerance, and be passionate.  If there is more after the curtain falls, wonderful. If not, you have lived your life fully and can die knowing that you achieved everything humanly possible from your brief time on this earth. What’s the harm?

NEXT WEEK: Monday’s Blog: A neighborhood goat feast. You’ll meet a clothed Rambo and a naked Pinky. Wednesday’s Photo Essay: I return to the magical island of Santorini. Friday’s Essay: How twenty-five cents saved one million lives and $134 billion in health care costs. Part I.

The Earth Is 6000 Years Old… Or So My father Told Me

My father, Herb Mekemson. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

My father. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

I invited my father, Herb Mekemson, up to Alaska for his 80th birthday. My brother Marshall put him on the airplane in Sacramento and I met him in Anchorage. He got off the plane grinning. We shook hands and embraced. He still had a strong grip.

“Curt, have you been causing problems again?” he asked. These weren’t the first words out of his mouth but they were close. There was a twinkle in his eyes, sort of.

“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked in mock innocence. He was gripping his pipe like it was the last life raft on a sinking ship.

“I got off of the plane and the first thing they announced was I couldn’t light up in the airport. I’ve needed a smoke since I left Seattle.” I had been an advocate for smoke-free areas in Sacramento and continued my efforts in Alaska.

I laughed. He and I had been through the tobacco discussion dozens of times. We had it down to a routine. I’d point out there was a direct correlation between his smoking and the heavy cough he had in the morning. He’d note that he had been smoking for over 60 years and was still going strong, thank you. I’d observe that somewhere his Scotch Presbyterian mother was rolling over in her grave, and so it would go. He liked his tobacco straight up. For years he had smoked unfiltered Camels but they lacked the kick he needed. In his words, he had switched to ‘roll-your-owns’ as opposed to the ‘new fangled tailor mades.’ As a result, most of his shirts were aerated from burning tobacco. Out of self-defense, he had switched to a pipe. He liked to tease me that most of my efforts in the tobacco wars were designed to thwart him.

“Well, Pop,” I announced, “in honor of your visit, you have been granted special dispensation. You can smoke in my truck.” He hurried me out of the airport, barely taking time to pick up his suitcase.

Pop, as in "don't you even think of taking my pipe away from me. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

Pop, as in, “Don’t you dare think of taking my pipe away from me.” (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

We had quite the adventure planned but first there were social responsibilities. I took him over to meet my roommates Cyndi and Roger. Cyndi owned the house and Roger and I paid rent. It was a good arrangement. Cyndi was a slope worker, which meant she worked for two weeks up on the North Slope in the oil industry and then had two weeks off. Roger was in the vending machine business, which included cigarettes. Surprisingly, the three of us were quite compatible.

When Cyndi and I first met to interview each other over possible roommate status, I mentioned that I was Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. She became quite excited and announced she had a Lung Association connection.

“I was a Trek leader in Minnesota before I came to Alaska,” she said. When I informed her that I had created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program, we decided that fate had brought us together. As for Roger, he and I had a penchant for weird movies, the weirder the better. Strange Brew is an excellent example. Many a winter evening was spent happily vegging on the couch, drinking beer, and watching videos.

Once Pop had visited my home, our next responsibility was visiting the ‘girlfriend.’ I had been dating a pulmonary physician and we hung out a lot together. I had an open invitation to move in.

“Why don’t we get married,” she suggested. “You can stay home, write, and raise the children.” I liked the staying home and writing idea but wasn’t ready for the kids and married part. Her English Spaniel had a different perspective. I kicked him off of the bed when I was around. His response was to pee on my side of the bed and mark it as his territory. I would have gone and peed on his bed if he had one. Two can play the dominant male species game.

My friend cooked dinner for Pop and me, which was a little scary. Cooking was not her forte. Our meal was good though and the dog was on its best behavior. We had a very pleasant evening.

Pop liked the idea of me getting married and having kids. He had always wanted me to produce grandchildren and both our biological time clocks were ticking. At 40 plus, I was rapidly approaching the point where having children was impractical. At 80, he was rapidly approaching the point where he would never see them. Actually, Pop had three wishes for me. The first was the married with children bit. The second was that I would become a photographer and take pictures of all the beautiful sites I saw in my wandering. The third was that I would become a good Christian boy and return to the flock.

A few years later I would fall in love, get married, inherit two great kids— and take up photography. I always figured that two out of three weren’t bad.

The next day we headed off to Denali. I had a permit for camping in the Park. Pop went crazy with his camera and the Alaskan scenery; we had to stop every 20 minutes or so for photo ops. Even a moose waited patiently beside the road to have its picture taken. By the time we reached camp, heavy black clouds were swirling overhead and a cold wind was reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. I hurried in setting up the large Coleman tent I had brought along while Pop, who insisted on being part of the action, went in search of firewood. A few minutes later I noticed that he had disappeared.

“Oh damn,” I thought to myself, “how do I explain to my sister and brother that Pop had become lost in the Alaskan wilderness gathering firewood.”

Then I spotted him off in the distance on top of a hill taking pictures.

“I saw some mountain goats up on the opposite mountain and I wanted to get closer for pictures,” he explained to me after descending.

“Do you know there are grizzly bears wandering around up there,” I said pointedly. He just smiled. At 80 he was ready to meet his maker. If it happened with the help of a grizzly bear, so be it. But it wasn’t going to happen on my shift, if I could help it.

After dinner we sat by our crackling campfire and talked for a couple of hours as snowflakes danced around the perimeter. Our family, his past and my future were all topics of discussion. There was something magical about the setting and Pop was obviously enjoying himself tremendously. Sitting in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of a swirling snowstorm at age 80 was something that he had never envisioned for himself. I had him bundled from head to toe and he insisted he was toasty warm. Eventually the topic got around to one of his favorite subjects, religion.

“You know, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot,” he started. The Pearly Gates were beckoning and Pop wanted to be sure his credentials were in order. He was about to jump in to his ‘You should read the Bible too, Curt’ lecture. To forestall the inevitable, I asked a question out of curiosity.

“Assuming you make it to heaven, what do you think it is like?”

He laughed. “I am afraid my view’s a little unusual. I see myself as a spacecraft hurtling through space. I am not in the spacecraft. I am the spacecraft and I am exploring the universe and seeing all of the glorious sights it has to offer.” Apparently there would be no jewel encrusted buildings and streets paved with gold for him.

While I was contemplating this rather wondrous view of the after-life, I took too long in coming up with my next question.

“You should read the Bible too, Curt,” Pop began. “I’ve been listening to a radio minister and he is going through each Book in detail and explaining what it means. There’s a lot of great stuff. I’ve bought a complete set of his tapes.”

