There is an empty shelf.  And then they come, to fill the space.  To the left, a series of books appear, short stories, really.

Each slim volume, representing what we consider the best part of a life.  Nobility.  Love.  Sacrifice.  Achievement.  Joy.  Passion.  They may reflect all of a life lived, or perhaps just a mere fragment of who we are, but they are.

To the right comes the balance.  These books are the other side, each short story conveying the harder part of a life lived.  Tales of challenge, despair, and loss of meaning.  Of hate, of bewilderment, of denial within and without.

Slowly, the books shuffle themselves on the shelf, to rearrange an order than will determine what one will experience in the arc of a solo life within this reality.  I watch my shelf place stories of acquisitions here.  And over there, a story of love lost, where I expected it to be.

Without all these stories, these chapters that fill one’s life, one’s purpose is incomplete because those who live solely on the left or the right will never learn the full lesson of each tale.  Each book finally slots itself where it need to be, and I reach for the volume at the far right, and open the book of death.

I am in a hospital waiting area.  The windows are dark in this space, and the room is filled with people I know.  The world outside is cold and unforgiving, and there are murmurs about violence on the streets.  In many ways, this appears to be more of a shelter than a waiting room, but inside I know we are all waiting for help.

As I gaze around the area, something about the space seems odd.  Those of us who wait seem to be ever changing, the total amount of lives never diminishing but with new individuals taking their place.  The seats remain full yet I never notice when someone comes or when someone goes.  The hallway doors to the floor never seem to be in use, and glass elevators seem to bypass this floor, never stopping to take anyone away.

There is a sliding glass door across the reception area, but it is labeled for emergency use only.  There is a large group of patients sitting by that door, all dressed in white gowns.  They are tall and appear very powerful, not looking ill at all.

And then I see through the glass door a woman knocking desperately on it, trying to get in.  She is dressed in black, and she is wearing an odd-looking hat, three-pointed in black and white.  She continues to pound on the door, but she is ignored by the receptionist and the patients in white.  There are others behind her, and while many of them glance at her, they walk onwards.

She continues to find a way to our space, and finally I watch her struggle trying to force open the door.  It opens an inch, then two, and she begins to slip unto the hospital floor.  Suddenly, all the patients in white rise, and they form a barrier between her and the waiting area.

I can’t see what is happening, and the noise on the floor begins to increase, so I can’t hear what she is saying.  After a moment, the patients in white move to sit down, and there is no sign of the woman.  The door looks securely sealed once again, and there is no one on the other side.

The other side.  I can no longer sit and wait.  I move to walk down the hall, past that door, to see what other portals exits exist here.  As I walk away, I remember that I still have my cell phone, so I decide to make a call once I find an alcove somewhere, to see who I can meet when I leave this place.

But the receptionist sees me slipping away, and asks where I am going.  I turn back to face her, and she tells me that I need to go back in my chair, it’s almost time.  She also asks if I turned over my ID and all my personal possessions.  I lie and tell her I don’t have anything on me, and decide to go back to my chair and await the right time to reach out for help, for guidance.

I sit down in the chair, and realize that all those who were there before that I knew are gone.  The waiting room now only has a few people waiting, and all of them are asleep.  The receptionist focuses on her paperwork, and as I watch her I realize that I am moving.

No, not me, the chair.  The chair begins to rise, and I find myself slowly approaching the high ceiling.  I cover my head, fearing the impact, and then I find myself moving through the ceiling, lacking form, are rising into water.  I begin to panic because I don’t know how to swim.  But I continue to rise and see a bright light above me.  I struggle towards the light, wondering if my phone will survive the immersion, so that I can still call someone when I reach the surface.

And then I find myself standing in a large hallway, soaking wet, surrounded by people bustling all around me.  And then my Guide arrives.  He tells me that I won’t need my phone anymore, that there are towels and dry clothes for me, and he is very happy to see me.  He is dressed like a character out of the Renaissance, with a peaked hat and a pointed beard, and he waits while I get changed.

