Centered Gull

July 16th, 2018

gull capture

Gull Capture photo by Todd

In the novel I’m writing, one of my characters says, “I don’t believe in luck.” She doesn’t explain why she doesn’t believe in luck, but by the time I wrote those words down, I was several hundred hours into writing the novel and I understood why she didn’t believe in luck. Or why she didn’t think she believed in luck.

But the thing about luck is similar to the thing about love. Is there an indisputable definition of luck? By that I mean, what exactly is luck? Are we talking about fate? Karma? Random chance? My character doesn’t believe in luck, but she does believe in karma, or her definition of karma, which may be different than your definition of karma or the Dalai Lama’s definition of karma.

The difference between karma and luck is tricky because the two ideas can be easily conflated, as in “we make our own luck,” which might be a definition of karma.

Maybe what my character meant by luck was dumb luck, which would be luck we haven’t made ourselves, but luck that simply befalls us. Pure chance. But if there is no such thing as luck, then what seems to simply befall us may actually be the result of karma or something else.

I had an experience recently that was captured in the photo I posted at the beginning of this article. If the photo of which I speak is not attached to the version of this article you’re reading, I will tell you it is a photo of a rock outcropping on the coast a couple miles south of Mendocino, an outcropping that becomes a little island at high tide. The day is sunny, the water deeply blue, and in the sky above the iconic outcropping, perfectly centered, is a sea gull winging swiftly by.

Now here’s the thing. When I stopped to photograph the outcropping and the ocean and the sky, I was in no hurry. Yet something made me hurriedly fumble my little camera out of my pocket. And I distinctly remember thinking, “Why am I hurriedly fumbling my camera out of my pocket? This is weird. What’s going on?” I remember not having a solid grip on the camera as my hand swung up and framed the outcropping and my finger grazed the shutter button before I was consciously ready to take the picture, which is something I never do because I prefer sharply-focused pictures to blurry pictures and I like being conscious of what I’m aiming at when I depress the shutter button.

But this time, everything I never do was done, seemingly involuntarily, as if I was being used by the unseen forces of the universe as a kind of robot Mars Rover to take the picture, only I wasn’t on Mars; I was on earth a couple miles south of Mendocino.

When I got home and downloaded the day’s photos from my camera onto my computer, here was the picture of the outcropping and the ocean and the sky, the only photo of the outcropping I took that day, and in the center of the photo was a gull winging swiftly by. I did not crop the photo. The gull centered himself at the moment the shutter clicked, and he was going mighty fast, the gull. I know he was going mighty fast because when he winged by during that spastic picture-taking moment, I was barely aware of something flying by. Only when I saw the picture on my computer screen did I learn of the perfectly centered gull.

Was that luck? Karma? Fate? The hand of God? The tentacle of a minor deity? And why me? Why that picture?

One answer might be that this frantic fumbling picture-taking resulted in this portrait of a gull and the outcropping and the ocean and the sky so I would be sufficiently moved by both the photo and the experience of taking the photo that I would write about what happened and share my writing so that you or someone else would read about this unusual moment and be moved to do something that causes ripples in the time space continuum and accomplishes something or many things the Universe wants accomplished.

Another answer might be: life is a series of random experiences signifying nothing but what some humans (me) egoistically want to imbue with a deeper meaning that isn’t really there.

Buckminster Fuller wrote extensively about precession, which he defined as the right-angled unintentional effects of a direct action. He has two favorite examples of precession, one involving dropping a stone into a still pond, the other a bee probing a flower to get nectar.

The direct action of dropping the stone into a still pond results in the expected result of a concussive splash. The precessional unintentional effects of dropping the stone into a pond are ripples caused by the initial impact of the stone. Bucky assumed the dropper of the stone was after the splash and not the ripples, or maybe Bucky wasn’t concerned about the dropper’s intentions because this is such a neato illustration of the right-angled effects of an intended action.

