Know Your Audience

September 18th, 2017

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

What Comes Around

September 11th, 2017

What Comes Around

What Comes Around photo by Todd

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

So the other day Max wrote to say he loved my piano tune “What Comes Around”.

When I created the piece fifteen years ago, I played it several times a day as a form of meditation, and the playing became so automatic I assumed I would never forget how to play that particular progression of chords. “What Comes Around,” is entirely composed, unlike most of my tunes, which are designed to be at least partially improvised each time I play them.

After I recorded “What Comes Around” for my album Incongroovity in 2013, I ceased to play the tune. But when Max said he loved “What Comes Around”, I really wanted to play it again. I sat down at the piano and hunted and hunted for the first chord, but the notes eluded me. Then I listened to the beginning of the recording, and after a long hunt found the opening chord. I hoped the rest of the chords would be easy to remember, but they would not stay remembered when I managed to find them, so I resorted to writing down the notes, though not as notes on a staff but as stacks of letters (with flat signs when needed) denoting the notes.

Since then, I have been playing the pattern of chords several times a day. After a week, I can almost get through the whole piece without having to refer to the stacks of letters denoting notes. I am humbled by how hard it has been to re-learn this piece, and I think about how easy this process would have been had I learned to read music and simply wrote down my compositions as sheet music.

Why didn’t I learn to read music? When I was six-years-old I took piano lessons from a sad angry man who yelled at me when I played wrong notes, and one day he struck my knuckles with a heavy metal pen and called me an idiot when I played a wrong note. I ran from the piano, screaming in pain and fear, and I never took another lesson. When I re-engaged with the piano ten years later, I did so as an explorer without a guide or map, and have continued to explore through trial and error and repetition and improvisation for fifty years.

In the midst of re-learning “What Comes Around” I got an email from my friend Rico about Keith Jarrett and his famous Koln Concert recording. Rico had recently heard a Ted Talk about the concert and wondered if he remembered correctly that I loved that Koln Concert recording as much as he did. I wrote him back and said I had tried to listen to that album, but found the music and the performance uninteresting.

Despite my feelings about the Koln Concert, I will always love Keith Jarrett because of his part in one of the most ecstatic musical experiences of my life, courtesy of the Charles Lloyd Quartet circa 1968. That quartet was Lloyd on tenor sax, Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Cecil McBee on bass. I heard them perform a few times in 1966 and 1967 at the Fillmore along with Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.

Then in 1968 the Charles Lloyd Quartet came to Santa Cruz to play at Stevenson College where I was living in a dorm and sometimes going to classes. They performed on the stage in the dining hall for an audience of two hundred jazz buffs. The quartet was in fine form and I was enjoying the show, though I wasn’t wild about the music. I was by then deep into exploring the piano in my own unconventional way that had little to do with classical jazz, of which Lloyd and Jarrett were masters.

So midway through the second set, Keith Jarrett stands by the piano and begins playing random notes on a soprano saxophone. He is not keeping time, just playing random notes with no consistent rhythm. And I’m thinking, ‘This is going to morph into some sort of recognizable tune,’ but Jarrett just keeps playing random notes, not in any particular key, for a couple of minutes. The crowd is getting restless, and I feel restless, too.

Now Charles Lloyd starts playing random notes on his tenor sax, though not in time with Jarrett’s non-rhythmic random notes. I can feel my brain trying to make some sort of sense out of what I’m hearing, but with little success.

Now the bass player starts playing random notes, too, but all his notes are very low, which creates a kind of drone bottom, and this sort of gives form to what I’m hearing. Sort of.

And now the drummer begins to play a conga drum (I think he had a single conga, but he might have had two) and though he begins to play with random untimed hits, he settles into, or seems to settle into, a definable rhythm, and suddenly the separate parts cohere and the totality is incredibly beautiful. I focus on Jarrett and he is still playing random notes, as is Lloyd, as is the bass player, but the sum of their sounds feels impeccably composed, the combinations of notes incredible. People begin shouting and singing and crying and dancing, and none of us ever want this astounding music to end.

After telling Marcia about that miraculous musical experience from fifty years ago, I’m doing yoga by the fire when it occurs to me that the drummer played conga (or congas) rather than his trap set because congas make notes, percussive notes, and those notes, played rhythmically, supplied an essential bonding agent for that fabulous musical gumbo.

And this is why, though I have never been a big Keith Jarrett fan, I love Keith Jarrett.

Tales of the Heat

September 4th, 2017

sunflower redwood

Sunflowers & Redwoods photo by Todd

“One of the big questions in the climate change debate: Are humans any smarter than frogs in a pot? If you put a frog in a pot and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t jump out. Instead, it will enjoy the nice warm bath until it is cooked to death. We humans seem to be doing pretty much the same thing.” Jeff Goodell

After a long, wet, and very cold winter in Mendocino, we decided that keeping our woodstove going from morning until night and running expensive space heaters in our offices and dressing like Laplanders, and still not being warm enough, was not the best way to continue, so we had a Mitsubishi electric heat pump system installed.

