Lost To Time

May 27th, 2015

Compound India ink on paper by Nolan Winkler

Compound drawing by Nolan Winkler

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

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

We just watched the movie Wild based on a memoir by a woman, played in the movie by Reese Witherspoon, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon to overcome her anger and sorrow about her mother’s death, and to end her addiction to heroin and frequent rough sex with nasty strangers. If ever a movie was made to convince people, especially women, never to go backpacking, this is that movie. From the beginning of her hike until the finish, a terrified Witherspoon runs a gauntlet of small-brained rapist alcoholics, though before she hit the trail she couldn’t get enough of those guys. If you enjoy stilted dialogue, confusing flashbacks, uninspiring views of wilderness, and a cute woman groaning as she hikes and flees from small-brained rapist alcoholics, you’ll love this movie.

“People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties. They are still being passed around—the music and the ideas.” Bob Dylan

In the summer of 1965, when I was fifteen, I went on a backpack trip with my fifteen-year-old pals Pierre and Nathan. Pierre’s parents drove us from Menlo Park to the end of Palo Colorado Canyon Road in Big Sur, we bid them adieu, and spent five glorious days hiking through the rugged wilderness to Pfeiffer Big Sur Sate Park.

Emerging from the wilds at the end of Day Five, we hitchhiked north from Pfeiffer about ten miles to a place named something I can find no reference to on contemporary maps or in descriptions of the Big Sur coast, all traces of the racist moniker lost to time. This rare piece of flat land on a coastline of steep slopes held a farmhouse and outbuildings inhabited by scruffy men and women, dirty children, cats, dogs, and chickens.

Why did we go there? Because Pierre was hot on the trail of Sheila, sixteen, who lived in the farmhouse with her mother Joan, the boss of the place. Joan was six-foot-five, curvaceous, muscular, and drop dead gorgeous. She had two other children on the premises, an eleven-year-old son Brian, already six-feet-tall, and a four-year-old daughter Desiree. She also had two husbands living with her, twin brothers with dreamy smiles and neatly trimmed beards, both a foot shorter than Joan.

Joan told us she was throwing a big party that night and we were welcome to partake. Shortly thereafter Pierre vanished with Sheila, many more scruffy men and women arrived, and wreaths of cannabis smoke graced the air. Sensing my unease, Joan’s very tall eleven-year-old son Brian said he would take us to an ideal camping spot far from the madding crowd.

“But first have some food,” said Brian, wise beyond his years.

So Nathan and I stayed for spaghetti and meatballs and cucumber salad, but eschewed the marijuana-infused desserts, mescaline punch, and LSD. Brian then led us up a steep track to flat ground high above the farm. Fog rolled in, darkness fell, and having hiked twenty miles that day, we crawled into our bags and slept like logs for twelve hours.

Waking to a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the morning sun, we hiked down to the farm to get Pierre and make our way north to Carmel where Nathan’s mother would meet us and take us home.

We found the place a trampled mess and Joan in the kitchen, inspiringly topless, making scrambled eggs. When we asked where Pierre was she said, “He’s with Frank in Carmel.”

She wrote Frank’s address on a scrap of paper and Nathan and I set off hiking north along Highway One where not a single car went by in either direction for what seemed like hours. Finally a badly wheezing Datsun stopped for us and the longhaired driver asked, “You at Joan’s party last night? I can’t believe I missed it.”

He then gave us a vivid secondhand account of the party at which, his source reported, a renowned LSD chemist shared his finest with famous writers and musicians and everyone else, the mescaline was mythic, everyone had sex with everyone, and mass enlightenment ensued.

Our ride ended in Carmel Highlands from where we hitched into Carmel proper and called Nathan’s mother from a pay phone, her estimated arrival time four hours.

We had no trouble finding Frank’s house, but we had trouble with Frank. A sallow fellow with lank hair, he stood defiantly in his doorway proclaiming, “Pierre is ill and going to be living with me from now.” He explained that while tripping together, he and Pierre had discovered a deep cosmic affinity spanning many past and future lives.

Returning to central Carmel sans Pierre, Nathan and I were photographed by dozens of tourists who felt certain we two filthy teenagers with backpacks must be that new kind of human they’d heard so much about: the hippy.

Nathan’s mother arrived, we drove with her to Frank’s house, and when Frank tried to stop Nathan’s usually mild-mannered mom from rescuing Pierre, she shouted, “He’s fifteen! You want to go to prison for a very long time?”

So Frank allowed us to collect Pierre and we rode home with our comrade lying comatose in the back of the station wagon. Two days later, Pierre told me he remembered having sex with Sheila, but thereafter everything was a blur, which was probably a good thing.

Seven years later, in 1972, I told this story to a hippy guy from Big Sur. He knew Joan’s place by the name of which there is no record today, and he told me that party was now legend and considered by many people to be the Beginning of Everything.

Nowadays, circa 2015, most of the inhabitants of Carmel and Big Sur are wealthy non-hippies—the politically incorrect place names from olden times erased to expunge the grunge, and oh Kerouac was it ever grungy at Joan’s place in 1965.

