Postcards & Notecards

August 14th, 2017

cardquestM

Card Quest notecard and postcard by Todd

I love the postal service. I love getting letters and postcards and packages. I’m sixty-seven; thus for much of my life there were no such things as personal computers and email and smartphones. The mail, the actual hold-in-your-hands letters and cards, was the great connector over long distances, especially among artists and writers and less conventional folks.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I got two or three letters and postcards every day, and some days I might get seven or eight. Nowadays I get a postcard or letter, if I’m lucky, once a week. And though I gladly partake of email and depend on my email connections for an important part of my daily happiness, I still think of letters and cards I find in my post office box as holy relics.

In response to what I consider the new Dark Ages that have descended upon us, I have revived my habit of writing and sending out letters and cards each week. I don’t expect these missives to elicit replies via the post office or otherwise. I write these notes and letters because I find the process satisfying, and because I know such communications bring pleasure to the recipients.

To facilitate my pleasure and the pleasure of people I write to, I like to create postcards and notecards that are the kinds of notecards and postcards I wish to find in stationery stores or bookshops, but never find them—because they don’t exist unless I create them. In the last year, since reviving my habit of sending handwritten messages on one-of-a-kind postcards, and handwritten letters in one-of-a-kind notecards, several correspondents have asked if they could purchase copies of my cards. One thing led to another and I decided to launch a line of notecards and postcards and offer them for sale from my web site. If you’d like to see the new line, go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on CARDS in the menu. Then on the CARDS page click on Postcards or Notecards. Voila.

Many of my postcards and notecards are ideas related to people communicating with words, and these ideas are written out in colorful handmade lettering. The process of creating the wording for each idea is identical to the process of writing a poem; many iterations resulting in a final construction of words. Here are a few examples.

My SOMETHING postcard reads: Something reminded me of you today and I wanted to let you know I was thinking of you. Then I saw this postcard and thought, “Yes! Exactly!”

My CONNECT postcard and notecard reads: One day a person receives a card that seems to be about a person receiving a card. But that is just the beginning of a story about someone who wants to connect with you.

My WILD ADVENTURE notecard reads: This card went on a wild adventure through time and space to reach you (via the Postal Service). This card is both a message and a carrier of a message. The card’s message is: Look Within. The message within is…

I also have a card called SHALL WE DANCE? An extremely fanciful and colorful parrot is flirting with a flower, with the words Shall We Dance? writ large in the air above them.

So far, the buying public has not beat a path to my web site door, but that’s okay. These are the Dark Ages. Much in our culture and society is obscured, and most things of value are invisible to the general public. Keepers of the flame, you and I, do what we do without regard for fortune and notoriety. We keep the flame burning because engendering originality and excellence is our job.

Taking a break from writing this morning, I walked to the post office and found in my box a package from the visionary poet D.R. Wagner. I haven’t heard from D.R. in several years and I was eager to see what was in the package. But rather than open the package in the post office, I used my curiosity about what D.R. sent me to help propel my body, the old mule as Kazantzakis liked to call the corpus, up the steep hill to home.

In the package were two new volumes of D.R.’s poems, The Generation of Forms and Love Poems, published by small poetry presses—NightBallet Press in Elyria, Ohio, and Cold River Press in Grass Valley, California—keepers of the flame in these new Dark Ages. Reading some of D.R.’s new poems made me hungry to read my favorite D.R. Wagner poem, The Milky Way, which D.R. allowed me to use to conclude my novel of stories Under the Table Books. Here is that poem.

The Milky Way

We live in a spiral arm of a spinning

Field of stars. We whirl around, a carnival

Ride, full of birds, loves, emotions, endless

Varieties of things unfolding in seasons;

Full of bells and an endless weaving of hearts.

These connections ride upon our consciousness,

Demanding constant performance from us.

Each of us, most royal and majestic as night,

Vile, vindictive and spoiled even before we speak;

Sorrow and joy, the way we sound our name.

We endure all of this, our lips kissing each moment,

Crushed, elated, misunderstood, praised for things

We do as part of ourselves, damned for these same things.

There is no road, there is no plan. Only love

Survives. Everything is forgiven, finally.

Understanding limps behind the parade,

Always late, always burdened with qualifications,

Always abandoning every opinion and argument,

Leaving each of us our place only, describing

This place, the swirling arms, the myriad ways

We twist ourselves to achieve

This weaving, this carnival of love.

Twins

August 7th, 2017

fawns 2017

Twins photo by Todd

We were visited this morning by the twin fawns who share these woods with us, and today our coming to the window to look at them did not scare them away, but precipitated a pleasant staring game that went on long enough for me to get my camera and take a picture. The deer hereabouts are quite hungry now in early August and are eating things they don’t bother to eat when their preferred foods are more abundant. When we see deer going up on their hind legs to eat camellia leaves, we know pickings are slim for the local ungulates.