Heat pump technology has evolved and improved dramatically in the last twenty years, and heat pumps are now extremely efficient and cost effective. Since ours is electric, and we now get our electricity from 100% renewable sources, heating our house contributes very little to global warming. The initial installation is expensive, but the monthly heating bills are so much lower than heating with propane or wood, we are very glad we made the investment. And we still have fires in the woodstove when we want wood heat and flaming ambience. We have yet to go through a winter with our new system, but summers on the Mendocino coast can be mighty chilly and we have already enjoyed the benefits of our very quiet heating system.

The day was warm when the fellows were installing the heat pump a couple months ago, and they reminded us that heat pumps are designed to heat or cool the air coming into our house. We laughed and said, “We will never need an air conditioner.”

Well, a few days ago, on the second day of the historically hot air mass settling upon Mendocino and San Francisco and most of California and the western United States, we did, indeed, use our heat pump to cool our house. And when our brains cooled down enough so we could think clearly again, we rejoiced to be comfortable and clearheaded instead of dangerously hot and semi-comatose.

From 1980 to 1995 I lived in Sacramento in a house built before the advent of air conditioning, with a full basement and an upstairs. My daily routine during the blistering hot days that lasted from May to October, was to rise at dawn to exercise and work in the garden before the heat became overwhelming, close all the windows in the house by eight AM, and leave them closed until the afternoon when the house became unbearably stuffy and hot.

Then I would cover my sofa and office chair with towels, strip down to my underpants, open the windows, and every half-hour go outside to stand under ice cold water pouring onto my head from a garden hose while I stood amidst my zucchini and basil and tomatoes and corn and beans. I was the only person I knew in Sacramento who lived without air conditioning; and most of my Sacramento friends thought my way of adapting to the heat was a form of insanity. I saw my behavior as a way to conserve resources and not contribute to global warming, which none of my friends appreciated me talking about in those days.

I moved to Berkeley in 1995 and rented an old house that did not need air conditioning because of its proximity to San Francisco Bay and being directly across the bay from the Golden Gate. Thus on hot days, I simply opened my front door and the sweet oceanic breezes came rushing in.

When the temperature spiked to 104 on Saturday in Mendocino, I had an email exchange with a friend in Palm Springs where it was a mere 102. Communicating with him put me in mind of times I spent in Palm Springs with my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey. They moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles when they were in their late sixties, having lost their once sizeable fortune in a disastrous real estate deal.

For their first few years in Palm Springs they managed a swank getaway called La Siesta Villas, fourteen luxurious cottages arrayed around a big swimming pool. Their compensation for managing the place was a small apartment and stipend, their income supplemented by Social Security and my generous parents.

Movie stars and celebrities and rich people frequented La Siesta Villas—Natalie Wood and Dinah Shore among the many stars who came there to escape the smoggy megalopolis of Los Angeles.

“I often feel like the madam of an exclusive brothel,” Goody told me during her tenure at La Siesta Villas. “Illicit trysts abound here, all these famous people with their beautiful mistresses and handsome lovers, air conditioners blasting away to drown out the sounds of sexual exuberance. Champagne and caviar delivered at midnight. Sordid elegance!”

Goody and Casey rose very early each day to take a long walk before the temperature soared above a hundred as it frequently will in Palm Springs; and on their walks they would occasionally encounter their neighbor Liberace walking his poodles. Friendly hellos became longer conversations, Liberace was charmed by Goody, and one Christmas he gifted her with two wine glasses etched with his trademark candelabrum.

On one of my visits to Palm Springs, I went walking with Goody and we not only bumped into Liberace and I got to admire his diamond rings and famous pompadour up close, but after saying goodbye to him, we went to an Open House for a hacienda for sale and arrived just as Red Skelton was coming out.

Goody introduced herself to Red by saying, “You won’t remember, but long ago you and William Bendix posed for a picture with me at a party at Jay Sandrich’s.”

“You’re right,” said Red, smiling his famous dimpled smile. “I won’t remember.”

And then my grandmother and Red laughed together, and I laughed, too.

Goody, Red, and William

Stuff of Dreams

August 28th, 2017

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totality diptych by Max Greenstreet

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare

There’s an old vaudeville routine in which a guy goes to a doctor, painfully lifts his arm above his head and says, “Doc, every time I do this, it hurts like crazy.” The doctor looks at the guy and says, “Don’t do that.”

I recently had a run of lousy nights of sleep. When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I am not a happy camper the next day—an afternoon nap my only hope of regaining equipoise. While searching for reasons why I was sleeping poorly after a spate of nights when I slept like a well-exercised child with a clear conscience, I realized I’d been reading national news within a few hours of going to bed.