The radio minister part hoisted a red flag for me. Marshall and I had cut our religious eye teeth on a slippery southern radio preacher in the 1950s and I had recently been tuning in to Jim and Tammy Baker. They were prime time in Alaska. It was quite clear to me that they were bilking their flock and the process fascinated me. This didn’t mean that I believed all radio preachers or televangelists were frauds. It seemed reasonable to me that sincere religious people would want to take advantage of modern communication opportunities to share their views. Still, I decided to gently pursue where Pop’s radio minister was taking him.

“Um, what do you mean by great stuff?” I inquired.

“The stories, the history, the messages,” he replied enthusiastically, giving me a catalog to choose from. He was prepared to wax eloquently on the subject, to convert me on the spot. It wouldn’t be easy. I had read the Bible, and found it interesting, educational, and meaningful. But I wasn’t about to accept it as literal truth. I was curious as to where my father stood on the religious continuum between liberal interpretation and fundamentalist dogma. He had always been deeply religious but somewhat tolerant of other perspectives.

“So, Pop,” I queried, jumping to a litmus test of Christian fundamentalism, “do you believe that the world is 6,000 years old?”

“Yes,” was his simple reply and it was immediately clear where the radio minister was leading him: it was over the foaming falls of fundamentalism where a leap of faith assures a righteous landing. On one level this didn’t bother me. Life can be rather short and brutish as Hobbes noted, and full of suffering as the Zen Buddhists like to point out. We find our comfort where we can find it. If Pop’s belief helped him deal with the present and face his future, then it had value for him. Who was I to say otherwise? It wasn’t exactly like he was being misled, either. The Mekemson side of my family comes from a long line of true believers dating back to John Brown the Martyr of Scotland in the 1600s— and undoubtedly beyond.

I have my own share of spiritual genes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years considering different religious traditions and pondering imponderables. Crass materialism, in and of its self, seems to be a poor reason to exist. I tend to believe that there is a deep, underlying unity in the universe and that all of life on earth is connected. It’s hard to get much more mystical than that.

I was a little concerned that Pop had paid several hundred dollars for the tapes. He lived off of his Social Security pension and the amount represented a lot of money. Bilking came to mind. I was more concerned with the implications of his beliefs as we chatted into the night. It wasn’t enough that he believed the earth was 6000 years old. I, too, should believe it. School systems were wrong for teaching evolution and should be required to teach creationism. He also expressed a strong bias against homosexuality and gay people that he had picked up from the radio preacher. The latter made me particularly sad.

The best man at my first wedding and a friend from childhood, Frank Martin, was gay. When my mother was dying of cancer while I was at Berkeley, Frank would often stop by and visit her, bringing whatever comfort he could. Later, when my former wife and I returned from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Frank and his partner hosted several anniversary parties for us in San Francisco. He was always generous and kind to our family. Now, my father was being taught that Frank was a sinful man, condemned to be burned in Hell.

Beyond expressing my disagreement as gently as I could, I mainly listened. My point of view wasn’t going to change what my father believed. Besides, the old fellow may have expired from hypothermia listening to me. We put out the fire, retired to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, and dreamt we were spaceships hurtling through space.

Over the next few days, Pop and I covered a good bit of Alaska, ending up in Homer. His sister Francis had raised her children there and he wanted to see the town. Afterwards, I drove him back to the airport and made sure his pipe was out before taking him inside and seeing him off. It took months for my truck to stop smelling like tobacco smoke.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: A final story about Pop. Did he really leave me a message after he passed away or was it the invention of my over-wrought imagination? Plus— My final thoughts on religion.

The Bigger Sacramento Book Club (BSBC)… 26 Years and Counting


Books read by the BSBC of Sacramento

This bookshelf includes about half of the books the BSBC has read during its 26 years of existence.

Three things happened when I climbed off my bicycle in Sacramento during the second week of September in 1990. First, I met Peggy and promptly fell in love. (It took me five seconds; Peggy was more like five months. She liked the look of a guy in tight bicycle shorts who had just biked 10,000 miles but was a little concerned about the sanity of a guy who would do such a thing. Rightfully so.)

Two, I was seriously hassled for being one week late. Mind you, I had just travelled for six months on a solo journey around North America. An extra seven days didn’t seem like a big deal. To be fair, however, time is different for someone sitting in an air-conditioned office eight hours a day than it is for someone sitting on the back of a bicycle and peddling 50–100 miles a day through every type of terrain and weather North America has to offer.

Here I am biking up a mountain in Nova Scotia with 60 pounds of gear.

Here I am biking up a mountain in Nova Scotia with 60 pounds of gear. I had already biked 5000 miles. Time slows down in such circumstances.

The third thing that happened is the subject of today’s post. My friend Ken Lake informed me that a meeting of the Bigger Sacramento Book Club, more fondly known as the BS Book Club, or simply the BSBC was coming up. Ken had started the book club and recruited me as a member in the fall of 1988, a few months before I started my bike odyssey.

I love this photo of Ken because it makes him look like a Druid Elder, or someone out of Lord of the Rings. I think the look on his face reflected that the 49ers were losing.

I love this photo of Ken because it makes him look like a Druid Elder, or someone out of Lord of the Rings. I think the look on his face reflected his disapproval of a SF Giant’s play.

The BSBC reads a wide variety of books based solely on the tastes of whoever is selecting the book.

The BSBC reads a wide variety of books based solely on the tastes of whoever selects the book.

The rules, Ken had explained, were simple. Members of the BSBC would rotate having the book club meet at their homes. The host would pick the book, provide the main course, and supply whatever alcohol was to be consumed. Other members would provide hors d’oevres, salad, veggies, dessert and breads— plus any insights they had on the book.

BSBC is only partially about books. This particular meeting featured a beer tasting. Dinners are often planned around whatever food was featured in the book.

BSBC is only partially about books. This particular meeting featured a beer tasting. Dinners are often planned around whatever food is featured in the book.

So far it sounded like a standard dinner/book club. And then Ken mentioned the other rule: You didn’t have to read the book. Maybe you ran out of time or couldn’t struggle your way through the first chapter. Fine. It was after all, the BS Book Club. You didn’t even have to confess. I laughed and signed on the imaginary dotted line. I even remember the first meeting. The book was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. One of our members hadn’t read the book but had brought Cliff Notes. We gave him an appropriately hard time. When he insisted on discussing the motif, things got even more raucous. It set the tone for future meetings.