We just saw the excellent and upsetting movie Incendies by Denis Villeneuve based on the play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad. If you are squeamish about violence as I am, this is not a movie for you. Had I known what the movie was about beyond what I saw in the trailer, I would not have watched the film. Yet I think Incendies is an important work of art and a brilliant illumination of the religious and cultural madness gripping the Middle East and much of the world today. The movie involves twins, a man and a woman, attempting to unravel the secrets of their deceased mother’s past.

Some years ago, I read several articles about twins. One of the articles suggested that many more twins are conceived than ever come to full term; and most left-handed people are the surviving twin of identical twins, one of whom did not survive the first weeks in utero. For some reason, that tidbit, which may or may not be true, has stayed with me.

One of my favorite stories regarding twins is about an equatorial African society visited by Portuguese explorers in the 1400s. The explorers left behind a missionary who introduced the Africans to myths about Jesus. Many generations then came and went before Europeans made contact with that particular African society again. When Europeans did visit again, they discovered these people were extremely fond of the story of Jesus being born in a manger. In their places of worship the people had constructed elaborate manger scenes. But instead of just one white baby Jesus in the manger, there were twin black babies, for in the original creation myths of these people, the two most important gods were twins—one male, one female.

This afternoon we took a walk along the headlands and came upon two ravens standing close together and facing each other with the tips of their beaks touching. When we stopped to look at them, they turned away from each other to look at us for a moment, and then they resumed their beak touching. They stood completely still as they connected with each other in this way. Waves crashed in the near distance, and I imagined this touching of beaks was not so much a courtship ritual as a reunion.

I love it when animals and birds and lizards look at me. Yesterday, just as I was about to water some succulents growing in a rock garden on the west side of our house, an alligator lizard came out from a crevasse between two large rocks and looked up at me. I squatted down and looked at the lizard. We were about seven-feet apart. She was ten inches long, including her tail, and I wondered what she was seeing as she looked in my direction. Were my form and features clear and distinct to her, or was I a big blurry blob?

I said to her, “Well, I’m going to water the rock garden now. I will endeavor not to flood your crevasse.”

The lizard cocked her head, perhaps to get a different view of me, and then disappeared into the crevasse.

I once had a cat with whom I had conversations. I would say something, pause, and my cat would meow a time or two. I would say something more, pause again, and she would meow somewhat differently than the previous time. Our most animated conversations took place in the minutes right before her suppertime. Her replies to my musings grew more and more emphatic as the official serving time was upon us.

Feed a cat every day at exactly five o’clock for a few weeks, and thereafter you can set your clock by that cat letting you know it’s five o’clock.

I sent a picture of the two fawns to my friend Max in New Hampshire. He wrote back, “I wonder what they see when they see you. Do they have thoughts like, “His hair is perfect”?

Possibly. My hair has been looking particularly good lately, good in the sense of asymmetrically unruly—a frozen filigreed fountain of grays and whites and a few vestigial browns going every which way. But seriously, I do wonder why the fawns were so unafraid of me today. Perhaps their uncharacteristic boldness has something to do with our neighbor who feeds the deer, combined with the apparent shortage of deer food available hereabouts. Perhaps the twins thought we might be more of those two-legged animals that give them food sometimes.

For my sixth birthday, I was given a puppy from a litter of mutts. That pup became my best non-human friend for the next twelve years. I named her Cozy. She was a wonderful not-very-obedient dog, extremely affectionate, and we would frequently gaze at each other for minutes on end. I believed she could hear my thoughts, and she confirmed my belief with her habit of seeking me out when I was feeling sad and commiserating with me by sitting right beside me and looking at my face until I looked at her.

Hundreds of times over the course of our twelve years together, Cozy pulled me out of my gloom with her devotion and kindness, and by being so darn happy to be alive.

High Summer

July 31st, 2017

High Summer

High Summer photo by Todd

Woke in the middle of the night. I’ve been sleeping well lately, so I wondered why I was awake. Wide awake. And then I remembered I broke my rule about not reading any news in the evening, and I also watched a video blurb about Trump—my first Trump visitation in several weeks. I might as well have had two cups of coffee and chocolate truffles before going to bed.

I haven’t liked a President of the United States since Jimmy Carter. I am aware that Jimmy presided over lots of horrible things done by our government, but I was thrilled by his willingness to talk about the planetary environmental crisis way back in the 1970s, about how we needed to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. And then he pushed through government programs that helped accelerate the solar power revolution. He walked his talk a little.