To which the vaudeville doctor said, “Don’t do that.”

So I stopped reading or viewing any news for a few days and thereafter limited my intake to a little news in the morning; and thereafter having a good night’s sleep became much less problematic.

“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin

For most of the days of my life for the last forty-five years I’ve been writing a novel or play or screenplay or collection of stories. I write these longer works sequentially, not simultaneously. I’ve tried to write multiple works of fiction simultaneously a few times in my life, and my muse is never pleased. However, she does not mind sorties into non-fiction while I’m creating my larger fictive works. I theorize that my fiction writing employs neural pathways distinct from those used for writing non-fiction; thus the two processes do not collide.

My dreams, on the other hand, seem to share neural pathways with my fiction writing, and if I drift off to sleep thinking about the novel I’m writing, my dreams will compose scenes, often nonsensical, to fit, sort of, the fiction I’m working on. These dream/fiction hybrids can disturb my sleep much as nightmares will, so I try to leave my work at the office, so to speak, when I lay me down to sleep, though I’m not always successful at keeping my characters and plot twists at bay.

“In my dream, I am your customer, and the customer is always right.” Laurie Anderson

Over the course of my adult life, I’ve remembered dozens of dreams in which I am giving a piano concert for an enormous audience, or I am about to give such a concert. In some of these dreams, I enter the concert hall, see the piano I am supposed to perform on, and various obstacles and detours keep me from ever reaching the piano. In other dreams, I make it to the stage, sit down at the piano, and find keys missing or the piano is terribly out-of-tune or the piano is full of vines or cats or naked women, and is therefore unplayable. Or I begin to play and the keyboard disintegrates.

However, in two of my piano dreams, the pianos remained intact and I played gorgeous danceable music, my fingers incapable of making mistakes, every note just right—and the crowd went wild.

“Sleep is the best meditation.” Dalai Lama

The brain/body/mind consortium is highly suggestible. I often forget to remember this. But when I do remember how suggestible my system is, and I take a few minutes before falling asleep to suggest to my brain/body/mind that I will sleep wonderfully well and wake rested and full of energy, I very often do.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I’ve always liked this pronouncement of Jung’s, which I take to mean that our unconscious patterns of behavior shape our waking lives as much or more than the conscious choices we make. From what I’ve read by and about Jung, I think he might also have said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it will express itself in our dreams, and we can interpret those dreams to help us uncover and perhaps overcome some of those unconscious patterns of behavior that are interfering with our happiness.”

Joseph Campbell frequently recounted the story of Jung undergoing psychoanalysis and reaching a profound impasse that stymied him for several months until he had an epiphany about the most blissful activity of his childhood: building little stone houses and villages. So he “followed his bliss”, bought some land on the shores of Lake Zürich, and built a stone house. While building this house, he had a series of dreams, the interpretations of which helped him overcome the impasse in his psychoanalysis.

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

Marcia and I both had bizarre dreams last night. Marcia’s dream involved going on a quest to find beer for the many uninvited guests crowding into the living room of our house that was not our house. She eventually made it all the way from Mendocino to India and forgot about trying to find beer.

My dream starred two darling children and their young mother who were trying to teach me their language, which seemed to be a mixture of Spanish and Arabic. I was sitting facing a large blackboard on which the children took turns writing words they wanted me to learn. One of the words was arastó. The children gleefully shouted arastó, but wouldn’t tell me what it meant.

Then a handsome young man entered the room and said his name was Abababus. He warned me to never forget the second ba when saying his name. I woke from this dream and could not go back to sleep until I got up and wrote down Abababus, lest I forget the second ba.

What caused these dreams? Marcia theorizes my spaghetti sauce—turmeric, cumin, garlic, various unusual heirloom tomatoes, red wine, olive oil—may have been the author of our dreams.

Old Souls

August 21st, 2017

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ladder up diptych by Max Greenstreet

Isaac Bashevis Singer, one my favorite writers, wrote several stories set in pre-holocaust Poland about children who are thought by their Jewish elders to be old souls. These children are prodigies and seem to possess knowledge and wisdom gained in previous lifetimes. This idea of an old soul occurs in nearly all societies and is particularly appealing to those who want to believe in reincarnation. But reincarnation aside, I have always been intrigued by especially wise young children and how they came to be so wise.

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a day care center for low-income children, two-and-a-half to five-years-old. Among our thirty charges were a few unusually mature children, but there was one girl named Susie who seemed to be an adult in the body of a cute little 3-year-old blonde.

Susie gladly played with the other children, especially the quieter ones, and she routinely sought me out for conversation, which none of the other children did. She had a large vocabulary and liked to share with me her insights about what was going on emotionally with the other kids and staff members. These insights would have been remarkable for a teenager, but coming from a three-year-old, they boggled my mind. Susie could be goofy and giggly, but more often she was serious and introspective.