Then he tells me that there are others who want to see me, and there are also those that I’ll want to see.  We walk into the marketplace, and there they are…


Shamanism and Me

All my life I’ve been intrigued by Shamanism.  The idea of reaching an altered state of consciousness to commune with a reality not of this world is something, however, that I only pursued intellectually.  My home library has plenty of works by Lerner, Halifax, Donner, Castaneda, and others that I’ve read and studied, but never put into practice.  Until today.

Ruth Schwartz is a shamanic teacher and writer who for many years periodically offers workshop and intensives.  I first met her in the early 90’s in the SF cultural milieu, before I knew of her transcendental work.  I’ve subscribed to her newsletters for years, and she announced that she was offering a three-hour workshop to introduce folks to the practice.  I couldn’t resist that call.

I drove to Oakland on this very rainy day and easily made my way to her home in the hills.  A sign on the front gate led me to a cottage in the adjoining yard, and 25 years later I meet Ruth again at the cottage door.  She invited me in, I said hello to the others who arrived before me, and when the workshop began I was one of 8 in a small circle around a small sage altar.

Looking around the circle I was struck by the composition of the group.  The 5 women were of diverse ages, and they were all of white descent.   All the men were people of color: one was Chinese, another was Native American, and then there was me.  Ruth used sage to cleanse each one of us, and then we were ready to begin.

The three hours were focused on exploring a practice, acknowledge the directions, and travel to meet a spirit guide.  Ruth provided a good overview of the practice of Shamanism, and I can’t do her description justice within this accounting.  She provided wonderful and detailed context during the three hours before and after the direction acknowledgment and spirit guide journey.  The one thing she said that will always stay with me was the observation that we, as we are, lie in the center of a universal quilt that is constantly being woven.

We moved on to examine and honor the six directions.  These included the compass points, as well as below and above.  Ruth would have us face each direction while she described attributes to each.  I am familiar with the ritual and the context, but she provided a level of richness, accompanied by robust drumming, that made it seem like we were on the edge of a realization.  And realization came, in its own subtle way.

My eyes were closed and my goal was to note anything different as I faced each direction.  Facing North did nothing for me – no physical or intellectual breakthrough.  The same non-experience greeted me as I faced and contemplated the East.  Rotating to the South also brought the same outcome, that of only hearing the drum and realizing nothing else.

Ah, but the West was different.  As Ruth described the west with attributes of fall, of aging, of closure, a word flashed in my mind.  My eyes were closed, but I clearly saw in big white letters the word “writing”.  It was jarring, and it took me to a realization that I have faced writer’s block for far too long and need to close that gap in my life to move forward.

Then I crouched down to face the below.  In this direction, hearing the description, I felt physically and completely unmoored and ungrounded from this reality I engage in.  While my feet were firmly on the ground the essence of who I am was and is not.  It reminded me of my long-held belief that this is the last of my lives tethered to this plane of reality and that once released I am finally free of future earthly obligations.

Finally, I faced the above with my eyes closed.  There was a strange prickly feeling in my right hand that I’d never felt before.  The sensation brought back memories of how, as a child, I wanted my hands to be that of an astronaut and explore all that the universe could offer those who could escape this planet and be one with the stars.

Using a talking stick, we talked about what we experienced from the directions.  Some had vibrant connections to what a particular direction offered, while others elected not to share what they did or did not feel.  I fully acknowledge that while what I experienced in facing the directions was not earth-shattering, what I experienced rang true to me, and reminds me of areas within me that still need exploration.

The second practical part of the workshop focused on each of us making a personal journey to a place where spirit guides reside, and establishing a connection or relationship with such an entity.  We were to have 15 minutes while accompanied by tailored, intensive drumming to facilitate an altered state of consciousness to make the journey.

