Two Good Movies

February 9th, 2016

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

Calliope of Hope

February 2nd, 2016

calliope-coverD1

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

On Saturday February 20 at 6:30 PM, I will be at Gallery Books in Mendocino reading from the new Counterpoint Press edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup. I self-published the book seven years ago, and now the book will have a life in the larger world, so to speak. The paperback of Buddha In A Teacup from Counterpoint is beautifully designed and fits well in the hand.

Speaking of self-publishing, I just completed my first large work of fiction since finishing the four volumes of the Ida’s Place saga, and the new tome is now available from my web site. As with the Ida’s Place quartet, I present Calliope of Hope tales of the road in a handsome coil-bound photocopy edition, each copy signed and colorfully numbered by yours truly.

Calliope of Hope—tales of the road is both a collection of short stories and a novel. Any of these stories may be read as a stand-alone work, or you may read the book from start to finish and experience the stories as chapters of a novel.

Part of the inspiration for Calliope of Hope came from the late poet and translator Taylor Stoehr who was keen for me to write a companion collection to Buddha In A Teacup with a Sufi bent, which many of the stories in Calliope of Hope have, and many of the stories involve hitchhiking.

Here is the beginning of one of the stories/chapters from Calliope of Hope entitled Henry’s Expotition.

On a sunny morning in April, Henry Abbot, fifty-nine, tall and sturdy, his sandy brown hair cut short, his brown eyes full of mischief, stands on the east side of the coast highway at the north end of Fort Orford, hitchhiking to Portland, Oregon. Henry, who was born and raised in this town of three thousand hearty souls on the far north coast of California, is so well-liked, if he ever ran for mayor—which he will never do—he would win by a landslide, no matter who ran against him.

The last time Henry hitchhiked was forty years ago when he and his pal Gunnar Diggs, who was also born in Fort Orford, made it all the way to northern British Columbia before turning around and heading back to Fort Orford. Shortly after they got home, Henry joined the Army and spent two years in Germany fixing trucks, while Gunnar got a job driving a bulldozer for a local paving contractor, a job he still has today.

A few weeks after coming home from the Army, Henry moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he spent three years working as a truck mechanic and peddling his heartfelt ballads to record companies and recording artists large and small, to no avail. Upon his return to Fort Orford at the age of twenty-five, Henry embarked on a twenty-year career as a lumberjack, and for the last fifteen years he has been the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the one and only hardware store in town.

A widower with two teenaged daughters, Henry has never spent a night away from his girls, and though he only intends to be gone a few nights, this trip to Portland feels to him like the biggest adventure of his life.

Henry is dressed exactly as he does for work: brown work boots, red plaid socks, khaki pants, a black T-shirt, a blue jacket with a zipper, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. His luggage consists of a blue canvas knapsack and a large brown leather briefcase, and per the suggestion of the woman he is going to visit, he is holding a neatly-lettered sign: Portland.

Ten minutes after Henry takes his stand, who should pull up beside him in an old blue pickup but Arnold Collison, Henry’s neighbor.

Arnold leans across the seat and says out the passenger window, “Where you going, Henry? Car break down?”

“No,” says Henry, showing his Portland sign to Arnold. “I’m going to visit Jolene. Remember Jolene? Stayed with us for ten days last November?”

“Sure, I remember her. Pretty gal. Played the mandolin and sang like a bird. Why aren’t you driving?”

“Marie Louise is staying with the girls while I’m gone,” says Henry, laughing at Arnold’s stupefied expression. “Her car died and I want her to have my truck while I’m gone in case she needs to take the girls somewhere.”

“Borrow our car,” says Arnold, wondering why Henry didn’t think of that. “We hardly ever drive the damn thing. Practically new. We can get by with the pickup until you get back. How long you going for?”

“A few days.”
“Get in,” says Arnold, authoritatively. “I’ll drive you up to the house and you can take our car.”

“Well, actually, Arnold, I want to hitchhike.” Henry waits a moment for this to sink into Arnold’s famously thick skull. “I want to see how Jolene has been getting around for the last several years, and…I want the adventure.”

Arnold frowns. “Sounds pretty weird, Henry. You never know what kind of nut might pick you up. Better to drive. You’re almost sixty.”

“If I’m still here this afternoon, I’ll borrow your car,” says Henry, holding up his sign as a fancy sports car speeds by. “How does that sound, Arnie?”

“Sounds nuts,” says Arnold, shaking his head. “Seems like visiting Jolene in Portland would be adventure enough. Don’t you think?”

“Apparently not,” says Henry, losing patience with Arnold. “I’ll see you this afternoon or in a few days.”

Arnold drives away and Carlos Gomez pulls up in his ancient brown Malibu. “You hitchhiking, Henry?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, nodding.

“Car break down?” asks Carlos, the longtime chef at Rosa’s, the best Mexican restaurant in Fort Orford.

“No, I’m going on an adventure.”

Carlos nods. “That’s cool. I was in Stuyvesant’s having breakfast and Pablo came in saying you were out here with your sign, so I came to see if you were okay. You okay?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, realizing half the town will soon be parading by to get a look at him standing by the road. “Can I ask a huge favor?”

“Of course,” says Carlos, nodding. “What do you need?”

