We’re In It

July 1st, 2015

presidio medium

We’re In It  ⓒ Copyright David Jouris (Presidio Dance Theatre)

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

“So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it, you’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell.” Stevie Wonder

We’re in it. Those thousands of articles about the coming consequences of global warming, over-population, and environmental pollution? Those consequences are here. Yes, things are going to get worse, but unprecedented climatic events are not coming sooner or later, they are here. Hundreds of millions of people are starving or about to starve. Insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers will not one day wreak havoc on the world, they are wreaking havoc now, big time. The oceans are rising and acidifying. We’re in it.

There is a drought in Brazil that we know is the direct result of humans cutting down too much of the Amazon rainforest, yet the cutting down of that rainforest continues at a frightening pace. Brazil’s agricultural sector is suffering terribly from the water shortage and Brazil is building archaic fossil fuel power plants to replace the loss of electricity from hydroelectric sources because the nation’s rivers are drying up.

NASA recently released the results of their satellite assessments of the world’s aquifers. The most depleted aquifer on earth is the one beneath California’s Central Valley, and the second most depleted aquifer is the Ganges Brahmaputra aquifer. California’s drought may last decades, and the monsoon that feeds a billion people in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh was late again this year and will provide less than the minimal amount of water needed by farmers in those badly overpopulated countries.

Scientists have also proven conclusively that the collapse of honeybee populations worldwide is caused by the use of insecticides containing neonicotinoids, yet the supranational chemical-pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing these poisons refuse to remove them from the market. With the exception of a few European nations, national governments are apparently powerless to force these poison-manufacturing corporations to do the right thing.

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

I went to the farmers market in Mendocino last Friday and was surprised to find local egg producers asking eight, nine, and ten dollars for a dozen eggs. This seemed exorbitant to me, so I passed. But when I went to buy eggs at Corners, where last week I was shocked to find a dozen eggs selling for six dollars, the price had risen to nearly eight dollars.

Yes, the new state law requiring bigger cages for mass-produced chickens and chickens confined for the purpose of mass producing eggs has caused an increase in egg prices, but that doesn’t explain why local free range chicken eggs have nearly doubled in price in the last year. Inquiring of a few chicken owners I know, I learned that feed prices have skyrocketed due to less production of key grains due to the ongoing drought. We’re in it, and one-dollar eggs could be the new norm, and eggs, as you know, are key ingredients in myriad foodstuffs, so…

In other local climate change news, this past winter was the first in my nine years in Mendocino when we did not have a single night of freezing weather, the lowest temperature being thirty-four degrees, with only a week or two when the temperature got below forty degrees. Oh joy, sing the millions of mosquitoes and fleas and earwigs whose eggs did not freeze to death this past winter.

Speaking of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, thousands of people have died of heat stroke there in the last couple weeks, with temperatures topping 115 degrees for several days in a row. Crops are wilting in the fields and animals are dying along with humans. We’re in it.

 “We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inward at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet.” Stephen Hawking

So yesterday I’m coasting down the hill in my little old pickup on my way to the commercial sector of Mendocino, and I’m thinking about The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, a book I read when it came out in 1968 and naively hoped would change the world, when a snazzy new sports car speeds up behind me and the driver starts madly revving his engine. I check my speedometer and see I’m going five miles an hour over the speed limit, this being a school zone.

I can see in my rearview mirror that this older male driver is apoplectic and wants me to pull over so he can speed by, but I’m only going a half-mile to town and I don’t want him careening recklessly through our neighborhood full of children and people walking their dogs, so I keep my speed at thirty and try to ignore the guy, but he starts swerving out into the oncoming lane as if he’s going to pass me and then zipping back in behind me and riding my bumper.

Thirty seconds later, we reach the stop light at Little Lake Road and Highway One. I am first in line at the red light with Insane Man right on my tail hysterically revving his several hundred horsepower engine. When the light turns green, Insane Man hits his horn and keeps honking as we cross Highway One and cruise into town. Now Insane Man rolls down his window, sticks his arm out and shakes his fist at me, flips the bird, and by reading his lips I determine he is saying many unkind things about me.

As fate would have it, when I turn left, Insane Man turns left. When I turn right, Insane Man turns right, and now I’m getting mad because Insane Man keeps almost crashing into me and shaking his fist at me, when all I’ve done is drive to town a little faster than usual.