Another shelf of our books. BTW, I highly recommend the book just to the left of Lake Woebegone Days. (grin)

Another shelf of our books. BTW, I highly recommend the book just to the left of Lake Wobegone Days. (grin)

So, even though I was still wearing my bike clothes, wasn’t sure where I was going to live, and didn’t own a car, I told Ken that of course I would be at BSBC. And could I please bring something that didn’t require cooking.

It was a while before I was ready to choose a book and host the book club, however. Living with a former girlfriend while pursuing Peggy made things a little, um, awkward. Finally, I obtained my own apartment in downtown Sacramento and hosted my first ever BSBC, on a couch and folding chairs. People ate off their laps. The book was an old favorite of mine: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. If you haven’t read it and enjoy offbeat humor, add it to your list.

The first book I selected for the BSBC to read.

The first book I selected for the BSBC to read.

By 1992 membership had settled down to five couples, the same five couples who are members today. It’s an interesting mix of people including two teachers, a physician, two prevention specialists, a principal, a judge, an office manager, a pilot/man of many trades, and me— a person of even more trades. (Most of us are semi-retired now.) Our politics range from sort of out there to moderate. It’s amazing we have hung out together as a book club, not to mention as couples for a quarter of a century. I once mentioned the odds against all of us still being married to the same person. “We could never get divorced,” one of the couples responded. “We don’t know who would get book club.”

They were semi-serious.

The five couples of the BSBC on the steps of John Muir's home, now a museum, in the Bay Area.

The five couples of the BSBC on the steps of John Muir’s home (now a National Historic site) located in the Bay Area.

To date, BSBC has read 217 books and two magazine collections. We have also watched five movies and been on three side trips that didn’t involve reading or watching anything. That’s a total of 227 meetings.

These days it is more difficult to get together. One couple lives in France six months out of the year, another has moved to the Bay Area, and Peggy and I are living in Oregon. But we still manage. BSBC has priority.

I asked Ken and his wife Leslie why they thought the book club has survived for so long. The essence of their reply was that BSBC’s long continuity reflects the depth of the friendships that have evolved over time and the informality of our approach to books. The club is as much, or possibly more, of a social gathering than it is a discussion of books. Ken described our meetings as “free flowing within a structure of friendship.” And free flow they do. A full hour’s discussion on the book out of a four-hour evening means people really liked the book.

A final shelf.

A final shelf.

For fun today, I’ve posted photos of Peggy and my BSBC bookshelves that contain about half of the books we have read over the years. If you look at these shelves closely, you will see the breadth of books we read. They reflect the very different tastes in books of ten different people. We all end up reading in genres that we normally wouldn’t. We are constantly being introduced to new authors and new ideas. And that, along with the friendships, is what our book club is about.

Strong friendships have developed over the years in BSBC. The photo features LaReene Sweeney and I.

Strong friendships have developed over the years in BSBC. This photo features LaReene Sweeney and me.

Once a year, the BSBC comes to our house in Oregon for 2-3 days. A couple of years ago we took them kayaking on Squaw Lakes. In this photo Ken Lake hides his paddle so it looks like his wife, Leslie, is doing all the work.

Once a year, the BSBC comes to our house in Oregon for 2-3 days. A couple of years ago we took them kayaking on Squaw Lakes. In this photo Ken Lake hides his paddle so it looks like his wife, Leslie, is doing all the work.

From Press Publish to Voodoo Doughnuts

I am convinced this is a new definition of sin— a bacon maple bar from Voodoo Donut shop in Portland. The donut shop was located next to the Press publish Conference I was attending in Portland, Oregon.

I am convinced this is a new definition of sin— a bacon maple bar from Voodoo Doughnut shop in Portland. The donut shop was located next to the Press Publish Conference I was attending in Portland, Oregon.

Peggy and I made a quick trip up to Portland from our home in southern Oregon this weekend. I went to attend a Word Press conference; Peggy was along to play. We stayed at the conference site: Embassy Suites in downtown. The hotel’s idea of a room with a view was a room overlooking the Voodoo Doughnut shop. I think they charged extra, seriously. Peggy, as part of her play-day, checked out the shop and bought the bacon-maple bar featured above. It was waiting for me when I returned to our room. The first bite assured a sugar high, the second a heart attack. My arteries will never be the same again. Later I went over and took some photos of Voodoo Doughnuts and its ever-long line of customers.

The ever present line of people waiting to get into the Voodoo Doughnut shop for their daily dose of sugar.

The ever present line of people waiting to get into the Voodoo Doughnut shop for their daily dose of sugar. Note the young and old. Age is not an issue.

This sign welcomes customers to the shop.

This sign welcomes customers to the shop.

My stomach after eating the bacon-maple bar.

This is how my stomach felt after eating the bacon-maple bar.

Peggy, in addition to descending (or is that ascending?) into doughnut heaven, spent her day at Powell’s Bookstore and Portland’s huge downtown Weekend Market. I was a bit jealous. Powell’s is one of the world’s great bookstores and the Weekend Market has over 250 vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to pottery, clothes, jewels, etc. Musicians, mimes and other performers provide unending entertainment. Both Powell’s and the market would have made great blogs. Oh well.

Not that I am complaining. There were several good sessions at the Press Publish conference. I was particularly impressed with workshops on Longreads, travel blogs and book blogging, all subjects of particular interest to me as a writer, travel blogger, and author. The most inspiring workshop I attended featured Eric Prince-Heaggans. I also had lunch with him. Eric is a travel writer and blogger who uses his writing to inspire people of color and disadvantaged youth to discover the benefits of travel in terms of broadening their perspective on life. Check out his post on travel and African American Men. For a more traditional post, visit Eric’s blog on Dubrovnik.

One of my photos looking down on Dubrovnik from a visit Peggy and I made.

One of my photos looking down on Dubrovnik from a visit Peggy and I made and blogged about.

Eric also has a great sense of humor. For example: “I’ve learned through my travels,” he told us, “that I don’t like monkeys.” He had a photo to prove why. I get it.

Monkey wraps itself around Eric's head.

Monkey wraps itself around Eric’s head.

But I must say Eric looked a lot happier about his money than I did mine. Peggy took this photo when she and I were traveling in the Amazon.

But I must say Eric looked a lot happier about his monkey than I did mine. Peggy took this photo when she and I were traveling in the Amazon.

Peggy's monkey, on the other hand, was something of a sweet heart. There was a slight matter of flea bites, however.

Peggy’s monkey, on the other hand, was something of a sweetheart. There was a slight matter of flea bites, however.

Jerry Mahoney, author of Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad, was also quite humorous in describing how he and his husband became parents of twins and eventually published a highly popular book about the experience. Failing to sell the book on his first round, his agent told him to go back and establish a presence on the Internet, a platform in social media. It’s a message that writers hear over and over. As a result he created the blog Mommy Man. It is definitely worth a visit.