Our presidents since Jimmy have been consistently dishonest servants of the supranational monsters who began their complete takeover of our government with the election of Ronald Reagan. All our presidents after Jimmy facilitated the transfer of wealth from those with not much to those who already have everything. They all expanded the military and continued the policy of endless war. They all knowingly presided over the killing of thousands of civilians in essentially defenseless countries. They all did nothing to address global warming, over-population, and the environmental crises threatening life on earth. They all allowed our healthcare system to deteriorate and be taken over by the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. They all played golf.

Thus when I watch coverage of Trump, I do not think, as many of my peers do, that Obama or any of our previous presidents were better than Trump. They may have been less obviously narcissistic and dishonest, but they were all hyper-dishonest narcissistic sociopaths chosen for their loyalty to the ruling elite. And whether Trump wasn’t supposed to beat Hillary or not, he hasn’t done much to distinguish himself from his predecessors except by making more noise and saying more ridiculous things.

I notice the stock market keeps going up and up and up under Trump. This tells us that the big banks and hedge fund gangsters who stole more than two trillion dollars of our money with the blessings of Obama, are happy with Trump. Obama did nothing to rein in the Ponzi schemers, but rather helped them make the world’s economic and financial situation nightmarishly worse. Trump is merely following suit.

I also notice the media and way too many members of the shameful Democratic Party are still trying to prove Trump colluded with the Russians to win the election that put him in the White House. I wonder if these dunces will keep trying to prove the Russians determined the outcome of the election until the next presidential election. Probably. As we learned from Bill Clinton and his sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the folks in power love to distract the masses with childish nonsense while they carry on their nefarious business of robbing us blind and destroying the world while they’re at it.

No wonder I woke up in the middle of the night.

In better news, a friend wrote saying it was high summer. What a fine expression. The Friday farmers market in Mendocino is in high summer mode. We have several vendors selling excellent organic high summer vegetables and fruit—the high summer days lovely and promising. The blackberry bushes of high summer hereabouts are heavily laden with berries and I have been picking berries every day for our smoothies and snacks and cookie batter.

The Mendocino Music festival has come and gone, the big tent no longer starring on the headlands, and the town is somewhat quieter in the aftermath of the annual musical happening. The two highest points of the festival for me were Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. Zowee!

We know several people who are traveling to Oregon for the solar eclipse. I will not be going to view the blotting of the sun’s light by the intervening moon, but plan to sit somewhere outside while the eclipse is happening. I want to participate without travelling far to do so. Maybe I’ll walk to the beach for the eclipse where I hope to feel the moon coming between the earth and the sun, since I won’t be able to see it.

Solar eclipses always remind me of a scene near the beginning of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court when the novel’s hero uses his foreknowledge of an impending solar eclipse to save his life and become a powerful player in King Arthur’s court for the rest of the novel—not my favorite book by Mark Twain, but a fun high summer read.

My favorite novel by Mark Twain is The Prince and the Pauper—a great book to read aloud with friends. I also love big swaths of his Joan of Arc, especially his recounting of her trial at the hands of the dastardly Catholic priests, and I love the first three-fourths of Huckleberry Finn—the ending feels false to me. And I’m a big fan of Twain’s short stories and Roughing It.

In a dream I had about a month ago I was shown the title of a novel. When I woke from the dream, I wrote the title down, waited a moment, and the novel began to pour out onto the page. I have now written five chapters of this dream novel and I think the story will continue to emerge, but I don’t know for certain.

And that’s the high summer news. Sleep well.

Medicine Birds

July 24th, 2017

hawk

Hawk pen and ink by Todd

Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, someone gave me Medicine Cards, a book and accompanying deck of cards written by Jamie Sams and David Carson, and illustrated by Angela C. Werneke. Each card features a picture of an animal or bird or insect or reptile or amphibian. For purposes of divination, the user randomly chooses cards from the deck and reads the text in the book corresponding to those cards.

Each animal represents some aspect of power in the natural world. For instance, ant medicine involves patience and trust and hard work, badger medicine is the wise use of aggression, and beaver medicine helps us pursue our goals through cooperation and planning and persistence. The text of Medicine Cards reflects the teachings of various indigenous peoples of North America regarding the physical, energetic, and spiritual attributes of forty-four non-human beings.

When I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino twelve years ago, I found myself in a world populated by most of the beings represented in the Medicine Cards, so I no longer needed to draw cards from the deck to ignite my wondering about what Nature wanted to tell me. And last week, in the course of a single day, I had three extraordinary meetings with non-human beings that gave me much food for thought.

In the morning of that remarkable day, I walked from our house to the commercial district of Mendocino—about a mile—and upon completion of my errands decided on a circuitous route home that took me through the graveyard at the south end of town. And there amidst the gravestones I came upon a magnificent Great Blue Heron, stalking gophers—the living seeking sustenance among the dead.

The Great Blue Heron is not one of the birds in the old Medicine Card deck I have, but herons represent to me the power of stillness and stealth and careful observation, three important skills that herons use to catch fish and frogs and rodents to sustain their lives and empower them to fly.