The direct action of the bee probing the flower to get nectar results in the bee getting nectar, and the precessional effect of the bee probing the flower is that the flower gets pollinated. Bucky assumed the bee didn’t know or care about pollination and just wanted that nectar. Not being a bee, I don’t know if that’s true. In any case, the action of going after nectar does result in pollination, which ultimately results in more flowers, fruit, and life as we know it on earth.

Precession, however, doesn’t obviously explain why I acted so uncharacteristically when I snapped the picture of the centered gull, but it might explain the effects of my sharing this article, though I will never know what most of those effects are, if there are any.

Even if you, for instance, were moved by this article to take a picture of the view out your window and snapped the shutter just as a rabbit hopped by, a species of rabbit thought to be extinct, and you not only became famous for the picture and thus your life was changed forever, but proof of the existence of this incredibly rare rabbit resulted in a huge swath of land being saved from rapacious developers, and you told me about this, I still would never know about the thousands of other events that might spring, directly or indirectly, from people reading this article and seeing the photo of the centered gull.

Or maybe there won’t be any precessional effects from this article. Maybe this is but fleeting evidence of one human’s attempt to communicate thoughts and feelings that sprang from his experience of taking a picture of a gull centered in the sky above a coastal outcropping.

Only time will tell; and when time does tell, who knows if anyone will be listening; and if someone is listening, will they understand what time is saying?

Critters

July 9th, 2018

Ganesh's Bowl

Ganesh’s Bowl photo by Todd

Two years ago our big gray cat Django got hit by a car and died, and we were sad for a time and thought about getting a couple of kittens, but we didn’t. Then some months after Django died, I was having a cup of tea in the dining room and looked out the window and saw a gang of chickadees foraging in the ferns and flowers just fifteen feet away from me, and I realized that when Django was alive, those birds would never have foraged there.

Fast forward to a few mornings ago: I was sitting on the deck watching a mob of chickadees and finches and tits rampaging in the nearby shrubbery, when along came an alligator lizard, a beautiful being Django would have toyed with and killed. But instead of dying a terrible death, the lizard paused to look at me and show me his shiny new skin before he moved off into the ferns to hunt for insects.

The next day I saw a gorgeous garter snake slither through the vegetable patch, and I knew Django would have killed him, too.

Then yesterday I stepped out of my office to play guitar in the morning sun and our resident chipmunk scampered along the deck to have a drink of water from the white bowl in front of the statue of Ganesh, a bowl we keep filled with water for the many birds and critters who share this land with us. Having slaked his thirst, the chipmunk found a lovely old weed going to seed, and while I strummed and sang, the chipmunk dined—a most enjoyable tête-à-tête that never would have happened were Django still with us.

If we had a cat or a dog, the mother skunk and her adorable baby would not come to drink from Ganesh’s bowl as they do at dusk every day, and a dog would keep the deer away, too, the deer we love to watch from our office windows—fawns appearing with their mothers throughout the summer.

And though I’d like to have a cat and a dog, for now I will forego that pleasure because I so enjoy having all these wild critters close at hand.

I recently caught a glimpse of a fox trotting through the woods on his way to our orchard, and I was thrilled to see the splendid fellow. We named our place Fox Hollow after the mother fox and her kits who entertained us so grandly for the first two years we lived here.

We might have called our place Ravenswood for the many ravens who live hereabouts. I recently had a long conversation with a raven. He cawed three times; I cawed three times. He cawed twice; I cawed twice. He cawed four times; I cawed four times. Then there was a pause, so I cawed twice, and he cawed twice. Then I cawed four times, and he cawed four times. Then I cawed but once, and he cawed but once. I fell silent and he cawed three times, so I cawed three times. This might have gone on indefinitely, but I was getting hoarse, so I quit. I’m not sure what we were talking about, but we certainly agreed on how many times to caw, which I consider a great achievement in inter-species communication.

We are also situated directly below the flight path of a robust population of wild pigeons and a pair of regal Red-tailed hawks. And we have vultures and possums and a big silver gray squirrel and gophers and…

In Django’s absence our neighbor’s big tabby has commandeered the orchard at the far southwest corner of our property, the gophers of special interest to her. I dissuade her from coming any nearer to our house because I don’t want her assuming Django’s role visa-à-vis the chipmunk and lizards and snakes and birds and the big silver gray squirrel. However, a dent in the orchard gopher population would not be a bad thing.

