Magenta Queen

September 26th, 2016

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Magenta cover

“There are two kinds of comedy.  One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

I recently completed my new novel Magenta and brought the book out in handsome coil-bound photocopies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered, available through my web site or by bumping into me in Mendocino and arranging an exchange.

Magenta is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California, the action centered in a bookstore, a luthier shop, and an old house on the headlands. Funny and serious and poetical, Magenta is both a romance and a journey of self-healing.

My web site synopsis of Magenta begins, “On his sixtieth birthday, Leonard Porter discovers that someone has taken his guitar case and left his beautiful old guitar unprotected in a moldy shed. Leonard has not seen his guitar in thirty-two years, and finding her free of her case causes him to react in a way that radically changes his life.”

The novel begins:

Where Have You Been?

During the first few minutes of their phone conversation—Leonard in California, Sam in New Hampshire—Leonard uses the words sudden and unexpected several times, but a little while later Sam says, “So, really, this wasn’t sudden or unexpected. It was inevitable.”

“Yes,” says Leonard, gazing out his living room window at the deer gathering on the meadow as they do at the close of each day—a big battle-scarred stag presiding over a harem of four does and two yearlings, one of those yearlings a promising buck. “How we stayed married for five years is…I don’t know.”

“You must not have been paying attention,” says Sam, who has a knack for cutting to the chase.

“I don’t think I’ve really been here to pay attention.”

“Where have you been?”

“Going through the motions,” says Leonard, his fit of outrage over. “I, robot.”

“I didn’t ask what you’ve been doing,” says Sam, quietly. “I asked where have you been?”

“The only certain knowledge is the inspired guess.” Henry Kitchell Webster

Our San Francisco Giants have recently fallen into a collective slump of epic proportions. As I write this, they are playing the San Diego Padres in San Diego, having just been shellacked by the front-running Dodgers. Alas, this second half of the season, no matter how well our starting pitchers start, no matter how fantastic Brandon Crawford plays shortstop, no matter if we are ahead by a run or two going into the late innings, we tend to lose.

A few blown saves ago, Jon Miller, the rarely hyperbolic Giants announcer, declared, “It defies logic how many games the Giants have blown in the ninth inning this season.” I don’t agree it defies logic so much as it reveals the undeniable truth that great teams have great bullpens, and our pen this year lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Many of us knew at the beginning of the season we needed a new closer, and when management did nothing to address that key inadequacy by the trade deadline, we feared our chances of making the playoffs were fading. That we are still in the hunt with only a handful of games left in the regular season verges on the miraculous.

Fortunately, baseball is just a game, Sergio Romo is now closing instead of Casilla, the apple crop this year is stupendous, and the waves keep rolling into Mendocino Bay.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Having written six novels in the last five years, I decided to change literary gears and write a play. So I went to my PLAY file on my computer to find an already-written play from which to copy the Play format into a new document. While perusing the titles, I saw one that made me do a double take. Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues. The date of the file was 2002, a few years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino.

I vaguely remembered what Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues was about, and also vaguely remembered sending the play to several impregnable theatre companies. But the one clear memory I had of this play was the response from a former actor turned psychoanalyst. “As implausible as your central idea may seem, such a sudden and dramatic healing of a wounded psyche can occur when the primal truth is revealed.”

So I read the play again to see what my psychoanalyst friend was referring to, found the play compelling, and decided to rewrite the opus. Now, after several weeks of work, I am soon to make copies of Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues and send them forth.

“There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.” Robert Byrne

I was recently tempted to end my two-month fast from imbibing news of the outside world. If you haven’t tried such a fast, I highly recommend it. My chronic anxiety disappeared, my sleep improved, and I’m much less cranky.

However, a friend recently dropped by, and before I could inform him of my news fast, he informed me Hillary is only leading Trump by four percentage points in recent national polls, riots have broken out in response to more police killings of unarmed black people, and the Great Barrier Reef is dying fast. And though I somehow already knew these things, I decided to check them out on my computer. However, my first glimpse of Trump’s maniacal visage and Hillary’s hysterical grin inspired me to resume my fast, and I am once more enjoying the disconnect—radio broadcasts of Giants games my one ongoing link to mass media.

Also thankfully, much fascinating news is to be gleaned from talking to Marcia, reading books about neurobiology, walking to town, tending the garden, shooting hoops, communing with friends, hauling firewood, picking apples, playing the piano, blabbing with folks at the post office, and unleashing the imagination onto the unsuspecting page.