The journey was a difficult one as we were asked to visualize a place that would take us to either a higher or lower realm.  I first visualized myself walking up the many steps of a huge tower to a chamber at the crest where I would meet someone or something.  But after entering the chamber it was like a cave labyrinth, winding and serpentine, which seemed more of a lower realm than the chamber I reached in the higher realm.

And then I saw him.  He turned to face my direction, and I saw a short man with dark hair and a moustache, dressed in a trim brown suit.  He was wearing an English bowler hat and brown shoes, and he looked to be in his early 30’s.  He looked very surprised to see me, and as I approached him to introduce myself, he looked to his right and left.

Suddenly, another word flashed in my brain, much like what happened when I was facing the West.  As before, big white letters made out the word “otter”.  The word then disappeared, and so did he.  I knew it was time to make my way back to this reality, and arrived just as the drumming concluded.

We talked about what we saw.  Some participants had more traditional or expected encounters with the guides they found.  One had a spirit dragon enter him and it said it would stay with him forever.  Another met a series of creatures and eventually found her spirit guide to be a lion.  One met several human-type beings who conducted a healing service over and with her.

And I?  I believe that I made the journey to an alternate reality.  However, while I came across an entity we both knew that he was not a spirit guide but merely a denizen who I surprised.  And while he tried to hide his “true” identity from me, my mind’s eye recognized the otter behind the curtain.

It was quite the introduction to the world of shamanism.  Now that I’ve finally entered this world, I hope there is no turning back.  And while the first journey encompassed both above and below, I know without a doubt that I must continue to move towards the West.

Charles Barragan.  4/9/16



Yesterday.  My mind wanders as I sit in a hotel conference room, listening to the speaker talk about the creation of a no-smoking policy.  I am not fooled by the bank of curtains on the right wall – I know there are no windows behind it, and there is little comfort in this effort to deceive those sitting in close quarters.


Ignoring the reception I make my way home.  I exit BART and meander down the street.  I drop into Forrest Books and peruse the bookcases, looking for what resonates for me.  The clerk is on the phone taking about where a car is parked and the note left on the dash.  A group of kids of mixed ages enter the store, head towards the back, and the older ones read aloud, quite dramatically, to the younger ones.  At first it is distracting, but then I begin to appreciate the vocal storytelling, a lost art in today’s e-book world.


Overheard is the news that Adobe Books is closing, so I make my way a block over, ignoring the Spartacist League adherents with their tracts on the corner.  I see John the street poet, sitting outside the store with a fist full of today’s poem.  He silently hands me a folded sheet of paper, and I nod my head in acknowledgement of the gift.  Entering the store I stroll through each aisle, wishing I had my booklist with me.  The bohemian loungers up front by the cash register drone on about how useless capitalism is and how unprepared people are for the new world coming.  I exchange cash for the book I want in a useful act of capitalism and head out.


I approach John, now surrounded by the pigeons who circle close to him since he feeds them daily.  I hand him a five dollar bill, tell him I hope he is doing well, and I’d love another poem.  He is surprised by the bill and says that he’ll give me a lot more since my donation is so large. He hands me 8 more missives, with titles ranging from “Grim Reaper” and “Pet Fun” to “The Secret of God Yoga” and “Messiah Lays Free Place, Big Money on World”.


Moving on to Puerto Alegre I wait for the other half and talk to Willie.  I miss the old days when he bartended at the restaurant his family owns, but he ends up mixing my requested Mai-Tai.  Well, mostly a Mai-Tai, there was a substitution and the drink looks like a cosmopolitan and tastes good.  Not like a Mai-Tai, but good.  He does a second version for me, and it looks just as different from a Mai-Tai but tastes more tropical.  My bad, the restaurant does specialize in margaritas and I’m asking for trouble seeking a drink from a different tropical place in the world.  But having Willie sit down with us and discussing all manner of topics is a welcome respite.