Speaking of critters, here at the start of July, the local population of mosquitoes is exploding, so much so that working outside of late has been a continuous swat fest, but that should change as summer progresses and the ground becomes perilously dry. Meanwhile, the swallows and bats are thrilled with the abundance of the little biting buggers.

female trio

And then there are human critters, a fascinating species, especially the colorful and emotive females. The music festival is underway, so Abi and Marion, both British female human musicians, have joined Marcia, the resident American female human musician, in our little neck of the woods, and the three of them are great fun to observe and interact with.

Human females, for my taste, are much more interesting than human males, at least the human males abounding in America; but then I’ve always been keen on humans who share their feelings and laugh easily and like to talk about food and dreams and what they just realized about themselves and life and so forth. Then, too, I spent the first several years of my life enthralled with my two older sisters until they grew weary of me and became less enthralling. But by then my admiration for more than the physical potentialities of female humans was well established and continues to this day.

Maybe human males in other cultures are not as stiff and stoic and emotionally guarded and narrow-minded as most American male humans are. I don’t know. What I do know is that emotional openness and generosity and curiosity about other people has everything to do with nurture and not much to do with nature. I say this because I am fortunate to know a handful of American male humans who enjoy sharing their feelings and laugh easily and like to talk about food and dreams and what they just realized about themselves and life and so forth.

Unfortunately, most of these unusual male humans don’t live around here; but at least we know each other, so we do not feel as bereft as we might otherwise.

Ah, I see our chipmunk is ensconced in the big flowerpot on the deck and has some sort of snack in hand. Maybe he’d like to hear a song while he eats.

Summertime

July 2nd, 2018

summertime

Summertime photo by Todd

Marcia and I walked into town via the beach on Saturday, the most summery day of the 2018 Mendocino summer so far, warm and sunny with only a slight breeze blowing in from the ocean. We live a mile inland, and it was already quite warm by Mendocino standards, mid-seventies, when we set off for the coast at 10:30 in the morning. Halfway to the ocean, the air was much cooler—upper fifties.

Judging by the millions of blossoms we saw along our way, this will be an epic year for blackberries and huckleberries, and we are already seeing irrefutable proof of a super duper apple harvest. This is also the time of year when we avail ourselves of the Fort Bragg Fruit Group and buy lugs of peaches and nectarines trucked in from the warmer climes and sold at 1980s prices.

After a brief sojourn on Big River Beach, otherwise known as Dogs Galore, we climbed the stairs to the headlands trail that carried us through lush stands of wild pink roses to the Presbyterian church and Preston Hall wherein the music festival chorus was rehearsing their part for the festival finale: John Rutter’s Magnificat.

The big music festival tent was standing majestically on the headlands opposite the Mendocino Hotel, the fanciful tent always adding an ineffable classiness to the little town. Marcia and the local cello and viola players have been rehearsing at our house two days a week and will soon join the superb out-of-town players rounding out the festival orchestra.

And, of course, the town was jammed with tourists from all over the world, mobs of people ambling along the few streets of the town, looking for stuff to eat and things to buy. The character of the town changes significantly in the summer, when most locals run their errands in the morning before the place is awash in visitors, and many locals avoid the town entirely on weekends. These are the months when local businesses make their largest profits, and we are grateful for the infusions of cash into the local economy, however bizarre the outsider energy.

What do I mean by outsider energy? Well, first of all, outsiders tend to drive crazy fast in town compared to locals. Considering the town is traversable in every direction in about a minute if you’re going five miles an hour, driving thirty on a two-block street to nowhere strikes me as bizarre. However, if one is accustomed to the madcap traffic of Santa Monica or San Francisco, I suppose speeding becomes one’s habit, so…

Outsiders these days also tend to be hyper phone-centric. By that I mean, they do not, in general, look around so much as they look into their phones to learn where to go and what to do. This may help them find their way in a big city, but in Mendocino phone gazing misses the point of being here, which is to look around at the sky and ocean and old buildings and roses on the headlands and other human beings. There really isn’t much else to do, once you’ve had something to eat and bought a thing or two.

