Sunday, January 3, 2021

Television Night in America, circa 1965


I was a small boy, not more than seven or eight years old, walking through the front room of our house when I heard a voice from the television say:

     ”Yes, but back then, there was probably a Jesus on every street corner in Jerusalem!”

     Cable broadcasting, with its hundreds of channels, had not made its way to our 10 year old suburb yet, but we were perfectly content with the 6 channels we were offered: 4, 5, and 7 which carried NBC, CBS, and ABC respectively, along with three local stations that broadcast from Oakland, San Jose, and a PBS station from San Francisco. I’m sure that my father must have been watching the PBS station when I heard the commentary debating the probability of a historical Jesus. No other station would have had any reason to broadcast such a program, and my father would have been the only one in our small family of four that would have been interested in such a topic.

     It would seem that was the night the seed of my religious doubt was sown. I do not remember my exact reaction after I heard that comment, but it made quite an impact on me and probably figured into my decision some years later to take the good sisters of our local Catholic school up on their offer and repeated insistence during our 7th grade confirmation classes that “If you don’t want to be here, you should just go home now.” I remember looking at my best friend, quickly nodding our heads in the affirmative, and leaving post haste. It was an easy decision when we made it, but it made for a long, slow walk home. As I imagined, Mom was less than pleased, Dad was apathetic, and I could hear the wrath my best friend was experiencing from across the street with all the doors and windows closed. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had not heard the commentator offer the ‘Jesus on every street corner’ argument, which, even to a small boy, seemed reasonably valid and worthy of consideration. It would make a lifelong imprint on me and play a foundational part in developing my practice for questioning any knowledge held as sacrosanct. 