I park in front of Zo, the best and only copy shop in Mendocino, and as Insane Man speeds by he screams, “Die you motherfucking scumbag!”

And by a remarkable coincidence, his words echo my wish for him.

Trust

June 24th, 2015

Question & Reply

Question & Reply painting by Nolan Winkler

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

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

Trust is a tricky thing. Long ago, I held writing workshops for groups of eight people meeting for two hours once a week in my living room, each course lasting eight weeks. At the outset, I would reiterate what I had explained to prospective participants when they called to sign up for the process: we would be doing my original writing exercises and there would be no lecturing or criticism or analysis of anything we wrote, by me or anyone in the group, and no one had to read aloud anything he or she wrote unless he or she wanted to.

Of the hundreds of writers who participated in these workshops over the years, nearly all believed there would be lecturing and analysis and criticism and judgment of their writing, despite my proclamations to the contrary. And almost all believed if they did not read aloud what they wrote, they would be made to feel stupid and ashamed.

By the end of the first session, there were usually two or three participants trusting they would not be criticized or shamed when they read or did not read aloud what they had written. But there were always people who needed three or four sessions to fully trust they would simply be listened to when they read what they wrote, and so they had to wait a long time to find out that being listened to by a group of non-critical people can be a deeply illuminating and inspiring experience.

And it was only when everyone in the group fully trusted that no one would criticize or be criticized, that we truly became a group and not eight individuals separated by fear and mistrust doing writing exercises. Everyone in the group would feel this momentous shift when the last doubter surrendered to the embrace of non-judgmental group mind. Talk about synergy! Talk about people taking chances, going deeper, and discovering things about their expressive talents they would never have experienced without trusting that anything they wrote was allowed.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” William Shakespeare

I make a part of my minimalist living selling my books and music and art. Customers can buy things from me using their credit cards via my web site or they can send a check to my post office box or they can bump into me at the farmer’s market and give me cash. I have a policy, established two years ago, that I no longer send or deliver orders until I have the money in hand. Had I established this policy ten years ago, I would be thousands of dollars richer than I am today.

Why did I continue to trust people after numerous people did not pay me for goodies received? Because I prefer trusting people to not trusting people, and I was embarrassed to imply to my friends that I didn’t trust them. But the fact is, since most of my customers are my friends, most of the people who stiffed me, knowingly or unwittingly, were my friends. I think poverty and forgetfulness, rather than malice and greed, were behind most of the stiffing, but still.

Yet it wasn’t until a very close friend ordered several hundred dollars worth of books and music CDs to give as Christmas gifts, and I gleefully sent off the big package to her before I received her check (money I was counting on) and then I never got her check, though she claimed it was immediately cashed yet was unable to confirm who cashed it, that I finally installed my policy of having the money in hand before shipping the goods.

And, yes, I have since lost sales to friends infuriated with me for not trusting them, which is why I say trust is a tricky thing.

“Trust, but verify.” Ronald Reagan

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, my neighbors told me that our neighborhood was so safe no one ever locked their doors and there had never been a theft of anything for as long as anyone could remember. And so I never locked my house or my car and I left my bike unlocked on the front porch, and for several years what my neighbors told me proved true, and life was groovy.

Then one night somebody stole a neighbor’s Volkswagen. And in a twinkling, everything changed. Everyone started locking their cars and locking their doors. I continued to leave my bicycle on the front porch unlocked, but then it was stolen, and thereafter I kept my bike in the locked basement accessed through a padlocked gate.

And the unexpected result of this rash of thefts, this new economic reality, was that my neighbors began to mistrust each other and me, and there were fewer block parties, life became less casual, and people spent more time indoors. It seems that once mistrust becomes the overriding modus operandi, it permeates everything.

Then I moved to a working class neighborhood in Berkeley and my neighbors told me there hadn’t been a theft of anything in the hood for as long as anyone could remember, at least fifty years. And until rent control ended and the dot com explosion rendered Berkeley unaffordable for most of my neighbors, our neighborhood was blissfully safe and crime free. But once the street was gentrified, robberies became commonplace and gloomy mistrust descended and life sucked.

Then I moved to Mendocino, and the first joke I was told by two gregarious locals who sat with me in the café and paid for my tea was, “Why do you lock your car in Mendocino? Because if you don’t, someone will leave a bag of zucchini on your front seat.”

So far no zucchini, though I never lock my truck.