“I need you drive me to Gecko?”

“Sure. When you want to go?”

“Now.”

Carlos smiles. “I get it, Henry. Get in.”

Suffering Fools

January 26th, 2016

We've Traded Places Times Before

We’ve Traded Places Times Before painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

My friend John Grimes, the cartoonist, recently sent me an article from the Washington Post about Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump for President of the United States. The writer of the article suggests that since both Palin and Trump are Reality Television stars, this endorsement furthers the frightening trend of American politics becoming little more than a media circus designed to numb the populous while aggrandizing the stand-ins for the despots.

But I think there is something else going on here with Trump and Palin, something much older and deeper than Reality Television, though directly connected to the televisionization of our culture and society, which has made us, more than ever before, the victims of aggressive extroverts who seem to be developmentally arrested somewhere between the ages of four and ten.

When I was in Sixth Grade, a decade or two before the introduction of Ritalin and other pharmaceuticals into mainstream-education class management, there were two kids in our class, Charlie and Amy, who were both so impulsive, loud, and disruptive, our well-meaning teacher was nearly powerless to control them. And even when Charlie and Amy were not acting out, we expected them to explode at any moment, so our classroom experience was about surviving Charlie and Amy, not about learning. Sadly, these two were not smart or creative or interesting. On the contrary, they were infantile and abusive—Trump and Palin.

When Charlie and Amy’s behavior became seriously dangerous, which it did every few weeks—they often erupted in tandem—they would be removed from the class room for a few days or a week, and renaissance would ensue. Kids rigid with fear would relax, discussions would become sophisticated, and real learning would ensue, along with joy and laughter and emotional growth. And then Charlie and Amy would return and so would the Dark Ages.

“My grandfather believed there are two kinds of people—those who know how the world fits together and those who think they know. The former work in hardware stores, the latter in politics.” Josef Anderson

Alas, adult versions of those two abusive children who wrecked school for many of us are plentiful in our society. I’m sure you have experienced the following: You are at a gathering of intelligent thoughtful people, save for one who is not particularly bright or thoughtful or interesting, but he—it is most often a he—holds forth incessantly about nothing of interest to anyone, interrupts anyone who dares speak for more than a moment, and ruins the gathering—the group powerless to overcome this person’s repulsive neurosis.

Why are there so many of these boorish people in America? Christopher Lasch posits in his fascinating books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, that the breakdown of the extended family within a larger cohesive social fabric, hastened by the invention of auto-centric suburbia combined with the intrusion of television into every home in America, birthed vast numbers of individuals incapable of forming healthy emotional bonds. And those individuals, he suggests, had children who had children who had children, while all the while the social fabric continued to unravel; and we are now several generations along this new evolutionary path to endemic emotional disconnect.

“Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests.” Sir Max Beerbohm

When I taught Creative Writing at a summer school for highly motivated teenagers, I became aware that most of my charges did not know how to have conversations. They could exchange bits of information and make pronouncements, but they didn’t really know how to converse. After lengthy field study, I concluded that my teenagers did not know how to listen, did not know how to ask questions, did not know how to ask follow-up questions, and did not know how to think for a moment before responding to things other people said to them.

So we held conversation workshops in which my faculty demonstrated how to ask questions, how to listen to answers without interrupting, how to ask follow-up questions, and how to keep listening. Then we had our students practice writing out responses to the answers they received to their questions, which gave them practice in thinking about what they heard other people say before responding. And then we had them practice these techniques in groups of two and three and four people on a stage in front of an audience, after which people in the audience gave the performers feedback about which parts of the conversations they especially resonated with.

And though we worked on many aspects of the writing process during those month-long intensives, nothing we did for our students impacted them as profoundly as learning how to have meaningful conversations. For several years after I ceased teaching, I received letters from former students recounting the huge impacts those conversation workshops had on myriad aspects of their lives.

I often think of those workshops when I encounter these emotional black holes who will not allow anyone else to speak. You will notice that such people never ask questions of anyone, for to do so would be to enter into conversation. What, I wonder, do these incessant blabbers fear about other people speaking?

Could it be that the television itself is the primary role model these people have when it comes to relating to others? How does a television behave? It talks incessantly about the same things over and over again, never asks questions of those listening, and continues talking if anyone else tries to speak. Why wouldn’t people entrained by watching television for hours and hours every day from early childhood and throughout their formative years, imitate that “person”? Of course they would.

I don’t watch television, and it is only through what my friend Max Greenstreet informs me is called social osmosis that I know anything about Reality Television. But I would wager that most Reality Television shows feature people who would benefit greatly from conversation workshops.

Monsieur Russell

January 19th, 2016

Mark & Todd  Yosemite c 1961

Todd and Mark circa 1961 photo courtesy of Mark Russell

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

My friend Mark Russell recently sent me a photograph taken fifty-four years ago at a pullout on the Tioga Road halfway between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows—a spectacular shot of the Sierras, the deep blue sky awash in billowy white and gray clouds, Lake Tenaya shining in the distance.

Mark is thirteen in the picture, I am twelve, and we are on our way with our fathers to backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake, there to fish for trout and commune with the nature spirits. In this picture, I am a few inches taller than Mark and we are both skinny boys on the cusp of becoming young men.

