Choosing Names

December 17th, 2014

Mementos NolanWInkler

Mementos by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple Thanks

December 9th, 2014

flower

Flower pen and ink by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Shopping Reminder

December 6th, 2014

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

 

Power Over

December 3rd, 2014

No Illusions.No Replays Nolan Winkler

No Illusions. No Replays. painting by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonsense

November 26th, 2014

andmischief

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their son Mischief painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2014)

“Nonsense wakes up the brain cells. And it helps develop a sense of humor, which is awfully important in this day and age. Humor has a tremendous place in this sordid world. It’s more than just a matter of laughing. If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.” Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

The most successful music of the last twenty years is music that garnered the most views of videos in which that music served as background. The music business is now a wholly subsumed subsidiary of the video business. Original melodies have become so rare in this era of image-conveyed quasi-musical rhythm tracks, that melody, in commercial terms, is essentially irrelevant. Indeed, commercially speaking, to bring out a new album of tunes today without simultaneously bringing out several titillating videos accompanied by those tunes is almost unheard of.

“Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.” William Shakespeare

According to new research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the richest one-hundredth of one percent of Americans now hold eleven per cent of the nation’s total wealth. That is a higher share than the top .01 percent held in 1929, just prior to the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. And keep in mind we are speaking of the reported wealth of the top .01 percent, which is very likely a small fraction of the wealth they have secreted offshore.Put another way, 16,000 people are worth 110 million dollars each. That is to say, each of those 16,000 people is worth 110 million dollars, which is 1200 times wealthier than the average American.

“Forgive me my nonsense, as I also forgive the nonsense of those that think they talk sense.” Robert Frost

Have you mailed anything through the Post Office recently? Quixotic is the kindest adjective I can muster to describe the reliability of postal service since the forces of privatization in Congress began their vicious attack on what was once a strong and reliable component of our social fabric. This is the time of year when I mail packages hither and yon to those daring darlings who purchase my books and music directly from me, and packages sent Media Mail today take many days longer to reach their destinations than packages sent to those same places a year ago. Rates have increased dramatically, dozens of postal hubs have been closed, and thousands of postal employees let go, supposedly to save the system while in effect destroying it.

Several of my customers now insist I use UPS or Fed X to ship their goodies despite the higher costs because they no longer trust the post office to deliver their packages safe and sound and in good time. This is precisely what those Cruel People With Small Brains hoped would happen when they began their scurrilous attack on our beloved PO, a fundamental social service for the majority of Americans that Congress says America can no longer afford to subsidize.

Last week, however, the President of the United States announced he was sending 1500 more troops to help fight the Islamist army in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS, at an initial cost of seven billion dollars. That seven billion is, of course, in addition to the hundreds of billions the United States annually contributes to the coffers of corporations and client states messing around in the quagmire created by American foreign policy in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan.

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

Twenty-five-year-old Giancarlo Stanton just signed a 325-million-dollar contract to continue playing baseball for the Miami Marlins. That may seem like a great deal of money, but the contract is for thirteen years, which comes to only 25 million a year. A paltry sum. Assuming Giancarlo pays a little income tax (perhaps an erroneous assumption) and his agents and managers take their cuts, and he spends some of the money on this and that over the years, he very likely won’t end up among those 16,000 super rich people at the top of the American heap. But at least he’ll have a chance to get there.

“Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable.” C.S. Lewis

An acquaintance recently loaned me a bestselling novel she thought I might enjoy. My head began to ache midway through the first paragraph, a seven-sentence construct devoid of grace in which the word it figures prominently but is never defined. By the end of paragraph two, when a bottle of beer asks a woman if it can buy her a drink (because the man I assumed was drinking the beer was grammatically left out of the action), I could read no further.