Worth

May 20th, 2015

1.50

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

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I have my piano tuned once a year. I used to have the beauty tuned twice a year, but that was when a good tuning cost sixty dollars and I was making much more money than I make now. My last tuning cost one hundred and forty-five dollars, a ten-dollar increase over last year, which was a ten-dollar increase over the previous year. Barring a bank error in my favor, another increase in the tuning fee will force me to go to once every two years. Is my piano tuner being greedy? Not at all. He’s keeping pace with the real rate of inflation, not the fake one our government reports while they funnel trillions of dollars to the Wall Street criminals to keep the global Ponzi scheme going.

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Stephen Stills

Today I went to the nursery to buy a few six-packs of vegetable starts. I bought a six-pack of petunias, a six-pack of basil, two lemon cucumber plants, a purple penstemon, a small pineapple sage plant, and a packet of arugula seeds. Total: 27.69. Are the folks at the nursery being greedy? Nope. They’re keeping pace with the rising cost of everything else.

“There’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Stephen Stills

My credit card bill came today. I like to guess what the total will be before I open the bill and I guessed it would be next to nothing. Oops. I forgot that a few weeks ago I purchased two pairs of shoes from REI, a new pillow (my first new pillow in thirty years) and a Giants sweatshirt, having worn my previous Giants sweatshirt into a frayed remnant. Total: Three hundred and nineteen dollars. And all those items were on sale. Am I being ripped off by the commercial enterprises of America? No. They are simply riding the roller coaster of Ponzi-created inflation until The Big Pop, after which anybody with ready cash will find things cheap, indeed.

“Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away.” Stephen Stills

Having recently completed the writing of Ida’s Place Book Three—Rehearsal, the third and longest volume of my massive fictional opus set in a mythical version of Mendocino, I evaluated my cost of manufacturing the first two volumes at Zo, the one and only and most excellent copy shop in Mendocino, and came to the conclusion that if I hoped to break even on this latest publishing adventure I would have to sell Book Three for twenty-four dollars, and that’s assuming I eventually sell seventy copies of the goodly tome.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to ask that much of my readers, so I set the price at twenty-two, which is the unprofitable price of Book Two. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I join my piano tuner and nurseries and REI and pillow and sweatshirt companies and the post office and shipping companies and mailing envelope manufacturers and oil companies and vegetable growers and muffin makers and pharmaceutical companies and web masters and dentists and lawyers and doctors in raising my prices to keep pace with inflationary reality? The short answer: I’m a doofus. The long answer: I’m a conflicted doofus.

“Three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful: 1: It must have a precise and suspenseful plot, 2: The author must feel a passionate urge to write it, 3: He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Yesterday in the post office, a woman who looked vaguely familiar approached me and said, “The reason I’m not buying your Ida books is we’re spending all our money remodeling our house, so we’re seriously tightening our belts and only spending money on essentials.”

Before I could ask her to tell me her name, she continued, “We went to San Francisco last weekend. We just had to get away. Stayed at the Mark Hopkins. Glorious. God, the restaurants. I gained five pounds. Speaking of which, want to get some lunch? Trillium has a pork loin to die for. I went with Cal yesterday, we skipped salads and got out for under seventy. And that was for both of us.”

“The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and, lastly, the solid cash.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Before I began making a living selling short stories and novels, I felt alone in the world, save for a few fellow artists I consorted with. But then something happened to let me know I was not so alone. A cartoon ran in The New Yorker, and shortly thereafter several dozen people sent me the cartoon. Who were these people? Friends, friends of friends, former friends, and friends of my parents.

In the cartoon, a well-dressed man is showing another man his opulent estate, They are drinking champagne served by a butler. A massive Rolls Royce is parked in front of a baronial mansion. A gorgeous woman in a bikini is sunbathing on a chaise longue by a large swimming pool next to a tennis court. The man is saying to his guest, “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the great American novel when it suddenly occurred to me, why not write the great American extortion letter?”

Were all those people who sent me that cartoon trying to tell me something? I think so. But I’d rather write novels. Speaking of which, Ida’s Place Book Four—Renegade is underway.

Signed and numbered copies of Ida’s Place Books One, Two, and Three are available from Todd via his web site UnderTheTableBooks.com

Stripes

May 13th, 2015

this song's for you site

This Song’s For You by Nolan Winkler

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

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” Pema Chödrön

A friend recently sent me a link to a short movie about a high school art teacher in St. Paul Minnesota whose students are recent arrivals from other countries, refugees from military conflicts. Many of the students barely speak English, so this teacher has devised fun and creative ways to explore color theory without needing much language for the learning.

Watching the film reminded me of another short art-related movie made by a friend of mine in 1976 called Stripes, about stripe patterns in paintings and life. Dan Nadaner, now a professor of art and a successful artist, made the three-minute long film in those pre-digital days while doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. For the soundtrack, he wrote a ditty about the stripes that appear in paintings by famous artists, and he asked me to play guitar and sing his lyrics in the way he imagined, a kind of slow-going country song.

I was twenty-six and living in Medford Oregon at the time, working as a landscaper. I had stopped writing and making music entirely for a reason that may sound ridiculous, but which made perfect sense given the accumulation of neuroses characterizing me in those days.

I took up the guitar at the age of twenty when I needed a more mobile instrument than a piano. Three years later I was making a large part of my minimal living playing guitar and singing in pubs and cafés in Santa Cruz, and it was during this time I entered into a relationship with a woman who was studying piano.