We walk the four blocks home, and in my dreams that night I walk a different path, that of a near-homeless man residing in the Tenderloin.  Other dreams intersect, with long-lost lovers with pink key-shaped flash drives in hand, and shifting gears to seeing me in a mirror with a head of hair that rises 18 inches above my scalp.
I wonder what it all means.




Daryl Gates – Still Resting in Hell

5 years ago I opened the newspaper, read the obituary section, and smiled.  With the passage of Daryl Gates at the age of 83, I felt that the world was just a little better off with his passing.

Daryl was a firebrand cop who, as part of his four decade career with the LAPD, served as its Chief from 1978 to 1992.  He took over the office from Chief Ed Davis, who once famously said that “I recommend we have a portable gallows, and after we have the death penalty back in, we conduct a rapid trial for a hijacker out there, and hang him with due process out there at the airport.”

Speaking with foot in mouth and brain long absent is apparently a tradition passed along from at least one LAPD Chief to the next.  Daryl excelled at communicating his approach to law enforcement, the message being that he was always right and the LAPD knew what was best for the citizens of Los Angeles.

Much like his predecessor, Daryl was not a fan of due process and the belief that a person is innocent until proven guilty.  In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chief Gates famously said that infrequent or casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot” because “we’re in a war” and even casual drug use is “treason.”

Treason is defined as an attempt to overthrow a government or impair the well-being of a state to which one owes allegiance.  Someone who aids in a terrorist attack can be charged with treason.  Christian militants plotting to kill U.S. law enforcement officers in hopes of inciting an antigovernment coup can be charged with treason. Apparently if Daryl Gates came across me smoking marijuana, I’m in the same company with Al-Queda, the American Hutaree militia, and ISIS and should be shot on sight.

The LAPD was known back in the day for using aggressive tactics against people suspected of crimes.  When challenged for its expansive use of choke holds on suspects, Daryl observed that “blacks might be more likely to die from chokeholds because their arteries do not open as fast as they do on ‘normal’ people.”  The medical degree that Daryl held was apparently well hidden, but his observations on the biology of a person of color, not so much.

Daryl also believed that he was the state’s equivalent of J. Edgar Hoover, and took an equally expansive view of surveillance not limited to suspects under his jurisdiction.  As reported by David Cay Johnston, not only did Gates establish a local secret intelligence unit, he set up a worldwide political spying organizational that kept tabs on anyone he felt like monitoring.  He confronted Johnston at one point and asked if Johnston “liked women with red hair and large bosoms.”  He went on to recount a blind date that Johnston had been on a few nights before, down to the details of what was ordered at the restaurant.  Gates even critiqued the champagne that Johnston shared with the woman.

This is reflective of the character of this public servant who saw no legal, ethical, or professional barriers to his actions within a system of law that, as Chief of Police, Gates was to administer without bias.

“To protect and to serve” is the motto of the LAPD.  Throughout his professional career the actions of Daryl Gates were purely self-serving and his public pronouncements generated embarrassment and public misgivings about the spirit, dedication, and professionalism of the rest of the Los Angeles Police Department officers.

Given his views and actions about and towards members of the Latino, Black, Jewish, and queer communities, I’m certain that I was not alone in not mourning his death.

Continue to rest in Hell, Daryl, you reaped what you sowed.


4 Lives

4 Lives

Nasdijj. Taking public transit, I am engrossed in “the blood runs like a river through my dreams”, a memoir by the author nasdijj. An amazing work, a series of 20 essays written by the son of a Navajo. He describes his son afflicted with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo. Life on the reservation with Stonefaces, Hopi’s, and shattered hopes. Locating young Navajo boys hustling on Polk Street. The stuff of dreams and nightmares. And so much more in words that generate so many emotions inside me. Damn.

Linda. I finally arrive at Linda’s shop, where she proceeds to cut about 10 weeks of hair. One of my oldest friends, she cut my hair when I was in college and there are few women who can claim to have laid their hands on me over the course of 3 decades. We talk of movies, travel, tackling aging, and everything under the heavens. Linda is one of the very few I am totally honest with. Well, not totally honest. The most you’ll get from me is 94%. You don’t want to hear the remaining 6%. Trust me on that.