However, before I threw the execrable thing across the room, I flipped to the back to see if there was an About The Author paragraph that might shed some light on how this so-called writer had succeeded so famously despite his formidable inability to write anything readable, and I came upon a page entitled Questions and Topics for Discussion. My blood ran cold. I had heard of these kinds of pages but had never opened a book published recently enough and popular enough to warrant the addition of such vomitous bilge. What else to call these questions? Insults to the reader’s intelligence? The codification of stupidity? The death of original thinking?

I only read #1 before thrusting the poisonous volume into the woodstove and spared myself further horrors. Yet though I acted quickly, #1 is still, days later, reverberating in my mind and troubling my sleep. Here it is.

1. Did you like Jack or Sharon? Did you find yourself picking a side? Do you think the author wants us to like them? Why or why not?

“There’s a lot of mediocrity being celebrated, and a lot of wonderful stuff being ignored or discouraged.” Sean Penn

Or as Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

Topics For Discussion: Do you have the capacity to distinguish something mediocre from something excellent? How do you know you have that capacity? Who told you? When was that? Why would someone say something like that to you? Are you feeling defensive about the kinds of books you like to read? Why or why not?

Stockholm Syndrome

November 19th, 2014

merlin

Merlin pen and ink by Todd

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

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” James Madison

In the days following the latest American election, I found myself musing about why so many people voted for so many cruel, stupid, shortsighted representatives and approved propositions designed to destroy our environment and our healthcare system? Why would millions of people elect the kinds of representatives who have done nothing but wreck our society for the past fifty years? Can we chock this up to mass stupidity? I used to think we could, but this election caused me to seek a slightly more sophisticated explanation, and though I may be wrong, here is what I came up with. America suffers from a severe case of the Oslo Syndrome.

What is the Oslo syndrome? The Oslo syndrome is a corollary of the Stockholm syndrome. Also known as capture-bonding, the Stockholm syndrome is the psychological phenomenon of a hostage or battered wife or terrified military recruit or a victim of fraternity hazing, empathizing and sympathizing with his or her captors in order to enhance his or her chances of survival, even going so far as defending those captors and ultimately identifying with them. The Oslo Syndrome occurs when an entire people is afflicted with the Stockholm syndrome.

How else to explain the majority of voters voluntarily electing representatives who have ruined and promise to continue ruining our society? How else to explain millions of women voting for men who pass laws denying those women access to adequate family planning, birth control, and abortion? How else to explain the majority of voters electing representatives who gladly spend trillions of dollars on war, eagerly cut taxes for the rich, happily fund the annihilation of our environment, and viciously gut our educational system, while gleefully denying a large and fast-growing portion of the American population basic human rights and the necessities of life?

“The worst government is often the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.” H.L. Mencken

Bookmarked on my computer is a photography website called Lenscratch featuring the work of a different photographer every day. A few days ago, while looking at a photo essay on Lenscratch of people in contemporary Japan, I was struck by how many people in the photos were clutching cell phones while eating, walking, shopping, visiting with friends, and working at various tasks. The photo essay was about every day life in Japan, but might have been about people clutching cell phones.

While walking on the beach a few days ago, nearly everyone I saw was clutching a cell phone, including a woman walking her dog, two young men playing Frisbee, three girls walking side by side in the shallows, and a gaggle of parents sitting on beach chairs while their kids played in the sand. I felt I was observing a conquered people submitting to an electronic system of control, many of the conquered choosing to clutch phones rather than wear electronic ankle bracelets sending coordinates of their whereabouts to the authorities.