My relationship pattern at that time and for much of my life was to choose partners and friends who were openly hostile toward my music and writing. Why would an artist repeatedly get involved with people who despise his art? The short answer is that my parents were contemptuous of my music and writing and violently opposed to my pursuing those art forms as my life’s calling. Thus as a child and teenager I became habituated to abuse and disdain for what I was passionate about, and as I progressed into adulthood I repeatedly and unconsciously chose people reminiscent of my parents to be my mates and friends. This continued into middle age when I finally broke free of that debilitating pattern.

But before breaking free, I spent much of my life enmeshed with people who thrived on disparaging the likes of me, and one of those people was my girlfriend when I was twenty-four and twenty-five and making part of my living as a musician and selling the occasional short story. My girlfriend hated the relative ease with which I made music, and by the end of our relationship she had convinced me that my desire to entertain people with my music and stories was an emotional crutch. She preached at me incessantly that if I ever wanted to become a whole and genuine person, I needed to quit making music and stop writing.

So I gave up writing and music, she and I broke up, I went to work as a landscaper, and I didn’t play a note or write a word for one long year until Dan called me from New York and asked me to play guitar and sing the soundtrack for his movie Stripes.

I clearly remember telling Dan that I no longer played guitar or sang or wrote stories, and I remember Dan calmly suggesting this was a passing phase, that I was a good musician and he was sure I would do a fine job singing his ditty about stripes.

So I borrowed a guitar and played and sang the Stripes song into a cassette recorder and sent the tape to Dan, thinking it would be something he could use to clarify his vision of the soundtrack, but then he called and said, “That’s perfect.”

The next day I woke up with a new song forming and I barely got the words written down and the chords figured out before another song began to emerge. Then the floodgates opened, I purchased the borrowed guitar, wrote dozens of songs, started playing the piano again, and haven’t stopped playing since.

Shortly after I began making music again, I wrote the first short story I’d written in two years and immediately sold it for five hundred dollars. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is entirely true. Dan asking me to play and sing for his movie, and his approval of what I created for him, lifted the curse and turned Toad into a functional writer and musician again.

“How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss

More than thirty years later, Dan sent me a DVD of Stripes, and when I watched the movie again after all these years, my gratitude to him was as big as the moon. The film is somewhat rosy now, having lain in a canister for three decades before being transferred to digital format, but I still find it a most beautiful creation. Our web meister Garth has posted Stripes on my web site so you can take a look. Just go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on Films.

Alas, my resumption of writing and making music way back when did not go hand in hand with an end to relationships with abusive people who hated my music and writing. That blessed day would not come until I was in my mid-fifties and I finally ended the last of those debilitating connections. What took me so long? I guess these kinds of transformations take time.

Ant Cows

May 6th, 2015

todd and pup

Todd and Pup photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, and exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” Lewis Thomas

You got that right, Lewis. This year, with five yearling apples trees and five apple trees we revived from near death when we bought this place three years ago, the biggest challenge to our trees is ants and the aphids those ants raise on the clover, so to speak, of the tender apple leaves just now emerging along with the onset of blossoms.

Large apple trees can tolerate mild infestations of aphids and the ants that milk them, but small trees, and especially babies with only a few limbs, can be killed by voracious aphid hordes. There are solutions, organic and non-organic, some less temporary than others, but ants are supremely creative about circumventing efforts to stop them from getting the aphid milk they so highly prize. Thus eternal vigilance is necessary in the fight against their insatiable addiction to sustenance.

Yes, I am anthropomorphizing ants, but that’s because I take their assault on my trees personally, which I should not, but I can’t help it.

“Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans.” E.O. Wilson

Our neighbors just had a baby, a human baby, and for the next several years they will have to guard their child a thousand times more vigilantly against the exigencies of life than I must guard our apple trees against ants and aphids. A few generations ago this young couple would have had a multi-generational network of family members and neighbors and friends to help them raise their child, what used to be known as human society, but today they will be largely on their own. I intend to make myself available for baby care duty, and I will be happily surprised if they take me up on my offer.

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.” Abbie Hoffman

Speaking of cows and aphids and ants and society, I want to be excited about Bernie Sanders running for President of the United States, but excitement eludes me. Would it make a difference if I thought Bernie had even the slightest chance of winning? Maybe. Or should it be exciting enough that he will possibly force the debate with Madame Hillary a few notches to the left of right of center? Not really. I’m too old. I’ve seen too many smart people expose the sordid underbelly of the ruling elite only to find that almost no one watching the contest knew they were looking at an underbelly and the thing was sordid.

Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. That’s kind of exciting, someone running for President of the United States and daring to use the word socialist as a self-descriptor in 2015. On the other hand, by declaring he is a socialist, and given the IQ and emotional development of the average American voter, Bernie might as well have said, “I am a communist and if elected President everyone will live in dire poverty.” Words are tricky, especially in a society of semi-literate people with severely impaired vocabularies.

“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” Winston Churchill

Ants are socialists. Their incredible success as a species springs from their super socialism. I, too, ideologically speaking, am a socialist, but I am not running for office. However, I have some advice for anyone who is a socialist and thinking about running for elected office: use a different word. Use the word sharer. I am a sharer and believe that sharing our wealth, social responsibilities, and economic opportunities will always provide the most benefits for most of the people all of the time. Or something quotable and broadly unspecific like that.

I was thinking about why socialism, and for that matter sharing and equality, get such a bad rap in America? And while I was pondering this large issue, I read an article about Alexander Guerrero, a young man who defected from Cuba in 2013 and shortly thereafter signed a contract to play baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the enemies of our San Francisco Giants.

