World Enough, and Time

Tracy says it’s like a treasure hunt. We go off into the world, sometimes with a sketchy plan, sometimes not, and we see what the world has waiting for us. And the world never disappoints.

This time, we decided to go to Fort Mason to see “Motet,” which was in its final weekend.  Tracy had gotten us tickets (reservations, really — the event was free) to go earlier, but I had been too busy staring at my feet so she didn’t go, and then everyone in my friendship circle were all “oh my God this is best thing ever,” so we went.

We didn’t have reservations this time, but there were same-day walk up tickets, so we decided to try that. We brought books in case there was a wait. It was a mirror-clear winter day, tucked into that eerie 12-hour period between rainstorms when the world seems newly invented. Shiny streets, boats on the water, Alcatraz looking like Alcatraz, the whole deal.  We can’t help but be beautiful; don’t hate us, other cities.

(I’m delighted to see that the kerfuffle over New York values has ripped the spotlight away from former whipping boy San Francisco values. As we know, “San Francisco values” is code for “gay,” whereas “New York values” is code for “Jewish”).

We got there right when it opened, noon, and were told that there was a three-hour wait. Also, that there was no waiting room. So how long could be stroll around Fort Mason, we wondered. We decided: Not long enough. So we declined the three hour wait and decided to go for the Wave Organ.

Which, when you think about it: Why is the Wave Organ a civic pariah?  There are no signs announcing its presence or providing a handy trail marker, and no useful plaques to tell you what it is. I admire the resourceful tourists who find the damn thing; they must be approaching San Francisco in the “let’s poke around and see what’s there” method, much preferred over the “let’s go where the map says” strategy.  I’m not sure even locals remember to take their visiting relatives out to that jetty.

We clambered down to the pipes and sat on the carved granite and marble, taken from the leavings of an old graveyard that had been used to shore up the breakwater.  It was a calm day, so we had to open our ears and minds and listen to the soft sound of the waves lapping and whooshing. Across the harbor were the white hills of the city.

We held hands. We don’t really like to, but we know it grosses the young people out.

So then we went home, but I forgot to tell you about the part in the middle. We strolled around Fort Mason before we went to the Wave Organ. We sat on the bench near the Cowell Theater and stared at the bay and the gulls. It was heart-breakingly familiar, all of it, and we silently rejoiced that we were there and not some other place.

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Note: Many books

After 20 minutes of that, I required caffeine. We went to the Interval, which is a surprising steampunky but mellow old-time coffee house, with fabulous machines scattered about and Brian Eno on the speakers. I began looking at the stuff on the walls. There was something intensely familiar about the whole thing, and the general vibe was beginning to seem familiar, so I stepped back to get a larger picture.

Why, it’s the Long Now foundation.

I know something about them, because I know Stewart Brand. I even went on a rollicking three-day adventure with him in Ely (pronounced E-lee), Nevada. At that time the clock of the Long Now (“It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium”) was to be located inside a mountain above the scrub land 30 miles east of town. We spent the better part of the day looking for the property.

Long Now is a glorious pie-in-the-sky outfit started by dreamers. Skilled real world dreamers, dreamers who know how to make a living and behave acceptably around other human beings, but still…people with horizons a lot further than mine. Their theories contain a lot of unproved assumptions, but they’re trying to predict the future, which is often a fool’s game.  I cut them slack because I admire their ambition.

Along one two-story wall was a revolving library, the kind of take-one, leave-one arrangement one finds occasionally in B&Bs, except in the B&B the books are all by Clive Kussler or Danielle Steel. Next to the bookshelves was a rack for larger publications, and on the rack was the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. Cover torn off, pages a little bent and creased, but the real deal.

Oh, boy, I thought. I used to love the Whole Earth Catalog. Read it cover to cover, even the parts about hydroponic gardening and rewiring your toaster so it warms your goats. I picked it up and started reading.  Always curious about who wrote what, I turned the contributors page. Oh yes, it’s him, it’s her, it’s…me.

I have no memory of writing for the Catalog. I once guest-edited the Whole Earth Review, which I tend to forget about because I didn’t do good work there.  But this other thing…I’ve written just a shitload of stuff, so it’s not uncommon to come across strange material with my name on it.