Luz

September 19th, 2016

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Ampersands thanks to Max

So it’s Friday and I’m having one of those mornings where I feel certain the universe is an all-powerful sentient being picking on me for no good reason. Put another way, I’m feeling sorry for myself. If you’re human and have been alive for at least seven years, you know what I’m talking about. The rational sectors of our brains know the universe has more important things to do than intentionally make us miserable, but when we’re in the throes of such angst the rational sectors are offline.

I decide to exercise my way out of my bad mood by walking to town. I usually drive into town on Fridays in August and September because Jack almost always has a big watermelon for me at the farmer’s market, and a big watermelon is not schlepable in my knapsack.

But I need to shake off this sense of being a victim of a malevolent universe, so I decide to walk to town, mail a package, hope the very important letter that should have come two days ago is waiting in my P.O. box, walk home, and then drive back to town to get the melon.

Halfway down the hill, a long half-mile, the walking is definitely resolving my angst and I’m about to turn around and go get my truck when some idiot talking on his phone while driving almost hits me and my certainty the universe is out to get me returns in force and I decide I better walk all the way to town.

This near-death experience gets me shouting at the Great Old Demon universe and the American medical insurance pharmaceutical mafia and various other orgs and peeps I feel are conspiring to ruin my one precious life. And I am at the zenith of my ranting when something moist nudges my left hand.

I look down and here is a criminally cute six-month-old Black Lab pup. She smiles adoringly, shoves her head under my fingers, and communicates, “I love you so much. I’m going to live with you from now on. Okay?”

To which I respond, “Hello cutie. Go away now. Go home.”

The pup likes my tone and trots along beside me as if she owns me.

I make emphatic shooing gestures. “Go home. Go home now.”

The pup stops and frowns quizzically. I walk on. The pup follows. I notice there is a tag on the pup’s collar, so I squat down to glean any salient info and the cutie is all over me, licking me and communicating, “Oh good. You love me and I love you. Hurray.”

The tag reads Luz, below which is a local phone number. Hoping this means Luz’s home is nearby, I stand up and say, “Go home, Luz. Shoo.”

Now a dog barks in the distance and Luz takes off running across the field and I think she must be headed home, so I continue on my way. But now she comes racing back to me and her exuberance carries her out into the road where a car screeches to a halt and the human driving the car glares at me and says, “Leash your dog, asshole.”

All of which makes me realize Luz is not very savvy about roads and cars. And given we are fast approaching the coast highway, and given I don’t possess a mobile phone, I decide the only thing to do is take the pup home and call the number on her tag.

The very moment I make this decision, a man I know comes by in his truck with his poodle glaring out the passenger window. I know for a fact this man carries a phone, so I flag him down, point at Luz, and before I can say a word, the passenger-side window sinks down, the poodle yaps at me, and the man says, “I’m late. I can’t help you.” And he speeds away.

Before I can form an opinion of this man’s behavior, another truck comes by, this one driven by a man I don’t know. He, too, is accompanied by a dog. He pulls over and gets out to see what’s going on.

“Do you know this pup?” I ask him. “Name is Luz. Very sweet.”

“I know all the dogs around here. Never seen this one before.”

He squats down, Luz runs to him, and as she is licking him and loving him, the man’s old black hound gets out of the truck and stalks toward me growling ominously.

The man says, “Cool it, Chico,” and Chico cools it.

I smile at Chico and say, “The pup seems clueless about cars.”

The man studies the tag on Luz’s collar. “There’s a local phone number.”

“I know, but I don’t have a phone with me,” I say, feeling ancient and low-tech.

“I do,” he says, picking up Luz and putting her in the cab of his truck. “I’ll take care of this. Don’t want her getting hit.”

“Thank you so much,” I say, bowing to him. “You’re a prince.”

Now the man and Chico and Luz drive away and I understand why the universe arranged for me to walk to town today. Luz needed saving. Who better to save her than a person mistakenly thinking the universe is out to get him?

I walk into town, mail my package, and find nothing in my P.O. box, the important letter I’ve been waiting for still in transit. But for some reason this delay no longer bothers me. I walk the steep hill home, jump in my truck, drive to the farmer’s market, and arrive at Jack’s stand an hour later than usual.

Jack finishes waiting on a woman buying many tomatoes, goes to his truck, and brings forth a behemoth melon, the largest of the season. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming today,” he says, setting the big beauty on the scale.

“I was delayed by the universe for other purposes.”

“Happens to me all the time,” says Jack, carefully calculating the very reasonable price for fourteen pounds of ambrosia.

