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Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Friday, July 3, 2015

Still Connecting at the Cobblestone: Uncle Jam, Alive and Well

Ubiquitous Pinocchio
The new issue of Uncle Jam now is online here:

This particular issue contains my two of my stories:
 "Revisiting Lisa See," and "March Madness: An Italian Getaway."

I began to write for this arts magazine back in the late '70s, not long after finishing my MSW program at UCLA. I've written in a previous issue how I became involved with the publication and the role it's played in my life.
First Venetian gondola ride for me

Lisa See, San Pedro, May 2015

Connecting at the Cobblestone

“There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking to them and listening to them for hours at a time.” –Rebecca West

I’d never felt so totally alone. I wasn’t stranded at one of the Poles, nor on a Pacific atoll. No, I lived in a densely populated area, Los Angeles County. Still I felt like the Ancient Mariner surrounded by plenty of water, but with nary a drop to drink. People crowded my life. People everywhere, but nary an ear to listen…nor a heart to open.

My husband rarely had a minute to spare. He worked a 10-hour, four-day week. We had different days off. He devoted his spare time to 12-step work with recovering patients at the hospital where he’d found sobriety. I’d always be welcome to accompany him, but I’d wearied of hearing about sad struggles, no matter how courageous they might be.

I heard enough harrowing tales at work. After earning an MSW at UCLA, I was employed as a psychiatric social worker at Los Angeles County’s residential center for abused and neglected children who awaited placement. Because of our mutual concerns about the children’s welfare, my colleagues and I mostly exchanged practical suggestions and words of encouragement. Our clients’ issues were so critical that taking time to discuss the new Indiana Jones flick or the latest Eagles recording would have seemed frivolous.

Beyond greeting neighbors in the lobby of our condominium, I didn’t socialize with others in the building. Most were elderly retirees living on limited incomes, who mainly seemed concerned with condo rules and regulations.

Even my son, who’d always been good for a chat about Shakespeare or a meteor shower, was a college junior, working nights as a copy boy at the local daily. Where we’d once chuckled together at the televised antics of Mary Richards or Mary Hartman, we now dropped hurried notes for one another on the kitchen counter.

One afternoon when I stopped by for a bouquet at my favorite florist, I picked up a copy of Uncle Jam. A sprightly tabloid, the free paper carried articles about authors and artists, travel and the environment, all illustrated with wildly innovative drawings, many by its publisher, graphic artist Phil Yeh, who owned the Cobblestone Gallery.

I hadn’t seen this paper before, but when I’d finished reading it I wondered if the publisher would be interested in anything I could contribute. A writer since childhood and a former journalism teacher, I hadn’t been writing lately. Maybe if I started to write again, I’d feel less alone. I stopped by the Cobblestone Gallery to inquire. I might as well have been Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. That’s how much my world changed.

“What would you like to write about?” Phil asked.

“Health, psychology, social issues, travel, literature?”

“Great,” he said. “You’ll be our social welfare editor.” Phil assigned titles to anyone willing to help with the paper. One fellow who’d ducked in from an adjacent bus stop to escape a rainstorm became the letters editor.

Uncle Jam didn’t have deadlines or assigned word lengths, or even regular publication dates. Instead, it appeared at irregular intervals. “We publish whenever we have enough people in one room to do it,” Phil claimed.

“Why are you hanging out with those guys?” my son asked. “They’re closer to my age than to yours.”

Two decades difference might have seemed an insurmountable divide to my son at that time, since he hadn’t yet inched very far into his twenties. But in my forties I no longer considered age as a determinant in making friends. I needed some, and age didn’t matter one whit.

One such new friend was a musician, Chris Statler, who’d been writing movie reviews. He and I teamed to cover a Grand Prix wet T-shirt contest on the Queen Mary. We wrote about what it’s like to float in a sensory deprivation tank, and why listening to the Beatles tribute band, Rain, differed from hearing the Fab Four themselves.

I sought new adventures, to ensure I’d have something to write about before the next issue went to press, whenever that might be. I enrolled in a series of aerobic dancing classes, and ventured forth on a Phillip Marlowe tour of downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, sponsored by a San Fernando Valley mystery bookstore. I wrote about both.

I interviewed the late Aldous Huxley's spouse, Laura, about her Project Caress. I attended novelist Carolyn See's literary conferences at Loyola Marymount where I interviewed such writers as Herbert Gold, A. Scott Berg and Alice Adams. I wrote about New Year's Eve in Times Square, seeing in the '80s. I covered my first trip to England, where I encountered the ghost of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

And I started to hang out with Julie Ahlers, the paper’s ad manager. We bonded nearly instantly. I hadn’t had such a close girlfriend since high school. Julie and I would phone one another daily or meet for a glass of wine at the Paradise Cafe. We had so much to confide. We would sit and stare at one another, breathing heavily, until one or the other said, “OK, you go first!”

Julie’s confidences involved adventures selling advertisements, tangled romantic attachments, and family problems typical of a young woman seeking independence. Mine centered on my growing awareness that my marriage was on the verge of collapse.

Eventually I did divorce, but my Cobblestone friends helped me through the transition, with open ears, open arms and open hearts. We created, and we chattered. We waited until midnight at the gallery for a truck to deliver the latest issue, and then headed for Mom’s to celebrate with a glass or wine or a cup of coffee. We’d stage afterhours parties in the back of the gallery, where noted Conan the Barbarian cartoonist Alfredo Alcala would do pencil drawings of all the girls on paper plates. Greeting card artist Flavia, would drop in from time to time, and we’d volunteer suggestions for cards we’d like her to attempt.

But we also worked…and worked into the midnight hours, as well. I remember waiting with Janet Valentine for Greg Rickman’s voluminous latest installment on his series of interviews with Philip K. Dick. Rickman would rush in the door at 9:30 the night before the paper was due to go to print. Janet Valentine and I would hunch over the copy, editing until the wee small hours.

In 1987 I joined the Peace Corps and was gone for a decade. Most of the Cobblestone gang eventually drifted away from Long Beach, but still kept in intermittent touch. Each time I visit Southern California, for instance, I get together with Chris at a used book store he’s managed for decades. We talk about the old days and what we’re writing now.

Several years ago I had to go to Virginia for a conference. Julie, who lived not far from Williamsburg, drove over to meet me for dinner, and we revisited “you go first.” Julie, married and then divorced, children grown, was about to remarry. I’d remarried and then became a widow. Through all the changes we remain connected by heartstrings. Even now I carry a plastic unicorn key ring she gave me for my birthday in l987, right before I went overseas with the Peace Corps.

Not long ago, Phil resurrected Uncle Jam as a glossy full-color quarterly. I rejoined the crowd, contributing such pieces as how I prepared to attend the University of Cambridge International Summer School, my conversation with Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, and, for a celebratory 100th issue, why I love to sip cider in Somerset.

Thirty plus years down the line, we’re all reconnected on Facebook. Recently Phil posted a message on my wall to let me know that the next Uncle Jam would be devoted to the new science fiction subgenre, steampunk. Would I write about its roots in Victorian literature? Sure. So I revisited H. G. Wells, full steam ahead. Maybe Chris would be interested in collaborating again soon. Everything old is new again.

Just as that Ancient Mariner found “goodly company” with a wedding guest, I found it with the Cobblestone crowd. It’s still Wonderland. We create, chatter and…connect. We’re forever friends.

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