Margaret. I drop by Intersection of the Arts to see the exhibit “The Bodies Are Back” by Margaret Harrison. Amazing watercolors and sketches, from post-modern superheroes to gender-bending imagery. A good queer contingent of folks in attendance milling about, along with the obligatory lines for nibbles and wine. I observe the art and the crowd, and note that I’m in the minority both ethnically and in age, for starters. No surprises there.

Willie. I head to Puerto Alegre for dinner and Willie is there. One of the owners, I miss his cocktail magic as he is now focused more on management tasks than actual margarita making. But it’s my lucky night. We talk while he pours me my beloved Hornitos (rocks, no salt) in a special glass, one of the few fancy ones decorating the mirrored bar since they break so easily. The folks with their tumblers on both sides of the bar look my way and wonder what I ordered. You won’t find 20 years of friendship on the menu.

4 lives impacting mine in diverse ways. This, THIS is why I live in San Francisco.


In Memory of Another Day of Infamy

Imagine being forced from your home. Imagine being compelled to sell your home, business, and personal property at a great loss. Imagine being relocated behind barbed wire. The reality is that such actions took place in a country that claims to always uphold democratic ideals on behalf of its citizens. And yet, under the hardship of imprisonment, is it possible not only for a person to survive but to teach Americans something about ourselves?

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. On February 19 of the following year, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The Order authorized the detention of “any and all” person residing in certain parts of the United States. While several thousand Americans of Italian and German descent were imprisoned under the Executive Order, over 110,000 American of Japanese-descent and their immigrant parents were classified as “enemy aliens”. Based on their ethnic heritage, these citizens were forced to relocate to one of ten U.S. concentration camps. One of those camps was Manzanar.

The “Manzanar War Relocation Center”, in the course of three years, held over 11,070 people prisoner. The housing was tar paper barracks, the latrines were communal, and the weather was harsh. Yet in the midst of all this hardship, and under the watch of 8 gun towers, a community of individuals became more than self-sufficient. The prisoners pursued sports, gardening, music, and the arts.

Across all 10 camps many who were imprisoned looked beyond their captivity. Some wrote poetry. Others wrote in their journals. Several created works of art, from beautiful canvases to delicate jewelry composed from discarded scraps lying around the camps. Some volunteered for military service, while others volunteered to weave camouflage nets to support the war effort.

These actions served to maintain their uniqueness as individuals and to counter the racism and ignorance that fueled their internment. This is what three of the prisoners of Manzanar experienced before, during, and after their imprisonment.

William Minoru Hohri was born in San Francisco in 1927, and incarcerated in Manzanar at the age of 15. In 1979 he co-founded the National Council on Japanese American Redress (NCJAR). Decades after his imprisonment, he filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Government for the unjust imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII.

Houri lost that battle but, in many respects, won the war. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 ultimately came to pass, allowing some measure of financial compensation to former prisoners and their immediate relatives. The legislation also provided for an education fund to raise public awareness about what happened at Manzanar.

Houri focused his energy of the legal system. Another internee, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, used the world of books and ideas to share her tale. Houston was imprisoned at the age of 7 and she is arguably the best known internee from Manzanar due to her critically acclaimed autobiography, “Farewell to Manzanar”, published in 1973. It is a vivid account of the Watsuki family and their experiences behind the barbed wire. It took her many years to reconcile her experiences internally before she could share them outside her community.

I had the honor of meeting her and listening to Houston’s first-hand accounts of an uprooted childhood and the impact on her life and her writing.

The third internee, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, went further and sought to save the site so that future generations would glean lessons from it. Embrey was imprisoned as an adult, and served as the editor of the Manzanar Free Press, the camp newspaper.