Home again, my mind filled with visions of the Great Blue Heron among the graveyard monuments, I shed my pack, drank a glass of water, and went to see how my carrots and lettuce and chard and zucchini plants were faring in the heat of day. And whilst perusing my garden, I decided to nitrogenize the soil, otherwise known as taking a piss.

Now on several occasions in my life I have been wielding a garden hose when a hummingbird arrived to drink from the cool flow of water—a most delightful happenstance. But this piss I speak of was the first I’ve taken that attracted a hummingbird thirsty enough and brave enough to take a sip of my warm salty flow.

According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, hummingbirds are bringers of joy, and I must say that this piss-drinking little beauty certainly made me smile in wonder at both her appetite and her audacity.

In the afternoon, I needed to make another trip to town and took our trusty old pickup. I turned onto Little Lake Road and was going about fifteen-miles-per-hour when a huge Red-tailed Hawk flew across my path no more than ten feet in front of the truck and only a few feet off the ground. I hit my brakes, missed the big bird by inches, and she flew away to the south. Phew! What a relief not to have killed her.

And I wondered if almost hitting a hawk meant something more than almost killing a hawk. Is life a random meaningless crapshoot? Was the universe communicating with me by sending the hawk across the road at that moment? Was the hawk telling me that death is always near, so enjoy life while we may? Was she a harbinger of a publisher calling to say she wanted to present my books to the greater world? Or was the hawk asking me to consider the question: “What’s the big hurry?”

Sams and Carson write, “Hawk may be bringing you the message that you should circle over your life and examine it from a higher perspective. From this vantage point you may be able to discern the hazards which bar you from freedom of flight.”

At dusk on that day of visitations, mammals took over the harbinger business, and a young doe with a nest in a copse of redwoods on our property brought her two fawns to the clearing outside our office windows, and we delighted in the adorable baby deer until they wandered away.

Sams and Carson write, “Deer teaches us to use the power of gentleness to touch the hearts and minds of wounded beings who are trying to keep us from Sacred Mountain.”

And let us never forget: there’s no telling what a hummingbird might do.

Four Grandmothers

July 17th, 2017

Four Grandmothers

Once upon a time there were four grandmothers who were best friends—Tamara, Myra, Amy, and Vivienne. They first met when they were young mothers with children in the same elementary school in a medium-sized town in California; and they stayed friends and kept living in that medium-sized town after their children graduated from high school.

Tamara was sixty and had five grandchildren. Her daughters lived nearby and she was daily involved in the lives of her grandchildren. She was married to Fred, her husband of forty years. Her grandchildren called her Tama.

Myra was sixty-four and had three grandchildren. She spent time with one of her grandchildren several times a week, but the other two lived across the country in Virginia. She only saw those distant two for a week at Christmas and a week during the summer. Myra was married to Arno, her third husband. Her grandchildren called her Gammy.

Amy was sixty-seven and had two grandchildren. Amy’s grandchildren lived in Seattle with their mother who was divorced from Amy’s son. Amy only saw her grandchildren for two weeks in December, but she talked to them twice a week on the phone. Amy was not married. She divorced her one and only husband when she was thirty-five. Her grandchildren called her Grandma.

Vivienne was sixty-eight and had one grandchild. This child lived with Vivienne because Vivienne’s son and daughter-in-law died in a car accident when their little girl was three. Vivienne was a widow. Her husband Jeff died the year after their son died in the car accident. Her granddaughter called her Vivi.

The four grandmothers got together as a foursome twice a week. On Wednesday evenings they went out for Chinese food, and on Sunday afternoons they gathered at Vivienne’s to drink wine and watch a movie.

On one of those Sunday afternoons, Amy brought up the news that the earth was warming so rapidly due to the burning of fossil fuels, that life, all life, would be unsustainable in the not-too-distant future. “We may have a rough old age,” she said to her friends, “but our children and grandchildren will almost certainly die terrible and premature deaths if something isn’t done to reverse the warming, and soon.”

Vivienne said, “There’s nothing we can do about it. Our government and most of the governments in the world are controlled by amoral corporations that profit from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Tamara said, “I just ignore that stuff. If I think about what’s happening to the earth and what we’re leaving our precious grandchildren, I go crazy.”

Myra said, “Don’t worry. The government and scientists will do something to solve the problems before things get too bad.”

“No they won’t,” said Amy, shaking her head. “So I’ve decided to walk to Washington D.C. and go on a hunger strike until our government takes some real substantive action to reverse global warming. If I die trying, so be it, but I’ve got to try.”

Vivienne and Myra and Tamara were stunned by what Amy proposed to do, and they didn’t believe she would actually follow through with her plan, but she did.