So I went to read it, preparing to cringe — most of my writing makes me cringe, which may be why I keep trying to get it right — and checking around to see if anyone’s noticed my journey into my own brain. Nope. I read. A hush fell over the coffee house. Paragraph, paragraph, paragraph…

I like it. I think I got some good sentences in there. A little imitating of the Whole Earth house style, but not bad. In places actively good. Kid can knock off a paragraph. I bet he had a good time putting that together.

(And, I discover later, it’s on-line! Judge for yourself! Bask in the wonder of me! Or, of course, the other thing.)

Other writers may be different. Other writers may come across unexpected chunks of their own work and not read them. But I doubt it.  Have you ever found a photo album and gone through looking for pictures of yourself? And why not? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

I’d have liked to stay there forever, drinking lattes and re-reading particularly fine sentences, but the sun was bright and the breeze was mild and the day was saying, “come to me, come to me.” So, reluctantly, I said goodbye to my little shot of self-regard and trundled out into the big mechanical universe.

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Photography by Tracy Johnston
Answers to panicky questions by Michelle Mizera

39 thoughts on “World Enough, and Time

  1. Even spookier is when forgotten prose takes on a human dimension. Several times I’ve been thanked for writing about a performer I’ve either forgotten I wrote about or have no memory of writing about. Hey, at what was it? $15 a review? that some munificent magazines paid, I wrote a *lot* of reviews. Then some guy comes up and says he’s alway appreciated what I did and I’m face-to-face with a) who are you? b) what did I say? c) where did I say it? Even worse is when some of those questions get answers and you realize you’ve changed your mind or never really meant it but boy did you need those fifteen bucks.

    Now the Whole Earth Catalog I remember: I wrote about the Moog synthesizer on the back of a Rolling Stone article I did on it when Beaver & Krause (or, I guess, Warner Bros) flew me out from Ohio to behold one in their studio, thereby convincing me utterly that it wasn’t the synthesizer we’d all been waiting for. But I was very happy to rewrie it for the WEC. I don’t think they paid me, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s also the interesting situation of having someone come up and they loved your piece on, say, hovercraft. Or eels. I have no memory of writing it, and the speaker may very well have confused me with Kevin Cowherd or Gail Collins or Steve Rubenstein. And I always say “thank you” and smile winsomely.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hey, Ed Ward — your liner notes to the Fantasy reissue of the first two Holy Modal Rounders albums played a small part in changing my life. Thanks!

      Hey, Jon Carroll — I may be the only person in town who was left unimpressed by Motet. I suppose if you’ve never heard a motet, it’s good to be exposed to such lovely music, and if you’ve never sung in a large group of people, it’s good to feel what that feels like. But the money and hype and technology that went into that piece could have gone into something a lot more amazing.

      I’m also unimpressed with paying fourteen bucks for a glass of wine at Interval, but the staff is very nice.


      1. The thing is, the technology isn’t particularly revolutionary today. This would have been impossible to do in the 1950s, extremely difficult to do in the 1970s, cumbersome but do-able as a remote recording in the 1980s (relatively easy to do in a recording studio). Now, all it takes is 40 wireless headset mics, base stations for same, a road case’s worth of interface hardware, and a laptop – a station wagon-load.


  2. Rita and I visited that cafe after the 40-Part Motet, and looked at that same Whole Earth Catalog. I’m in it, too! I wrote a piece about digital audio editing. Did not re-read it while standing there,tho.


  3. Wonderful! I also wrote for the Whole Earth Catalog. I reviewed the craft books. I learned that if I mentioned boats in my reviews, they would get published (because Stewart loves boats). I guess I won’t say whether that worked or not. You decide.


  4. Hi Jon, and happy new year,

    Just a note to tell you I am enjoying your occasional writings and I continue to appreciate your “take” on the world in general and our own corner of it in particular.

    How about taking up the idea of using a different, better label for those of us who have outlived our paid employment years and are now engaged in whatever the hell we want to be engaged in? “Seniors” is so unimaginative. “Retirees” is so misleading, given all the various directions we take with the open time available. The Brits refer to this time in the lives of those of us fortunate enough to experience it as THE THIRD AGE. You know, first childhood, then adulthood, and then THE THIRD AGE. Wide open with possibilities. Often less burdened than earlier in our lives with obligations and responsibilities. Why not _______________? (Fill in the blanks with whatever you have always wanted to try but lacked the time/courage/initiative.) Give it a thought…

    Thanks again,

    Marci Mills San Francisco On Jan 18, 2016 4:26 PM, “Jon Carroll Prose” wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: “Tracy says it’s like a treasure hunt. We go off > into the world, sometimes with a sketchy plan, sometimes not, and we see > what the world has waiting for us. And the world never disappoints. This > time, we decided to go to Fort Mason to see “Motet,” which wa” >


      1. “Old people ticket” is what I ask for at the movie theatre.