     Our house was small, approximately 1,000 square feet, and when you entered and closed the front door behind you, you were in the front room; no grand entry way, no place to hang your coat or muddy shoes. Shut the door and take a seat anywhere except my father’s chair that faced the television set. The house was a collection of seven small box-like rooms connected to each other: 3 bedrooms,  one bathroom, a kitchen, a garage, and of course, the front room with its display of bowling trophies during the year and a fake Christmas tree with tinfoil branches illuminated by a rotating four-color wheel with a whining motor every December. This room would be where, like most American families, we would watch pivotal moments in our nation’s history such as news coverage of elections, assassinations, riots, moon landings, and British rock and roll invading New York City, as well as weekly serials of war (Combat), westerns (The Rifleman, Bonanza), and most importantly to me, crime fighting super heroes (Batman). This room would get a makeover in the early 1970s with fake wood paneling and modular shelves to hold my father’s prized new component stereo equipment. It was the talk of our block.

~~~

    Sometimes my grandmother and great-aunt would pick me up on a Friday night and take me for the weekend. We’d go to their house which was, it seemed to me at the time, at the top of the largest hill in all of San Francisco. I would be in the back seat of my grandmother’s huge black car, no seat belt, trying not to slide across the smooth back seat when we went around corners. I was frightened while we drove through all the dense fog up such a steep hill, but once we got to their house, I remember being very excited to be there.

     Compared to our small home in the suburbs, their house was like a grand castle: a stair case leading up to the second floor living room, kitchen, bedrooms and bath, with a fascinating walk-in closet under the stair case where my grandmother kept her collection of every shopping bag, gift box, ribbon, bow, and piece of string she ever brought home from shopping excursions, with all of these things neatly filed away in their respective sections. It's a safe guess that this closet was where my ‘everything in its place’ organizational neurosis was born.

     Upon arriving at my grandmother’s house, we’d turn on the television to watch Friday Night All-Star Wrestling which was broadcast from the Oakland station’s studios. I knew the names of all the wrestlers, heroes and villains, and I remember the three of us cheering and booing heartily. Thinking back, I wasn’t just placed in front of the television set, they watched this program with me. I remember feeling the joy of sharing one of my favorite programs with two adults who loved it as much as I did.

    On Saturday they would dress me up in my finest clothes, and we’d go to dinner at The House of Prime Rib - probably around 4:30pm - so they could show me off as their little prince of visiting royalty. Two elderly ladies of San Francisco in white gloves, head scarves, heavy coats, clunky black shoes, hand bags, with me on their arm. When we’d get home, it was my bath time (Saturday night!), and then television, but not just any program; it was the bullfights from Mexico being re-broadcast on the television station from San Jose. It was an incredible spectacle to watch, though I can’t imagine they would ever admit to my parents what we watched on Saturday nights. 

     During the bull fights, the bull handlers would watch from behind an inner-circle fence between the bull ring and the grand stands, ready to assist the matador if needed. The high point of the evening for us was when the bulls, frustrated and very angry, would jump the inner-circle fence, and all the bull handlers would jump over the fence into the ring to escape the angry bull. The bull would eventually make his way back over the fence and into the ring again, and the handlers would all jump back over the fence to safety. I remember us giving loud cheers when the bulls made their great leaps that sent men running for their lives. I imagine at that moment those Mexican bull handlers would have made very strong arguments in favor of the historical Jesus of Jerusalem, and who knows; if I had ever become a bull fighter, I might have taken the whole Jesus proposition much more seriously. 

                    ~~~

     When my grandmother and great-aunt brought me home late Sunday afternoon, they would stay for Sunday dinner. We had no formal dining room, so we would all eat at the kitchen table with its formica top and hollow aluminum tube legs. It was during these meals that I realized the table made for a fantastic sounding drum. There were many a time when my mother would bring a plate of dishes to the table with one hand and smack me on the back of the head with her free hand and yell, “Enough!”

    After dinner my older sister would play the local rock and roll radio station and try to teach my grandmother the latest dance crazes while they did the dinner dishes, and my great-aunt would go straight to the front room to have an after dinner cigarette. The high point for our Sunday night, as it was for all of America back then, was to be ready for ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’ at 6:00pm. When it was over, my grandmother and great-aunt would leave for their trip back home, and though I was never tired, it was my bedtime. I remember being told to say my prayers and go to bed, but no matter how hard I prayed to Jesus on those Sunday nights, school was always waiting for me on Monday morning. Wrong Jesus, wrong street corner, I guess.


Ken Owen   January 2021
Van Niddy Press

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Starry Starry Night

(You Look Very Familiar)



While you were making 

your grand entrance 

shining in regal ascendence 

to assume your rightful place 

as the light dimmed

and all fell silent 

with awe and respect


I once again suffered

my private embarrassment

that though you looked 

so very familiar

I could not remember

if you were a star 

or a planet


and all I could do 