“A politician divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies.” Friedrich Nietzsche

I use a large desktop computer for my work as a writer, editor, and seller of things on my web site—books, musical recordings, and note cards. I also use my computer for reading articles, sending and receiving mail, watching sports highlights, movie trailers, and episodes of George Burns & Gracie Allen. Being keenly aware of my compulsive and addictive tendencies, any extensions of my desktop computer are verboten to me, and that includes laptop computers, computer pads, and cell phones. My connection to the Internet and the worldwide web is limited to my use of the not-portable computer on my desk in my office. When I’m in the living room or kitchen or bedroom or outside hauling firewood or gardening, and when I go to the village and beyond, I am not reachable by phone or through the digital ethers. My sanity and functionality and happiness depend on not being connected to the digital-electronic matrix most of the hours of my life.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

When the sun is shining in Mendocino, even in the depths of winter, my favorite place to write is Big River Beach. Nowadays I write with a fine-tipped black ink pen in a composition book of blue-lined paper, nine inches by seven inches. The wildness of Big River Beach, the ambient roar of the waves, the unceasing drama of the swiftly flowing river bashing into the onrushing sea, the dance of the ever-circling gulls and ravens, the fantastic cloudscapes and the absence of anything electrical, are ingredients in an atmospheric recipe that rarely fails to free my imagination.

What I find most tragic about the pandemic of phone clutching is that the phone-clutching person’s imagination cannot be free so long as he or she is tethered to an electronic digital matrix designed to commandeer brain lobes we might otherwise use to think and feel deeply as we interact with the real and glorious world.

Geese

November 12th, 2014

hawk

Hawk pen and ink by Todd

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

“Bird flying high, you know how I feel.” Anthony Newley

Every day this week, walking to town, working in the garden, sitting on a bench overlooking Big River Bay, the honking of zealous geese caused me to look up and search the sky until I found the lines of honkers, visible to my naked eyes only because there were dozens of the mighty birds in large formations winging southward.

Yesterday I counted one V composed of seventy birds, though there may have been a few more or less—a distant consortium moving swiftly in the sun-drenched sky. Among the largest birds we’ll ever see in California, these geese were flying so high they appeared to be the size of tiny gnats, and their great altitude suggested they intended to travel many miles beyond Mendocino before coming down to earth.

“Remember the music, the food, the dope, the cheap gas and junk cars, friendship, love, moonlight, firelight, cold water, geese, wine, poetry, liberty, happiness, when we were still too far from the end to see it turn to history.” Quinton Duval

In 1969, a few months after dropping out of college and shortly before turning twenty, I drove around America and Canada in a school-bus-yellow 1962 GMC panel truck with my pal Dick Mead. We had no set itinerary and chose our roads because we liked the names of towns those roads went to or because there were mountains and rivers on the map that called to us. We were not seasoned travelers when we embarked, and we were perhaps in too much of a hurry, being young and unaware of the illusory nature of time and space, but all in all it was a good way for me to learn how not to be in school.

One day in August, on the eastern side of the Cascades north of Walla Walla, we found ourselves on a narrow two-lane road so little used that we drove for two hours at forty-miles-per-hour without seeing another car or person—only a few badly battered farm houses standing along our way. In that treeless land, dry and dusty cattle land (though we saw no cattle) the road curved around the bases of round-topped hills we found impossible to gauge the size of, an impossibility that made us feel disoriented and verging on crazy.

Finally I said to Dick, “Let’s hike to the top of one of these hills and see what we can see.”

So we parked at the bottom of a likely hill and stepped out of our truck into a fabulous silence that was only occasionally broken by a gust of wind or a cawing crow. And though the top of the hill seemed quite close—I guessed we would be on top in fifteen minutes—we decided to carry full canteens, chunks of cheese, chocolate bars and bananas, and we were glad we did. The slope of that hill turned out to be incredibly steep and it took us an hour of hard scrambling to reach the top—the views in every direction showing us endless ranks of treeless hills marching away to the horizons.

Had we not been so young and unaware of the illusory nature of time and space, we might have camped there until our water ran out, imbibing the strange otherness of that promontory in a sea of hills—not another human being within a hundred miles of us. Instead, we stayed up there for an hour or so, gobbling our food, drinking our precious water, playing Frisbee in a fickle wind, and gazing down at the wisp of a highway beside which stood our school-bus-yellow panel truck that appeared to be the size of a very small gnat.