Just Old

June 17th, 2015

if my head sinks beneath the sea site

If My Heads Sinks Beneath The Sea painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Samuel Ullman

A friend suggested that the reason I find contemporary American movies and books and plays and music to be largely junk is that I am just old.

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Crosby, and many other older musicians aver that contemporary popular music today is inferior to the popular music of their day, but that’s just because those guys are old.

Every writer I know over fifty decries the deplorable state of writing and editing today, but that’s just because we’re old. And when older poets recoil at the poetry of younger poets whose verses are rife with clichés, void of subtlety, and might be lyrics to rap songs, they are recoiling because they are just old.

If you ask young people about the movies of today, they will name dozens of films they think are light years better than movies we thought were great when we were younger. Young people are certain I cannot see and hear and understand what they are seeing and hearing and understanding because my eyes and ears and mind are just old, and they might be right about that, though I don’t like to think so.

My mother plugged her ears and shouted, “Turn that off!” when she caught nine-year-old me listening to Ray Charles. Maybe Mom was just old. She liked The Mills Brothers and Artie Shaw, and so did I, but she didn’t like Sam and Dave and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield because she was stuck in the musical aesthetics of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Little.

“Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.” Andy Serkis

I am sixty-five-years-old at last count. Depending on your view of things, I am middle-aged, old, or real old. Yes, contemporary cultural aesthetics are in constant flux, and yes, I am not enamored of most of the latest fluctuations. However, my estrangement from American culture did not begin when I qualified for Medicare and Social Security. No, my disaffection began when I was in the prime of my life, otherwise known as my twenties and thirties, and coincided with the lightning-fast conquest of America’s publishing industry by a few massive, politically conservative, morally bankrupt multi-national corporations.

To echo Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds in the publishing business fired by soulless corporate operatives and replaced by Yes people who only follow orders from the unimaginative number-crunchers above them, those orders being: publish books exactly like the books we already know sell lots of copies. Do not buy anything that might be too sophisticated for a poorly educated ten-year-old. Buy nothing remotely original. And only consider things sent to you by literary agents who agree to follow these same orders.

That merciless corporate blitzkrieg of America’s publishers began circa 1972 and the conquest was complete by 1980. Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think this takeover was part of a conscious effort by the ruling elite to snuff out the fires started in the counter-culture renaissance known as The Sixties, with the election of Ronald Reagan a direct result of their coup d’état.

Publishing was not the only branch of our cultural tree thoroughly infected by the corporate fungus during that same decade. Record companies, movie studios, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks were also conquered and gutted by the same multinational consortium, and we have lived in a culture shaped and controlled by this mind-numbing corporatocracy ever since.

I don’t hold this view of history because I am just old, but because I experienced this cultural takeover firsthand when I was a young and successful writer and screenwriter. When I refused to acquiesce to the new cultural guidelines imposed by the recently installed corporate managers, my career was effectively ended.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Before I was just old, I founded the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. Every summer for five years, my faculty and I would greet the fifty young writers we had selected from many hundreds of applicants, and we would invariably discover that all these bright young people were starving for something to read other than Anne Rice or Stephen King or To Kill A (expletive deleted) Mockingbird. I use the word starving because the nincompoops running our schools in collusion with the corporate overlords intentionally deprived those young people of varied, original, challenging and nourishing literature.

One of our first acts of compassion for these bright young people was to give them long reading lists of our favorite novels, short story collections, plays, and non-fiction works, as well as the names of hundreds of excellent writers and poets, most of those authors dead or just old. And for this simple gift of sharing the names of books and writers we admired, we were looked upon by our young peers as angels descended from heaven to end the vapidity of their cultural experiences.

Now that I am just old, I sometimes delude myself, just for fun, by imagining another totally neato renaissance happening in my lifetime. Or maybe, as a friend who is also just old opined, “The renaissance is always here, but like a whale, she dives deep for food and we can’t see her most of the time unless we happen to be watching when she comes up for air.”

Late Spring

June 10th, 2015

36 and Counting site

36 & COUNTING painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” Hal Borland

Nature brought us a treat two weeks ago, a young doe, resident to these woods we own a small part of, sauntered by the north-facing windows followed by two tiny fawns, their smallness amplifying their cuteness. Since then, the doe and her fawns have returned several times, the two babies larger each time, their movements ever more graceful and assured.

A couple days ago, I went strolling in our woods and unwittingly surprised the doe and fawns, the little ones leaping away with astonishing agility and speed, their mother standing between me and them and giving me a look that said, “My nest is near, please don’t come any closer.”

