Of Cats and Food

January 28th, 2015

Django Yoga

Django Yoga photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

“The story of cats is a story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from The Tribe of Tiger

We have one cat now, a twelve-year-old shorthaired gray named Django. We almost lost him eighteen months ago to complications arising from his extreme obesity—he weighed over twenty pounds—and in order to save him we became draconian masters feeding him half as much as we used to and splitting that lesser amount into four meals a day to encourage stomach shrinkage. The results have been good. Django has lost nine pounds, is noticeably more energetic and agile, and our veterinarian recently declared him fit as a fiddle.

However, there is a new development with Django. Accustomed to eating much more than he needed for the first eleven years of his life, Django now feels hungry all the time except when he is sleeping. He would, I gather, prefer to feel how he used to feel: fat. To that end, he has become a big talker, if you know what I mean.

Django asks to be fed by persistently reciting in cat language the famous line from Oliver Twist, “Please, sir, I’d like some more.” Telling him to be quiet has no effect whatsoever when those hungry excess fat cells get the best of him. Fortunately, we have found that if we pet Django for a few minutes and explain in soothing tones why he has to wait a little longer for food, he is often mollified. This suggests that he is not so much hungry as insecure about not being fat anymore.

“If you want to save a species, simply decide to eat it. Then it will be managed—like chickens, like turkeys, like deer, like Canadian geese.” Ted Nugent

In other food news, in case you hadn’t noticed, the price of eggs has skyrocketed. Why? Food prices should be going down along with the plunging price of gasoline. But they aren’t, just as our utility bills are not going down, though they should be, too, since a large percentage of California’s electricity is generated by power plants burning oil. But I was speaking of eggs.

Egg prices have gone way up because Proposition 2, passed by sixty percent of California voters, mandates that all eggs sold in California must come from chickens that have enough room in their cages to fully extend their wings and turn around. Predictably, the egg barons are suing the state for unusual kindness to hens because such kindness means the egg barons must replace their current commercial henhouses in which egg-laying chickens cannot spread their wings and turn around, especially with ten hens jammed into a single cage—a common practice in the industry.

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw

It was reported today that Max Scherzer, a very good pitcher of baseballs, has signed a seven-year deal with the Washington Nationals for 210 millions dollars. That comes to thirty million a year, a million dollars per game, and approximately ten thousand dollars per pitch. His record-breaking deal is also cleverly structured so Max will pay almost no income tax on the gargantuan fortune.

Also in today’s news was an article stating that by 2016, the wealthiest one per cent of human beings on earth (wealth measured by dollars) will have more wealth than the combined wealth of all the rest of the people on earth. That staggering news was juxtaposed poignantly with news that nearly a third of the people on earth now survive, somehow, on less than a dollar a day.

A good head of lettuce costs $3.49.

A little can of kidney beans costs $2.85.

A large gluten-free blackberry muffin costs $4.25.

A small package of faux crab sushi costs $6.95.

Organic almonds are now seventeen dollars a pound.

Organic brown rice is three dollars a pound.

“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” W.C. Fields

Walking up the hill from downtown Mendocino, a quartet of chicken legs secreted in a little ice chest in my knapsack, I come to a field rife with gophers and stop to admire a gorgeous orange tabby sitting still as a statue as she peers down at an entrance to the gopher kingdom, otherwise known as a gopher hole. The sight of this patient hunter reminds me that Django used to be quite the hunter of rats and mice until a broken tooth and a snaggletooth conspired to make it nearly impossible for him to eviscerate his kills, and so he became even more reliant on his humans for sustenance. In the wilds, Django would not have survived past his prime, and the same can be said for me.

The dry gopher-ridden field also reminds me that the drought is not over, not here or anywhere in California—the vegetable and rice and almond basket of America. I shudder to think how high food prices will go in the coming months should the meteorological consensus prove correct and the effects of the drought worsen. As if to echo my fears, a big shiny water truck rumbles by on its way to deliver water to someone with a dry well in January. Oh the things we take for granted.

I arrive home to Django singing multiple choruses from Oliver, though his next meal will not be served for another two hours. I put away the groceries, give Django a tummy rub and promise to feed him at five. He gives me a doubtful look, hunkers down in a pool of sunlight, and begins to assiduously clean himself with his tongue. I look out the window and watch in dismay as a dozen robins gobble my recently arisen Austrian Field Peas.

“You don’t have to kill and eat those birds,” I say to Django, “but couldn’t you at least chase them away?”

He gives me an ironic smile and resumes his toilette.

Trillions

January 21st, 2015

31 In The Field of Gold

in the field of gold by Ellen Jantzen

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” Ronald Reagan

Yes, those were the words spoken by a man who was Governor of California and President of the United States, a man revered by millions of People With Small Brains. I stumbled upon that example of Reagan’s snotty idiocy while hunting for cogent things people have said about waste, and though Reagan was rarely cogent—and the world might be a better place had he, in his youth, sat for a few hours at a desk under which was stored a year’s waste from a nuclear power plant—his remark struck me as an apt preamble to the problem I want to discuss with you.

“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” Henry David Thoreau

Not so long ago, when Americans in relatively large numbers (one per cent of the population?) still actively protested the dastardly wars sponsored by the imperial supranational overlords—before voluntary servitude to cell phones won the day entirely—I attended a big peace march and rally in San Francisco at which the brilliant historian and political scientist Michael Parenti spoke.

Early in his remarks, Parenti enumerated the good that could be accomplished if money spent to build the latest species of fighter jets for the American arsenal was spent instead on education, healthcare, and helping those living in poverty. And I noticed that the moment Parenti intoned the words billions of dollars, the crowd lost all interest in what he was saying and he might as well have been speaking to five people instead of the fifty thousand gathered to protest the wasteful stupidity of war.