Amy took seven months to walk across America. By the time she got to Washington D.C. she was accompanied by eighty-seven other grandmothers, including Vivienne. They gathered in a park near the White House and began their hunger strike in early September. By mid-October there were ninety thousand grandmothers and seventy thousand grandfathers gathered in Washington D.C. participating in the protest.

Congress and the President of the United States tried to ignore the grandparents, but soon all of America and much of the world was fixated on the huge numbers of hunger-striking elders gathering in Washington and in several other large cities around the globe. These older folks demanded their governments stop spending money on war, stop giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, and start spending trillions of dollars each year converting the national energy grids and transportation systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By early December there were over two million grandparents gathered in Washington D.C. with thousands more people of all ages joining them every day. A national strike was called in support of the grandparents and most Americans ceased to participate in the economy until Congress took substantive action. Then the stock market crashed and Congress met in emergency session to pass the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Act that immediately implemented a trillion-dollar-a-year program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero within five years.

Unemployment vanished entirely, free universal healthcare became the law of the land, and the fantastic economic boom ushered in a golden age of art and literature and music and equality and organic farming and creativity and useful innovation.

Speaking about their triumph some years later, with worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases reduced to zero, Amy said, “I was never a political person, but I love my grandchildren so much I couldn’t sit by and watch their world be needlessly destroyed.”

Vivienne said, “Now that there are no more wars and income disparity is disappearing, the world economy is better than ever and there are signs the biosphere is recovering much faster than our most sophisticated computer models predicted.”

Tamara said, “The global policy of economically rewarding women for having only one or no children is paying huge dividends.”

And Myra, recently elected Governor of California, said, “Thank goodness Amy got us off our butts.”

Heat

July 10th, 2017

190moon

190 Moon diptych by Max Greenstreet

I do not do well when the temperature goes much above eighty degrees. I lived in Sacramento for fifteen years in a house without air conditioning, and though my last year there was 1995, over twenty years ago, I still cringe when I think of the summers I spent there. One of those summers we had a hundred days when the temperature surpassed a hundred degrees.

Now I live in Mendocino, a mile from the coast, and the days here are usually cool or cold, rarely warm, and almost never hot.

Today I decided to read a little news of the outside world. I learned that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is dying incredibly fast due to the fast-warming oceans. I also learned that temperatures in Las Vegas have surpassed one hundred and five degrees for several days, and such blazing hot days are expected to continue unabated in the Southwest for several more weeks. And I learned that wildfires are rampaging in California and throughout the western United States and Canada, the ferocity of these fires due to historically high temperatures and a lack of rain.

I also learned that a single medium-sized tree in good health has the cooling power of ten large air conditioners running twenty hours a day.

Buckminster Fuller suggested in his book Critical Path, published in 1981, two years before Fuller died, that the only way human society might survive the coming ecological apocalypse was through a computer-organized and computer-facilitated global government dedicated to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth. In his imagining of this future, the dying Great Barrier Reef, out-of-control wildfires, and soaring global temperatures would trigger responses by the global community that would immediately identify and take action to eliminate the causes of these disasters.

Reading the latest articles about the dying Great Barrier Reef and how helpless people feel they are to eliminate the causes of the swiftly warming oceans, I am reminded that Fuller was keenly aware that a global government dedicated to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth might never come to be.

In related news, the Mendocino Music Festival is underway once more, and my wife Marcia is playing cello in the festival orchestra as she has every year since the festival began thirty-one years ago. We are housing another of the orchestra’s cellists, Abigail Summers, and I am helping Sally Fletcher, the boss of food and drink for the festival events, when she has something easy for me to do.

On Saturday afternoon I walked to town and listened to the Calder Quartet perform Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Opus 13 in the big tent on the headlands. I love Mendelssohn, and this performance of his quartet was, as we used to say in the 60s, astral. I did not stay for the Beethoven, wanting to steep in the after tones of Mendelssohn as I walked home. Wow. What marvelous things humans are capable of creating.

Last night I attended the first orchestra concert of the festival, and as I watched the superb orchestra perform Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, I was reminded that humanity could dedicate our collective energies to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth, and we would succeed magnificently in doing so. We have the genius, the creativity, and the ability to work together to accomplish incredibly complicated and difficult tasks. Why don’t we?

And why, I wondered aloud to Marcia as we were celebrating after the concert, do we allow small groups of highly unimaginative, greedy, non-geniuses to run our governments and destroy the planet? If we can send humans to the moon and bring them home safely, and we can compose and perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s astounding Scheherazade, why don’t we elect brilliant and creative leaders to do what needs to be done to save the biosphere?