“Thank you for the sea, for what the river discovers at its end, what waits for all of us to come calling.” Quinton Duval

There is something deeply reassuring to me about those high-flying wild geese winging swiftly southward at the beginning of another November in Mendocino. They and their predecessors have been heading south to warmer climes for millions of years, and when I hear their honking and see their undulating formations in the sky, the longevity of the life cycle of their species resonates in my bones and I am filled with hope for the continuance of life on our unique and bountiful earth.

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Arthur Conan Doyle

There is a clump of plant life I pass every day on my way down to the village, a tangle of ivy and blackberry brambles engulfing an eight-foot-long fragment of old fence that stands ten feet from the edge of Little Lake Road—a favorite roost for dozens of little birds, seed-eaters most of them. Every time I walk by that green clump on my way to the village, several little birds, often dozens of them, finches and sparrows and chickadees, come flying from near and far to perch on the extremities of the clump and chatter at me—and I chatter back. When I have passed by, the little birds fly away and resume whatever they were doing before I walked by.

Now here is a curious thing. When I pass the clump on the homeward leg of my journey (I walk on the same side of the road going and returning) the little birds do not come to greet me. However, if I ascend fifty yards beyond the clump and then turn around and head back toward the village, the birds will come speeding to the clump and give me what for.

I wonder what I am to those little birds. And why do they only take notice of me when I’m heading west and downhill? A most pleasing puzzlement.

American Exceptionalism

November 5th, 2014

Shakespeare PC Map (todd)

A Shakespearean Map of the U.S.A. courtesy of David Jouris

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

“There are no exceptions to the rule that everybody likes to be an exception to the rule.” Charles Osgood

Recently listening to fascinating interviews with Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange, I was struck by their repeated use of the expression American Exceptionalism. The expression as they used it had geo-political connotations, but I think American Exceptionalism also captures the essence of the most popular operating system of the individual American psyche.

In geo-political terms, American Exceptionalism refers to the belief of those currently ruling America, that America can and should do things militarily, politically and economically on the world stage that America will not tolerate any other country doing. In terms of the individual American psyche, American Exceptionalism manifests in countless ways. For example:

Arriving at Big River Beach a few days ago, hoping to enjoy a stroll on the sand, I was confronted by a large growling unleashed dog. When the dog’s owner—a woman in her thirties wearing a Sierra Club sweatshirt—came to my rescue, I informed her that dogs are supposed to be leashed on Big River Beach. She bristled and said, “My dog won’t hurt anyone.”

A young man we know who recently received a Master’s degree in Environmental Science because he “wants to educate people about the dire need for humans, en masse, to shift our energy consumption habits,” recently flew to Paris from San Francisco “just for fun” and has trips planned for next year to Chile, Thailand and Australia because, “I have so many frequent flier miles.”

This same wannabe world saver turned down a lovely apartment an easy walk from the private high school where he teaches classes in Environmental Awareness and chose to live “in a hipper part of the Bay Area,” necessitating a ninety-minute car commute to his job. That’s ninety minutes both ways.

Is this intelligent young man unaware of the hypocrisy of his behavior in light of his professed beliefs? I think so. I think he is a quintessential American Exceptionalist. In his mind, everyone else needs to stop driving so much and flying everywhere, but not he. Why not he? He’s an American.

“There are two reasons why a man does anything. There’s a good reason and there’s the real reason.” J.P. Morgan

A few months ago, Marcia and I watched the very good and creepy (to me) movie Her about a bright personable man with intimacy issues—played by Joaquin Phoenix—who falls in love with an incredibly sophisticated computer operating system possessed of clairvoyant artificial intelligence. At a crucial moment in the movie, the operating system, voiced with sweetly sexy allure by Scarlett Johansson, informs our hero that she is simultaneously carrying on “intimate” relationships with hundreds of other users. Crushed to the core by this news, Joaquin nonetheless soldiers on with his relationship with the operating system, though things can never be as wonderful as they once were because She was supposed to be his and his alone. It would have been fine for him to have another relationship while maintaining his relationship with Her, but that was unacceptable for Her.