        When asked: “Are you retired?” I am sometimes heard to reply: “No, I’m old and unemployed.”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I did, indeed, follow the link to the scanned version of your WEC entry. The posters seem not to have proofread the result, but I think I got the gist of it. Very nice, even all these decades later. And your current work is up to snuff as well. Thanks so much.


  6. Thanks for the reminder of the Whole Earth Catalog ! I loved that publication. I don’t remember reading your wonderful piece ,but then again there’s lots I don’t remember!
    Thank you for today’s words.


  7. Thanks for making me homesick. We used to go out to the Wave Organ to enjoy the weirdness, and we did remember to take visitors there, usually as a restorative after too much time in the Exploratorium.

    I discovered the Whole Earth Catalog when I moved to the Bay Area from Kentucky in 1979, and darned if a whole lot of the people listed as being involved weren’t from…Kentucky. Turns out that’s where it was printed, so I guess the printing staff took notice and became early supporters.

    My copy is currently in storage in Alameda, and since our 2-3 year European adventure is in its 16th year, it doesn’t look like I’ll see it anytime soon. I’ll just keep reading your stuff, and remembering…


  8. I still have mine — the original and the new, improved version. The original I bought at Kepler’s when it still was on the Stanford side of El Camino.

    A splendid bit of nostalgia today, Jon. For me at least, because: (1) there are places I like to go like Paris and London and wander around with no plan at all — Venice too, of course but there you have no choice but to wander; (2) I spent every Sunday night at Fort Mason for a couple of years and was always fascinated by the things you can see and hear there; and (3) I remember when San Francisco was such an odd mix of authoritarian mayors, corrupt cops who were happy to tolerate an anything-goes attitude in the Tenderloin, and liberals/hippies who merged almost into a single bloc, as the liberals let their hair grow and the hippies decided they actually had to make a living on more than food stamps and spare change. A different set of values then.


  9. Sadly, this is the first I heard about the Motet. I’d have driven up to the City to see it had I known in time. But then, the Wave Organ is still there, thanks for reminding me!


  10. Oh yes, looking at one’s own writing. Of course! Long long ago in NYC, I picked up a letter I had written to Uncle Sid, from his coffee table. Did I read my own letter that I had written a week ago? Of course! My then mother-in-law sharply remarked, “You’re reading a letter that you wrote!” as if I had finally been unmasked as an egomaniac who would never be right for her son. Egomaniac, perhaps; never be right for her son, definitely. Re-reading stuff I wrote that I now hate, bad. Re-reading stuff that still makes me laugh, or feel anything strongly, good.

    I love this new venture of yours.


  11. So lovely to have a trip through the far reaches of your mind and the close reaches of treasures at our doorstep we never knew. Bracing, evocative and otherworldly. Thank you for the prose.


  12. Apparently San Francisco values involve cheesy dance moves…? Bwaha!
    Your excellent WEC piece is among other articles by you that I have clipped and saved in my JC file. Yes, I have a file for your stuff (including old reviews from Cream, etc.) You have an enviable way with words, ya know? Worth studying.

    When I run across one of my old columns or articles, I recall how I regarded each word as a precious pearl as I wrote it and how I patted myself in the head for being such a clever girl. And I still do that. (I’m so full of myself)


  13. Whole Earth Catalogue was somewhat of a bible for us in South Africa. The adventures of Divine Right were avidly read and became a way to identify fellow “heads” in a very repressive country. Never dreamed I would actually know several of the contributors. Your writing gives me great pleasure, Jon. Thank you.


  14. Met you last month at Darryl & Lura’s solstice party and we talked about mutual colleagues. Now I read this lovely piece about the joys of accidental discoveries. And it ends with the day saying, “Come to me, come to me.” Is that a sly reference to a Jennifer Warnes song? If so, I don’t remember my wife and I giving you permission to reveal one of our favorite albums. Keep it up.


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