Since then—my Parenti epiphany—I have confirmed on numerous occasions that while many people can hang with discussions involving one or two million dollars, any sum larger than that has little or no meaning to most of us. Why? Because money is real and important in our lives, and real money to most people is much less than a million dollars.

When we enter the realm of billions—a billion is a thousand million—we might as well speak of neon gorganzalids. Huh? Neon whats? The imperial overlords are well aware that we cease to pay attention when talk turns to hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and not paying attention is what they want us to be doing while they rob us blind, year in and year out.

“Why waste time learning, when ignorance is instantaneous?” Bill Watterson

In 2008, when the worldwide Goldman Sachs-created toxic derivative hedge fund Ponzi scheme bubble burst all over the world, the imperial overlords ordered their operatives at the Federal Reserve to spend an initial trillion dollars to prop up the collapsed financial regime (while doing nothing for the unwashed masses) and thereafter ordered the Federal Reserve to spend a hundred billion a month to re-inflate the bogus stock hedge fund derivatives bubble. You’re getting drowsy aren’t you?

That’s my point. Government-condoned financial thievery of epic proportions goes on every day in America, thefts totaling at least ten trillion dollars in the last seven years, and we the people have no concept of what those thefts mean in relation to our collective and individual lives. You and I could sure use seventy dollars or seven hundred dollars or seven thousand dollars—wouldn’t that be nice?—but millions and billions and trillions…snore.

Add to the stolen ten trillion another trillion a year spent on the military and…Huh? Sorry. Dozed off.

“After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts.” Aristotle Onassis

On the other hand, sports, sex, food, violence, death, and the breasts and penises of famous celebrities and fashion models, these are things we are hardwired to be interested in. Penelope Cruz in an itsy bitsy bikini. Tom Cruise wearing skimpy underwear. See? You woke up. The overlords know this and have structured modern mass media to inhabit your television computer tablet phone as a never-ending stream of lurid high-definition images and videos of sports, sex, food, violence, death, breasts, and penises, or the bulges therefrom.

The media moguls keep the titillating deluge raining down on us day and night so you and I will pay no attention to the men behind the curtains (referencing The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland version) robbing us of billions and trillions of…your eyes are closing.

“Free will is an illusion. People always choose the perceived path of greatest pleasure.” Scott Adams

The perceived path of greatest pleasure. Hence, Las Vegas. Hence the election of Ronald Reagan and so many others of his kind to positions of great power over us. Hence the dominance of amoral bankers and hedge fund criminals who do grasp the terrible significance of redirecting trillions of dollars representing the collective wealth of the earth into the coffers of a relatively tiny number of Incredibly Greedy People.

What if those trillions had been wisely used for the good of everyone? Hard to imagine. Indeed, our minds boggle when we begin to imagine what our world might become should those stolen trillions ever be spent on reversing the current trends. Yes, our little hardwired breast and penis and food and sex and sports-loving little minds boggle when we try to envision a future in which all the clichés about freedom and equality and sharing the wealth come true. And that’s just how the overlords want our minds to be. Boggled.

Satire

January 14th, 2015

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Homage to Kokopelli photograph by David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

Satire has to be done en clair. You can’t blunt the edge of wit or the point of satire with obscurity. Try to imagine a famous witty saying that is not immediately clear.” James Thurber

Reading about the murder of twelve people and the wounding of eight others at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the continuing violence as the murderers have taken hostages in two locations in Paris, I recall Satan in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger saying, “No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is.”

“Satire works best when it hews close to the line between the outlandish and the possible—and as that line continues to grow thinner, the satirist’s task becomes even more difficult.” Graydon Carter

When I was in the Eighth Grade, I was momentarily seized with the satirical urge to claim I was God. You may remember how it was before the onset of high school. Having finally gotten the hang of childhood, and for a few glorious months before being knocked senseless by puberty and being placed at the bottom of the teenage heap, we experienced a brief epoch of self-confidence, which for me took the form of satirizing everything and everyone.

“Yes,” I proclaimed to one of my fellow junior high satirists, “I’ve used the name Todd up to now, rather than God, so the world wouldn’t know who I really was until the time was right to reveal the truth. Now that time has come. Let us sally forth and spread the good news. Want to be my first disciple?”

Yes, I was conflating God and Jesus, but so have lots of people.

In any case, after making a silly show of publicly blessing a dozen or so giddy disciples, I tired of claiming to be God and resumed my obsessions with baseball and girls. But satire once loosed upon the world is not so easily withdrawn. One day after school, I was cornered by three large boys intent on punishing me for daring to claim I was God and/or Jesus.

“Think you’re God, huh?” said the largest of the three, punching my shoulder. “Hurt, didn’t it? If you were God, wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

“I’m not God,” I said, gladdened to see a posse of disciples coming to my rescue. “I was joking.”

“Not funny,” said another of the boys, taking a swing at me.

I ducked, his fist hit the cinder block wall, and off I ran.

For the first two years of high school, several of my chums persisted in calling me God. Among these chums was a delicious young woman who greeted me every day with, “Hey, God. What’s going on?” in a sleepy sexy voice that always made me glad I’d been a satirist in junior high. On the other hand, I continued to be confronted by outraged Christians who felt I should be punished for mocking their beliefs. To defuse their righteous indignation, I would sincerely apologize for having been an idiot in my long ago youth, beg their forgiveness, and exit before I started to giggle.