Gene and Grandma

September 12th, 2016

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Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Mr. Bosman

September 5th, 2016

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Twin Falls painting by Winkler and Nolan

Tim Bosman, forty-seven, boyish and playful and a superb acting coach, has been the Drama teacher at Carlyle High in Rincon, Idaho, for the last fifteen years. And though he has been happily married to Sarah for twelve years and they have produced two lovely children together, many people in Rincon still think Mr. Bosman is gay.

When he was twenty-one and freshly out of college, Tim moved to New York City and spent four years striving to succeed as a stage actor before moving to Los Angeles and spending six years laboring in the lower echelons of the movie business. And though he came close on several occasions to landing juicy roles, he never did get a big break and finally gave up his quest for stardom and became a high school Drama teacher.

His bitterness about not succeeding as a professional actor eventually evaporated and nowadays Tim loves his job, loves his wife, loves his children, loves his students, and could care less that some people think he is gay. He directs three plays a year at the high school and one play every summer at the Rincon Community Center, last year’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum a huge success.

Many of Tim’s students are so inspired by working with him that they major in Drama in college, and one of Tim’s students, Rip Morgan, is now a regular cast member of the mega-popular sit-com Get Outta My Face. Thus for aspiring thespians at Carlyle High, Tim is a god, his approval sought by dozens of insecure teenagers, mostly girls, who make casting the school plays a hellish ordeal for Tim and his wife Sarah who lives through the anguished hours with him as he decides who among his charges to make deliriously happy and who to reduce to emotional rubble.

Today is the last day of school before the blessed summer break; and the tradition at Carlyle High for as long as anyone can remember is for the five hundred students, forty-three teachers, nineteen administrators, and seven maintenance people to convene at day’s end on the football field for a mammoth barbecue. Staff and students and parents and former students gather to eat hamburgers and hot dogs and wish each other well until next year, or to say goodbye to those going to college or entering the work force or leaving town.

And it has become Tim’s tradition to use this finale on the football field as the time for speaking privately with each of his Drama students and thanking them and encouraging them and wishing them well. The graduating seniors who have taken Drama from Tim especially look forward to this day, for they have been told by those who have gone before them that Mr. Bosman becomes uncharacteristically emotional with his seniors at the end-of-the-year barbecue and says things he would never say in class or while directing a play. Mr. Bosman, as one former student declared, becomes a fountain of loving wisdom at the barbecue, and loving wisdom is what his students crave.

This year’s barbecue is an especially poignant affair for Tim because the two finest actors he has ever had the pleasure of working with are graduating. Consuela Valdez—tall, curvaceous, loquacious, and drop-dead funny—is going to UCLA, while Aaron Goldberg—short, stocky, and screamingly droll—is going to Reid. Consuela and Aaron have been in thirteen plays together since their freshman year and are inseparable pals, though they have never been sweethearts.

So when Daisy Alexander, a ditzy junior, is surfeited with Tim’s praise, Tim decides to bestow his fond farewells on Consuela and Aaron together.

Now as it happens, the moment Tim raises his hand to summon Aaron and Consuela for their grand denouement, Aaron is at the apogee of a seminal conversation with Didi Schlesinger, a lovable squeaky-voiced ingénue who has the regrettable habit of forgetting her lines at crucial moments in front of large audiences. Aaron and Didi are finalizing their plan to meet tonight to climax three years of relentless flirting by going all the way with each other.

Also as it happens, in this same moment of Tim’s beckoning, Consuela is reveling in an erotic tête-à-tête with Larry Spangler, the blue-eyed bad boy Tim cast in Rebel With A Toothache—Larry brilliant in rehearsals but so drunk on opening night he ruined the play. Consuela and Larry’s conversation is also about going all the way together tonight, an experience Consuela has imagined several hundred times since Larry kissed her during the dress rehearsal of the ill-fated Rebel With A Toothache and she nearly passed out from the pleasure of their lips coalescing.

And so when Aaron and Didi and Consuela and Larry converge on Tim—his two finest conjoined with his two most disappointing—Tim is more than a little chagrined. But before he can settle on an appropriately kind way to ask Larry and Didi to leave him alone with Aaron and Consuela, the unexpected occurs.

“I’m honored, Mr. Bosman” says Larry, speaking in his marvelous smoky tenor, “truly honored you would call me over here with Connie and Aaron and Didi. I seriously screwed up. I let you down. And I let myself down, too. Yet you still include me with these two who never failed you.”

Tim is about to reply to Larry when Didi proclaims with nary a trace of squeakiness, “Me, too, Mr. Bosman. I’m honored, too. But more than honored, I’m determined to prove you right for believing in me despite my screw-ups. You make me want to keep going, keep trying, keep working to bring my unafraid self to life on the stage. And I will.”