Jerry talks animately about his book in a panel discussion that also featured four other authors.

Jerry talks animatedly about his book in a panel discussion that also featured four other authors.

I also visited the Happy Lounge and a Happiness Engineer. How could I avoid such an opportunity? It was like I had died and returned to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.  So I sat down with Happiness Engineer Josh R. He seemed quite happy. More importantly, he immediately solved the technical problem I had in featuring my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam, permanently on my blog. I was quite happy as well. My thanks to the people at Word Press for a job well done.

Happiness lounge at Press Publish Conference.

Happiness lounge at Press Publish Conference. My answer was yes.


Joss R, Word Press Happiness Engineer, answered all my questions and made me happy.

The Happiness Lounge also featured swag you could buy ranging from T-shirts to Coffee mugs.

The Happiness Lounge also featured swag you could buy ranging from T-shirts to coffee mugs.


NEXT BLOG: On a recent trip to Reno, I visited the Generator, a huge warehouse where some of Burning Man’s best art is produced. I will take you on a walk-through. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.


A Ground-Floor Environmentalist— from Earth Day I… and On


A final view of the 1500 year old rightfully named Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Before the beginning of the environmental movement, many people believed that trees such as this 1500 year old redwood should be cut down to provide homes, jobs and decks.

Peggy and I drove down to Sacramento, California on Thursday. She wanted to visit her mom. I came down to do an oral history interview for the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS). The organization has been protecting Sacramento’s environment for so long it had forgotten its childhood.

I think ECOS wanted to catch up with me while I am still around. (Yikes!) Or at least while I had my memory left. Fortunately I have a long memory, or at least notes, and I was there for the organization’s birth.

My connection with the environmental movement started on April 22, 1970. For those of you not familiar with the date, it was Earth Day I. At the time I was running Peace Corps’ Northern California and Nevada’s Public Affairs office out of Sacramento. It was a great job, but I was getting tired of the recruitment business— I’d been at it for three years. So, I was easily distracted away from my recruitment booth at the University of California Davis that day.

Earth Day was my type of happening. UC Davis puts on great fairs. It probably has to do with an event it calls Picnic Day. Picnic Day is a rite of spring event with roots as deep as humankind. The birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and the snow is melting in the mountains; let’s have a party! All of the departments become involved, put on shows, put up displays, and do silly things.

Earth Day was like that but it also incorporated a vitally important message.

Somehow we had forgotten where we came from in our rush toward progress and the good life, in our deification of the dollar, in our maximizing of profits, and in our greed. In the process we were chopping down our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning our air, destroying our last remaining wilderness areas, and saying goodbye forever to innumerable species whose only evolutionary mistake was to get in our way.

We had forgotten that birds can make music as beautifully as any stereo, that peace and balance can be found in the wilderness, and that somehow, in some yet unfathomable way, our fate might be tied to that of the pup fish. It seemed okay that the last Brown Pelican was about to fly off into the sunset forever so we could squeeze one more bushel of wheat from our crops, and that it was appropriate for the last of the great Redwoods, silent sentinels who had maintained their vigilance for over 4000 years, to die for our patio with a lifespan of 20 years.

“Once you have seen one redwood, you have seen them all,” Ronald Reagan would proclaim.

Rachel Carson, in her landmark book Silent Spring, had sounded a clarion call to a Holy Crusade: saving the earth. Others, too, were raising the alarm. Earth Day I was an expression of growing concern. Its message struck a deep chord within my soul. The years I had spent wandering in the woods while growing up, my exploring of the rainforest around Gbarnga, Liberia during Peace Corps, and my hiking in the wilderness as a backpacker, all came together in a desire to join the environmental movement and help save the wilderness. (The urge, I cheerfully admit, was closely connected to my desire to disappear into the woods as much as possible.)

How to go about pursuing a career in saving the wilderness wasn’t all that clear, though. My occupations to date had been political science major, teacher and Peace Corps recruiter. None of those spelled environmentalist. I committed myself to look around, however, and to be ready for any opportunities that came my way.

Serendipity or synchronicity, being what they are, an opportunity arose immediately. I read an article in the Sacramento Bee about an Ecology Information Center (EIC) that was being organized in Sacramento as a response to Earth Day I. The organization was forming different committees to focus on a variety of environmental issues and was seeking volunteers. Lights went off in my head as I was struck by one of my brainstorms. What if I went in and volunteered to set up a committee that would focus on environment and politics, two of my passions of the moment? Certainly the environmental movement in Sacramento needed a political arm and would benefit from a focused effort. I further reasoned that EIC would have a tough time turning down a full-time volunteer.

A church out in Carmichael, a suburb in Sacramento, had donated the Center some free space so I took a break from the recruitment business and drove out to see what I could learn. When I walked in, two people were in a hot debate, almost yelling at each other. My presence seemed to make little difference. It was my introduction to the world of grass-roots organizations.

“I’ll come back another time,” I announced and turned to leave. This was not a situation I needed to be in.

“Oh, we’re sorry,” the young woman half of the debate announced and sounded like she meant it.

“Yes, please stay. We’re finished with our discussion,” the older man added, obviously a little embarrassed.

I hesitated and walked back in. The man introduced himself as Chuck Wiederhold. The young woman was Katie Easterwood and they had been arguing over the direction of the Center. Chuck felt the organization’s primary direction should be environmental education while Katie was more into environmental action. She was specifically interested in implementing a major recycling project in Sacramento modeled after one she had initiated at American River College. They both seemed like bright, capable people and Katie was particularly impressive at 18 years of age. The two of them were founding members of the organization and on the Board.

“I am interested in another area,” I said with a smile, throwing another option into the mix and wondering how long it would be before the two were yelling at me. I outlined my thoughts on creating a committee that would focus on electing environmentally concerned people to the City Council and Board of Supervisors. I added that I was willing to work full-time as a volunteer and outlined my background. The Director of Peace Corps Public Affairs for Northern California and Nevada sounded more grand that it was. Apparently my resume, or possibly my willingness to work full-time for free, impressed them— more than I had intended.

“I have an even better idea,” Chuck had announced with Katie’s concurrence, “why don’t you consider becoming EIC’s Executive Director.”

There it was, just like that. After a 15 minute discussion based on a whim, I was being offered the opportunity to become a card-carrying environmentalist, a leader in Sacramento’s fledgling environmental movement. I was in on the ground floor.