“Satire is focused bitterness.” Leo Rosten

Speaking of bitterness, I recently read most of the stories in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, a thick collection of bitingly satirical short stories, and found I most appreciated his few stories in which satire played a part but was not the point. No matter how brilliant the writing, and Waugh was a brilliant writer, when every person in a story is a caricature and every plot twist the result of cruelty or stupidity, I could care less.

“Music is my religion.” Jimi Hendrix

When I got to college in 1967—UC Santa Cruz in its infancy—I made the erroneous assumption that my college comrades and I would be free to say whatever we thought and felt without fear of reprisal. We would, I imagined, delve deep into myriad questions and mysteries arising from our studies and shared experiences, and as the result of such delving our wisdom would grow by leaps and bounds.

A few weeks into my college life, I attended a dance in the Stevenson College dining hall and found myself boogying with a gang of exuberant gals and guys from Los Angeles. We had a wonderful hilarious time, and after the dance retired to the groovacious dorm room of one of the gals, the décor a triumph of paisley, a grandiloquent lava lamp center stage, and heaps of glistening bud to be smoked.

Someone took the Beatles (Rubber Soul) off the turntable just as the boys were getting warmed up, and put on a record by a discordant Los Angeles band I’d never heard of, the drummer rhythm deaf, the guitarists out of synch, the bass player hopeless, the singing god awful. After the first cut, I commented that they sounded like The Grateful Dead meets Sonny & Cher in a dark alley on a bad night. I might as well have declared to a sect of violent Christian fundamentalists that Jesus was a homosexual snake oil salesman.

The knowledge I gained from the anguish and vitriol my insensitive remark aroused has served me well, for I never again made the mistake of saying anything critical of the music beloved by those playing or listening to that music. I learned then, and have confirmed a thousand times since, that a person’s favorite music is sacred to them. To defame the sacred is dangerous, especially nowadays when so many people are willing to use violence in the service of whatever they deem sacred and therefore inviolable.

New Year’s Intentions

January 7th, 2015

Fruit tart mandala 1 - 1:1:2015

Fruit Tart Mandala photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” Sigmund Freud

Sitting on the big old fanciful redwood bench overlooking Portuguese Beach on the southwest edge of the little town of Mendocino—the venerable perch falling apart, a thousand carved initials and names worn away by the inexorable machinations of sun and rain and fog and wind and time, oh especially time and her microbial allies—I gaze down upon the placid waters of Big River Bay.

The gentle winter sun is smiling on dozens of migrant ducks sharing the heart of the peaceful cove (Portuguese Cove?) with grebes and cormorants, while a steady stream of voluble tourists rushes by me. Two big pelicans glide into view, circle the assembly of bobbing ducks and grebes, and make splash landings quite close to shore.

“What are those?” asks a little boy, stopping directly in front of me and speaking to his companion, a very wide man talking on his cell phone.

“Hold on a minute,” says the man to whoever he’s talking to. He glares down at the boy. “What do you want? Can’t you see I’m on the phone?”

“What are those big birds who just landed?” asks the boy, pointing at the pelicans. “Those ones with the big noses.”

“Sea gulls,” says the man, resuming his phone conversation. “Sorry about that.” He listens for a moment. “No, we’re gonna wait and see it in Imax. They have 3-D here, but no Imax.” He snorts derisively. “The boonies.”

“I don’t think those are sea gulls,” says the boy, shaking his head.

“Those are pelicans,” I venture to say.

The man on the phone shoots me a nasty look and gives the boy a shove to make him move along.

“There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” Eugene O’Neill

2014 came to an end just as I was getting comfy writing 4 at the tail end of 201. Now I must unlearn the 4 and entrain my brain to write 5. How swiftly time flies when one is old, but not ill. I struggled through a serious health challenge in 2014, and for those months of illness the hours were days, the days weeks. Now that I’m well, months fly by in no time, thus confirming the psychological nature of time.

“If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.” Oscar Wilde

A gang of tourists, four women and two men, gather in front of me. One of the women asks her cohorts, “Do we have a destination or are we just walking around?”

“Spotty reception,” says one of the men, frowning at the screen of his phone.

“When I was here with Richard last year,” says another of the women, “we saw whales. Well, spouts. But I think we were further out on the headlands. They call this the headlands.”

“Richard,” says another of the woman, spitting the name. “What does he know?”

I saw the spouts,” protests the woman who was here with Richard last year. “Regardless of what Richard knows or doesn’t know, I saw them.”

“Can we please not talk about Richard?” says the man with the spotty reception.

A silence falls. Waves slap the shore. The gang moves on.

“We are divided into two categories of people: those of us who are trying to escape from something, and those of us who are trying to find something.” Ileana, Princess of Romania

Heading home, my knapsack full of cukes and zukes and eggs from Corners, I bump into a friend coming out of Harvest Market, a woman I haven’t spoken to in a good long year. She smiles sheepishly and says, “I see you walking everywhere and I always think I should be walking, too, but I’m always in a hurry and I don’t know why. I mean…what’s the rush?” She laughs shrilly. “Why am I so busy?”

“You must enjoy being busy,” I suggest. “Nothing wrong with that.”

“But then I have no time to walk, and when I do have time, I’m too tired.”

“I know how that is,” I reply. “Fortunately, I like to walk, so it’s no great sacrifice for me.”

“I watch too much television,” she says, giving me a quick hug. “But my New Year’s resolution,” she shouts as she runs to her car, “is to watch less and walk more.”