I think I know where her nest is, in a dense copse of thirty-year-old redwoods on the edge of our property, but I will not go looking there and risk permanently scaring her away. We made a decision when we bought this place to leave the land on the north side of our house as wild as can be so the deer and other critters will want to hang out there, and so far that seems to be the case.

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Pablo Neruda

On the same day we first saw the fawns, I was sitting in my very high chair at my very high desk at which I sometimes stand to work, when something out my south-facing window caught the corner of my eye, and before I could turn to see what it was my brain fired off the word kitten, for the thing was small and gray and moving with the uneven gait of a baby cat just learning to trot. However, the thing was not a baby cat, but a baby opossum, and though I would not call the adult version of that animal cute, this baby was hella cute, compact and fluffy, the nose already Durante-like in proportion to the body, the tail just getting going in its growth to becoming long and thick, the little animal still more kitten-like than rat-like as are the adults, rat-like in a Dr. Seuss sort of way.

My enjoyment at seeing the baby opossum immediately turned to fear for the baby because our cat Django is a large, persistently hungry, skilled and ruthless killer of baby mammals, especially baby rabbits and baby rats, and I imagined this tiny marsupial would be just Django’s cup of tea, so to speak. So I leapt from my chair and dashed into the living room where I found the voracious beast sound asleep on his tuffet, and I breathed a sigh of relief, though the fact is opossum are a scourge of my vegetable garden, rooting as they do for earthworms in the well-nurtured soil. Go get him, Django!

“Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.” Al Bernstein

We had a foggy cold May, germination in my vegetable garden pathetic, the baby plants remaining nascent and wimpy for weeks on end from lack of sunlight and warmth—neighbors and friends pale and gloomy and cranky and depressed. Humans, clearly, are solar-powered. Don’t forget to take your Vitamin D.

On the first of June I flipped the pages on our two wall calendars, and as if the weather spirits had been waiting for the name of the month to change, the fog vanished and the sun came out and has been out every day since then—our baby vegetables waking from their suspended animation and stretching their fog-beleaguered limbs to the great giver of life to say, “What took you so long?”

Now every day is like waking to the next frame of a time-lapse nature movie, tomato plants doubling in size overnight, dormant perennials bursting forth with colorful blooms, hummingbirds zipping around the garden in blissful hysteria, zealous bees working the clover, everybody making up for lost time— neighbors and friends rosy and cheerful and kind and effervescent, the gals in the post office giggling, the bank tellers ebullient, the high school girls half-naked again after a month of suffering under hoodies and leggings.

“Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!” Sitting Bull

We denizens of Mendocino are used to fog and long stretches of foggy days, but May is not usually a foggy month here, not in the nine years I’ve lived here, and not in the experience of several old timers I queried about the odd weather. But one longtime resident, a student of redwood ecology, suggested that our especially foggy May was a reaction to the continuing drought and extreme heat gripping inland California.

To paraphrase him: there have been many droughts in the last several thousand years, some lasting decades and possibly centuries, yet the redwood forests survived. How did they do that without much rain? They survived because of fog, which is what occurs vastly and persistently when hot dry inland air meets the cooler moister ocean air. Redwoods steep in the fog that refreshes their thirsty foliage and coalesces into drops that fall into the spongy duff or trickle down the trunks into the root masses.

Does this mean many more foggy days lie ahead, more than usual? Will May be a foggy month again next year as the great drought persists? We shall see. In the meantime, June is doing a splendid imitation of May, the blackberry bushes between here and town are so dense with blossoms I can already taste the blackberry jam we’ll make from the bounty, and the apple trees seem to have enjoyed cool foggy May, their branches full of young fruit. Still, the ground is perilously dry and we will want to water our younger fruit trees deeply a couple times this summer if we can possibly spare the water.

LA Jewish Money

June 3rd, 2015

Goody, Red, and William

My Grandmother Goody with Red Skelton and William Bendix

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

“The argument that all Jews have a heartfelt investment in the state of Israel is untrue. Some have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches.” Judith Butler.

The Mendocino Film Festival took place these past two weekends and the little town was jumping with out-of-towners, some in the movie business, some wanting to be in the movie business, and some who enjoy watching movies on screens larger than postcards and wall calendars. Endemic rural funk collided with visiting urban slick, and being highly susceptible to ambivalent ambience, I avoided the commercial sector of town for most of the days the film festival was underway.