Three months later, I was up to my ears in garbage. Katie’s idea to run a once a month, community wide recycling drive was underway. Ten thousand families were dropping off tons of newspapers, cans and bottles at six sites we had set up throughout Sacramento City and County. EIC was running an operation that involved 300 volunteers and 15 rental trucks with one wildly enthusiastic young woman and one totally exhausted executive director, who was receiving a whopping $100 a month in compensation. Twenty-four hours after starting, we stored our last bundle of newspapers in a vacant building in Old Sacramento (later to become Frank Fat’s restaurant) and limped off to sleep. Shortly afterwards, the Board doubled my salary to $200 per month.

As crazy as the recycling drives were, I managed to become involved in other environmental issues. One of the most memorable was Proposition 18, a 1970 California Initiative spearheaded by the Tuberculosis and Respiratory Disease Association of California (later to become the Lung Association). Proposition 18, as it turned out, would serve as the foundation to ECOS.

The TB folks had gone a long way toward conquering tuberculosis and were looking around for other challenges. Since they were experts in matters pertaining to the lungs, it made sense to tackle other lung diseases. Research was showing that smoking and air pollution were two major causes of lung disease. Proposition 18, the Clean Air Initiative, was designed to raise money from the motor vehicle fuel tax and license fees to control automobile caused air pollution and develop mass transportation alternatives.

In Sacramento, a coalition of organizations ranging from the League of Women Voters to the American Association of University Women, the Audubon Society and Sierra Club had joined the TB Association in its effort. It was a natural for EIC to join as well. I was soon attending meetings and helping out with the campaign.

The highway interests (with money provided by the oil companies) defeated Proposition 18, but the coalition had worked well together. I had enjoyed the opportunity of working with leaders from other community-based groups and knew I would miss the interaction. At our wrap up session after the November election, someone suggested we should maintain the coalition. I jumped on the idea. There were a wide range of environmental issues that would benefit. It was one thing for EIC to make a point; it was something else when the Tuberculosis Association or League of Women Voters spoke out on the same issue.

Pulling together a variety of organizations to support environmental issues recognized a central tenet of the ecology movement. Solutions to environmental problems demand multi-faceted approaches. Everything is related. Urban sprawl encourages extensive automobile use, which, in turn, leads to air pollution. Reducing urban sprawl supports mass transit and has the added advantage of protecting valuable farmland and rapidly disappearing natural areas. It was clear as we talked that coalition members were excited about the potential of working together and believed we could make a difference in the quality of life in Sacramento.

“I move we create an ongoing organization,” I offered. The motion was immediately seconded and support was unanimous. We decided to call our organization the Environmental Council of Sacramento, ECOS. Each organization could have two representatives. Membership would be open to any organization concerned with improving and protecting Sacramento’s environment. Kris Corn, the young woman from the Tuberculosis Association who had headed up the Clean Air Initiative, was selected as the first president.

ECOS continues to function in Sacramento today as one of the longest continuing community environmental coalitions in the nation. I worked closely with the organization for several years and am proud of my early involvement. I am even more proud of what the organization has been able to accomplish in the 45 years since.

Blog Hopping the World… with Curt and Peggy Mekemson

There are millions of beautiful photos of the Greek Island of Santorini, but none can match going there.

There are millions of beautiful photos of the Greek Island of Santorini, but none can match going there.

“There are travelers and then there are Travelers. If you take some time to review Curt’s lengthy résumé you’ll see what we mean: Peace Corps in Liberia, year after year at Burning Man, kayaking with orcas, and backpacking with the grizzlies. He walks the walk and his blog documents all of it.”

Travel Bloggers James and Terri Vance

"Now where did I leave that fish?" A big Kodiak Bear looks for salmon on the Frazer River of Kodiak Island.

“Now where did I leave that fish?” A big Kodiak Bear looks for salmon on the Frazer River of Kodiak Island. He was about 50 yards away from Peggy and me, a distance he could travel in 10 seconds. 1o, 9, 8,7…

A couple of weeks ago, two of my favorite world travelers, James and Terri Vance at Gallivance, nominated me to participate in what is called a “Behind the Scenes Blog Hop.” It’s a project making its way around the blogosphere where bloggers provide insight into why they blog. In this particular case, it was about people who travel frequently and write about their experiences. Go here to learn about what James and Terri have to say about their own journeys. I highly recommend following their blog if you don’t already.

The project sounded like fun but I was busy at the time. Today, I came up for air. Let me start by noting I am a wanderer by nature. I think it’s genetic. I’ve done a fair amount of genealogical research and discovered that my direct line of ancestors, at least as far as the 1600s, hit the road running and rarely looked back. As for me, as soon as I was allowed out of the house on my own, I set off to explore the fields, woods, ponds and creeks of the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills where I grew up.

Why do you write what you write?

I am a storyteller and some of my best stories are about my travels and adventures. I believe that travel is one of the most enriching experiences we can have. Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Explore, dream, discover: magical words that have always been my motto. Consequently, I have a lifetime full of wandering and very few regrets. My wife Peggy and I are wealthy with the experiences we have had.

And it is wealth we love to share— partially because it is fun to relive the adventures, but there is more. I hope to encourage those who read my blogs to “catch the trade winds in their sails.” And if not? I at least hope I can provide a taste of adventure, a dash of humor, a pinch of education, and on occasion, a serious thought.

There are two of other points I try to make with my travel writing. One, adventure travel doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. Of course it can be, but it can also be a walk in the woods or a visit to a new restaurant. Anything that broadens our perspective on life can be an adventure. Just recently, for example, I wrote about a visit to a restaurant in Nashville that served really hot chicken. Believe me it was an adventure. And last year I wrote about a walk to my mailbox. It didn’t have to be an adventure, but I turned it into one.

This oak tree lives along the path I walk to the mailbox.

This oak tree lives along the path I walk to the mailbox. In addition to having its own unique look, it serves as a home to a number of woodland creatures. A whole adventure could be built around watching it for 24 hours. I might add, this tree would be completely happy in the Hobbit.

Two, age does not have to be a barrier to travel. Peggy is big on this point. Young and old alike can have adventures. I am now in my 70s and Peggy is in her 60s and yet last year found us disappearing into a remote wilderness on a backpacking trip by ourselves, sea kayaking with the orcas off Vancouver Island, and going to Burning Man in the Nevada desert. If we can do these things, certainly people in their 50s, 40s, 30s and 20s can, not to mention 60s and 70s. And if you have children, take them along. You will create a lifetime of memories.

How does your blog differ from others of its genre?