was study your movement

long enough to make sure 

your elegant saunter across the night sky

was not an attempt 

at a graceful landing 

at the airport.


Please forgive me,

your name again?



Ken Owen   November 2020

Van Niddy Press

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Eleven Weeks

(The Smell of Pancakes)


The fog seemed to lift early this morning

making way for a relaxed sun 

and a cool gentle breeze

that could barely raise enough energy 

to make the tree tops move


and somewhere from our apartment building

someone was cooking pancakes 

which gave the day a sweetness 

that had felt missing 

for quite a while.


The news showed people in large crowds 

dancing, parading, cheering

in celebration, in relief

knowing that someone else

someone new

would now try to make right

what the last person

could only make worse


while the losing side

as is now to be expected

could only manufacture complaints

of corruption, malfeasance 

and suspicious results which

reminded us that our divide 

still needed great repair and

would not disappear

overnight


and even though I could share 

in the relief of seeing 

a new start on the horizon

I couldn’t keep from wondering


after all the trials this year had laid before us

how many more challenges

for ourselves and our democracy

would we have to endure

over the next eleven weeks

before we could start again.



November 7, 2020


Ken Owen    Van Niddy Press

Monday, November 2, 2020

The First Monday in November


Tomorrow night

there will be great celebrations and rejoicing

that our country’s path forward 

is once again clear


while at the same time

much consternation and wailing

that the end of our democracy 

is imminent 


and yet the next day

the sun will rise as expected

and stay low in the autumn sky

painting a warm glow on all we see


as we move forward with the day’s tasks

while trying not to be overwhelmed 

by the great divide we’ve carried since birth

that marks us still.



Ken Owen     November 2020

Van Niddy Press

Thursday, October 15, 2020

In Proper Measure: Life in The Time of Covid-19






Our world has been reduced to

bedroom, bathroom, 

kitchen, couch, and desk


and when we do brave beyond our gate

we do so with great caution

masking nervous stares.


               ***


Our constructs of time 

are being

redefined—


days have lost their borders 

forced to stand on their own carrying 

names of lost distinction and useless numbers 


when none but the first and last 

can help the calendar 

retain any purpose


and a clock 

serves only to announce 

the afternoon nap


so we task ourselves each morning

with goals to earn the day

that we may continue the


one unalterable tradition

of celebrating our daily successes and 

numbing ourselves of our failures at 5:00p.m.


               ***


Our closets 

have never been 

so tidy


as the clothes that still fit 

have been narrowed down 

to a select half-dozen items


each one christened 

with samples of 

‘project paint’


and masks in all colors and styles

for our rare personal appearances

are the only new additions


as our old wardrobe

dies quietly, day by day

item by item.


               ***


The computer as our only social tether

and bearer of all news, good and bad, real and fake,

is now unbreakable


we have become experts in 

home video conference 

lighting technique, and


“What have you been doing?”

has been replaced with

“What have you been watching?”


               

               ***


All of this feels 

like a strange way 

forward


and going back to what was

seems impossible 

from here


as we recalibrate our lives

with the lesson of valuing time 

in proper measure 


and practice our gratitude 

for all we have been given

while surrounded by so much loss.



Ken Owen    October 2020

Van Niddy Press

Monday, August 10, 2020

And So...(Joe's Hardware Store is Fucked)

And so…


of all the god dam

universal possibilities

we could be expected to endure

 

we are now eight months into 

a global pandemic

that no one saw coming


except, of course

the people whose job it is 

to see these things coming


but, of course 

when they told us about it

we thought “not me”

 

and we didn’t listen to them

and when we finally did 

we quickly realized 


that they were making shit up as they went along

because they were as completely baffled 

as we were on what to do.


And so…


we then learned that 

Safeway would deliver 

food


and BevMo 

would deliver

booze


and the local dispensary 

would delivery 

cannabis in a dizzying variety of functions and flavors


and The Feds 

would delivery 

an extra $600 every week


to help pay for all your pizza, 

booze

and cannabis


and that we were now exempt from

getting off the couch and ironing a shirt 

and putting on long pants


to go make chit-chat

as all boring social functions 

had been canceled 


and we began to think

perhaps this won’t be so bad 

after all.


And so…


the extra $600 has kept Safeway in business and

BevMo with customers and 

the cannabis dispensaries afloat, but


Joe’s Hardware Store 

          is                       

        fucked


because his customers are now more

fat, stoned, and drunk than ever before

sitting on their couches realizing

 

that everything they need 

will come right to their door 

and


that leaky toilet 

can run

forever.



Ken Owen     Van Niddy Press

August 2020

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Another 24 Hours

8:30 a.m.


Another 24 hours 

Granted,

Calendar day

Unknown.


Waiting for 

Caffeine

To pour on 

Kitchen clouds


And blue screens 

To deliver headlines of 

A rudderless nation

Adrift in chaos.


Another 24 hours

To practice 

Our being 

Good citizens within distance 


When to stay safe 

Is to do nothing but

Wash your hands

And mask your thoughts 


Lest you touch on

The wrong idea

And infect someone

With a different truth


Or inhale 

An unpopular narrative

And exhale 

The wrong opinion


And even with 

Only that

Still

We struggle.



Ken Owen     Van Niddy Press

July 2020