The Dodgers signed Guerrero, who arrived from Cuba without a job, to a four-year contract worth twenty-eight million dollars, including a signing bonus of ten million dollars. He has never played Major League Baseball. He is apparently quite the hitter and has already hit two home runs against the Giants, but is seriously iffy in the outfield. And that is when I understood why socialism and sharing and equality get such bad raps in America.

Sharing and equality are not the American Way. All or Nothing is the American way. Rags to riches is the American way. Socialism is complicated and requires work and commitment and diligence and integrity and believing every person in our society is as worthy as anyone else, that we really are equal and should have equal opportunities and be treated equally under the laws of the land.

Most Americans, hearing of a penniless guy showing up from Cuba and being given ten million dollars, do not frown and say, “Wow, that seems crazy. Think how many people could be raised from poverty into a minimally decent life for twenty-eight million dollars.” Most Americans will say, “Damn, why not me?” or “Good for him!”

“One for all, and all for one!” Alexandre Dumas

Back here in the land of non-millionaires, the socialist ants are threatening my apple trees and I am trying not to take it personally. The ants are not doing this out of malice, but from a wise assessment of how to get the most out of a ready source of nourishment. And the better I understand them, the easier it will be to kill them.

All At Once

April 29th, 2015

All At Once

Spring Display photo by Todd

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

“Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned.” Sharon Salzberg

Last year, handguns killed forty-eight people in Japan, eight in Great Britain, fifty-two in Canada, twenty-one in Sweden, and 10,728 in the United States. I was listening to the Giants sweep the Dodgers and feeling euphoric and glad when I received the email with those handgun death statistics, and I was reminded of a dharma talk I attended many years ago in Berkeley.

After her prepared talk, the Buddhist teacher took questions from the audience. A woman asked, “How can we be happy when there is so much suffering in the world, so much violence and cruelty and inequity, and so much of it unnecessary?”

The teacher replied, “If we immerse ourselves in news of suffering and violence, it is very difficult to be happy. Life is full of sorrow and joy. Sometimes we feel great and have wonderful experiences, sometimes we are sick and miserable. That’s the nature of life. Buddha said nothing about striving to be happy. He did suggest we make a conscious effort to be kind to each other and to ourselves. Kindness is now the heart of my practice.”

Speaking of sick and miserable, I recently suffered through a bad case of food poisoning that rendered two days entirely void of happiness for me. And yet, during those same two days, the lettuce doubled in size, the apple trees burst forth with hundreds of lovely blossoms, and Marcia was full of her usual vim and vigor and love of life.

“There are good and bad tastes, good and bad feelings, agreeable and disagreeable ideas. It is our attachment to them that creates suffering.” Shunryu Suzuki

This morning we discovered our thirteen-year-old cat Django has not yet retired from hunting, though we thought he had. A decapitated, eviscerated little rabbit greeted us as we opened the door to the laundry room where Django has his bed. I scooped the carcass up with my shovel and flung the body into the forest where all the atoms of that formerly cute furry animal will soon be scattered around the cosmos.

Speaking of the cosmos, the news lately is full of reports of planets just a hop skip and jump away, if only we could travel faster than the speed of light, that might be loaded with water, might be conducive to life as we know it, and might already have life fermenting thereon. I read these reports and can’t help wondering if they are another ploy to distract us from our collective annihilation of the planet we currently occupy.

Yet another collection of eminent climate scientists have come out with a declaration that unless humans reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, there is little chance the biosphere will remain habitable for children and other living things. Meanwhile, carbon emissions are increasing every year and the powers that be spend trillions of dollars on weaponry that might be spent switching us from fossil fuels to renewables.

Speaking of renewables, did you know the state of Washington is experiencing a historic drought? We knew California was dry as a bone with a snow pack less than ten per cent of normal, but Washington’s snow pack is not much better. This is bad news for salmon and kayakers, but really bad news for apple lovers because Washington grows seventy per cent of all the apples in America and commercial apple farming uses lots of water.

“When you are walking, there is no foot ahead or behind.” Shunryu Suzuki

Everything is happening all at once. My brother’s good friend was just struck and killed by a bicyclist. A young couple we know is about to have a baby. Our government is about to pass so-called Free Trade Agreements that will give corporations supremacy over state and national laws. Rain is drumming on the roof and I have the hiccoughs.

Meanwhile, the Giants are up two to nothing against the Colorado Rockies behind our good young pitcher Chris Heston who comes to us courtesy of injuries to several of our other pitchers not half as good as he. Who knew? Playing at mile-high stadium in Denver where the thinner air favors the hitters will be a big test for the young hurler.

Then there are the resurgent redwood roots. I’ve been gardening in redwood root country now for nine years and am fast approaching the point of surrender. Now the Rockies have tied the game. And now we’ve gone ahead of the Rockies, but now they’re threatening again. Life is threatening and lovely and I just cancelled the manure run for tomorrow because it’s raining hard and Kathy’s corral will be a quagmire. Now the Rockies have tied the game. Nothing is certain.

A recent exhaustive study of the most recent American election, referenced by Noam Chomsky, reveals the level of voter participation today is equivalent what it was in the early nineteenth century when only landed white men were allowed to vote. No wonder our government is so entirely out of synch with the wishes of the American populace. To make matters worse, the Rockies have now gone ahead of the Giants five to four.