Variety comes to mind. One day I might be writing about cruising the Mediterranean Sea and visiting a Greek Island like Santorini. Another day I could be introducing you to Pastie Dan, a character at Burning Man who makes, and will gladly apply, pasties to cover women’s nipples. You might join me for a raft trip down the Colorado, a boat trip up the Amazon, or a narrow boat tour in England. Want a little excitement? Try waking up at 3 a.m. with a bear standing on your chest in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Then there was the rattlesnake that tried to bite me on the butt when I was doing my thing in the woods. My poor sphincter was frozen for a week. Want a touch of the exotic? Join Peggy and me as we search for Big Foot, UFOs and ghosts— it’s all in fun, and yet…

Panamint Rattlesnake in the Panamint Mountains, Death valley.

Admittedly, this guy is a little bigger than the rattlesnake that tried to bite me on the butt. With rattlesnakes, I am not sure size matters, however. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Bigfoot trap found above Applegate Lake in Southern Oregon.

This Bigfoot trap is located four miles from my home. It was maintained in the 70s in hopes of actually capturing one of the big fellows. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Pastie Dan in Black Rock City.

Normally Pastie Dan plies his trade at the Center Camp Cafe but occasionally, he wanders the roads of Black Rock City. He stopped at our camp to see if any of the women were in the market for pasties.

Maneuvering a 60 foot long Narrow Boat through the Trent and Mersey Canal in England two summers ago was a very different but equally rewarding experience.

Maneuvering a 60 foot long Narrow Boat through the Trent and Mersey Canal in England is a wonderful adventure that comes with pubs along the way.

How does your writing process work?

My stories start with experiences. I don’t scramble over rocks in New Mexico looking for petroglyphs because I want to write about the experience. I risk life and limb because I am fascinated with petroglyphs. I will confess, though, that when Peggy and I take photographs, we think about the blog— in addition to documenting our travels.

We call this large cat a cougar, mountain lion, puma… it would be interesting to know what the ancient Native American who made this rock art thought about and called his creation.

We call this large cat a cougar, mountain lion, puma… it would be interesting to know what the ancient Native American who made this rock art thought about and called his creation. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Research is also part of the process, either before we traipse off on an adventure because it enhances the experience, or afterwards because I want to add depth to what I am writing about.

As for the actual writing… writing is writing; it’s work. And I say this even though I love to write. I will normally think through what I want to write about, create a first draft, do a rewrite and then edit for mistakes. Then I turn it over to Peggy for further editing.

Photographs are also a very important part of my blogging. Between Peggy and me, we often have as many as 100 photos we have taken in relation to a particular blog. Ten to fifteen have to be selected out for a post and then processed. Mainly I work on cropping the photo to capture what I want, but I also make minor adjustments to light, color, shadows and sharpness if needed. Altogether, the process of creating a blog can take from three to eight hours.

What are you working on/writing?

I work from a calendar of blogs I want to write. I’ll usually have two or three months’ worth of blogs in mind. This time of the year, I often do several on Burning Man because many of my readers are Burners, excited about getting tickets. Since I have now been to Burning Man for ten years, I am going to do a best of ten series (from my perspective) of sculptures, mutant vehicles, burns, structures, etc. over the next few weeks. After that, I will return to my north coast series exploring the coast of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Or I may do a series on California’s gold rush towns. (My home town was one.)

Two oil tankers provide an interesting Sculpture at Burning Man

One of my all-time favorite sculptures at Burning Man.

The really big writing project I have been working on has been the book about my Peace Corps experience in Liberia, West Africa: The Bush Devil Ate Sam. I’ve posted several chapters over the past couple of years on my blog and a number of you helped me select the title of the book. This is my first venture into self-publishing and let me say unequivocally and undeniably, it has been a steep learning curve (understatement). I wrapped up getting the book in to Bookbaby two months ago, or at least thought I did. Bookbaby dutifully put the book on numerous E-pub sites and sent me back printed copies I requested. And what did I discover? Even though Peggy and I had meticulously done a line-by-line edit, some 30 errors. Damn. (A woman who is really good at editing found 25 of them, friends and family others.) So it was back to the drawing boards. Anyway, I sent all the corrections in last Wednesday and also set up the print on demand option. Soon…

One good bit of news, Steven Spatz, the president of Bookbaby, wrote to me on Friday and said he would like to feature The Bush Devil Ate Sam this week on Bookbaby’s blog. Given that Bookbaby is one the largest self-publishing companies in the world, produces thousands of books, and has an excellent reputation, things are looking up. (And no, Steven is not going to use me as an example of how not to.)

Kpelle footbridge near Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

When I graduated from UC Berkeley and travelled off to Liberia, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I began one of the grandest adventures of my life. Once there, I continued to explore my surroundings by hiking off into the jungle. Here, I am standing on a bridge built by Kpelle villagers.


As part of this process of blog hopping, we are asked to nominate two other bloggers to participate in the blog hop. This is tough; there are so many great bloggers I follow. But that said, here are my two nominations:

Linda at Shoreacres: Wow, this woman can write. While she isn’t exactly a travel blogger, I can guarantee she will take you on some great journeys. As a compliment to the posts she writes, her followers comment in paragraphs instead of sentences.

Cindy Knoke: Cindy takes you from her home in southern California, the Holler, to journeys around the world. Her photography, particularly in terms of birds and wildlife, is superb.


What Happens When Your Blog Becomes A Lesson Plan for Fifth Graders?

Tasha in her fifth grade classroom at Indian Lake Elementary School.

Tasha in her fifth grade classroom at Indian Lake Elementary School.

Our daughter, Tasha (Mrs. Cox), is a fifth grade teacher at Indian Lake Elementary School in Hendersonville, Tennessee where she teaches language arts, including writing. A month or so ago she called and asked if she could use one of my blogs in her writing class. “Of course,” I had replied. Parents often tell me they have shared some blog or the other I’ve written with their children. Most of my stuff is G-rated.

Tasha picked out a recent blog I had posted on Mt. Rainier National Park. It featured a picture of her brother, Tony, and of her son, Ethan, as well as lots of photos of the Park. I figured that was it. My work was done.

Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier

I should have known better.

When Peggy and I arrived in Hendersonville for Christmas, there was a two-inch stack of yellow Post-its waiting. Each one included a question from a student directed to me. It looked like I might spend Christmas answering them all. That would have been okay, but I also wanted to enjoy the season. Maybe jolly old St. Nick had brought me a rocket ship so I could zoom around the universe.

Tasha took pity. She organized the Post-its by category so I could answer a handful of questions instead of 5,472. She is good at organizing. She even wants to organize me. Lots of luck with that…

So here are the key questions and my answers. I thought the folks who follow my blog might find them interesting as well.

Why do you write a blog?