“I think in terms of the day’s resolution, not the years’.” Henry Moore

Nowadays I prefer intentions to resolutions—much easier on the psyche. For 2015 I intend to be more regular and enthusiastic about my stretching regimen, to plant my first round of summer vegetables earlier than last year, to grow more pumpkins, and to stay healthy. I further intend to resume my practice of handwriting at least one missive to a friend every day, even if the missive is merely a postcard. I intend to produce a new album of piano-centric tunes, to complete Book Three of the Ida’s Place saga, and to bring out a coil-bound photocopy edition of the sequel to Under the Table Books, a sequel I wrote six years ago: The Resurrection of Lord Bellmaster. And I hope to be less cranky and more upbeat.

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” Casey Stengel

Predictions for 2015: the California drought, slightly dented by a wet December, will go on, the apple harvest will be stupendous, the earth will accelerate her climatic catastrophes to express her displeasure with the behavior of our species, wholly unexpected events will change the course of human history, the race between cruelty and kindness will continue apace, and pelicans will continue to splash down on Big River Bay.

See’s

December 31st, 2014

sees

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Charles M. Schulz

Marcia and I are standing in line at See’s Candies in Santa Rosa, two days before Christmas 2014. See’s Candies is owned by billionaire Warren Buffet and has more than two hundred outlets throughout the west, most of them in California. Some of my earliest memories are of chocolate caramel lollypops from See’s. Hard as rocks and long lasting, those delicious teeth-rotting suckers were two for a nickel when I was a little boy—gateway drugs to a lifetime of chocolate addiction. Warren Buffet did not own See’s when I was a boy, and when he bought the business from the founders, he was wise enough to retain the winning formula: rich chocolate candies sold by matronly women in shops reminiscent of small-town bakeries.

We are in line here at this inopportune time of the year—the holiday season now synonymous with a mass fixation on buying warm clothing and useless crap—because Opal, Marcia mother, was given a gift certificate for one pound of See’s chocolate candy, all creams, please, and we said we would pick the pound up for her on our way to get takeout pizza for our supper with her tonight.

Santa Rosa, for those of us with weak psychic shielding, is a gigantic madhouse of malls and snarled traffic—a testament to stupidity, greed, and bad city planning, though people from Los Angeles find the place bucolic. And where is the pinnacle of madness in this insane city? See’s Candies.

As we wait our turn in the brightly lit shop with its black-and-white color scheme, we are accosted by a small hunchbacked lady in a blue granny dress with matching bonnet and thick-lensed glasses that magnify her bugging eyes and give her the look of an albino goldfish. With creepy urgency she asks, “When you leave here, if you’re going anywhere near the Flamingo Hotel, could you give me a ride?”

I defer to Marcia, not knowing where in Hades we are or in what direction the pizza parlor lies or that the Flamingo Hotel is only two blocks away.

“We’re going in the opposite direction,” Marcia explains. “Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” says the woman, turning to another recent arrival and repeating her request for a ride, to which the recent arrival says, “We’re not from around here. We don’t know where we’re going.”

The line is not moving. The three matronly women behind the counter are boxing chosen chocolates and wrapping the boxes in reddish orange wrapping paper that stands out like neon against the pervasive black and white. See’s is a full-service last-minute gift-fulfillment center for people who can’t think of anything else to get friends who already have too much of everything, but never enough chocolate.

An enormous woman is ordering large quantities of many kinds of chocolate candies. She tells her matron she does not want her candies boxed because, well, I only catch part of her explanation because she is speaking under her breath and glancing around furtively, ashamed to be so obviously ordering hundreds of dollars of chocolate candy for herself—helpless in the grip of her addiction.

Meanwhile, the weird gal in the granny dress keeps letting people go ahead of her in line because she wants to be waited on by a particular matron who clearly dreads the coming of the albino goldfish. When Goldie finally gains the counter, she makes a great show of buying four pieces of candy, demands a large handful of the club mix for her free sample, and writes a check for four dollars and fourteen cents before resuming her quest for a ride to her apartment two blocks away.

We finally reach the counter and meet our matron from whom we purchase four dark chocolate raspberry creams to go with Opal’s one-pound of mixed creams and a box of dark chocolate molasses chips. At the cash register Marcia says to our matron, “What a busy time of year for you.”

“Yes,” sighs our matron. “And I thought this would be fun.”

“I guess it could be,” says Marcia, “if the customers are nice.”

To which our matron responds with a sweetly sorrowful look that speaks of innumerable customers who are neither nice nor fun.

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Over pizza in Opal’s commodious apartment, I regale Marcia and Opal with the true story of how, if not for my great grandfather’s inferiority complex, I would be heir to a huge candy fortune. Here is the story.

My father’s mother’s mother, the novelist Katharine Grey, married at nineteen. Shortly thereafter, her husband left her pregnant in Oakland and ran off to join the Alaskan gold rush circa 1897. Nine months later, Katharine gave birth to my grandmother Helen, and not having heard a peep from her husband (who had vowed to come back rich within six months) bought a big sturdy wagon, piled it high with the fixings for making candy, and set sail for Alaska with her newborn child.

Upon her arrival in Skagway, she paid a man with two strong horses to pull her and her baby and her wagon full of candy fixings to Dawson City in the heart of the Klondike where she opened a candy shop and started making money hand over fist. Several months later, Katharine’s starving penniless husband came staggering into her wildly successful candy shop, and after partaking of a hearty meal, told his resourceful wife that the Klondike was no place for a woman (other than a prostitute) and insisted they return to Oakland. Katharine revealed her enviable profits to her hubby and suggested they would be rich if they kept the candy business going for another year, but her husband was humiliated by his failure to find gold juxtaposed to his wife’s remarkable success, so they returned to California.

Thus whenever I see a See’s, I imagine the sign says Katharine’s.