One day Susie came running to me, hugged my leg tightly, and said, “My mother came here. I don’t want to go with her.”

I had not been given much background information on any of the children, which I think was a mistake on the part of our director, an extremely moody woman who often seemed overmatched by her job. But I knew Susie lived with a woman she called Auntie, a woman she related to in a somber way, and by that I mean Susie always became quite subdued when Auntie arrived to pick her up at the end of the day.

Most of the mothers of the kids at our center were single women in their twenties; Auntie was in her fifties. I also knew that Auntie and Susie were in dire straits economically because Auntie frequently asked me for food, which I would give her; cans of fruit and beans and tuna and soup from the day care center kitchen, though I wasn’t supposed to. I could give Auntie food without anyone on the staff knowing because I was also the janitor and the last to leave, and Susie was frequently the last child to be picked up.

So on that day when Susie told me her mother was there, I went out to the playground half-expecting to see Auntie, but there on the street-side of the cyclone fence surrounding the playground was a careworn young woman.

She gave me a fearful smile and said, “I only want Susie for an hour or so. I promise I’ll bring her back before five. Okay?”

“You need to speak to the director,” I said. “I’ll get her for you.”

“Never mind,” said the young woman, running away.

When I reported the incident to our director, I was informed that the young woman was, indeed, Susie’s mother. She was a prostitute and drug addict, and Susie had been taken away from her by the authorities. I asked if Auntie was Susie’s actual aunt or a foster parent, and the director said her records listed Auntie as Susie’s temporary guardian. The director then instructed all staff members to call the police whenever Susie’s mother showed up, which she did a few more times while I worked there, though we never called the police. I think she just wanted a glimpse of her daughter.

On the evening of that first visit from Susie’s mother, while giving Auntie a bag of food, I mentioned that Susie’s mother had come by, and Auntie, who was usually reserved with me said, “If that bitch tries to take Susie away from me, I’ll kill her.”

A couple weeks later, Susie arrived in the morning so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open. The minute Auntie left, Susie lay down on a pillow in a corner of the playroom and slept all morning. And she repeated this behavior almost every day for the next several weeks. But because Susie seemed otherwise well when she woke up, the director decided to allow Susie to sleep when she needed to and not make a big deal out of her sleepiness in the morning. This abrupt change in Susie’s behavior, I later realized, coincided with Auntie no longer asking me for food.

Then one afternoon, I came in from supervising the playground, and found Susie performing a disturbingly sexy dance and singing a torch song for a spellbound group of kids. When she finished her performance, I asked her who taught her the song and dance, and she said, “Auntie did. For my show.”

The finale of this story is that on a weekend a month later, Auntie engaged me to move a new bed and furniture up steep stairs into the little apartment where Susie and Auntie lived. Auntie rewarded me for my labor with a beer, proceeded to get stoned and drunk, and boasted that she had money now because she was taking Susie to private parties in San Francisco where Susie, dressed in a variety of alluring costumes, sang and danced. In between Susie’s performances, the people at these parties, mostly women, passed Susie around, caressing her and kissing her and talking to her, for which they gave Auntie money.

I reported this to our director, she made the necessary calls, and Susie was eventually taken away from Auntie. Susie was then placed in a nearby foster home and continued to come to our daycare center for as long as I worked there. She no longer arrived sleepy and her new guardians picked her up every day shortly after four in the afternoon. Susie would be forty-eight today if she’s still alive.

Another old soul I knew was Amelia. She attended the California Summer School for the Arts when she was fourteen. I was boss of the Creative Writing department at that time, and before I learned otherwise, I thought Amelia must be one of our oldest students. The age range at the school was fourteen to nineteen, and Amelia was by far our most emotionally mature student. She quickly became the motherly friend and confidante of several of my students, and within a few days of her arrival on campus she had a handsome summer school boyfriend, one of our nineteen-year-olds.

Amelia was calm, smart, loquacious, an excellent writer, and very wise for one so young. We became good friends and stayed friends for many years. When Amelia was a senior in high school, I went to visit her and her mother and stepfather. Being with Amelia and her mother was fascinating—Amelia a mature adult, her forty-seven-year-old mother a charming adolescent. And when Amelia and I went to lunch with Amelia’s father and his very young wife, Amelia and I were the adults, while her fifty-year-old father was a classic stoner teenager.

One day when I was six-years-old, I sat in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade classroom observing my fellow six-year-olds, and I was overcome with the surety that I was an ageless being in the body of a child. I told myself to never forget this and to check in with this feeling over the course of my life, which I sometimes remember to do.

Postcards & Notecards

August 14th, 2017

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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.”