A school teacher and labor activist after she was released, Embrey was the primary force behind establishing Manzanar as a National Historic Site. She took her experiences from the internment to create this monument to preserve the site and serve as a warning against such an event happening again in the United States

Houri, Houston, and Embrey. Three citizens made prisoners because of the color of their skin and the origins of their ancestry. Three stories out of the thousands who accepted their fate at the camps. And yet there are still many stories to be shared, in other ways.

Since 1969, there is an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar where survivors, descendants, and those who are concerned about civil rights abuses, come together. There are speakers, dancers, cultural performances, and interfaith ceremonies. All in attendance remember, regardless of how the memory was gathered.

But those who were imprisoned in Manzanar know too well the power of a Chief Executive acting to deny fundamental rights enshrined not only in the U.S. Constitution but also by progressive, democratic nations. The right to habeas corpus. The right to legal representation. The right to be free to speak, work, and move freely among other citizens.

They have inspired many, and will continue to do so. Their stories and memories over time will continue to educate and move those of us who are curious long after the gun towers are gone.



Boxes of Memories

7 years ago today my parents passed along to me several boxes of materials that they had gathered from my old bedroom.  It was another 2 years ago that I opened the first box, which focused mostly on materials from high school.  When I finally got around to opening the second box, and this is what I found:

Homemade flash cards about the works of John Millington Synge.  My note on “The Aran Islands” includes “[62] Fury of her speech, Synge noticed the cursing of a woman’s child reflected the “strangely reticent temperament of the islanders and the moods of the women who live only for their children.”

A packet of letters sent from my college buds to my parent’s home from 1976 to 1978.  One of these is from Paul Chan, denizen of Hawaii, who fills me in on USF winning the “Rainbow Classic” and 3 of our USF NCAA Don’s making it to the All Tournament Team – Bill Cartwright (our floor mate in the dormitory), James Hardy, and Marlon Redmond.

A pair of my baby shoes, little blue leather boots.  Random postcards.  My 1972 St. Ferdinand’s class photo.  An envelope from my Uncle, saved because of all the old airmail stamps used.  A huge stack of postcards, with the rubber bands still holding tight all these years later.  A stack of congratulatory cards from those wishing me well on my 1976 high school graduation and my decision to leave the San Fernando Valley for fresh air, new experiences, and a USF education.

A packet of letters from Bob Menchaca, the one bud from high school who is still actively part of my life now.  While we both chose Jesuit universities, I headed north to USF he stayed south to attend Loyola Marymount University.  Bob always loved high school and hated college.  I had the exact same opposite experience.

A packet of letters from female friends and/or women I dated back in the day.  I do find it surprising that my parents segregated these letters into a separate folder.  Brenda.  Peggy.  Yvonne.  Karen.  Hmmm, I think I’ll send a quick howdy to a similar Karen on Facebook who may be her.  Interesting what memories are triggered when faced with chronicles from the past.

Report cards from grade school, and high school “SCAT – STEP” scores.  I now have proof that at the end of my 1st year I was a straight “B” student”, according to my teacher Virginia Dalton.  Truth be told, all I remember from my 1st Grade was my 1st kiss, from Yvonne.  Many years later, by the time I reached high school, according to the SCAT –STEP tests I was in the top 90+% nationally in most subjects, except for “basic concepts of mathematics” and “mathematical computation”.  True, I never liked numbers, words are what I embrace.

A thick set of letters and photos from my pen pal Barbara Bloming in West Germany via the “International Friendship League, Inc.”  I haven’t thought of her in decades.  At some point I will have to reread the letters and see if she is doing well, some 40-years hence.

The last item I pulled out of the box is a homemade Christmas card I gave my parents.  Inside scrawled in crayon is “Merry Xmas Mommy And” and it is signed with my name printed out, each letter a different crayola color.

There is so much to savor in what I looked at today for the first time in decades, with still more material in the box.  These are fragments of my life, coming together to create a semblance and framework of what constitutes me today.