I started blogging with a specific purpose in mind. I wanted to write a book and a blog would introduce my writing to people. If they liked how I wrote and what I wrote about, they might like my book as well.

Since then blogging has also become valuable to me for other reasons. One, it allows my wife Peggy and I to share our travels and adventures with people who live all over the world. Two, I have made a lot of new friends who share their travels, photography, and ideas with me. Three, it helps me improve my writing.

Finally, I love to write and tell stories. Each morning I wake up excited to begin my blog.

Is blogging hard?

Yes and no. Since my blogs include both writing and photography, they take a fair amount of work. I often start by researching a subject I am going to blog about. Then I pick out photos. Peggy and I take a lot when we travel; I may have to choose ten from a hundred. I then use software to work over each photo to make it look the best I can. Finally I write and edit my blog. Peggy then does a final read-through to catch any errors I may have missed. Each blog takes from three to eight hours to produce.

Blogging can be a lot easier, however. I have friends who may put up a photo and write a few words about it, but still have a very good blog.

The platform I use for my blog, Word Press, takes care of all the technical aspects of blogging. If someone wants to start a new blog, all he or she has to do is go to Word Press and click on “get started.” Word Press will then take the person through the process.

Where do your ideas for a blog come from?

Since my blog focuses on travel, most of my ideas come from places we visit. I am always on the look out for good blog material. Maybe it will be a town we visit, or a national park, or an ancient site where Native Americans did rock art. When in Hendersonville over Christmas, my son-in-law, Clay (Tasha’s husband) took me out to eat outrageously hot (spicy) chicken that Nashville is famous for. My stomach is still complaining. I am going to blog about it.

Indian rock art found in New Mexico.

Indian rock art found in New Mexico.

But I don’t limit my writing to travel. Sometimes I write about when I was growing up. Or I may write about where I live in Oregon. A while back some baby goats were born next door. I visited the goats and wrote a blog about them. Recently I did a series of blogs about Tasha’s grandfather who flew airplanes across the Himalayan Mountains in World War II. He had to bail out of his airplane when it ran out of gas and walk out of a jungle that was known for its tigers and headhunters.

What is the favorite place you have ever been?

This is a really hard question because different places have different things to offer. How do you compare Dubrovnik, Croatia with the Redwoods of California, or a cruise through the Mediterranean Sea with an 18-day raft trip down the Colorado River? Or, to bring it closer to home, how do you compare Nashville, Tennessee with Chattanooga. Each is unique.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tasha's mom, Peggy, stands next to a redwood tree.

Tasha’s mom, Peggy, stands next to a redwood tree.

My favorite type of travel is adventure travel. Peggy and I once took a boat ride up the Amazon River. This summer we were kayaking out among the Orca Whales off of British Columbia. I once climbed on my bicycle and did a 10,000-mile solo trip around the US that took me six-months. (I bicycled through Tennessee as part of my trip.)

If forced to choose, I would say my favorite place to be is out in the woods. I am never happier than when I put on a backpack and disappear into the wilderness. I’ve backpacked all over the US including Alaska and Hawaii. When I turned 60, I backpacked 360 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney.

Nearing the end of my journey 360 mile backpack trek, Mt. Whitney stands in the background.

Nearing the end of my  360 mile backpack trek, I pose in front of Mt. Whitney.

Tasha joined me along the way for one week of my trip.

Tasha joined me along the way for one week of my trip.

How do you become a writer?

Write! I am serious. The best thing you can do to become a writer is to write all of the time. Keep a journal; make up stories for your friends; start a blog. One girl wrote, “I am writing a book at home, and I don’t know if there is a specific age to start. Do you?” My answer is that now is the perfect time, whether you are in the fifth grade or your seventh decade.

Reading is also very important. Read authors who are known as good writers and pay attention to how they write. Also read authors in the genre you want to write. For example, if you want to write mysteries, read mysteries.

It is also important to pay attention to the details of writing, such as learning grammar, avoiding spelling errors and painting pictures with words. A couple of students wanted to know how I found adjectives to describe my travels. It was a good question. Was it a black cat that crossed my path or a cat as dark as a moonless night? Two of the best tools an author can have are an active imagination and a good thesaurus.

My thanks to the fifth graders at Indian Lake Elementary School for inspiring this blog. Good luck in your future writing efforts.

NEXT BLOG: I bite a chicken and the chicken bites back.

UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Moment— 50 Years Later: Part III

The student newspaper at UC Berkeley used headlines from its 1964/65 coverage of the Free Speech Movement on its front page issue that summarized the tumultous year.

The student newspaper at UC Berkeley used headlines from its 1964/65 coverage of the Free Speech Movement on the  front page of its May 19, 1965 issue that summarized the tumultuous year.

In preparation for writing these blogs on the Free Speech Movement, I broke out my old files from the FSM days. Included were aging, yellow copies of the Daily Cal, a Christmas carol song book and record with the carols modified to reflect what had happened on campus, hurriedly mimeographed sheets documenting the most recent administration ‘outrage,’ and my own personal picket sign I had carried following the arrests in Sproul Hall. Memories came flooding back. I even found a picture of Ludwig, the German Short Haired Pointer. Since then I have discovered numerous sources covering the movement and its impact including an excellent book, “The Free Speech Movement,” edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik. FSM even has its own website where I discovered pictures of white-haired aging men and women looking remarkably like me. Fifty years ago is now the ancient past.

I also returned to campus on one of the periodic pilgrimages I make to Berkeley. Sitting on the edge of Ludwig’s fountain under a fine mist of spray, I stared at the steps of Sproul Hall while searching my memory for the ghostly reminders of past demonstrations. Naturally I had to visit the Café Med for an obligatory cup of cappuccino. I also visited the Free Speech Café in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library. Every seat was full so I wandered around and looked at pictures. Mario, who died in 1996, was there in spirit. A picture captured him in a characteristic pose haranguing a sea of upturned faces.

In hindsight, the Free Speech Movement has become an important part of Berkeley’s history, honored even by an Administration that once characterized it as a Communist inspired plot. And what about my hindsight; have the years blurred or substantially modified my vision of what took place? I tried in writing about FSM to be faithful to what I felt at the time as an involved observer, struggling to understand what was happening and why. I feel now, as I did then, that it didn’t have to happen. The attitude of the Administration so aptly demonstrated in the 1963 student government meeting I described went beyond naïve to dangerous. If the more radical students found ground for ‘revolution,’ it was a ground fertilized and plowed by the Administration. The desire to protect the campus from outside influence became a willingness to limit the rights of students to participate in the critical issues of the day and, in so doing, take the side of the people whose vested interest were in maintaining the status quo on civil and other human rights issues.