Should I live so long, I will be a hundred-and-one-years-old in 2050, though given my tendency to eat questionable foods and hurt myself, the chances of that are not good. Besides if we don’t reduce carbon emissions to zero long before then, nobody will be alive in 2050. But we never know what might happen. This is not wishful thinking but an acknowledgment that life is unpredictable. There may come a moment when everything happening all at once precipitates a sudden cessation of carbon emissions.

In the meantime, the Rockies are now up six to four as we head into the seventh inning. The rain has abated, the lettuce seems delighted by this April shower and as my Uncle Howard was fond of saying, “We’ll see what develops.”

Afraid Of Silence

April 22nd, 2015

Silence

Dahlia photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.” Jean Arp

I pruned trees for a woman in Berkeley who always had her television on. Loud. She would invite me in after I was done with my work, serve me lemonade, and write me a check while soap opera actors on her gigantic television screen emoted and spoke to each other as no humans have ever spoken to each other except in soap operas and bad plays.

“You make my garden look so nice!” the woman shouted over the projections of people talking on her gigantic television screen. “Tamed the wild jungle!”

The third year I pruned her trees, I felt I knew her well enough to ask if she wouldn’t mind turning down the volume on her television while we visited. She reddened and said, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those anti-television people.”

“I’m hard of hearing,” I lied, “and it’s easier for me to visit with you without the television so loud.”

She turned down the television and said, “Truth is I don’t even notice it.”

“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.” Francis Bacon

I was in the Mendocino Market a few days ago, the best sandwich shop in Mendocino, feeling lucky to have placed my order moments before a large mob of ravenous teenagers rambled down from the high school for lunch.

Three girls stood next to me, waiting for their sandwiches, and one of them said, “If they don’t fix my iPod today I’ll go insane.”

One of her compatriots opined, “I couldn’t deal with it. I’d feel so cut off.”

The third girl added, “That’s why I always have at least two I know are working. I totally freak when I don’t have my tunes.”

I was reminded of a woman I was once entangled with who could not bear silence. We would return to our house after being out for a few hours and before doing anything else she would rush to the stereo and turn on the radio or play an LP. If she chose to play a record rather than listen to the radio, the moment the record ended, and often before the last cut on the album was over, she would start another record or turn on the radio.

When she came home and found me sitting in silence, she would immediately turn on the radio or play a record. When we went on walks, she always wore a Walkman so she would have music to walk to. She ignited the stereo in the car before starting the engine and played music as we drove that was too loud to talk over. Whenever I turned the music down to say something to her, she would give me a pained expression to let me know she preferred I shout over rather than turn her music down. When we went to quiet restaurants she would give me a horrified look and say, “Creepy,” and we would leave and go somewhere loud.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Aldous Huxley

A friend who knows of my love of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant recommended the movie Le Plaisir, composed of three films based on three of Maupassant’s short stories. The longest of the three excellent films is about the madam of a popular whorehouse in a coastal city who takes her prostitutes with her to attend the communion of her niece in a little farming town, the six gaudy whores causing quite a stir in the rural village. The prostitutes find the deep quiet of the country so alarming they cannot sleep a wink during their one night there, so accustomed are they to the noisy brothel and the incessant sounds of the city.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” Khalil Gibran

A 2006 study by Luciano Bernardi to measure the effects of music on the brain revealed that impacts of music could be read in the bloodstream via changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. But his most striking finding came about when he randomly inserted stretches of silence between the music sequences. Two minutes of silence proved far more relaxing than “relaxing” music.

In 2010, while observing the brains of mice being stimulated with bursts of sound, researchers at the University of Oregon found that the onset of sound prompts a specialized network of neurons in the auditory cortex to light up, but when sounds continue in a constant manner, the neurons stop reacting.

In 2013, a scientist at Duke University examined the effect of sounds on the brains of adult mice by exposing four groups of mice to various auditory stimuli: music, baby mouse calls, white noise, and silence. The scientist’s expectation was that baby mouse calls, a form of mouse communication, might prompt the development of new brain cells. She used silence as a control and expected it to produce no effect. Yet she discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the seat of memory, whereas the baby mouse calls, white noise, and music produced no measureable cell development.

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” Elie Wiesel

Before I moved to Mendocino, expeditions to the ocean involved long drives through terrible city traffic before reaching the less traveled country roads leading to the sea. On one such expedition to Point Reyes with a friend, we found a lovely spot on a sand dune overlooking a pristine beach and sat quietly for an hour enjoying the revivifying effects of silence.

We might have luxuriated in that divine silence even longer but for the arrival of a couple with a boom box and a little boy who pointed at us and shouted over the blaring hip hop, “What’s wrong with those people? Why they just sitting there?”

Play Ball

April 15th, 2015

 play ball

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

“When they start the game, they don’t yell, ‘Work ball.’ They say, ‘Play ball.’” Willie Stargell

The day before Opening Day of Baseball Season 2015, Lon Simmons died at the age of ninety-one. Lon and his broadcasting partner Russ Hodges were the San Francisco Giants radio announcers when I was a boy and a teenager, and Lon’s voice and laconic style are etched in my memory as deeply as the voice of any close relative.