“Ditto moi,” says Larry, putting his arm around Consuela. “I’m not going to UCLA, but I am going to LA, and make it or not, I’m gonna try. That’s what you gave me, Mr. Bosman. For which I can never thank you enough.”

“Nor can I thank you enough,” says Didi, winking at Tim. “And now we’ll leave you alone with your stars.”

“Oh don’t go,” says Tim, seeing himself getting off the bus in New York City twenty-five years ago. “Everything I say to them is meant for you, too.”

 

Actual Abstract

August 29th, 2016

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Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.

Strangely Early

August 22nd, 2016

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All That You Ask Of Me painting by Nolan Winkler

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.”  Mary Roberts Rinehart

One of the great pleasures of living in this rural area is that many of my neighbors and friends are avid observers of the natural world. And so in early August when I began sharing my observations that maple trees and fruit trees and blackberry bushes here on the coast in Mendocino were behaving as if it was late September, many folks concurred with similar observations about the local foliage and fruit.

In reading about climate change, I have come upon a number of reports by credible scientists suggesting that those physical indications of what we used to associate with fall—leaves changing colors, fruit ripening, colder nights—will henceforth become much less predictable in terms of when they manifest. Thus fall may come in summer, spring may come in winter, summer in spring, and…will we have a winter this year in California?

That’s an interesting question. We just had our first relatively wet winter in the last five years courtesy of a huge El Niño. The long-running drought in California and throughout the Southwest was barely dented by the glorious but not excessive precipitation. Here in Mendocino, where our aquifers are not directly dependent on Sierra snow, our water supply was much improved.

Now, however, the National Weather Service is reporting a formidable La Niña taking hold in the Pacific. Given this dramatic cooling of the ocean waters, what do the precipitation maps recently released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association say will be coming California’s way in the months of October, November, December, January, February, March, and April?

Not to be an alarmist, but NOAA’s maps indicate that California’s rainfall for those seven months will be Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

Oh what do they know? Well, actually NOAA has been highly accurate in predicting precipitation in California over the last decade, and if these predictions are even close to being accurate, the state of California will soon be gripped by a disaster of epic proportions. And what about right here in Mendocino? According to those NOAA precipitation maps, we are facing disaster, too.

There is a possibility, of course, that Mendocino may receive more precipitation than those NOAA maps suggest, if, and it is a big if, some of the storms predicted for Oregon and Washington extend far enough south to douse us, too. Then our aquifers might be somewhat replenished and the scope of the local disaster somewhat diminished.

Then again, given that no one expected August to be October this year, maybe several massive storms will unexpectedly dump thirty inches of rain on us in November and December. Stranger things have happened. Yes, this is wishful thinking, but wishful thinking may be the best response to a climate verging on chaos and another year of drought looming

“One has to fear everything—or nothing.” Jean Giraudoux

I recently broke my self-imposed ban on listening to or reading any news of the great big world outside Mendocino County. I turned on the radio and caught the end of National Pentagon Radio’s daily news program Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration.

There were two young women talking to each other about this year’s crop of summer movies. I listened for a moment and decided this must be a special feature of the news program encouraging people of extremely limited intelligence to share their incredibly simplistic ideas with a national audience—some sort of diversity-enhancing show to end the doctored news on a folksy note. In any case, I couldn’t bear to listen and turned off the radio.

Then my curiosity got the better of me, and having remembered the names of the two women, I fired up my computer and did a little research and discovered that one of the women is a regular host of Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration, and the other woman is that esteemed program’s regular movie critic. And because August is now October, I was not surprised.

“There are three things to do in dealing with a crisis—search for the guilty, punish the innocent, promote the incompetent.” Louis Goldman

Once upon a time there were billions of humans on earth and the biosphere began to disintegrate under the pressure of their personal and collective habits. And so there came a time when much of the earth became uninhabitable and nearly all those billions of humans perished along with many other living things. However, some of those humans survived, and here and there on the earth, plants and animals and sea life began to thrive again. After several thousand years of recovery, the biosphere was healed and the earth a verdant paradise once more.

But humans were no longer the dominant species on earth. Something had changed in their nature during the holocaust of biosphere collapse and they never again aspired to anything more than growing vegetables and fruit, catching fish, making and wearing comfortable clothing and footwear, singing, dancing, telling stories, and traveling hither and yon on foot or in canoes. Since there were no roads or sidewalks, skateboards did not make a comeback. No human possessed any more or any less than any other human, and the few times someone invented a weapon deadlier than a bow and arrows or someone built an engine requiring the burning of fossil fuels, such weapons and engines were ceremoniously destroyed and the inventors required to undergo extensive psychotherapy and live naked for seven years surviving on roots, berries, and small mammals caught by singing enticing songs, after which they were re-integrated into society and allowed to resume wearing comfortable clothing and footwear.