East of Eden

December 24th, 2014

for East of Eden

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We recently watched the movie version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our main motivation for renting the movie was to see the village of Mendocino as she was captured on film in 1954. Mendocino exteriors were used to represent Monterey circa 1917, and if you’ve ever been to Monterey and Mendocino you’ll wonder why anyone, let alone an acclaimed filmmaker, would do such a thing; and if you’ve never been to Monterey and Mendocino you won’t give a hoot.

Directed by Elia Kazan from a putrid screenplay by Paul Osborn, the movie is a big mess, though the first half-hour of the film does feature some neato shots of the village in a time before many of the streets were paved and when there were still several buildings on the south side of Main Street. The space now occupied by Out Of This World was a bank in those days and a scene takes place therein, a scene in which, incredibly, two different women who own whorehouses are congratulated by the teller for their “nice deposits” and for being “in the right business.”

Wooden planks cover the stretch of sidewalk just west of Gallery Books that sixty years after the film was made still slopes steeply down to the street, several unmoving people with fishing nets occupy an alley near Crown Hall, and James Dean sits on the curb in front of where Dick’s bar is today, that hallowed curb unchanged since those famous buttocks lingered there.

Indeed, seeing James Dean traipsing along Main Street sporting a 1950’s hairdo and wearing 1950’s clothing (when the story is supposed to be taking place in 1917) is beyond surreal. Historical and geographical veracity meant nothing to these filmmakers, so if that sort of thing is important to you, avoid this movie. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing our village appearing so sunny and empty, vacant lots abounding—the population of Monterey in 1917 imagined by the filmmakers to be hovering somewhere around twenty-nine.

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” John Steinbeck from East of Eden

East of Eden, the movie, is very loosely based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s verbose allegorical novel that reimagines the myth of Cain and Abel, among other things. Steinbeck said of his novel East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

As much as I love Steinbeck’s short stories and some of his earlier novels, I fear his writing powers were on the wane when he wrote East of Eden, an overblown, preachy, poorly edited work, brimming with moralistic platitudes Steinbeck previously spared his readers.

“Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Much has been written about James Dean’s performance in East of Eden, largely because James Dean only made three movies before he died in a car crash at the age of twenty-four, after which he became a cultural icon, his name synonymous with disillusioned youth. The bad reviews that greeted his performances when he was alive were quickly forgotten and replaced with posthumous raves and a posthumous Academy Award for his role of Cal in East of Eden, an award that says much about our idolatry of the dead and little about Dean’s acting ability.

“When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I am curious to know what James Dean was aiming for with his performance in East of Eden. At the beginning of the movie, he seems to be imitating a petulant five-year-old trapped in the body of a Hollywood heartthrob. A few scenes later, he exhibits symptoms of brain damage resulting from a severe blow to the head. And then he acts like a sullen idiot who, despite his mental deficiencies, knows more than anyone else in the movie. Did Dean and Kazan hope to portray Cal as emotionally damaged as a result of his father telling him his mother was dead when she was really alive and making nice deposits in Mendocino, er, Monterey? Was Dean forever falling silent and doing crazy violent things to show the effects of the father, played in monotone by Raymond Massey, never loving his son? Or was Dean just a cute guy with nothing much to say?

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The real star of the movie is the prototypical girl-next-door played by a relentlessly upbeat Julie Harris. Talking a mile-a-minute, bathed in golden light whether day or night, she strives valiantly to make up for the movie’s massive deficiencies with rivers of earnest blabber about good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies—and she does so in scene after scene with her face about four inches away from the adorable mug of James Dean. Indeed, so close are their faces in dozens of scenes, that when Julie and James finally kiss, I sighed with relief that the inevitable collision was a fait accompli.

“Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The movie East of Eden begins with something called Overture. We know this because overture is spelled out in huge letters that clog the center of the screen for several minutes and obliterate the lovely shot of the village of Mendocino (ostensibly Monterey) seen from the south side of the mouth of Big River Bay. Yes, while cloying pseudo-modern 1950’s orchestral music sets the scene for 1917, a giant graphic turd—OVERTURE—hangs in the sky and blocks our view of paradise. And so the stage is set, the style and pace of the movie established, the trouble about to begin.

Choosing Names

December 17th, 2014

Mementos NolanWInkler

Mementos by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“I only like two kinds of men: domestic and foreign.” Mae West

Our dear friends Nick and Clare Bokulich, Nick the noted fermentologist, Clare the renowned musicologist and daughter of local viola legend Marion Crombie, recently sent us this pregnancy update. “Had one of those crazy 3D ultrasounds and they were able to see all of the organs and blood pumping through the veins and everything! It was completely overwhelming and exciting all at the same time. And we found out it’s a boy!”

After digesting this exciting news, we wrote Clare a brief email with names for boys we think go well with Bokulich. I suggested Felix and Noah, Marcia was partial to Benjamin (Ben).

Clare replied, “I like all of those, too. Nick and I are pretty hopeless on agreeing on names, though, so we’ve decided to give ourselves a break and not worry about it until after he’s born (though suggestions still welcome!) because there’s just so much else going on right now and we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.”

And that reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was twenty (now lost) that was my first story to garner handwritten rejection notes (as opposed to form rejection letters) from editors at two different prestigious magazines. Both editors said they loved the story but were sorry to say they only published well-known writers. The story was entitled The Name and was based on the true story of how my friend Grover got his name.

“Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.” Shunryu Suzuki

Grover was born in eastern Kansas in 1931. He was the seventh son and ninth child of hardworking Methodist wheat farmers. Grover’s father was over fifty when Grover was born, and several of Grover’s siblings were already married and had children of their own. Tractors were just displacing teams of horses for plowing the fields, and Grover’s father and brothers and mother worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, to make a go of farming—Sunday reserved for church and socializing and resting up for the coming week of toil.

Naming their last-born child was of no pressing importance to Grover’s parents, so he had no official name until he was six. He answered to Baby and Sluggo for the first five years of his life, and it was only when he was about to start school that his parents decided to give him an official name—Ernest favored by Mother, Grover favored by Father.

Inspired by Grover’s vague recollections of why he chose one name over the other, my short story imagined a scene in which Mother plied the boy with pumpkin pie while lobbying for the name Ernest, and another scene in which Father took the boy for a ride in his truck to get an ice cream cone—a great adventure! On the way to and from the soda fountain Father made the case for the name Grover, pointing out that Grover Cleveland had been President of the United States, twice, and Grover Cleveland Alexander was a great baseball player, whereas Ernest was a name better suited to a sissy than to a big strong farm boy.

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

Recalling the story of how Grover got his name, I was reminded of another naming story told to me by a former prison psychiatrist whose first name was Edward. One of the men Edward ministered to, a mountain of a man who had spent many years in prison for manslaughter, came to see Edward shortly before his release.

“Doctor, you helped me so much,” he said reverently. “If I ever have a son, I’d like to name him after you.”

Edward replied, “I would be honored if you named your son after me,” and thought no more about it.

A few years later, Edward received a phone call from a frantic nurse calling from a hospital in San Francisco. The former inmate had begotten a son and the newborn’s birth certificate required a first name. However, the name chosen by the former inmate was deemed inappropriate by whoever was in charge of that sort of thing at the hospital, and now the very angry mountain of a man was threatening to destroy the maternity ward if the name he wanted for his child was disallowed.

“He says he wants to name the baby after you,” explained the nurse. “He said you told him you would be honored if he named the baby that.”

Edward collected his thoughts and replied, “Why would anyone object to naming a boy Edward? The name has served me and thousands of other Edwards, kings included, very well for hundreds of years.”

“He doesn’t want to name the boy Edward,” cried the exasperated nurse. “He wants to name him Doctor.”

“Well, if I were you,” said Edward, recalling the size and emotional disposition of the man in question, “I would grant him his wish and trouble him no further.”

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

I am currently in the throes of writing Book Three of a fictional saga called Ida’s Place. Set on the far north coast of California in the mythical town of Big River, the cast of artists and eccentrics grows larger with each new volume. Thus I have given names to a good many characters of late, with several more characters about to enter the fray. Fortunately, one of my great pleasures is choosing names for those who populate my fiction, though, in truth, they invariably choose their own names before I can consciously intervene.

Which is why I appreciated Clare writing, “…we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.” I have no doubt the boy’s name will come to them from him.

Multiple Thanks

December 9th, 2014

flower

Flower pen and ink by Todd

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“All the successful parents I have observed seem to possess one common quality: that of being able to visit with their children.” Marcelene Cox

The week before Thanksgiving, we pre-ordered our organic, free-range, successfully psychoanalyzed, thrice-blessed, kosher, Pulitzer-Prize-winning turkey from Harvest Market and then drove to Santa Rosa to spend a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving with Marcia’s mother Opal at Spring Lake Village, a groovy retirement community where Opal has lived for many years.

Weary of institutional food, no matter how good the cooks, Opal was raring to go out to eat, so for supper we went to an excellent Thai restaurant and for lunch the next day, after a hearty breakfast in the Spring Lake Village bistro, we went to Opal’s favorite Chinese restaurant. You see the pattern: one meal leading to the next, with brief intermissions for billiards and sleep.

We are thankful for Opal, who is just a kick.

Upon bidding Opal adieu after twenty-four hours of fun, we timed our drive back to Mendocino so we arrived at Libby’s in Philo for a supper of the best Mexican food this side of anywhere. The joint was jumping and we marveled at the equipoise of Libby and her staff of tulkus reincarnated as unflappable bi-lingual waitresses. I had the carnitas—divine—and Marcia had the chile relleno. Yum city.

We are grateful for Libby and her fabulous restaurant and only wish she would open a second Libby’s in Mendocino so that we might grow fat on her beans and rice and chips and salsa.

“There are only two questions to ask about food. Is it good? And is it authentic?” Giuliano Bugialli

We arrived home to an invitation to join three friends for a vegan Thanksgiving feast at which our aforementioned turkey would not be welcome. Thinking fast, Marcia came up with the brilliant idea of attending the vegan feast, cooking our turkey the day after the official day of Thanksgiving, and feasting on tryptophan-rich flesh for days thereafter.

The vegan feast featured borscht, roasted chunklets of potatoes and yams, Marcia’s delicious lentil nut loaf, a big green salad, Brussels sprouts, something with cheese I couldn’t eat because dairy gives me flu-like symptoms, and a wild mushroom dish I couldn’t eat because chanterelles and hedgehogs make me violently ill.

Implausible but true: Because I am allergic to chanterelles, Nature reveals them to me in enormous quantities (both black and gold) whenever I venture into the woods. In related digestive news, eating gluten-rich food causes me to swell up like a stuffed turkey. I am also severely allergic to alcohol—a serious bummer because I love the taste of good wine and fine whiskey and that first long gulp of ice-cold beer.