Opening Day 2015 was five days ago as I write this, and in the first game of the new season the Giants eked out a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in our usual nail-biting fashion. Our super hero starter Madison Bumgarner pitched seven dominant innings and left the game with a four-run lead courtesy of our boys hitting singles and doubles in bunches. Our bullpen promptly gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth and we went to the bottom of the ninth clinging to a one-run lead.

Then our closer, Santiago Casilla, struck out slugger Paul Goldschmidt to end the game and we were undefeated in 2015. Until the next night when Bruce Bochy revealed his biggest flaw as a manager—leaving pitchers in games when those pitchers clearly have nothing left in the tank.

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Yogi Berra

From 1979 until 1996, with a two-year break from 87-89, Hank Greenwald was the incomparable radio play-by-play guy for the Giants. He was laid back and funny and a wonderful storyteller, and when his long stint as the Voice of the Giants ended, I seriously doubted there would ever be anyone good enough to fill Hank’s shoes.

But a year later the magnificent Jon Miller took the radio reins along with former Giants infielder Duane Kuiper, and five years after Jon took over, David B. Flemming, a young upstart, now approaching middle age, joined the team. Excellent game-callers all, Miller is the top bard and comedian of the bunch and a brilliant imitator of other famous baseball announcers. When the Giants play the hated Dodgers, Jon always does an ear-perfect Vin Scully and makes me glad we have Jon and Duane and Dave announcing our games and not the venerable and uninteresting Scully. That’s a Giants fan talking. In Los Angeles, Vin is God.

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” Leo Durocher

I listen to games on a little silver Sony transistor radio. I take it to the garden, set it on the counter while I’m doing dishes, stand it in the cup holder in our ancient pickup, and frequently take the little thing to bed when games run past my bedtime.

To celebrate the season opener, I empowered my trusty radio with two new batteries and listened to the game under the influence of a miserable cold. As bad as I felt, I was happy listening to the game, and even happier when we won.

With the world going up in flames, the state suffering from catastrophic drought, lunatics and criminals running our government, and over-population synergizing with global warming to spawn more and bigger disasters, why do I care if a man on the radio describes how one team of baseball players prevails over another team of baseball players? I care because I am hard-wired to care, and I did the wiring myself.

I was nine when the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958. Having teethed on Seals games, I was a rabid Giants fan from Day One. I memorized batting averages and earned run averages and home run numbers, and I listened to every single game. Indeed, the ongoing challenge of my childhood was how to listen to night games broadcast after my bedtime.

Transistor radios were not widely available until the 1960’s, and the radio I listened to in the 1950’s was the size of a shoebox, made of steel, and full of tubes that got so hot when activated by electricity that the radio was too hot to touch. Many a night I fell asleep listening to Lon Simmons preaching on that hot box hidden under my covers, the volume so low it was only audible to my ear resting an inch from the hot metal, and therefore inaudible to my mother and father who believed sports were stupid and bad and would keep me out of medical school should I live so long. And on a few occasions, as I drifted off to dreamland, my ear would touch the hot metal and I’d wake with a start, yelping in pain.

“Now there’s three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win or you can lose or it can rain.” Casey Stengel

The Giants, as you probably know, have won the World Series three times in the last five years after not winning a World Series since the Pleistocene. Now that we have won again and again and again, my fellow tribe members and I expect to go to the World Series and win the trophy every year. How could we so quickly forget more than half a century of losing? Must be genetic.

I listen to Jon and Dave and Duane describing nine men playing a game against nine other men and I see the game vividly in my mind’s eye. In fact, the game I imagine while listening to Jon Miller paint word pictures is far more complicated and beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than games I see on television.

Marcia and I don’t have a television. If we had one, I would watch baseball, football, basketball, tennis, volleyball, golf, bowling, and documentaries about tree sloths, though not hockey or car racing. I wired myself to listen to baseball games on the radio, but humans are born wired to watch television. Having figured this out a long time ago, I realized if I wanted to do anything with my life other than watch television, it would behoove me not to have one in my house. Fortunately, Marcia is of the same mind, and she digs listening to baseball games on the radio, too.

Water

April 8th, 2015

FLOW

Flow photo by Todd

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

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.” Sylvia Earle

As I was getting off his table today, my acupuncturist said, “Remember. Water is your friend. Be sure to drink lots today.”

Checking my email when I got home, someone had sent me a link to an article about Governor Brown announcing a mandatory reduction in water use by California residents and businesses. There was a little video with the article, so I watched Jerry speak to the people of California as if we are idiots, which, collectively, we are. Jerry was performing on a meadow in the Sierras where, for the first time in the seventy-five years they’ve been measuring snow on that meadow, there is no snow on April Fools Day. Zero white stuff that makes water when it melts.

Jerry bragged that his executive order will prohibit watering ornamental grass on public street medians, require new homes to use drip irrigation systems for landscaping, direct urban water agencies to establish new (higher) prices for water to maximize conservation, and require urban water and agricultural agencies to report more water usage information to the state (so the state can, like, think about those numbers and, you know, figure stuff out.)

He did not order ending water usage by oil extraction companies (fracking corporations) or impose limits on water usage by corporate farms, despite this being the worst drought in California in at least one hundred and twenty years. In other words, he imposed restrictions on people and towns and cities and businesses that combine to use about ten per cent of California’s water, yet he did nothing to reign in the profligate use of ninety per cent of the state’s water by corporate monsters, many of those monsters subsidized by our state and federal governments. Way to go Jerry!