When Her was made (a couple years ago) the movie was intended to be futuristic. By the time we saw the film, we could discern almost no difference between the reality depicted on the screen and the lives of millions of urban computer peeps of today. Indeed, we just saw an excellent French movie, shot in Manhattan a year ago, Chinese Puzzle, and the constant use of computers and mobile phones as key factors in the lives of the characters in Chinese Puzzle made Her seem like a period piece set in the recent past.

“From the naturalistic point of view, all men are equal. There are only two exceptions to this rule of naturalistic equality: geniuses and idiots.” Mikhail Bakunin

The Ebola epidemic, verging on a pandemic, has clarified (for anyone willing to face the truth) the extreme interconnectedness of the global community. Powerful idiots, led by Ted Cruz and other mega-morons, are urging travel bans to and from afflicted areas, thereby impeding the crucial flow of medical personnel and medical aid to those countries where the epidemic must be fought if there is any hope of containing the disease. Ted Cruz and other People Of Little Brains seem to personify American Exceptionalism to an insane degree. What do they imagine will happen if the airline industry suddenly and dramatically contracts? The major airlines would quickly go bankrupt, the stock market would collapse, and the ensuing global economic disaster would then make the spread of Ebola into all nations a sure thing instead of highly probable.

The Ebola epidemic reveals American Exceptionalism to be what it actually is—a cancerous blood clot in the main artery of what might otherwise be an effective, functional, egalitarian global community. All the nations of the world will have to become highly cooperative with each other in order to defeat Ebola, and the sooner everyone realizes this the better our chances of not only defeating Ebola, but of establishing new modalities for dealing with the many other threats to the biosphere.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” George Bernard Shaw

I came out of the post office yesterday just as a man in a humongous pickup truck pulled into two and a half parking spots—his truck effectively blocking one of the two lanes of the little street—and left his gargantuan engine running as he climbed down from his cab and sauntered into the post office. The sticker on his front bumper said SEVEN FUCKING MILES PER GALLON. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

The sticker on his back bumper said I EAT STEAK EVERY FUCKING MEAL. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

I walked home imagining scenes in which I engaged this fellow in discussions about global warming and fossil fuels and gigantic trucks and American Exceptionalism, and in every scene he got out his gun and mowed me down.

Last Beans

October 29th, 2014

last beans

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

Step out onto the Planet.

Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

 Inside the circle are

300 things nobody understands, and, maybe

nobody’s ever really seen.

How many can you find?

                                                                                    Lew Welch

Rained almost an inch today in Mendocino, October 23, 2014. Will we look back from drier times and say, “Remember when it rained almost a whole inch in one day?” Or are we in for years of deluge? Most weather scientists think we’re in for a multi-decade drought, but the globe has so many feedback loops, known and unknown, currently looping and feeding back in ways we barely understand that five years from now California could be getting a hundred inches of rain a year. Or no rain at all. Or a hundred inches one year and none the next.

In the meantime, some things have carried on as per usual. The redwood roots have swarmed into our vegetable beds and made of them non-beds until I dig all those roots out in the spring and give us seven months to grow things before the redwood roots conquer our garden again. Veteran vegetable growers in my watershed shake their heads at my annual root digging and suggest we get big boxes with impenetrable bottoms and sides and admit defeat. Now that I have attained the ripe old age of sixty-five, we’ll see how I do next year battling the roots, and then I’ll decide whether to surrender to boxes or keep fighting.

Our vegetable plants are giving us their last tomatoes, string beans, carrots, basil, and lettuce, while the kale and parsley soldier on, redwood roots be damned. There is something especially poignant about these last few suppers made with our garden-grown goodies, these last days before we start buying vegetables shipped from warmer sunnier climes and inland greenhouses.