Thus the earth continued to spin on her axis and speed around the sun for a hundred million more years until the Cosmic Metamorphosis began and…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Gym Rats

August 15th, 2016

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Oasis painting by Nolan Winkler

Jim Young, coach of the Mendocino High School boys varsity basketball team, also happens to be my chiropractor and friend. I had a chiropractic appointment with him on Thursday at 11:30, and the night before he sent me an email saying: “I’m going to put one of my younger stars through a shooting workout right after our appointment. Want to help? 12:15 in the high school gym.”

Just a few months ago I would have declined Jim’s offer, not having touched a basketball in five years and being in dreadful shape as I close in on sixty-seven. However, for the last few months I have been endeavoring to right the ship and even occasionally going to the elementary school to fling a few balls at the rims, so…

While Jim expertly unknotted the muscles in my upper back and alleviated much of the chronic tightness in my neck, he explained how he and I would work together during the shooting workout of the promising young guard Nakai Baker. Jim would do the rebounding and pass the balls to me, and I, in turn, would pass the balls to Nakai, and Nakai would do nothing but shoot.

Some of Jim’s inspiration for involving me in this fascinating exercise sprang from his recent reading of my novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, the last time I was able to entice a major publisher to take a chance on one of my books. As it happened, Bantam didn’t take much of a chance and declared the book out-of-print on publication day. Thus very few people have ever read Ruby & Spear, the story of a poetical sports writer and his fantastical involvement with a phenomenal playground basketball player.

The book begins: “Once, when I was young—oh, fifteen—I stood on the western edge of my father’s driveway, focused intently on his finest gift to me, a shiny orange rim mated to a whitewashed backboard—a fresh net awaiting my throw, the summer sun warming my bare skin. I was a rosy tan white boy, longing to flee the oppressive confines of suburban dependency. Nearly all my heroes were great black men who could fly. Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Earl the Pearl Monroe.”

Basketball was my refuge from an unhappy home life as a teenager, and for my two years of college I spent more time in the gym playing basketball than I did attending classes. So when I walked into the Mendocino High School gym with Nakai and Jim—my first time in a gymnasium in more than twenty-five years—I was flooded with nostalgia.

I changed from my walking shoes into low-top tennis shoes, Nakai changed from his walking-around shoes to gorgeous red and black high-tops, and we joined Jim at the west end of the court where he awaited us with three basketballs. Nakai is a slender lad, sixteen, five-foot-nine, who shows little emotion when he plays, though some of that may have been due to being sequestered in a gym with his coach and some old guy with funny hair.

After we took a few shots to loosen up, Jim directed Nakai to a spot some eighteen feet from the basket (a couple feet in front of the three-point line) and the first drill began.

Standing at the top of the key, my job was to pass the basketball to Nakai so it arrived in his hands a couple of beats after he released his previous shot, and I was to time my passes so Nakai could maintain a consistent rhythmic flow of catching and releasing the ball without pause.

It took me a few passes to get in synch with Jim and Nakai, and a few more passes to hone my accuracy and speed of delivery, but since my sole focus was to receive basketballs from Jim and feed them to Nakai, I eventually got the hang of things and greatly enjoyed myself.

On occasion I would not pass the next ball quite soon enough and Nakai would give an impatient little clap of his hands to say, “Speed it up, old man,” and I would endeavor to do so. I made one-handed passes, two-handed passes, bounce passes, fast passes, and the occasional lob, all of which Nakai handled with ease and aplomb.

His shooting accuracy was impressive, his stamina superb, and his range remarkable. A few times in the course of forty-five minutes of nearly incessant shooting, Nakai launched shots from several feet beyond the three-point arc and made a surprising number of them. My guesstimate is that Nakai took about thirteen shots per minute during the time we worked with him, or roughly six hundred shots, most of them from eighteen to twenty-three feet from the hoop, and he showed no signs of tiring until the very end.

He also executed a series of dribbling drills I cannot even imagine emulating without at least a decade of rigorous daily practice. Make that two decades. He dribbled two balls at the same time, up and down the court, and each ball departed his left and right hands at different speeds, and these speeds changed in relation to each other with each of his runs up and down the court. He also dribbled the two balls through his legs and behind his back as he ran, and I said, “Oh my God” at least seven times during his dribbling routine.