The answer seems to be that humans, collectively, are no longer cognizant of the impact of what they do today on the state of things in the future. In Critical Path, Fuller tells of a great hall built at a university in England in the 1500s. The builders were aware that the massive oak beams used to construct the hall would need replacing four hundred years in the future, and to that end they planted a large oak grove on the campus that they accurately calculated would provide the requisite replacement lumber four centuries in the future.

He also tells of the fabulous seaworthy sailing boats, junks, built in Thailand for thousands of years, and how the teak used in the construction of these junks is first aged for twenty-five years in fresh water, then twenty-five years in brackish water, and finally for fifty years in salt water, before being milled for the building of the junks. Thus the sellers of this seaworthy wood to the builders of the boats were the great great grandchildren of those who originally harvested the trees and began their aging processes, which meant that those waterproof teak providers were economically dependent on the actions of their ancestors.

Therefore when people argue that our collective inability to do anything about the dying reefs and rising temperatures and our moronic governments is the result of human nature, I say, “No, I don’t think our inability is the result of human nature. I think our inability comes from a learned unwillingness to share, combined with a relatively new phenomenon: a lack of connection to the past and to the future.”

The good news is that the Mendocino Music Festival will continue for another week, with more glorious music for us to hear—the collective genius of humans on display to inspire us.

Found Stuff

July 3rd, 2017

168three

168 three diptych by Max Greenstreet

Wandering through town today, mobs of tourists here for the long Fourth of July weekend, a man hailed me and said, “Do you know what time it is?”

I looked at the watch I have affixed to my basket and told him the time: 11:47. He then looked at his smart phone, smiled, turned to his wife and said, “You win the bet.”  And then they walked away.

“Excuse me?” I said, calling after the man and his wife. “What was the bet?”

The man turned to me and said, “She bet you’d have the correct time, I bet you wouldn’t.”

“What a curious bet,” I said, half-frowning and half-smiling at the man and his wife. “I wonder why she…”

But then they walked away, so I said no more.

Now as it happens, the watch on my basket is one I found on the ground while walking to town a few years ago. Perfectly good watch, rather old, but keeps perfect time and is just the thing to have affixed to my basket.

This encounter with the rude man from out of town got me thinking of other things I’ve found, including so many pairs of dark glasses that we have a small basket full of them to lend to visitors who lost or forgot theirs or for us to use when we misplace the current pair we’re using. My favorite sunglasses are ultra-comfortable and highly effective and stylish in a pleasingly understated way and no doubt cost their previous owner, the person who left them on the beach, a pretty penny.

Then there is my big orange and black hammer, a most excellent tool I found on the street in Berkeley. I was riding my bicycle and saw the lovely thing lying in the middle of the road. I often found tools in the road while riding my bicycle around Berkeley and Sacramento. Excellent tools. I have a very good crescent wrench and two screw drivers and an expensive wood chisel I found while riding my bike. People drop things and other people pick them up.

I also have lots of rocks I’ve found. I used to be an avid collector of rocks and driftwood, and I still occasionally bring home a stone or a hunk of sculptured wood, but I am no longer the avid collector I once was. My newest stone is not quite as big as a walnut, perfectly egg-shaped, and pale gray. I found the beauty on the beach at Elk a couple weeks ago, and now this stone egg is one of my two carrying stones—one in each of the front pockets of my pants.

I very much doubt that the man who bet his wife I would have the wrong time is a collector of stones or carries stones in his pockets. I also suspect he would not be much interested in hearing about my relationship to stones, which I find fascinating. As it happens, most people I know do not find my relationship to stones even a little bit interesting. However, other people who collect stones and carry one or more of them in their pockets love hearing about my relationship to stones because my story is kin to their stories about their relationships to stones.

One day I was buying groceries at Corners and I fished in my pocket for dimes and pennies and came up with a handful of coins and one of my carrying stones, a roundish orange brown thing also not quite as big as a walnut. The checker, a woman with curly brown hair wearing a turquoise scarf said, “Nice stone,” and then fished into her pocket and brought forth a similar-sized stone, dark brown.

Lots of people carry or wear small crystals, but non-crystal stone carriers are a different sort and tend to be people I instantly relate to. We share an understanding that can’t really be put into words about non-crystal stones, especially the ones we choose to pick up and carry for a time. We are not opposed to crystals. We probably have crystals, too, at home, but this affinity we have for non-crystals…well, ineffable.

Anyway, I like to tell people who also carry stones (and those who reveal themselves to be interested in that sort of thing) that having been a stone carrier since I was a little boy—though no one else I knew while I was growing up did such a thing—I was thrilled when I read a passage in a book called Wisdom & Power, wherein the Lakota holy man Fool’s Crow said he was a stone carrier (non-crystal) and that there were some people who needed to carry stones in their pockets to be fully healthy and happy. He said these kinds of people understood, perhaps without understanding how or why they understood, that the stones connected them directly to Great Spirit.