Two years later, Mark and his family moved away and I would not see him again for twelve years. I had gone to New York to meet my first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman in-person for the first time, and to lunch with the three magazine editors—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Gallery—Dorothy had convinced to buy one or more of my short stories. I was funding my excursion with money earned from landscaping a freeway overpass in Medford, Oregon, and on a whim, I called Mark’s parents in Connecticut, they gave me Mark’s phone number in South Carolina, and I called him to see if I might come for a visit.

I had no idea what Mark had been up to since I last saw him, but I remembered him as funny, friendly, extremely creative, and adventurous, and I wanted to see him again. In junior high school, we played baseball and football and basketball together, and he helped me live through the tedious classroom hours by passing me brief little stories he’d written about naughty children doing silly and gross things, and I would nearly bust a gut trying to contain my laughter until class ended. Thus I thought of him as a fellow writer, which was what I aspired to be.

A woman with a strong southern accent answered the phone, I told her I was an old friend of Mark’s, Todd Walton, and she went to fetch him. A moment later, Mark came on the line, his voice an octave lower than when I had last heard him speak. “Todd Walton. I was just thinking about you.”

A couple weeks later, I detrained in Camden, South Carolina late at night and was met at the station by Mark and his beautiful wife Carrie, Mark sporting a dark brown beard and towering over me. He had married into a family of folks who raised horses, and he and his wife lived with his wife’s sister and mother on two thousand acres of woods and meadows and swamps. Mark had become a maker of fine wood furniture, and I ended up staying with him and his wonderful family for a few glorious weeks in November before I headed back to California.

The climax of my visit was attending The Colonial Cup, a famous steeplechase, where I ended up betting on the winner, a spectacular horse named Grand Canyon, and I won a couple hundred dollars. I might have stayed with Mark and his family longer, but my mother called on Thanksgiving and asked me to fly to Palm Springs to take care of my grandparents who were reeling from the suicide of their son, my Uncle Howard.

Thereafter, I heard little from Mark for several years, though I did get a letter from him saying he and his wife were now members of a Buddhist community in which the renowned teacher Pema Chödrön was a leading light. When the Canadian government granted permission for Pema and members of her community to immigrate to Nova Scotia, Mark and his wife moved there.

I’m not sure if Mark and Carrie had their two daughters before they moved to Canada or shortly thereafter, but two daughters they had, and now Mark is a grandfather. He also has a successful garlic and squash and kale farm called Garlic Mountain, lives in the second home he built since moving to Nova Scotia, raises fine horses with his wife, plays the banjo, and has built a number of spectacular wooden boats.

I know these things about Mark from a handful of letters and emails and photographs he has sent me over the years, and when Mark recently sent the picture of us when we were boys becoming men in the California Sierras in 1962, I fell into musing about why he was so important to me and why I have endeavored to stay in touch with him over all these many years despite the great distance between us.

Mark liked me and I liked him. He would come over for supper and to spend the night, and we would camp out under the old olive trees behind my parent’s house, build a fire, and talk about life and the myriad unsolvable mysteries. We went on long bicycle rides together, pushing the boundaries of our known worlds. Mark got me started collecting coins: pennies, nickels, and dimes, and I became fascinated with the history of money, which led me to reading about the history of everything else.

His parents were always kind to me and honored me for being who I was, and they laughed at the funny stories I told, whereas my own parents were routinely disapproving of me and disappointed I wasn’t more studious and academically ambitious.

Mark was an avid Dodgers fan, I a diehard Giants fan, yet our passion for baseball, our interest in the details of the game, was a bond. Mark loved Sandy Koufax, I loved Juan Marichal.

But transcendent of everything, I think, was that we found each other interesting and funny and thoughtful, and when one is eleven and twelve and thirteen, such a bond is golden. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years, but I have no doubt should we ever meet in the flesh again, we will have no end of things to talk and laugh about.

Not Stupid

January 12th, 2016

Todd and Squash

Todd and Hubbard photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Harper Lee

What most frightens me about the millions of people who want Donald Trump or someone equally fascistic and misogynist and woefully ignorant of international affairs to be President of the United States, and also what frightens me about those who feel Hillary Clinton would be a better choice for President than Bernie Sanders, is that many of these people are not stupid.

When I was in my twenties and roaming around the Midwest working as a farm laborer, I spent several days working for a farmer in eastern Kansas who was unquestionably a genius. He had quit high school at fifteen to take over the family farm when his father died, and had managed through hard work and intelligent planning to become a very successful wheat, corn, and alfalfa grower.

He was in his early fifties when I met him, his three children grown, graduated from college, and disinterested in being farmers. Thus he, as most of the Midwestern farmers I worked for in the early 1970s before it became common practice there to hire immigrants from Mexico and Central America, was glad to hire me at three dollars an hour plus meals and a barn to sleep in, to do the heavy lifting and drudge work his sons and grandsons might have done prior to the corporatization of agriculture and the demise of family farms.

Over our long dinners—dinner the name of the mid-day meal on the farms in the Midwest—and suppers and breakfasts, this farmer shared with me his many ideas about society, capitalism, psychology, and many other subjects, and when I would say, “Well, you’re reiterating what Marx said about…” or “Freud said a similar thing regarding…” he would invariably and honestly say, “Who?”