We concluded the workout with a game of HORSE, and by the time I made my last heave at the basket, I could barely lift my arms, though I had only been shooting for ten minutes, whereas Nakai had been shooting nonstop for the better part of an hour.

Jim and I bid the plucky lad adieu and walked down from the high school into town, Jim to have a swim in the ocean, brave man, I to stumble to my truck (formerly Jim’s truck) and drive home, there to lie down for an hour to recover from the rigors of feeding the ball to Nakai.

An audio version of Ruby & Spear narrated by the author is available from iTunes and Audible, while used copies of the novel may be had for pennies online.

Hungry Deer

August 8th, 2016

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Birdbath & Friends charcoal and acrylic by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

With that in mind this morning, I go out to water our apple trees.

When we bought our house and surrounding two acres four years ago, the place was a deer park, the seven dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees badly mangled by the deer and dying from lack of water. Our first large expenditure was to have a sturdy deer fence installed around the southern three-quarters of an acre with the house as part of that barrier.

We pruned and watered and fed the apple trees, and today four of the original seven are now robust and productive, one gave up the ghost, and the remaining two are still quite distressed and would like new basins free of redwood roots, more food, and more water.

This year the crop on four of the trees is spectacular and we attribute some of this to our monthly deep watering throughout the dry summer months. To that end, we installed a second water tank two years ago so we would be assured of a goodly supply for the orchard and our vegetable garden. The deer are as plentiful as ever hereabouts, and groups of them can often be found standing at the fence gazing longingly at the bounty they once had access to.

This morning, I open one of the sturdy gates leading into the orchard and leave it ajar a mere three feet. I set a hose at the base of one of the apple trees, head back to the gate, and here is a doe twenty feet on the wrong side of the fence making a beeline for the dwarf Red Delicious.

Fortunately, I opened the big gate outward, so the doe is easily cajoled into going out the way she came in. She must have entered mere seconds after I did—the entire incident lasting less than two minutes. I check to make sure no other deer have entered the protected zone, close the gate, and return to the house to set a timer lest I forget the hose is running.

Sitting at the piano, improvising on the theme of apples and deer, I look out the window with a view of the land we’ve left unfenced and see two does and two adorable fawns nibbling on anything digestible they can get their mouths on. Anything. They seem scrawny to me, the fawns especially so, and I recall our neighbor who feeds the local deer and goes to Idaho to hunt elk, telling me the forage hereabouts is not so good this year and the deer are not just hungry but stupid hungry and therefore more likely to get hit by cars.

The timer rings and I return to the orchard and decide to leave the hose running on that first tree for another half-hour. While I’m here I do yet another thinning of the apples lest various boughs break under the weight of the abundant fruit. I fill a big bucket of half-sized apples—reds, greens, goldens, yellows—and dump them on the north side of our house where the deer visit daily.

In my office, working on a poem, it occurs to me that I gave those apples to the deer today, rather than saving them for our neighbor’s horse who produces manure for our garden, because the doe that entered the orchard this morning communicated her hunger to me. Seeing the scrawny fawns was further impetus to feed the deer, not that a few apples will make much of a difference to their longevity, but I’m a sucker for fawns, so…

An email from Max in New Hampshire arrives, a missive jiving splendidly with my musings about deer and apples and music and poetry and Alan Watts writing about the universe being indistinguishable from how we act upon it.

“This evening I made an unexpected store run to pick up a couple of items, the prolonged dusk thrillingly muggy (unusually heavy humidity for our spot in New Hampshire) and inviting in the big thunderstorm I’d seen predicted for tonight. I had a most pleasant time zipping to the store and back, accumulating little moments—like in the grocery store produce section when I asked the young man wearing a white hairnet who was putting out produce if they had any ears of corn, and he looked at me with such gentle wonder and asked, “Ears?” and I made an ear-of-corn shape with each of my hands and he smiled and said, “Do you mean corn-on-the-cob?” And I said yes! He led me to the ears of corn and I thought maybe nobody calls them ears of corn anymore. But somehow this was delightful. Just the intrigued way he asked the question, “Ears?” like this was a whole new idea about corn, foreign to him, yet charming somehow. Anyway, the quick shopping done, I drove home with the windows down, feeling the excitement of the storm about to break, listening all the way home to the inspiring piano stylings of Mr. Todd Walton and boy did you sound fantastic! Everything seemed so right. And just as I was about to walk in the front door of our building, huge drops of rain started plunking down. By the time I arrived on the 5th floor, the rain was drumming down on the skylights above the hallway to our apartment, a great percussion accompaniment to my approach to the door. Perfect timing.”