The apple trees have been prolific hereabouts this year, our kitchen table covered with bowls brimming with apples crying to be made into applesauce, apple juice, apple crisp. And we grew some nice sweet pumpkins, a victory given our proximity to the coast and the cool foggy summer. Just outside my south-facing office is a patch of ground twenty-feet-long and seven-feet-wide in which I planted tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, and beans, nowhere else on our property hot enough and sunny enough to grow such vegetables so well.

And the last potatoes are yet to be harvested. I’m waiting until Thanksgiving, barring an early frost, before I dig up the gangly plants and see how many pink red orbs the earth gods give us. The mid-summer harvest was spectacular, but this end-of-the-year patch has had almost no warm days and very little sun. I love growing potatoes. The plants are fantastical when they burst from the ground and grow by leaps and bounds in their first few weeks in open air. I love not knowing what each plant might produce, the size of a potato plant no proof of how many or how large the tubers she might produce.

I once grew a spectacular potato bush in Sacramento that was five-feet-tall and five-feet in diameter and green as Ireland. Visitors to my garden stood before the mighty thing as if they were in the presence of a god, which they were. I was sure that massive green thing would produce a bushel of spuds, but the gorgeous giant only birthed two golf-ball-sized potatoes, while seven feet away a wimpy little scraggly thing produced a dozen two-pounders. Mysterious, humbling, fun.

The blessed rain falling, darkness coming earlier and earlier every day, the fire in the woodstove a necessity as much as a pleasure now, the woodshed reassuringly full, the last beans clinging to the wilting vines—winter coming, such as winter comes in California. My friends who live in New England scoff when I speak of our seasons. I think they have northern California confused with southern California, but I don’t argue with them because I know how proud they are of their long icy winters that make our winters, rainy or not, seem mild by comparison.

Buddhism warns us not to compare ourselves to others. Buddha declared such comparing a form of jealousy and a mental trap, an obstacle to clarity of mind. Maybe so, but when I see somebody growing better bean plants than mine, I can’t help but compare. And through comparison, minus jealousy, we may learn how to grow better bean plants.

These are also the last days of baseball season. As I write this the Giants have split the two opening games of the World Series with the Kansas City Royals, and by the time you read this, one of those two teams will have won the World Series. If the Giants win the series, happiness will reign in our town and at our post office and all over northern California for many days. Millions of World Series T-shirts and hats and sweatshirts and jackets will be sold throughout the Giants’ kingdom and around the world. If Kansas City wins, the people of Kansas City will feel special and good and buy many baseball-related products.

The last beans, the last baseball games, the last days of October, the setting back of the clocks, the early darkness, the cold mornings, the match igniting the paper to ignite the kindling to ignite the logs. Thank you Frank’s Firewood for your foresight and full cords. Thank you forest earth gods (trees) for giving of yourself so we may be warm. The last days of the American empire, the last pickle in the barrel, the last bit of mayonnaise at the bottom of the jar. Is there another jar in the cupboard or will mayonnaise go on the list? Is it time to give up mayonnaise? No.

The last post-it of the pad of post-its on the kitchen counter. Is there another post-it pad in the top drawer of my desk or will post-it pads go on the list? We make our shopping lists on post-its, so if there are no post-its, on what will we make our lists? I remember life before post-its. I remember life before answering machines and cell phones and computers and email and big screen televisions and e-books and digital everything. I grew beans then and I grow beans now. Beans and baseball and the dark coming earlier and earlier until the Winter Solstice dawns.

 

Ida’s Place Book Two—Revival

October 22nd, 2014

idas2-cover-sm

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

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

I am pleased to announce the publication of the coil-bound photocopy edition (the only edition there is) of Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival, the second volume of what I intend to be at least a three-volume saga set in the mythical town of Big River on the far north coast of California. I brought out Ida’s Place Book One: Return ten months ago and have sold seventy-one copies to date. This is particularly good news because I broke even on design and production costs when I sold copy number sixty-six. Copies of the Ida’s Place volumes are signed and lavishly numbered by the author and are only available from me via my web site or by bumping into me at the post office or thereabouts.