Didn’t I want to see the movies? Not really. The good documentaries are already, or soon will be, available to watch in the peaceful atmosphere of home, the fictional shorts shown at the festival are usually several years old and I’ve already seen the good ones, and listening to filmmakers pontificate about their creative processes makes my stomach gurgle, so no.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the film festival coming to town. I was involved in the movie business for several years in my salad days, and the vibe in the town when the film festival is underway brings back loads of good and bad memories from those tragi-comic years. For instance, on Saturday, in search of a good chicken to bake, I entered the Mendocino Market, a most excellent deli and sandwich shop across the street from the post office, and was greeted by an ambience I am deeply familiar with: LA Jewish Money.

I am Jewish, genetically speaking, and throughout my childhood I spent part of each summer with my Jewish grandparents, my mother’s parents, in Los Angeles. My grandparents were in the real estate business and many of their friends were in the real estate business and show business, those two enterprises conjoined since the birth of the film industry in Los Angeles in the early 1900’s. LA Jewish Money was the primary fuel of the American movie industry in the twentieth century, both in Los Angeles and New York. Indeed, LA (and New York) Jewish money has been the primary fuel for all of show business, with much of that money coming from the fantastic profits accrued from buying and selling and developing real estate in the greater Los Angeles area (and Manhattan and Miami.)

Thus long before I became professionally entangled with Hollywood, I had listened to and partaken of hundreds of conversations in which Jewish men and women discussed life and business with a vocabulary and style and energy that evolved over decades of first and second and third generation American Jews settling in Los Angeles to partake of the land and movie gold rush that made Los Angeles into the vast city state it is today. Jewish money financed most of the movie studios, record companies, Broadway plays, television networks, television shows, and magazine and book publishers in America from 1900 until today—Facebook and Google the inventions of smart Jewish boys.

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Which is to say, when I walked into the Mendocino Market and found myself in the midst of a dozen gregarious young Jewish men and women, the men overweight and excited and funny, the women stylish and clever and droll, the air rich with frying pastrami accompanying those Los Angeles movie peeps buying bushels of cookies and wine and beer and chips and potato salad and pickled herring to go with their sandwiches, everyone talking loud and fast and sarcastically, I not only understood everything they were saying to each other, I recognized these young Jewish movie people as the great grandchildren, figuratively speaking, of the cohorts of my Jewish grandparents.

“Jews have a tendency to become comedians.” Sacha Baron Cohen

So if Jewish movie people are so smart and funny, why are American movies today so uniformly stupid and unfunny and downright bad? I think the answer lies in the word business. Artists tend to have little or no interest in business. And most good artists who become big successes have a businessperson taking care of business for them. If you are of my generation, you will remember when Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were major goddesses in the record business, but you may not know it was David Geffen who managed their careers and gave them the wherewithal to succeed. Business. LA Jewish Money.

Ergo: a good movie is a work of art, but the people in charge of financing and producing movies are concerned with profitability, not art. Thus a good movie is both a work of art and a miracle to emerge intact from the meat grinder of the ultra-commercial uncreative imitative movie business. This, I think, is the greatest irony about the movie industry and American culture in general. Smart people, very smart people, are responsible for the flood of dreck and mediocrity that is our culture today. Or maybe it isn’t so much ironic as tragic and pathetic and annoying.

“Jews don’t care about ancient rivalries. We worry about humidity in Miami.” Evan Sayet

When Dick Donner, born Richard Schwartzberg, was directing the movie of my novel Inside Moves, he kindly allowed me to hang out on the set in Echo Park in Los Angeles for a week during the shooting. While I was there they filmed several scenes lifted unchanged from my novel, and one of those scenes was an emotional tour de force performed by the gifted actors Amy Wright and David Morse.

At scene’s end, the spellbound crew and cast members and show biz visitors to the set burst into applause and the air was filled with shouts of Bravo, to which Donner responded by slowly shaking his head and saying, “Not if we want to get a distributor.”

Because the name of the game is show business, not show art.

Lost To Time

May 27th, 2015

Compound India ink on paper by Nolan Winkler

Compound drawing by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth

May 20th, 2015

1.50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stripes

May 13th, 2015

this song's for you site

This Song’s For You by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ant Cows

May 6th, 2015

todd and pup

Todd and Pup photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.” Abbie Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All At Once

April 29th, 2015

All At Once

Spring Display photo by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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