He read the local newspaper but did not read magazines or books, and he was chagrined to admit he found The Bible largely incomprehensible. Yet his ideas about culture and society and economics, born of his phenomenal intelligence and curiosity, were as sophisticated and plausible as anything I had read before, during, and after college.

He was also a devout Christian, a staunch Republican, and a racist, though he had abandoned his belief that men were inherently superior to women—his two exceedingly bright daughters and highly intelligent wife having cured him of that. On my last day with him, I told him I was baffled that someone of his vast intelligence and possessed of what I considered formidable wisdom, could be a racist Republican, and he said humbly, “Intelligence has a hard fight against deeply ingrained beliefs.”

“Learning learns but one lesson: doubt!” George Bernard Shaw

My father was a vitriolic atheist and a psychoanalyst. In his old age, he was certain he had stumbled on the reason why so many people, even seemingly intelligent people, believed in God. He posited that the tendency to believe in God, what he called magical thinking, was genetic: that most people were genetically hardwired to be magical thinkers.

Any argument to the contrary infuriated him, so I would remain silent when he began his lecture about Type A People and Type B People, and how all of human history could be explained by understanding that Type A People, those who were not predisposed to believe in God, cleverly manipulated and controlled the much greater number of Type B People who had no choice but to believe in God. In other words, all the religious leaders in the world since the dawn of civilization were atheists who pretended to believe in God in order to control the genetically inferior masses.

My father believed it was the genetic mutation for atheism that began civilization, which was a direct consequence of one sector of humanity gaining power over another through this genetic intellectual superiority.

Science and history have shown my father’s theory to be nonsense, and modern history, current history, is replete with examples of masses of fanatically religious people being quite uncontrollable by people not predisposed to believe in God. And that, as I said at the outset, is what scares me most about the governors and legislatures of the majority of American states, and the current majority of representatives in the United States Congress, and the millions of people who favor Trump and Bush and Clinton over Bernie Sanders: these people are not stupid, they are insane.

Of course, they would say I am insane for thinking egalitarian socialism is a good way to go. They would say I am insane for thinking we ought to take half the military budget every year and spend it on solarizing every viable house in America and building fast electric trains to give hundreds of millions of people exciting and comfortable alternatives to automobiles, and making education free from kindergarten through graduate school. And they would say I am insane for thinking we should have Single Payer Healthcare.

“From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.” Denis Diderot

Walking to town today, I crossed the coast highway at the only stoplight in Mendocino, and exchanged smiles with a large man hitchhiking south, his backpack lying on its back on the ground. I continued into town, did my errands, and on my way home found the big man still there, waiting for someone to give him a ride.

As I waited for the light to change in my favor, I said to him, “In my hitchhiking days, albeit a long time ago, I found having a sign naming my destination was helpful.”

He nodded affably and said, “I find that’s still true.”

“Where are you headed?” I asked, curious why he didn’t have a sign.

He shrugged. “Don’t really have a destination. Just looking for a place to camp for a few days and stay dry.”

The light changed, and as I started across the highway I said, “Good luck to you.”

“Not luck,” he replied, shaking his head. “Everything is predestined.”

Four Chairs

January 5th, 2016

four chairs

Four Chairs photograph by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Marcia and I recently bought four new chairs for our dining nook, and I think the way we got these chairs and the feelings they inspired will be of interest to people of my generation, those of us born in America between 1945 and 1955 or thereabouts. We were teenagers and young adults during the world-changing era known as the Sixties, which I believe lasted roughly from 1963 to 1975. By no coincidence those are also the years of the American chapter of the Vietnam War.

Exhaustive economic studies have found that my generation, despite the mythos of the Sixties, is the most materialistic generation to ever live on this earth. Whether that is true or not, when I and many of my age peers were in our twenties, we rejected the materialism of our parents and the larger society and chose lives of intentional simplicity, a choice that profoundly shaped my life ever after.

For one thing, choosing to live lightly on Mother Earth separated me from the vast majority of other people in America and made me keenly aware of the hierarchic nature of our social system, a hierarchy based on how much money and possessions a person has. Thus by choosing to have little, I found myself at the bottom of the heap, but because many of us made this choice in the Sixties, I did not feel lost and alone. On the contrary, I felt encouraged and excited about the potential for societal change that material minimalism and egalitarian socialism promised.

Anyway, the Sixties fizzled out, the so-called hippies became ravenous materialists, and those of us who remained true to the ethos of the Sixties found little support for our ideas and proclivities. Had I been even slightly prescient in 1972, I would have bought a few houses in Santa Cruz when a nice two-bedroom home a block from the beach could be had for seven thousand dollars. But I was not prescient and I didn’t buy, so today I do not sit on a mountain of gold.

“I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Henry David Thoreau

Which brings me to how we got our four new chairs. Marcia and I went to Santa Rosa to spend three days before Christmas with Opal, Marcia’s mother, a sneaky good pool player who always says, “Pure luck” after sinking another in a series of formidable shots en route to victory.

