In February of 1975, my parents decided to resign their posts as English teachers at Modesto Junior College to travel around California and, if I remember correctly, British Columbia, Canada for the rest of the school year. We mostly stayed at friends’ and friends of friends’ homes, driving around in my mom’s 1960-something VW station wagon and then, soon, a 1969 VW van. It may have already been the latter vehicle we rode in entirely during this period.
In any case, my parents made it a point to go to my 3rd grade classroom and gather text books and consumable lesson manuals for me to work through during the months ahead. I did not consciously know it at the time, nor did my parents, but this method of on-the-road homeschooling would be problematic for me. I learn best by listening to and watching someone disseminate information in a classroom setting, taking in information primarily via my hearing, enhanced along by visual aides, such as viewing writing on a chalkboard, slideshows, movies, etc. Some interactive question and answer time can help with my learning as well. But, alas, here I was left to my own devices to take in information and express it back via only the two-dimensional pages of texts and workbooks. Through life experience, one lives and clearly learns what works and what doesn’t.
Focusing was a challenge to no end, made particularly difficult by having no routine of place and time as we moved around from day to day or week to week. My parents’ minds were preoccupied elsewhere, such as deciding where to go next and how to save money, among many other adult concerns. “Did you finish your homework today?” was a frequent refrain I heard from Mom and sometimes Dad. “No, not yet,” I often replied. “Well, get to it!” was said, usually by my mother, or some other similar response. That was largely the extent of my parents’ involvement with my schooling during this latter part of my year in 3rd grade. I was eight years old. I sat with school books in other people’s dining rooms, living rooms, outside on sidewalk curbs, doing my best to get through some reading, writing, or math lesson (though the math I barely remember working on, as it’s possible I did not have a math workbook). My imagination and ever-changing environment distracted me to no end, that and a deep sense of loneliness and uncertainty. Looking back, it is amazing that I managed to complete whatever schoolwork I did. Many of the pictures in the books and manuals were interesting to look at, which helped somewhat to sustain my attention.
Around the beginning of this itinerant period, I remember us staying on a few occasions in a semi-communal household of young women. This was still in Modesto, or somewhere close by, I believe. One of them, Christy Ellis, had been a student of either my father’s or mother’s and had taken an interest in me. The year before, when she lived alone, I had spent a lot of time with Christy in her small apartment listening to then popular music, such as Joanie Mitchell’s latest album, and doing things together in downtown Modesto. But, that is perhaps for another story. So, there we were, hanging out with Christy and her roommates, a group of women in their early to mid twenties, my parents being older by less than ten years.
I started talking to one of the roommates, bonding with her around the new Maria Muldaur album she was playing one morning. “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” crooned a sultry woman’s voice through the stereo. I was entranced. Some months before, I’d been swept up by Ms. Muldaur’s 1973 and ’74 hit song “Midnight at the Oasis,” my imagination carried along to an exotic desert locale with camels and a large, bejeweled tent filled with plush cushions and female belly dancers. I was thrilled that this beautiful woman singer had another record out, this time with a song that made me want to move from within a deep erotic place that I was far too young to understand.
While staying in this household, two publications made deep impressions on me. One was the week’s current issue of PEOPLE MAGAZINE laying prominently out on a coffee table in the living room. A closeup of Cher was on the cover. She wore multiple turquoise necklaces and her head of long black hair was topped with a cowboy hat, feathers stuck in its brim. A Native American look was clearly going on, which was especially trendy at the time. She smiled broadly at the camera, her long purple polished fingernails matching her dark lipstick and eye makeup. I was impressed and intrigued but in a muted, interrupted way. On one hand, this photo embodied the dark-haired witch imagery of powerful, mysterious women with whom I’d already started to become intrigued. On the other hand, my parents disapproved of such an expression of blatant excess and, I’m pretty certain, co-opting of Native American culture. Mom also found imagery of women in commercial media, such as that of Cher on PEOPLE’s cover, to be sexist, objectifying. Dad found that particular picture pretentious and, again (I strongly believe), co-opting of Native Americans. I remember him complaining about the picture to someone when we were away from the house. (My folks had already begun researching Native American cultures and we would later visit Indian reservations in the years to come.) So, to avoid irking Mom and Dad, I secreted away my own fascination with this photo, which was neither borne out of sexist objectification or viewing it as having anything to do with crass, superficial emulation of Native Americans. To me, in a deep intuitive way, the image simply embodied an aspect of the Great Goddess, who I would grow up to understand and revere as a core part of my spirituality. I would go on to watch THE SONNY AND CHER SHOW on TV now and then, enjoying Cher’s chameleon-like quality of colorful, showy costume changes and theatricality, though never caring much for her singing. There was something magical to her then that captured my rich imagination.