“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hand work, and a love of creating.” Julia Child

I was to bake the turkey and make mashed potatoes for our more traditional Thanksgiving feast, and Marcia was to concoct her delectable cranberry sauce and one of her legendary green salads. So on the day following the vegan feast, I dug up one of my late-planted potato plants and found two small potatoes thereupon. Based on that output, I calculated the twenty remaining potato plants would provide enough spuds for a big batch of mashed potatoes. But after digging up a second plant and finding zero potatoes, I sped to the village and found spectacular Yukon Gold potatoes selling at Corners for a mere dollar-a-pound.

There would be no stuffing (dressing) this year because…well, here’s the story. We’re not sure why, but several months ago we began to receive the magazine Bon Appëtit, a food magazine for rich people and for those who enjoy fantasizing about eating like rich people. Bon Appëtit is obese with ads for staggeringly expensive cooking tools including a diminutive knife made in Switzerland that sells for a mere seven-hundred-dollars and should go nicely with your thousand-dollar crock pot and your forty-thousand-dollar artificially intelligent polar vortex oven.

Marcia and I do not subscribe to any magazines (other than the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which is technically a newspaper), yet we receive Bon Appëtit, National Geographic (more ads than articles), Mother Earth News (virtually unchanged in thirty years) and Sierra (the magazine of the Sierra Club featuring ads for automobiles and expensive foreign travel.) We theorize these magazines come to us because of clerical errors caused by mutant logarithms.

In any case, when Bon Appétit arrives, we give it a skim, feel mildly deprived for a minute or two, and then recycle the glossy thing. However, in this year’s Thanksgiving issue—featuring mashed potatoes made with more butter than potatoes, and turkey stuffing (dressing) that sounds suspiciously like paella combined with duck liver chow mein—there was an article about the best (their words) way to cook a turkey, a way resulting in meat so delicious that those who eat such meat become instantly enlightened yet still feel fine about owning seven sterling silver omelet pans of various sizes and personalities.

The Bon Appëtit way to cook a turkey is called spatchcocking, a process involving the removal of the turkey’s backbone. This absence of a backbone allows the chef to flatten the entire turkey for baking in a big (platinum highly recommended) pan thing, which flattening allows all the flesh of the bird to rest (be) at the same altitude, or something. This flattening also allows for much faster cooking of the totality of the bird, and much faster cooking, according to Bon Appëtit, results in super tender flesh.

So I tried spatchcocking. I felt brave and daring wielding my cleaver and cutting out the backbone. I felt suave and sophisticated as I baked the flattened bird on a bed of vegetables, basting frequently with a medium of my own invention composed of water, wine, and things I can’t remember that synergized with the inevitable juices of the simmering bird. And the result? Well, as with traditionally baked unspatchcocked turkeys (breast down), the white meat was perfectly cooked long before the dark meat was done, the total cooking time was twenty minutes longer than advertised, and the meat was tender and delicious, though not discernibly more tender and delicious than turkey meat from unspatchcocked turkeys crammed with stuffing (more delicately known as dressing) and cooked for many hours.

Even so, this spatchcocking experience inspires me to cook our next turkey in the way we cook chicken, in pieces simmering in a superlative basting medium. As of this writing, we are enjoying a monumental soup made from the carcass of the highly evolved eleven-pound being who lived and died so we may live.

Holiday Shopping Reminder

December 6th, 2014

idas2-cover-sm
Dear Reader,
I promise this will be my last holiday shopping reminder for 2014. A graduate of the self-taught course How To Sell Excellent Esoteric Original Literature and Music All By Yourself With No Advertising Budget, I have learned that reminders to the wonderful people who read my blog are important, but should be used sparingly to avoid annoying those rare beings who might patronize my art. And you are one of those rare beings. With the Winter Solstice fast approaching, I hope you will come visit Under The Table Books and do some window shopping and possibly purchase an item or seven. http://underthetablebooks.com/index.php
Of special note this year are the first four cards of our new line of large Solstice Cards (good for both Solstices). Just three dollars each with envelope. Or you can get all four for just ten dollars. What a great alternative to the usual hoo ha. If you go to see them, click on the smaller images to see them large.
http://underthetablebooks.com/drawings/solstice.php
Another new creation we’re thrilled about is Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival, the second volume in the Ida’s Place saga set in the mythical town of Big River on the far north coast of California with a large cast of unforgettable characters involved in all manner of dramas and intrigues. Each coil-bound copy signed and lavishly numbered. http://underthetablebooks.com/words/pubs/revival.php
Reaction to Book Two has been wonderful so far, and Book Three is now underway.
If you haven’t read Ida’s Place Book One: Return, you can read the first three chapters on my web site and see if you want to give the larger opus a try. As Alex MacBride wrote, ”I had forgotten what it’s like to enjoy a book so purely and unambiguously and happily and want nothing more than to keep reading. I love it. It gave me a kind of reading-joy I haven’t had much since I was thirteen and fourteen, a tingling sort of excited comfort—moving along eagerly but resting at the same time, happy to be in the book’s world.”
If you have read the Ida books, we hope you’ll consider giving them as gifts to unsuspecting friends and relatives. http://underthetablebooks.com/words/pubs/ida.php
natureoflove
Our other brand new creation, just now starting to get airplay on a few tiny public radio stations here and there around America, is nature of love, solo piano, two songs with words, and two poems. “A thrilling mixture.” says Max Greenstreet  Downloadable from CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, etc. Or gettable from me for just ten dollars at http://underthetablebooks.com/music/natureoflove.php
My other CDs and the two CDs of tunes I made with Marcia playing her gorgeous cello can be found at. http://underthetablebooks.com/music/index.php And are downloadable from iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon.
My award-winning casebound collection of dharma stories Buddha In A Teacup is now just ten dollars. http://underthetablebooks.com/words/pubs/buddha.php
And my other award-wnning novel of stories Under the Table Books is a mere seven dollars for the beautiful hardback! http://underthetablebooks.com/words/pubs/uttb.php
Remember: No matter how much you order, shipping is only five dollars.
Come visit. Come listen to readings from my works on the Listen Page. Peruse the Art in the Art section. Listen to music samples in the Music Section. Have fun.
Until next year, thanks for being you, and please share this notice with friends if you are so inclined. For those who don’t want to use a credit card online, just send me a list of the goodies you want and I will calculate the total and any applicable sales tax and let you know how much to send via check to my p.o.box.
Muchas Gracias,
Todd