Here is the speech I wish Jerry had made. “Well, as you can see by the absence of snow in this meadow, California is in dire straits when it comes to water. The Sierra snow pack is less than ten percent of normal, and we have no way of knowing when this drought will end, if ever. Most of our state’s precious water is being used for extracting oil we shouldn’t be extracting and for growing things like almonds and rice that should not be grown here in the absence of ample water. So as of today, I am declaring a seventy-five percent mandatory reduction of water used for fracking and growing almonds and rice and anything else that uses too much water. And that’s just the beginning.”

Maybe he’ll make that speech next year after another year of drought when the corporate monsters have entirely depleted the ancient aquifer under the Central Valley and there isn’t enough water for people to take thirty-second showers.

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” W.H. Auden

In the comment section below the article and video of Jerry Brown speaking to us as if we are idiots, one brave person made the suggestion that maybe there were too many people in California, and maybe that has something to do with the water problem. She pointed out that one in every nine Americans now lives in California. Wow, did that brave person ever get jumped on for suggesting such an un-American thing as limiting the population of a state, let alone a planet.

One person wrote, “The problem is not too many people. The problem is America spent so many trillions of dollars on war that we don’t have enough money left for building pipelines to bring water to California from Canada and the Mississippi.” Okay! There’s a solution for you. Get that to Jerry Brown. Forget the peripheral canal stealing most of northern California’s water for Los Angeles and the giant corporate farms, let’s just get the water from Canada and the Mississippi. How hard could that be?

“Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” Friedrich Nietzsche

In related news, the talented young actress Keira Knightley wants to know, “Where are the female stories? Where are they? Where are the female directors, where are the female writers? It’s imbalanced.”

How is this related to California’s water crisis? The way my mind works, the water crisis and the absence of women in positions of creative power in the entertainment industry are parts of the same larger crisis. Human society is out of balance with nature, and the impetus for that imbalance is a power imbalance between men and women. Feminist balderdash you say?

Maybe so, but if one assesses the movies made and released to large audiences in America over the last thirty years, you will find that the solution to almost any problem confronting a person or people in movies today, is to assemble muscle and weaponry, and if possible some super heroes, and perhaps a token kick-ass woman, and kick the shit out of the problem. Kill it. Complex, non-violent, cooperative, generous, caring solutions are so rarely modeled in our movies, one could almost use the word never.

Do I really think what we see in movies influences how we act in the rest of our lives? Without a doubt. Do I think our movies might have modeled ways of living and solving problems and relating to each other that would have resulted in a different approach to the state and national and global crises facing us today? Absolutely.

I also think we would have taken ameliorative action to combat global climate change, environmental pollution and degradation, nuclear power, overfishing, and the elephant in the room known as overpopulation, long ago if our movies and books and plays and music and education reflected a balance of male and female energy instead of what they reflect today and have reflected for most of my life—domination of the world and human society by men stuck in adolescent wet dreams, and when I say wet, I don’t mean water.

Completion

April 1st, 2015

Kindling Pile

Kindling Pile photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the AVA entitled When Is It Done? in which I recounted my meeting with the poet William Everson in Santa Cruz circa 1971. I was hitchhiking on the coast highway, Everson picked me up, and being an aspiring writer and a devotee of his poet compatriot Philip Whalen, I asked William, formerly known as Brother Antoninus, a question I immediately regretted: how do you know when a poem is done?

Fortunately for me, he did not stop the car and tell me to get out. Instead, he thought for a moment and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

Now I am older than William Everson was when he gave me that ride way back when, and his reply to my youthful question still seems a good answer. There’s no rule about it. Something shifts in your awareness. You come into harmony with your feelings, and you just know.”

Or you don’t know. I know writers and artists who say a book or painting or recording project is done when they can’t bear to work on it any longer. I suppose that could be called a shift in awareness and coming into harmony with your feelings.

“The writer of any work must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”” Annie Dillard

One of my favorite paintings by Picasso is Paul In A Clown Suit, a portrait of Picasso’s young son wearing a harlequin costume and sitting on a chair. The upper two-thirds of the chair is black and makes a potent background for the boy, his costume composed of blue and yellow triangles, his reddish brown hair crowned by an odd black hat, his beautiful child’s face expressionless.

The bottom of the chair, however, is a bare charcoal sketch. This is also true of Paul’s feet, and there seems to be a remnant sketch of another leg and foot, unpainted and superimposed over the sketch of the bottom of the chair. Why did Picasso leave these parts unfinished? Or put another way: why did Picasso feel the painting was done?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that if Picasso had painted every part of this painting and removed the remnant sketch of another leg, the painting would be lovely, unremarkable, and would not incite me, as it does, to consider the countless fleeting moments our brains transpose into notions of reality.

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

For the last several months I have been writing the third volume of a fictional epic entitled Ida’s Place. Book One is subtitled Return, Book Two Revival, and Book Three Rehearsal. Set in a place reminiscent of where I live on the north coast of California and peopled with foreigners, artists, visionaries, brilliant children, and just folks, this is my first attempt at a multi-volume work—the process quite different for me than writing a single-volume novel.

Entering my fourth year of involvement with this large cast of characters, I no longer think about where the saga is heading or when it will end, and as a consequence I have been experiencing a wonderfully uninhibited writing flow.