For lunch one day the three of us went to the Nepalese Indian restaurant Yeti, and when we were seated in our elegant wood-framed, broad-bottomed, high-backed, royally reddish upholstered chairs at the handsome dark wood table, Marcia declared, “I love these chairs. They are so comfortable. I would love to have chairs like these.”

We inquired of our friendly Nepalese waiter if he knew where one might purchase these enviable chairs, and a moment later the owner of Yeti, a charming man named Narayan Somname, came to our table and said, “Yes, I have more of these chairs in my warehouse in Glen Ellen. How many would you like?”

“Well, er, four,” I said, looking at Marcia to see if she wanted to jump at the chance. “How much do…”

“I will sell them to you for ninety dollars each,” he said, nodding. “They require some assembling.”

We pondered the situation for the rest of our scrumptious meal and concluded we would buy four. We arranged to meet Narayan at the restaurant the next day to give him a check and get the chairs, which he would bring from Glen Ellen, and that is what we did. The chairs came two to a box marked Made In China, the two boxes just fitting in the trunk of our trusty old Camry.

As Narayan closed the trunk, he said, “You may have noticed in the restaurant we affixed braces to the legs because after a year, some of the chairs began to wobble. I will take ten dollars off the price of each chair so you can purchase the necessary hardware.”

We arrived home in Mendocino on Christmas Eve, and after we got the woodstove roaring and our frigid house was habitable once more, I unpacked the chairs and found in each box a piece of fabric wrapped around a couple dozen bolts of widely varying sizes, with no directions for assembling the chairs.

Four hours of cursing and futzing and puzzling and grunting later—did I mention cursing?—the four chairs were assembled and arrayed around our dining table where, for the last ten years, four small uncomfortable folding chairs had served us with the aid of additional cushions for butts and backs.

We sat in our new chairs, Marcia pronounced them marvelous, and I thought they were marvelous, too, but I also felt a little guilty about having such beautiful chairs to sit on.

The next day, writing to my friend Max, I said, “These new chairs make me feel very adult. I wondered if I ever would.”

Max wrote back, “I laughed aloud at this. Maybe all along you merely needed the exactly right chair in order to experience a change of consciousness? Or I should ask: what is it about these chairs, do you think, that causes you to feel very adult?”

I replied, “The previous chairs I bought were small and inexpensive and not particularly comfortable, and there was a Spartan precarious feeling to them. I still feel slightly immoral buying new clothing, though I do buy new shoes and I bought a new piano in 1980. I don’t know. Maybe in so completely rejecting materialism, I got stuck in the mindset of my penniless twenties, and spontaneously buying four groovy chairs feels antithetical to my lifetime practice of owning a few excellent things and making do with minimal everything else.”

Crazy Money

December 29th, 2015

Greed Redux

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

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.” Mark Twain

Just got the annual news from Social Security about how much they will be sending me each month in 2016. Last year, they upped me from 565 dollars to 575, not much of an increase, but this year the powers that be have declared: there was no increase in the cost of living in 2015. Thus zero increase in Social Security for me, though my Medicare payment is going up, so actually less money for me.

For our own government, I mean our own corporate-controlled Congress and President, to claim the cost of living did not go up in 2015 is akin to saying peanuts grow on trees and rain falls upward from the ground. The absurdity of their claim is more than enough proof we have been taken over by a bunch of amoral sadistic poop heads. How, you may wonder, did they come to the startling conclusion that the cost of living did not rise, given that food prices have gone through the roof, ditto rent, healthcare, insurance, you name it. They came to this startling conclusion because they do not count food and insurance and healthcare and rent in their calculations. What, you may ask, do they count? Nothing that matters to most people.

“When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.” Oscar Wilde

In oddly related news, the San Francisco Giants just signed a six-year deal with pitcher Johnny Cueto for, I hope you’re sitting down, 130 million dollars. That comes to 21.6 million dollars a year. Now in a good year, Johnny will throw about 2700 pitches that count, which means he will make 7,777 dollars per pitch. That means every time he throws a pitch in a regular season baseball game, he will make eight hundred dollars more than I get in an entire year from Social Security. Per pitch. I know, I know. There’s nothing stopping me from getting down to work and making of myself an elite major league baseball player. Okay. So I’m lazy.

“Life’s two great questions: “Why me?” and “What do I do now?” William L. De Andrea

Marcia and I recently spent two nights in Santa Rosa visiting Marcia’s mother, and while we were there I went into a Safeway store for the first time in almost forty years. Yikes. We were questing for a particular soap Marcia’s mother likes and beer. Everything in the store had a price and a club price, and the club price was much lower than the non-club price. Everyone in the market seemed to be in a huge hurry, a life-and-death kind of hurry; as if they thought the store might explode at any minute.

Just for fun, we decided to dip our toes in the future and try the self-checkout line where a customer, theoretically, doesn’t need to interact with a human being to buy things. But they won’t let you self-checkout alcohol in Safeway because you might be a minor and the machine wouldn’t know that, so we ended up going through a regular checkout line.

When we got to the regular checker, he rang up the soap and beer and said, “Run your club card through the slot to get your discount.”

“We don’t have a club card,” I admitted. I was going to say this was my first time in Safeway in forty years, but I thought he might call Security if I said that, so I left things at not having a card.