When I tell other stone carriers this story, you should see the smiles on their faces. Having their mostly secret habit validated by a genius holy man is some of the best news a stone carrier can ever get.

And then there are cats. Nearly all the cats I’ve ever had, and I’ve had lots of cats, found me, which seems like the flip side of finding something but is really the same thing. Those stones, in truth, found me. They called out in the way stones call out, “Hey, I see you. Here I am.” And you look down, and here is the stone, either alone on the sand or in a big mob of other stones, but something makes it stand out for you, and you reach down and pick the stone up and the energy of Great Spirit flows into you from the stone and you know, without knowing how you know, that this stone is going to travel with you for a while.

Playing for Capra Redux

June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.

Tender Fearless

June 19th, 2017

Tender fearless

Rose In Morning Light photo by Todd

The following is a revamped version of Falling Behind, an article I first published in 2011. I was moved to revisit this article while listening to a piano tune of mine on YouTube called What Comes Around.

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing success was turning steeply downward, my humorless Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages. Most of the people who called me seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change them lest they go mad. Thus I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days, which habit caused my regular callers to complain I was erasing good messages before their friends got to hear them.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral existed. I’m speaking about a time before the ascendancy of the interweb, which was not very long ago, but now seems prehistoric. And I tell you, if by some miracle I could remember that message and put it on YouTube today accompanied by a movie of a woman walking on the beach with her dog, or a movie of three cute kids making cookies from scratch, or a movie of a man reading a book with a cat on his lap (with my piano music as soundtrack)—I have no doubt the message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from hundreds of millions of hits and links and apps and downloads and streams and billions of pennies such prodigious sharing and streaming would bring me.

Sadly or ironically or luckily, I only remember the feeling of that once-in-a-lifetime message, not the words. The feeling was one of deep contentment—of thoroughly enjoying the moment. I recall the day was sunny and warm, my office flooded with light, and I remember being massaged from head to toe by the feeling—the knowing—that simply being alive was a profoundly fulfilling adventure.

Within a few days of recording my message, the phone was ringing off the hook. Many of my friends called multiple times so their friends could have a listen, and then I started getting calls from people I did not know, people who had heard about the message from friends of my friends. And over the next few weeks I got hundreds of calls from all over America and around the world—people calling to hear my outgoing message and leave responses.

A poet called from Germany, and after hearing my message, he recited a poem by Rilke, first in German, then in English—something about the coming of spring.

People partying somewhere in England called, and when the beep sounded, those Brits applauded and shouted “Bravo!”

An elderly woman called from Seattle and said, “I see why my daughter wanted me to hear your message. I can’t stop smiling. I’m going to call again and then tell my friends to call you.”

A man from Scotland left a long friendly-sounding message ostensibly in English, but no matter how many times I listened to his enchanting spiel, I could not understand him.

A bunch of children called, and when the beep sounded, they laughed and giggled—one kid shouting, “You a silly poo poo!”

A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated for me: “I adore what you say and want to have your child.”

I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words made people laugh and cry and rejoice; and many callers responded with impromptu continuations of the message—addenda full of love and humor and gratitude. That message was an elixir, a soothing salve, and some sort of answer to the question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger on my answering machine for a month until one day I got a call from a friend who had heard the message one too many times and asked me to please make a new one. So without a thought for posterity, I hit the Record button, improvised a new greeting, and thereby erased the greatest outgoing answering-machine message I’ve ever made.

I only heard the message one time, and that was immediately after I recorded it and checked to make sure it sounded okay.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

Fast-forward thirty-four years. My wife Marcia and I both have web sites where we display our wares and talents to entice people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs a chamber music camp for beginning adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her camp and sells her CDs and gives away sheet music of her compositions. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD downloaded and streamed by thousands of people every month. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to her customers.

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell handsome coil-bound copies of my many books that publishers, so far, are indifferent to. Thankfully, several dozen people love my self-published books, so I persevere. I also sell my five CDs of original piano music, two CDs of original songs I recorded with Marcia, story CDs, birthday cards, postcards, and notecards of my zany drawings. Visitors to my web site can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) and read articles on my blog. In contrast to Marcia’s ongoing deluge of listeners, I am not so besieged—my creations purchased, on average, by three people a month—three insightful unique magnificent people.

And, yes, my experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering-machine message, as well as a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse that have befallen me over the course of my life, keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again.

Oh I wish I could remember those remarkable words that inspired so many people to call and leave such lovely messages. I remember the tone, a tender fearlessness—but the words elude me.