As a creative adventure, the writing of a multi-volume work of fiction has been endlessly surprising and liberating for me, and many of my rules and limitations developed over forty years of writing single volume novels, certainly those pertaining to structure and pace, have given way to a spaciousness that is thrilling, mysterious and tricky.

Spinning a complicated yarn within a vastly expanded time-and-space frame reminds me of the revolution that transpired in the recording industry with the advent of LP’s, long-playing records, in the early 1950’s. Without the extreme time limitations imposed by short-playing 78’s, musicians and composers, especially jazz players, were suddenly free to record much longer pieces, and contemporary music, both recorded and live, was changed forever. Such works as Miles Davis’s Kinda Blue and Sketches of Spain or the long organ solo on the Doors’ “Light my Fire” would never have been possible without the advent of long-playing records.

Working with so much novelistic space also reminds me of an artist I knew who lived for decades in a tiny apartment and used his kitchen table as his studio. Everything he created—sculptures, paintings, and drawings—was small. In late middle age, he married a woman with a big house who gave him her high-ceilinged two-car garage to use as his studio, and after an initial transition period, everything he made was big. He told me he felt incredibly liberated in a spatial sense, though he was largely unpracticed in making large things. As he put it, “I am a beginner again in many ways, though a highly skilled beginner.”

Shunryu Suzuki was forever reminding his students about the importance of maintaining beginner’s mind, a non-judgmental openness, lest we become stuck in dogma and thought patterns that obscure the infinite possibilities inherent in every moment. I often think of beginner’s mind as I work on the Ida’s Place saga, and how the newness and unpredictability of the multi-volume form has rejuvenated my practice. To quote Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

After selling and mailing out the first thirty copies of Ida’s Place Book One: Return, I waited impatiently to hear what people thought of the book. When two weeks went by without a peep from anyone, my old crotchety inner critic began to whisper, “Maybe your ego played a trick on you. Maybe you wrote a dud.”

Then I heard from Alex MacBride, a person and writer I greatly admire, and I was relieved to learn that his experience of reading Ida’s Place echoed my experience of writing it. Alex wrote, “I had forgotten what it’s like to enjoy a book so purely and unambiguously and happily and want nothing more than to keep reading. I love it. It gave me a kind of reading-joy I haven’t had much since I was thirteen and fourteen, a tingling sort of excited comfort—moving along eagerly but resting at the same time, happy to be in the book’s world.”

Over the next several weeks I got more responses, including one from the poet D.R. Wagner who wrote, “I devoured the book in a day. I feel it is the most perfect love story by you yet. I was left breathless.” Another note came from Clare Bokulich, the Mendocino-born musicologist and baker, who effused, “Such a good read! I loved it. But now I am very anxious for Book Two. When will it be finished?”

Thus I was emboldened to dive whole-heartedly into writing Book Two. Now that Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival is done and copies are rolling off the copy machine at Zo, Mendocino finest and only copy shop, Book Three has begun to speak to me. And I am so eager to know what happens next to this large cast of fascinating characters, I am certain I will write the third volume whether anyone likes Book Two or not. As a dear friend once said to me, “Thank goodness we are our own biggest fans or we might never create anything.”

If you would like to read the first three chapters of Ida’s Place Book One, please visit my web site UnderTheTableBooks.com. On the Home page click on the facsimile of the book cover for Ida’s Place Book One and you will be taken to the appropriate page. I have not, however, posted the first three chapters of Book Two because I don’t want to spoil the many surprises for those readers who were good enough to purchase Book One and have been asking for Book Two.

In simultaneous news, my latest CD of solo piano improvisations nature of love has just arrived from the manufacturer and I am hopeful many ears will be pleased by the new tunes.