What changed as a result of the Free Speech Movement? Certainly the concept of in locus parentis took a major hit. Students at Berkeley and other colleges across America would have much greater freedom in the future, on both a personal and political level. We had graduated from being older teenagers needing strict guidance to young adults capable and responsible for our own decisions. Human rights and equality, the anti-war campaign, and the environmental movement would all benefit from the infusion of young people dedicated to making positive changes. Berkeley students had participated in one of America’s great transformations.

The New Left, being more issue oriented and less ideological than the Old Left, considers the Free Speech Movement as an important source of origin. A similar claim might be made for the New Right. Not surprisingly, both the left and the right saw the unrest on the Berkeley Campus as an opportunity waiting to happen.

Certainly Ronald Reagan exploited the student unrest of the 60s and 70s to gain power. Following the Free Speech Movement and for the next the next decade, he would use the student protests at Berkeley and other California colleges as a launching pad for his career in politics. One of his first moves as Governor of California would be to fire Clark Kerr for being too soft on the students. There is a picture from the early 70s of Reagan turning around and flipping off student protestors at a U.C. Regent’s meeting. It was a clear message of intent. There would be little love lost between the future president and young people opposing the war in Vietnam, supporting the environmental movement, and fighting for human rights.

In the spring of 1965, after most of the tumult of the Free Speech Movement had ended, Sargent Shriver, John Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the man Kennedy asked to create the Peace Corps, came to Berkeley and addressed the student body. He told us the Peace Corps was looking for unreasonable men and women. Reasonable people accept the status quo, Shriver noted. Unreasonable people seek to change it. We were noted for being unreasonable at Berkeley. His words:

“You have demonstrated your leadership in the generation of the ‘6os,’ the generation that will not take ‘yes’ for an answer, which has shown an unwillingness to accept the pat answers of society— either in Berkeley, in Selma or in Caracas, Venezuela,” Shriver noted.

“Once in every generation,” he went on to say, “ fundamentals are challenged and the entire fabric of our life is taken apart seam by seam and reconstructed… Such a time is now again at hand and it is clear that many of you are unreasonable men (and women)— restless, questioning, challenging, taking nothing for granted.”

“We ask all of you to take what you have learned about our society and make it live… to join us in the politics of service, to demonstrate to the poor and the forgotten of villages and slums in America and the world what you have learned of Democracy and freedom and equality. The times demand no less.”

We gave Shriver a standing ovation. I joined the Peace Corps.

My Thoughts Are on Scotland…

Phot of Scottish cattle taken by Curtis Mekemson.

Scottish cattle line up and eagerly await the news on Scotland’s bid for independence.

Scots are going to the polls today to decide their future. The decision is a tough one: do they remain part of the United Kingdom, or do they break free and create their own nation-state?

I wish the good people of Scotland and their beautiful country well, regardless of the outcome. As I wish the English well. Our nation owes both countries a deep debt of gratitude for who we are. So do I.

But my heart is with the Scots. My father went to a family reunion in the late 1960s and came back with a family chart that showed a long connection with Scotland going all the way back to the 1600s and John Brown the Martyr. Brown was killed in front of his wife and children in 1685 because he refused to renounce his Presbyterian beliefs in favor of the English king.

I’ve been to Scotland twice. The first time I was wandering by myself. I rented a car in Glasgow and explored much of northern Scotland. The beauty of the country and the warmth of the Scots impressed me deeply, even though Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, refused to pose for a photograph.

Three years ago Peggy and I returned to do genealogical research in the southwestern region of the country where John Brown had died and my great-grandmother had been born. Once again, I was impressed— as was Peggy. When looking for John Brown’s grave, we stayed at the excellent Old Church B&B in Muirkirk and had the opportunity to become friends with the owners David and Lesley Martin. We have maintained that friendship since over Facebook. Lesley, BTW, is an excellent chef and runs a baking school. David is a Scottish patriot. Over the past year, he has posted on Scottish independence a thousand times, at least. (Grin)

Following are some photos from our trip to Scotland that reflect the beauty of the country. (Next blog I will return to Burning Man.)

A Scottish Castle in Edinburg.

A Scottish Castle in Edinburg.

Scottish sheep photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Furry fellow. We were happily lost on a remote road when this guy greeted us and wanted to know where we thought we were going.

Photo of Kirkcolm, Scotland by Curtis Mekemson.

The small town of Kirkcolm where my great-grandmother was born.

Photo of ancient fence in Scotland and Scottish Broom taken by Curtis Mekemson.

A view of the Scottish countryside featuring an ancient rock fence and Scottish Broom.

View of Scottish countryside taken by Curtis Mekemson.

Another view of the beautiful countryside of Scotland.

My wife Peggy and the Scottish patriot David Martin in front of the Old Church B&B in Muirkirk, Scotland.

My wife Peggy and the Scottish patriot David Martin in front of the Old Church B&B in Muirkirk, Scotland.

Mother sheep and lamb in southwestern Scotland. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Mom and baby.

Ancient Celtic Cross in Scotland. Photo taken by Curtis Mekemson.

Celtic Cross.

Cat man. I liked the way the flowers found a crack next to this gargoyle-like figure.

Cat man? I liked the way the flowers found a crack to grow in next to the gargoyle-like figure.

Scottish tombstone photo with Peggy Mekemson.

Genealogical work involves spending a lot of time in graveyards. I was amazed by the size of Scottish tombstones. Peggy provides perspective by standing next to a grave of a person who may have been a distant cousin of hers— and mine.

Photo of Scottish pony taken by Curtis Mekemson.

I’ll close with my favorite photo from Scotland. This pony came running up to see us when we visiting Kirkcolm. I suspect he was saying vote yes.

Race: It Matters, Part 14

Okay, this is a slightly strange title for a blog by me, so it deserves some background. I’ve reblogged this from Holistic Journey. The feisty Diana loves to take on social issues and is one of my favorite bloggers. Lately she has been taking on the issue of race by asking her followers from around the world to respond to a series of questions. Today is my turn. D starts by asking us to define our race. You will learn a little more about me, but more importantly, I share my views on this important issue that never seems to go away.

A Holistic Journey

1 Whitney 1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

An analysis of my DNA by Ancestry.com shows that my ancestors came from Western Europe, Ireland, Scandinavia and Spain, which makes me about as Caucasian as one can be.  I find my ethnicity interesting from a historical perspective. On a personal level, I believe who we are as individuals is much more important than our ethnicity.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Southern Oregon – northwestern United States – surrounded by national forests. I was raised in a small, rural town in Northern California. My first move was to University of California, Berkeley…

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