“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Georges Braque

A couple weeks ago, Marcia went away for five days, and my usual three or four hours of writing each day became seven and eight, the momentum of the Ida saga lasting from morning until late at night. When I took breaks from writing to eat or work in the garden or go to town on errands, the story continued to speak itself, oblivious to my lack of pen and paper.

I thought the flow might slow when Marcia came home, but the pace never faltered. Then a few nights ago, I finished writing a scene, put down my pen, and felt something, a tangible something, sink from my head into my stomach, like an elevator going down and stopping abruptly—with something definitely in that elevator. And I wondered if the first draft of Ida’s Place Book Three was done.

So I posed the question to my muse: has everyone in the story arrived at a good pausing place? Yes. Okay.

I typed the last fifty pages of longhand into the IDA 3 document on my computer and printed out the entire opus to begin, as William Everson would say, working the lines. I have only a vague notion of what has gone on in these several hundred pages, and I am keen to find out. But first I will take a few days off from the adventures of Ida and her people to revel in the glorious spring.

Hey Nineteen

March 25th, 2015

young todd with beard jpeg

Todd 1969 photo by Richard Mead

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

Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin

She don’t remember Queen of Soul

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

Digging around for photos of my grandmother, I came across a black and white picture of me taken in 1969, a still shot from a student film made during my second and final year of college at UC Santa Cruz—when tuition was next to nothing. My decision to quit college was made easier than it would be today because housing in 1969 was cheap, work was easy to come by, and the economic obstacles to experimenting with being an artist were minimal, certainly compared to the economic realities of 2015.

In the photograph, my thick brown hair is going every which way, my kinky beard full and black, my black-framed glasses the same ugly frames millions of myopic young American men wore at that time. I am wearing a black suit and tie because in the film I play the part of a violin teacher, my student such a terrible player that his squawking music drives me first insane and then causes me to have a heart attack and fall to the sand.

For reasons never made clear to me, the violin lesson is taking place on a beach, the blond violinist short and fat and wearing only enormous white diapers. After I fall dead, the grinning violinist walks into the ocean and disappears under the onrushing waves. I saw the three-minute film several times in one night in the filmmaker’s dormitory room, a couple dozen young men and women gathered to eat chips and salsa and drink cheap wine and watch the opus.

The consensus, heavily influenced by the ingestion of illegal substances, was that the movie was a work of surpassing genius and the filmmaker destined for international acclaim. I have no idea where that filmmaker is today, but on that night, he was hailed as a god.

My roommate played the part of the diapered violinist in the film, and was in reality a tone-deaf violinist. When he practiced in our room during the day, everyone in the dormitory would flee to the library or forest or cafeteria. And on those few occasions when he dared played at night, angry people would pound on our door and threaten to kill him if he didn’t stop.

One of those angry people was a pre-med student living alone in the room directly below us. A clean-cut fellow with black-framed glasses, he always wore pressed beige slacks, a white dress shirt, a striped tie, and a beige sweater. He rose at dawn every day, showered, shaved, dressed, and then rushed to the cafeteria to wait for door to open so he could eat breakfast at seven, after which he would race to his Organic Chemistry lecture and lab.

I was often playing Frisbee in front of the dorm when this hardworking fellow returned from a long day of pre-med travails, and he would sometimes stop to watch us flinging the disc and say, “Don’t you guys ever study?”

One night at a dorm party, he got very drunk and grabbed a young woman who screamed bloody murder as she fought him off, and it took four of us to pull him away from her and subdue him. The next morning, he rose early, donned his uniform, and was first in line at the cafeteria.

Some months later, this dedicated pre-med student did not emerge from his room for breakfast or to attend classes. Nor did he emerge the next day. His door was locked and he did not respond to entreaties to come out. The campus police were alerted and they opened his door with a master key. The poor guy was sitting at his desk, unmoving, his Organic Chemistry textbook open in front of him. He was not dead. He was simply sitting there, his mind on hiatus.

The police took him to the campus medical clinic and from there he was taken to a hospital. Two days later, his mother and father arrived to get his things. His mother reminded me of the mother in the television show Leave It To Beaver—perfectly coiffed and with every stitch in place. His father looked just like him, only thirty years older, and wore the same pants and shirt and tie and glasses. Some of the guys helped them load his things into their car while a buddy and I played Frisbee.

The next day, two new guys moved into his room. One of them was a fanatical chess player, the other a jazz buff. They were both Sociology majors, rarely went to class, and thereafter John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock became staples of the quad.

It’s hard times befallen Soul Survivors

She thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

I was under the spell of Nikos Kazantzakis for my two years in college. I read all his novels, and Zorba the Greek three times. To culminate my absorption of Kazantzakis, I was slowly working my way through his epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a massive work divided into twenty-four rhapsodies and consisting of 33,333 seventeen-syllable verses.

The messages I kept getting from Kazantzakis were: Get faraway from academia, follow the dictates of your heart and intuition, beware the overly-analytical, strive, sweat, make love, make music, write, travel, gather stories, and become a master of at least one thing, two or three if possible.

I finished reading that gigantic poem a month before I was to return for my third year of college, and I wept as I read the last few pages. Odysseus, the Odysseus Kazantzakis imagined, had been my constant companion for two years, and now he was dead. The book had been a bridge for me between childhood and adulthood, as had those two years of college. Now it was time to hit the road and, as Kazantzakis suggested, see what kind of trouble I could get into.