 

Power Over

December 3rd, 2014

No Illusions.No Replays Nolan Winkler

No Illusions. No Replays. painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“Every closed eye is not sleeping, and every open eye is not seeing.” Bill Cosby

When my mother asked me what I wanted for a high school graduation present, I said I would like to take my girlfriend to see Bill Cosby perform at the opera house in San Francisco. The year was 1967. I first heard of Bill Cosby in 1964 when I was working as a counselor at a summer camp for kids from East Palo Alto. One day, as I was imitating my fast-talking uncle Howard to entertain my group of ten and eleven-year-old boys, one of my charges opined, “You sound like Bill Cosby.”

“Yeah,” said another boy. “You sound just like him.”

After camp that day, I went to Discount Records in Menlo Park, bought Bill Cosby’s album Why Is There Air?, and listened to the routines over and over again until I could do them a la Cosby, much to the delight of my friends. Bill Cosby did indeed sound just like my Uncle Howard—a linguistic mystery given that Uncle Howard was a middle-aged white Jewish guy from Los Angeles and Bill Cosby was a young black guy from Philadelphia.

I never bought another Cosby album, but I did see him perform at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos and then at the San Francisco opera house for my senior graduation present. The Pair Extraordinaire opened for Cosby on both occasions and I bought two of their records—Carl Craig singing jazzy ballads to the accompaniment of bass player Marcus Hemphill.

What I remember most vividly about Cosby’s opera house performance was that I no longer found him funny, but rather brilliantly sad in the manner of Marcel Marceau, the great French mime. Indeed, much of his performance was mime, and I felt he was trying to express emotions with facial expressions and physical mannerisms that no words could properly convey.

Then I lost track of Cosby for thirty years, not being a television watcher, and next heard him sounding repulsively Republican in his chastisement of black people for not trying hard enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Millionaires who blame poor people for their poverty are repulsive to me, and I was saddened that Cosby had become an elitist bigot. And then I thought no more about him.

“Women don’t want to hear what you think. Women want to hear what they think, in a deeper voice.” Bill Cosby

Dozens of women have now come forth and accused Bill Cosby of drugging them and raping them, trying to rape them, or coercing them to have sex with him—the alleged sexual assaults taking place continuously from the 1960’s until just a few years ago. Several of the women initially made their claims years and decades ago, but were ignored or lambasted for coming forth with their stories, and many more of the women are making their claims public for the first time, emboldened by the claims of others. Cosby’s lawyers call the accusations ridiculous, and Cosby, as of this writing, refuses to discuss the accusations.

“We’ve got too many young girls who don’t know how to parent, turning themselves into parents.” Bill Cosby

The sickening scenes described by Cosby’s accusers are reminiscent of the many stories I have heard from women and men who entered the theatre world, the movie business, the New York publishing world, and the music business with great expectations and soon came to critical junctions in their career paths when they were promised advancement in exchange for submitting to the sexual dominance of someone higher up the pyramid of power. In most of the stories, not submitting to the higher-up ended or precipitated the end of the career of the aspirant. In some cases, submitting to the demands of the higher-up did the aspirant little or no good, while in a few cases submission did open doors to greater opportunities.

As one disenchanted screenwriter put it, “The movie business is all about power over. You may not always have to let them fuck you physically, but you always have to let them fuck with what you write or they will wreck your chances forever.”

My own experiences during the several years I was active in the movie business and in New York publishing confirmed the stories of my fellow aspirants, as well as that screenwriter’s assessment of how the movie business works. In the context of those male-dominated power-over systems, the accusations of Cosby’s accusers ring loudly and tragically true.

“There are two sides to every story, and sometimes three, four, and five.” Bill Cosby

Many years ago when I was running the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I led a group of thirty aspiring young writers, actors, dancers, musicians, and visual artists in a series of two-hour-long workshops. I divided the performers into mixed gender groups of six, elucidated a creative challenge, and gave the groups very little time to create, practice, and refine their creations before they performed them.

For instance, I gave the groups fifteen minutes to create dramatic scenes revolving around mysteries, the scenes climaxing in songs and ending with the groups forming tableaus that resolved the mysteries. I expected rough stuff at best, and was stunned when each group performed a compelling scene with sophisticated dialogue leading seamlessly into a catchy song with clever lyrics that carried the narrative to a revelatory climax ending in an ingenious tableau.

Had I not watched these groups swiftly and cooperatively create, rehearse, modify, rehearse, and then perform these scenes and songs and tableaus, I would never have believed that works so polished and complex and beautifully synchronized could have come about in so short a time. Yet these groups of inspired women and men created brilliant scenes and songs and dances with astonishing ease, over and over.

For the final creative challenge, I divided the thirty artists into three groups of ten and gave them a half-hour to create clans. Each clan would have a name, a purpose, a creation myth, a history, a code of ethics, a motto, a clan song, a clan dance, and clan gestures, with these clan attributes to be revealed in some sort of artful performance. The results were nothing short of miraculous and proved to me that in the absence of an ossified hierarchy, creative genius flourishes.