“You could ask your neighbor?” said the checker, smiling at me and then smiling at the man in line behind us, a fellow buying an eight-pack of bottles of wine.

And before I could ask the checker what on earth he was talking about, the fellow buying the wine reached over and swiped his club card through the slot and our total went down from 22.84 to 18.37.

“Now go get your own card,” said the checker, winking at us. “Just takes a minute at the club registry. Right over there.”

But since we probably won’t be going to Safeway for another forty years, we made a beeline for the exit, and right outside the store we came upon a man and a woman and their two small children huddled in the freezing cold together with three suitcases, the man holding up a sign saying he had just lost his job, they had been kicked out of their apartment, they were hungry and cold, please help.

We gave them five dollars. The woman thanked us, but the fact is our neighbor in the checkout line had just saved us almost five dollars we would have been glad to spend on beer and soap, so why not give the money to these cold hungry people?

“The only way to be absolutely safe is never try anything for the first time.” Dr. Magnus Pyke

We’re giving Bernie Sanders some money to help him run for President of the United States, though I’m fairly certain, no, I’m absolutely certain there is no chance he will be given a chance to win the nomination. So why give Bernie money? Because we think his attempt is a valiant one, and though the overlords have directed their media managers to give Bernie as little coverage as possible, he does speak for a vast majority of Americans, even if many in that majority don’t know he does.

Furthermore, I believe Donald Trump is being used to clog the media so those who need most to hear Bernie will not. Yes, that sounds like a conspiracy theory because anything suggesting we’ve been taken over by amoral sadistic poop heads is labeled a conspiracy theory.

But imagine if Bernie had the money to buy some prime time television hours to talk directly to the American people without Hilary or some other corporate stooge interrupting him. Imagine Bernie having as much money as Johnny Cueto to make his pitch.

Dogs & Cats

December 22nd, 2015

Molly & Dylan sleeping

Molly & Dylan Sleeping photo by Bill Fletcher

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

An Inter-Species Holiday Fable

Myra Eberhardt is a self-avowed cat person—the kind of cat person who finds dogs and most of their people wanting in grace and civility. A stickler for neatness and punctuality, always up-to-date on the latest fashions, and something of a snob, Myra is forty-four, attractive, bright, and successful in all things save marriage. Men are attracted to Myra like bees to maple syrup, but the apparent faults of these fellows inevitably transcend their charms, and Myra despairs of ever finding her match. Thus her three cats, Bingo, Butch, and Groucho are more than pets to Myra, they are her children and Significant Other(s).

As one of the top wedding facilitators in the greater Bay Area, Myra frequently auditions musicians seeking work in that relatively lucrative field, and in mid-November, a slow time for weddings before the usual outburst of Christmas nuptials, Myra has the extreme pleasure of auditioning an accordion player named Michael O’Reilly with whom she falls head over heels in love.

Michael is a loose-limbed easygoing fellow of fifty-four with an uncouth head of wavy brown hair, his parents born in Ireland, he in San Francisco, his brogue slight but charming, and he is an absolute wizard on his squeeze box, his vast repertoire of songs spanning every known genre and then some.

“I used to say I could play anything from Bach to the Beatles,” Michael explains to Myra after wowing her with a medley beginning with Mendelssohn’s wedding march, climaxing with a Piazzolla tango, and finishing with an irresistible hip hop version of The Girl From Ipanema, “but we’ve entered an era when both Bach and the Beatles are considered classical music, so I’ve had to expand my genre base, as it were.”

“I’m sold,” says Myra, struggling to keep her professional persona distinct from that of a deeply smitten woman. “I’m sure I can come up with plenty for you to do. Weddings, I mean.”

“Great,” says Michael, returning his accordion to its case. “To that end, here is my brand new business card.”

With a graceful bow, Michael hands Myra an obviously homemade card featuring the faces of two smiling dogs.

Myra stiffens. “What…why dogs?”

“Oh, that’s Rex and Ziggy,” says Michael, gazing fondly at the likenesses of his beloved pooches. “I have a show for children, too, with Rex and Ziggy as my co-stars.”

“I see,” says Myra, commanding her frontal lobe to terminate infatuation. “I trust that for weddings…”

“I hope you won’t think me impetuous,” says Michael, impetuously interrupting her, “but would you like to go out with me? Food and jazz at Yoshi’s? I’m rather taken with you, and that’s a colossal understatement.”

And the sweet musicality of his voice and the electricity flowing back and forth between them like a sideways Niagara makes Myra blurt, “Yes!”

õ

Two evenings after their initial meeting, Michael arrives at Myra’s impeccable Berkeley bungalow driving an old station wagon outfitted for canine transport, and Myra invites him in for a drink before they zip off to Yoshi’s.

“I have three cats,” says Myra, sitting not too far from Michael on her brown leather sofa and wondering if he’d be open to suggestions regarding his hopelessly outdated wardrobe. “But you won’t see them. They hide whenever anyone comes over.” She laughs. “Your classic scaredy cats.”

“I love cats,” says Michael, sighing in admiration of Myra. “You are one beautiful woman.”

“Thank you.” She blushes. “Wine? I have an excellent pinot.”