The other periodical that struck me deeply at this time– far more so than the PEOPLE issue’s cover– was the Marvel Comics series BLACK PANTHER. I was either in a local supermarket or convenience store with Christy or one of her roommates when I came across the latest issue of it on a stand. The actual initial moment of discovering the comic is vague to me, but I know I was accompanying one of the young women of the household and not either of my parents. At my request, she bought a copy for me, which I’m pretty sure neither Mom nor Dad would have done at the time. Back then, they often were reluctant to buy me such mindless “trash,” especially my mom. (She has long since relaxed around my liking of comics, having even bought me one or two as gifts.) The comic cover was that of a hyper muscular man covered from head to toe in a tight black costume that stuck to him like a second skin, a pointy little feline ear on each side of his head. Pure masculine strength stared out at me with virile determination, ready to lunge. I was hooked. Complementing Maria Muldaur’s wonderful, sizzling “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” here was the object of my interest to act out that song, except it was both the meat and the motion. However, I had no idea about such a connection between the song and this image for me at the time, I just knew I had to have the comic.
Back at the house, I proceeded to look through the colored newsprint pages and managed to recruit Christy to read the story to me, which I found both suspenseful and disturbing. I have very little recollection of the actual narrative, which was mid-story, following from previous issues. What I do remember is that the opening scene beheld the hero, Black Panther, bending over a pool of water in a wild jungle, nursing his wounds. His body suit was torn in several places, revealing bleeding, brown-skinned flesh. His vulnerability and pain upset me deeply. I wanted to go to him and help somehow in his time of need. I wanted him to be strong and healthy again, like how he was portrayed on the cover. Some villains were stalking Black Panther and it was basically a kill or be killed situation. I think I had one of Christy’s friends read the comic to me as well. I stashed the comic somewhere and eventually misplaced it during our travels and many moves.
Like Black Panther by himself in the wild and facing danger, I felt alone and uncertain during that year I discovered him and throughout most of my childhood and adolescence. My wounds weren’t physical like his in the comic book, but they were there inside me due to familial discord resulting in my parents divorcing before I turned five and me subsequently having to adjust to a new mother, Dad’s second wife. In the summer of 1973, I had lived with my father and (new) mother in a thatched roof hut in the jungle of Belize for two months, which I had very much enjoyed, the weather being warm and the lizard and amphibian fauna particularly fascinating to observe. I’m sure this positive experience further enhanced for me the mystique of Black Panther and his own jungle life. In short, I could deeply relate to Black Panther and his predicament in the comic, even though my jungle was no longer a literal one but one often made up of asphalt and concrete, unpredictability, and social isolation from peers and consistent adult attention. I had to learn to navigate this frequently rough outer and inner terrain on my own, or so it felt at the time.
The primal male strength yet vulnerability and heroism of Black Panther deeply appealed to me as a fatherly protector in my colorful, wish-fulfilling fantasy life. This contrasted with the actual life of a sensitive, sad little boy in need of more tender attention than he happened to be getting from loving, but otherwise preoccupied and insecure parents. Obviously, though, there were more implications than this. Black Panther was clearly an early fantasy crush for me, one clue of many that I was different from most latency-aged boys and their nascent sexual interests.
In 1975, my imagination did not just find ways to comfort and entertain me, for it often met those deep needs just well enough. My creative thinking led me to inwardly and outwardly listen to my very own growing life impulses, impulses of how my body wanted to move and feel and who I wanted to move and feel with in the world. Listening to Maria Muldaur awoke something in me, her singing giving voice to these budding stirrings, those nonverbal, primal urges to celebrate life, such as through dancing alone and with others, which I would eventually do now and again over the years to come, while enjoying feeling deeply erotic, both alone and with others. Black Panther offered me a sense of where and to who I would direct and share those impulses as I grew up. This would almost entirely be with men, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. And both Ms. Muldaur’s singing and the images of Black Panther gave me meaning when I so badly needed it, being an oasis or safe clearing for me in a desert or jungle of fear, loneliness and frequent boredom, affirming that the sky was the limit as far as being able to envision the great expanse of beauty and wonder in the universe. From grand tents filled with belly dancers in a faraway desert to hunky, powerful feline men in a jungle, or anything else you can possibly imagine, there is always more to life than whatever tedious, solitary-feeling difficulties happen to be at hand in the moment. Meaning and connection to something more and bigger than one’s own lonely existence is there to be found. Connecting one’s imagination to the imaginable in the world around you, it’s all good. Doing so has been a life saver for me.