Wild Animals

June 12th, 2017

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night 72

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night painting by Nolan Winkler

“Of all the lessons I have learned from the natural world, the most compelling is this: thousands of different kinds of us are here, doing what we must to meet our basic needs. Our methods are different, but our object is the same.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

There has been much news lately, locally and around the state, about mountain lions eating cats and dogs. How local? This morning we got word from a neighbor (a hundred yards away) that a trio of big pumas had just emerged from the forest and strolled across her driveway.

A new report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reveals the stomach contents of 83 mountain lions were composed largely of cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals. And of the lions examined, only 5 per cent had eaten deer.

When my sister lived in Los Angeles in the 1980s, she had two big beautiful cats. When those cats were three-years-old, my sister witnessed a huge hawk snatch one them off her patio; and a few days later she watched the other cat killed by a coyote twenty feet from her house.

Which is to say, not only mountain lions eat cats and dogs.

“Few animals are as capable or resourceful as pumas or have been as successful. Even today, after having been exterminated throughout much of their former range, pumas are returning in eastern Canada and New England, where their habits seem to differ somewhat from the habits of western pumas in that they are even more shy.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Yesterday was a day filled with sightings of wild animals. In the morning, I was sitting on the deck on the south side of our house, enjoying the long-awaited sun, when up through a knothole, about ten feet away from me, came a glossy brown-and-tan snake, three-feet long. She slid along the deck and down into our vegetable garden, and when I stood up to see where the snake was going, she made an abrupt U-turn and slithered back under the deck. I think she was a Coast Patch-nosed snake, but she might have been a garter snake.

I was still tingling from my snake sighting when two bright yellow birds came zooming into the yard and began rummaging around in the ferns and berry bushes adjacent to our deck. I assumed these birds were goldfinches, but when I perused my bird book, the Wilson’s warbler became a suspect, too. What fabulous energy these little birds have.

Hours later, walking home from town, as I climbed the steep stretch of Little Lake Road just east of Highway One, a large skunk approached, walking down the hill with great determination, oblivious to me and the passing cars. Knowing skunks have poor eyesight and excellent hearing, I said loudly, “Hello cutie,” and the skunk reacted by raising his tale as he continued his downhill march. So I gave him a wide berth, he lowered his tail, and when he was another twenty feet down the hill, he left the road and entered the woods.

“Well-meaning human vegetarians notwithstanding, cats must eat animal protein or they slowly decline and eventually starve. Not for them the comfortable middle ground, eating meat one day and berries the next, and no carrion either. Fresh meat killed by themselves or by their mothers is virtually the only item on the feline menu.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was forty-two, I became a vegan. Feeling poorly after a year on my vegan regimen, I went to an acupuncturist, she took my pulses, looked at my tongue, inquired about how I was feeling physically and emotionally, and opined that I would benefit greatly from the introduction of animal protein into my diet—fish and eggs if I was opposed to eating the flesh of warm-blooded animals.

But I was determined to stick to veganism and did so for another two years. My strength and stamina, as well as my tolerance for cold temperatures, diminished profoundly under the reign of veganism, though I made every effort to eat the proper combinations of foods and sufficient quantities to sustain me healthfully.

Then I blew out my knee. While convalescing and making little progress in healing, I consulted a dietician and an acupuncturist, and they both urged me to add animal protein to my diet, though not necessarily dairy products. Desperate to heal my knee and regain my strength, I added chicken and fish and eggs to my diet. And literally overnight I felt stronger and warmer and happier than I had felt in many years.

Nowadays, two or three times a week, I eat locally caught fish or locally raised chicken, and very occasionally pork from a local farm. We eat eggs we buy from our neighbor, and three or four days a week we are vegetarians, though not vegan. I have a gluten-free diet and do not eat dairy products. I find this diet sustaining and in no way a hardship, especially now that I have access to excellent locally made organic gluten-free bread.

We recently visited friends who raise two pigs a year from which they make pork chops and pork ribs and pork sausage. At supper I asked our hosts if they ever get emotionally attached to their pigs. They said they loved their pigs, petted them, bathed them, talked to them, brought them special treats, and killed and ate them with gratitude. I said I didn’t think I could do that—kill an animal I was emotionally attached to. Our friends said they were not sentimental people, and the meat of animals treated well tastes much better than the meat of animals treated poorly.

“The fact is, the important thing about big cats and small cats is not that they are different but that they are the same. And like so many other truths about cats, their sameness is due to their diet and their hunting.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I remember reading an article years ago about an exceedingly wealthy couple in Manhattan who invited a famous Chinese artist and his wife to dine with them in the wealthy couple’s spectacular apartment high above the city. When the Chinese guests were seated in the million-dollar living room, eating scrumptious hors d’oeuvres and sipping expensive wine, into the living room sauntered the wealthy couple’s cat, a magnificent blue gray behemoth.

Seeing the cat, the Chinese artist nodded appreciatively and said, “How good of you to purchase such a delicacy for our supper. We are deeply honored. Thank you.”