“I’d love a beer,” says Michael, nodding hopefully. “I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I love beer. Dark if you have it.”

“Sorry,” says Myra, her hopes of a wine connoisseur dashed. “No beer.”

“Tea?” suggests Michael, grinning at the approach of three big kitty cats, Bingo appropriating Michael’s lap, Butch and Groucho rubbing and snuffling against Michael’s shoes and pants, the doggy scents irresistible to their inquisitive noses.

“This is unprecedented,” says Myra, dazzled by the sight of her cats fawning over Michael. “They always hide when I have guests.”

“Oh, if I had half the way with women I have with animals,” says Michael, petting the adoring felines, “I’d probably, oh God…”

“Yes?” says Myra, laughing in delight as she forgets again that Michael features dogs on his business card. “You’d probably oh God what?”

õ

On Christmas day, Myra goes to Michael’s house for the first time. Having fulfilled their separate obligations to friends and relations that morning, and with their romance now well into the kissing phase, Myra braces herself for a front yard akin to certain unfortunate dog parks, rutted and muddy. But as she nears his house, she is stunned to see a Shangri-la of rose bushes and fruit trees with nary a sign of canine trampling.

“Must have sacrificed the backyard,” she murmurs, hurrying through the rain to the front door and wondering why she doesn’t smell anything particularly gross and doggy about the place.

The front door is ajar, the house resounding to Nat King Cole singing Christmas songs, the scents of freshly baked gingerbread and bubbling spaghetti sauce mingling surprisingly well.

“Hello?” says Myra, stepping into the piano-dominated living room with her big box of gifts for Michael, knowing she’s probably gone overboard on the shirts, but what the hell. “Anybody home?”

In response to her question, an enormous hound of complex origins appears on the threshold of the kitchen, wags his colossal tail, gives Myra a goofy smile, and sits. This is Rex, and he knows very well that his great size gives any human pause, but that he is especially frightening to people with an aversion to his kind.

A moment passes, Myra frozen in fear, and now Ziggy, a Lab Collie Whippet Poodle, joins Rex on the threshold, wags his tail, smiles, and sits, too.

This can’t possibly work thinks Myra, admitting to herself for the first time in her life that what she fears most about dogs is they are so much like people, and people have never been her forte, whereas cats…

At which moment, a third being appears on the threshold, this one a feline of many hues, a gorgeous calico named Miro who does not tarry with the dogs but approaches Myra without a whisker of trepidation, swirls about the woman’s legs, and communicates loud and clear (on the psychic plane) Pick me up, honey. I love women.

And as she cradles the sonorously purring Miro against her bosom, Myra’s heart breaks open, as healthy hearts are made to do, and Rex and Ziggy feel Myra’s heart opening as their cue to cross the room and greet their master’s beloved—Michael recording the sweet miracle with his camera.

Seymour

December 15th, 2015

Cat and jamming

The Piano Lesson photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“If you play an instrument or sing, you will no doubt agree that life’s experiences influence the way you practice. But has it ever occurred to you that the opposite may also be true: that the skills gained from practicing—namely, the refinement and control of your emotions, your thoughts, and your physical responses—can influence your life?” Seymour Bernstein

Last night Marcia and I watched Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about the pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, who was eighty-five at the time the film was made and is eighty-eight today. The film, directed by Ethan Hawke, the actor, is certainly about classical music and pianos and playing the piano, but the movie is also a fascinating and ever-surprising portrait of an extremely thoughtful person with an extraordinary talent for teaching.

The previews for the film made me worry that Ethan Hawke would be too much in the film, but his presence is minimal. Most of the film brings us into intimate closeness with Seymour, who is delightfully erudite and eccentric. I felt we were having a visit with a favorite uncle, and whether I agreed with everything he said or not, it was big fun hanging out with him.

A most unlikely veteran of the Korean War—and there is a great segment of the film devoted to his military experience in Korea—Seymour grew up in an entirely non-musical family, but began playing the piano when he was five, having begged his parents to buy a piano. His disapproving father used to say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” but Seymour was born indivisible from music and so was not deterred by his foolish father.

At one point in the movie, Seymour is in the piano rental room downstairs in the Steinway building in Manhattan, working with a brilliant young pianist on technique, and the young pianist says, and I paraphrase, “Everything in my life is about music.” And we see Seymour responding to the young man’s pronouncement with a look that says, “Yes. You are a younger version of me.”

Several scenes in the film take place in this Steinway rental room—Seymour looking for a grand piano to use for the recital Ethan Hawke has scheduled for the denouement of the film. As a piano player, these scenes made my mouth water and re-ignited my lifelong desire to have a super duper grand piano—not that there’s anything wrong with my trusty upright. But when one hears those bass notes played on a superlative grand piano, and one’s entire body begins to hum along, well…

Seymour goes from grand piano to grand piano, looking for one that sounds good to him even when played softly. He plays a few chords on one piano and crows, “Horror of horrors!” and then dashes away to try one he declares “not bad”, until at last he finds a piano he proclaims the finest he has ever played, and this from a man who has undoubtedly played hundreds of the finest pianos in the world.