 

Heart Bern

August 1st, 2016

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Moving Over Life painting by Nolan Winkler

Dear Todd,

Max here. I’m wondering how you feel about Bernie Sanders supporters at the Convention who just don’t want to let go of Bernie and join the others in backing Hillary Clinton. I feel empathy for them—they’ve wholeheartedly believed in someone and felt represented by him, and now they’re told to drop that and get behind this other candidate who doesn’t embody what they loved. Bernie was an alternative to everyone else, including Clinton. Are they supposed to act like there is no great difference now? Even using the Anything-but-Trump scare tactic seems to ignore something basic: the fact that they genuinely loved their candidate, believed his message, and still feel he’s the best person for the job. But it’s as if they’re being asked to “grow up.” Does it strike you that way too?

How are you feeling about Bernie and everything?

Dear Max,

Pursuant to wresting control of my brain from the negative forces, I have been avoiding news of the larger world for the last few weeks with good results, though I have heard some news about the angry Bernie supporters at the convention. I also got an e-letter from Bernie (I think it went to fourteen million of his closest friends) inviting me to join him in the ongoing political revolution he says his campaign was just the start of; and I picked up a leaflet from the local arm of Bernie Ongoingness in Mendocino.

The gist of Bernie’s message is: now we must work hard for several years to deepen and expand the grassroots movement to get socialist Bernie-type people elected to local and state offices and Congress so we can be ready for the next few tries at the Presidency four years and eight years and twelve years hence. In this way, some day maybe we’ll have Single Payer Healthcare and throw off the yoke of the Wall Street gangsters and corporate overlords who control our government and are swiftly destroying the earth—Hillary and Bill and Barack their current functionaries. This, I think, is Bernie’s way of asking his followers to grow up.

I went on my first march protesting the Vietnam War in 1963 when I was fourteen, and went on my last of hundreds of marches eleven years later in 1974, a year before the United States military finally pulled out of Vietnam. Did all our protesting and organizing actually help end that terrible war? Maybe not. Credible histories suggest the United States was simply defeated and going broke pursuing that war, our troops mutinying.

I mention Vietnam because that anti-war movement was the only time in my life that millions of young Americans persisted for several years in a political effort to change a major policy of our federal government. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of Bernie’s older supporters are former anti-war protestors who joined today’s young people who feel disenfranchised by the current economic system and crushed by debt they accrued going to college.

One problem: Bernie’s support of Hillary, which he promised from the very beginning of his campaign if he didn’t win the nomination, now feels to me like something he was always planning to give her. So I think it probably feels that way to many of those angry Bernie supporters, too. Feels different than being asked to grow up and more like being asked to give up. Also feels like a betrayal because Bernie did such an excellent job exposing Hillary as a lying shill of the oligarchy. That he would then endorse her, and do so lavishly, is plain sickening.

Another problem: we are now three generations into the Culture of Instant Gratification and I would wager that a vast majority of Bernie supporters are not going to work hard for several years to deepen and expand the Bernie revolution. The Green Party has existed for twenty years promoting the identical platform Bernie ran on and they haven’t exactly lit the world on fire, politically speaking. Bernie was never tempted to run as a Green because he has always been something of a political loner and didn’t want to insure the election of Trump.

However, if the election were held tomorrow, Trump would win. Was that the oligarchy’s plan all along? I don’t think so. I think their plan was to elect Hillary to insure the continuation of the transfer of wealth upward and endless war. The overlords knew very well that almost any slightly moderate and not too repulsive Republican would trounce Hillary. So they directed the mass media to trumpet Trump into Republican supremacy because Hillary, they felt certain, could beat him because he’s such a buffoon. Right?

Well…it turns out that she is so hated and mistrusted by so many people, and is so blatantly criminal and such a horrid abrasive vindictive person that she probably can’t even beat Trump. Unless…

And that is why I have been avoiding news of the larger world. I would rather fill my brain with the ongoing mysteries of my garden, walking to town, watching the waves roll into Mendocino Bay, helping my friends and neighbors, listening to Giants games, communicating with you, cooking supper, writing, playing the piano, and creating new and improved neural pathways.

I feel sad about Bernie. I think he illustrates that the super individual is what resonates most powerfully with the American people. Bernie proves again that if there is ever to be a political revolution bringing us those things we desperately need, a charismatic such as FDR will have to lead the charge. Remember, FDR was president for thirteen years and would have gone on being our president for another twenty years had he lived so long.