My favorite scenes in the movie are when we get to watch Seymour giving private lessons and master classes, all of his students accomplished pianists. Again and again, we hear these pianists play parts of pieces that sound wonderful, and then we watch Seymour adroitly help them noticeably improve their playing of the part, either by explaining the music to them in a way they have not considered, by demonstrating what he wants them to do by playing for them, or by physically taking hold of them and altering their postures as they play. And everything he does and says is freighted with love for the music and for the musicians. Inspiring!

Hawke decided to film a number of conversations Seymour has with a variety of people: two pianists, a British guy claiming to be a mystic, and a man in his fifties who has been Seymour’s student since he was five-years-old. The self-proclaimed mystic struck me as entirely superfluous to the film, and I had the feeling Seymour thought so, too. The two pianists are useful echoes to some of Seymour’s ideas about practicing and self-discipline, and his middle-aged student poses a question that made me want to smack the guy, but Seymour handles the question with equanimity.

The guy, peeved that Seymour gave up performing when he was fifty, says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t you think someone with your extraordinary talent has an obligation to overcome his aversion to performing in order to give your gift to the world?”

Seymour’s answer is, “I poured my gift into you.”

And really a large point of the movie, and apparently the main reason Ethan Hawke wanted to make this film, is that Seymour is indivisible from his art, and this indivisibility is what he models for his students. Seymour’s bliss, if you will, springs from helping others become the best musicians they can be, regardless of their level of talent or whether they will ever perform for anyone other than themselves.

In his youth, Seymour did concert tours and wowed the critics, but none of that for him compares to the joy he feels in exploring music on his own terms, including composing, and helping others overcome their obstacles to playing better.

At one point, Hawke is shown trying to elucidate why he feels so conflicted about himself as an artist and a person. He says his best work as an actor is often not successful, and his largest successes, in terms of money, are his worst work. Seymour, who has lived in the same little one-room apartment for sixty years, suggests by everything he does and says that the solution to Hawke’s problem is to stop making crappy movies and make good movies instead. In making Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke has certainly taken Seymour’s advice.

It may also be, that like Seymour, Ethan will eventually discover his greatest gift when he ceases to take roles to make big money and gives his all to the art of acting, perhaps as a teacher.

Glimpsing the Future

December 8th, 2015

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet 2014

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet) © 2014 David Jouris Motion Pictures

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

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene

I like that quote, but I think for me there were many moments in childhood when doors opened and the future came in.

When I was six, having arrived mid-year in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade class at Las Lomitas Elementary, I won my first friends by telling them stories at recess, stories I made up. And there came a day when Mrs. Bushnell was desperate for a nap and asked us to put our heads down and nap with her, but Donny Dorset protested, “We’re not tired, Mrs. Bushnell. Couldn’t Todd tell us a story?”

So while dear Mrs. Bushnell slumbered, I stood before the class and told a story about a boy who befriends a talking alligator named Albert and a smart aleck parrot named Cocolamoko and the adventures that ensued from their friendship. And as I gazed out at my classmates and saw them hanging on my every word and laughing at the goofy voices I gave Albert and Cocolamoko, I saw what I might be one day: an actor playwright.

During the summer after First Grade, I fell madly in love with my classmate Diana Fernandez who lived just up the hill from me. She was the fastest runner in our class and the most fearless of girls, and to my eyes she was exceedingly beautiful and I wanted to kiss her. To that end, I started a neighborhood Science club, a fancy name for catching bugs and lizards and looking at drops of pond water through my father’s microscope and discovering the strange creatures therein. When I invited Diana to join my club and she unhesitatingly said Yes, I immediately scheduled our first field trip.

Looking back on this scheme to be alone with Diana in the forest, I marvel at my ingenuity and perspicacity, for I never again was so ambitious and calculating in my wooing of anyone or anything.

The blessed day of our expedition arrived and Diana came to my house in a darling blue dress, her long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, a bag of freshly baked cookies in her knapsack for our luncheon in the field. And then, with each of us carrying a large glass jar and notebook and pencil to record how and when we captured our specimens, we ventured into the forest of giant oaks a quarter-mile from my house.

Several of these ancient oaks had branches so long and thick that over time they had bent down to earth under their own weight without breaking and snaked along the ground before rising up again to become entangled with other massive branches.

Thus it was possible to simply step up onto one of these branches and walk along and up until we were high above the ground. This is what Diana and I did in the name of science, though we both knew we were aiming to find the perfect place for kissing, which we did. I remember feeling confident we were in no danger of falling, though I cannot quite picture our perch. I do remember looking down at my dog Cozy who had followed us, and how small she seemed so far below.

Then we gazed into each other’s eyes, and Diana hypnotized me, and I was no longer a boy but a man, and she was a beautiful woman, and we kissed for a short infinity, during which I glimpsed a future where kissing Diana or someone like Diana would be a primary motivating factor in my life. I also glimpsed (or certainly sensed) the steamy jungles of adult sexuality, though I had no ready place to file that glimpse in my emotional file cabinet, though I must have filed the sensation somewhere because I remember those moments with Diana vividly sixty years later.

And then there was the poetry reading I attended with my friend Rico in a little church in the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. I was sixteen. To quote from my novel Ruby & Spear (available for a penny plus shipping online):

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

“I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.”