But there’s a problem with charismatics who gain massive support while pushing for serious social and political reform. They tend to get killed when they pose a serious threat to the ruling elite.

More Menebroker

July 25th, 2016

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Paths painting by Nolan Winkler

“We have never grown up from magic—just away.” Ann Menebroker

I recently wrote a piece about my friend Ann Menebroker, the fine poet who died recently at the age of eighty. In response, I received a number of communiqués from people who wanted to read more snippets from Annie’s letters, so I present them here with one of Annie’s poems.

March 2009: I loved the artwork of your friend Marco Donner. In this one, the young Madonna is separated from her child, who is way above her. She looks enraptured and the child looks like a girl…so perhaps that’s what it is…an elevated perception of adult/child, of the specialness of birth, of new beginnings, of innocence. Of the female influence, which is supposedly less wild and warlike than the male. And I could be crazy.

July 2007: I have been writing a little and think I have amassed some eleven or so new poems. Of course they must sit around and I must go back to them after the glow of genius has faded. Ha!

July 2006: If we get to come back once we finish a round on earth, I want to come back flooded with the joy of music, voice, instruments, all of it! Soaked up like gas on a rag, blazing like a Bic lighter starting up the fire. I want to learn harmony and notes and how to put those notes and that harmony together. All of it, baby!

My only two “lovers through the mail” boyfriends are a crazy drunk writer/musician/broke/ill health guy in New Mexico, and a crazy artist/poet trying to quit smoking pot friend in Australia. Their letters, the flirting, all of it, I love! Being with them would be a disaster.

February 2004: I am very bad about rewriting. I am one of the sloppier poets, one who accepts the gift too easily, rips into it, pops out the gift, throws the tissue and ribbons aside! What I edit, I edit as I’m writing in that powerful flow of creativity. I need to work on my editing skills, not to be so easily content. I have had a poem I thought “hot stuff” get cool comments from fine critics to remind me of this!

I treat poems like lovers, caught up in the passion. I know passion cools.

June 2002: I went to Nevada City and spent the night with my daughter Sue and her husband Kevin. We went to a barbecue of a young poet up there. It turned out there were a lot of males and only 3 women, Sue, myself, and another gal well into her fifties. So we got flirted with, which was most fun! A young man kissed me with barbecue sauce on his lips, and an older man hugged and kissed me. Then I left and went safely with Sue and Kevin to their home. I felt like a kid! I’ve been telling all of my women friends about being kissed. God, I’m silly.

It seems lately that I need a little male attention, which hasn’t been the case in a lot of years. So I have to watch it and stay away from them (in any romantic sense, that is.)

No sense messing up a perfectly satisfying life!

January 2004: I’m getting another book out. But don’t worry, no need to buy it. I’ll send you a copy. You’ve seen most of the poems. Many of them are in my previous collections of poetry. They are all from The Wormwood Review. The publisher, up in Grass Valley, came upon them, some 57 or so, and asked me if he could put them in a collection. I said, hmmm, ok. He sent me the book to proof. I just got it. I hadn’t seen some of those poems in years! They are full of my life, my history. They have that “tough gal” feel to some of them. It will be titled Tiny Bites, the Wormwood Poems of Ann Menebroker.

March 2006: And here I am, loving it downtown. The other night I was awakened by all of this noise, as if the two men upstairs (landlord and his partner) were either having very violent sex or were murdering each other. It went on and I got up and looked out the windows, but saw nothing. The next morning my landlord told me that some drunk had tried to kick down the wooden gate at my end, and there was a huge disturbance, police were called, so I was way off!

Stealing Lorca

A fat-paged book in sepia cover

with a young Garcia smiling from

the flat memory of who he was, is

left on the front seat of the old Mercury

Cougar that belonged to her mother

who was more porcupine than cat.

She still pulls quills from her child’s heart plant.

Who did Lorca love? His mother sent

an omelet to the prison where his

rhetoric and fame, his love of handsome

men, brought him. Did he eat this

meal his frightened mother sent?

He smoked loaned cigarettes and cried

the cry of fear and death.

Her mother died at home in her own bed.

Lorca died near a group of olive trees

in the hot season, dramatic bullets

for his final act. Sex is forgotten.

I am really going to die.

Someone stole the book when she

went into the store for a tub of margarine.

This Is Your life. Candid Camera.

I’ve Got A Secret. Survival.

A goddamned book! It wasn’t even hers.

A man’s whole life stolen twice.

Ann Menebroker December 2002

 

More of Ann Menebroker’s poems can be found on the worldwide web.