Home again, exhausted from our longish trek, I espied the big healthy young doe and her two fast-growing fawns munching greens on the fringes of the forest. The two other much smaller fawns we’ve been keeping tabs on have not made an appearance lately, though we have seen their elderly mother foraging without them, which makes me think her fawns did not survive.

In other summertime news, I am four hundred pages into my latest novel, and I’m experiencing the necessary delusion that I’m writing another masterwork. I say necessary delusion because, delusion or not, it is necessary to think I’ve written something marvelous or I would not continue slogging away for hours every day for months and years if I thought the opus was poo poo.

The long days of summer are especially good for me when it comes to working on a novel because my writing energy only lasts five or six hours a day, and in the winter, five hours of writing eats up a large fraction of the daylight hours, whereas in June, five hours of writing still leaves hours and hours of daylight for walking around and chopping wood and watering the apple trees and going to town.

Summertime is also good for playing the guitar outside. I like to walk around barefoot and give concerts to the surrounding forest and the curious ravens who sometimes make sounds like castanets to accompany my playing. You think I’m kidding? I have one song I used to perform as a slow ballad, but when the ravens started making their castanet sounds during the song, I was inspired to pick up the pace, which resulted in a peppy “Malagueña”-meets-“Smooth Operator” tune I’m sure will become a viral hit, speaking of delusional. I’ll let you know when the song is available for downloading, streaming, and implanting in your prefrontal cortex.

Speaking of chopping wood, summer is the season for seasoning firewood, and by seasoning I mean drying the wood through and through for fall and winter fires in our woodstove, fires that make the long winters tolerable and even delightful, though not quite as delightful as long summer days when the blackberries are ripening and the apples are swelling and I can walk around barefoot outside singing to the redwoods and inspiring castanet sounds from ravens.

Summertime for me is also about baseball. I listen to my Giants on a little silver Sony transistor radio, Jon Miller my favorite announcer of all time, his sidekicks Dave Flemming and Duane Kuiper excellent play-by-play guys, too. I chop wood and pull weeds when listening to day games, and I do dishes and yoga when listening to night games.

We have just reached the halfway point of the baseball season, and for the first time since we won the World Series in 2014, I think we could win it all this year. We’re that good. However, and it’s a huge however given the predilections of our manager, we must radically recast our end-of-game pitching scenario by getting rid of Strickland, who is currently out with an injury, and we must demote Melancon and Dyson to unimportant situational pitching. Watson should pitch the eighth as often as possible and Will Smith should close.

Do I think management will heed my imperatives? Not likely. But the summer is long and hope springs eternal until we are mathematically eliminated.

Rebirth

June 25th, 2018

lunch break

Outside My Office Window

A few weeks ago, the large four-year-old doe with a nest in a remote corner of our property sauntered by the house followed by her two fawns—our first glimpse of her babies. Nature makes baby mammals extra cute for some reason, or humans think baby mammals are cute for some reason. In any case, the baby deer struck me as ultra-cute. And small. I marveled at their smallness.

Then at dusk a few days later, I looked up from my desk and saw two fawns running by, only they seemed much smaller and cuter than I remembered them being. These were micro fawns. Or was I mistaken? Were these the same fawns appearing smaller in the last light of day, or different fawns? And were they cuter or just smaller? Is cuteness a function of smallness?

Another day passed, the young doe paraded by, and coming along behind her were two enormous fawns, enormous compared to those micro fawns I thought I’d seen. And then that afternoon, the mystery was solved. The oldest doe hereabouts, a deer at least nine-years-old with a badly deformed mouth, trudged by followed by those two micro fawns, and I realized that their smallness and ultra-cuteness were probably due to the old doe not being as viable a mother as the big healthy young doe, which means these tiny fawns might not make it through the summer for lack of nourishment and being easy prey for predators.

But maybe the micro fawns will survive the summer and winter and mature into small deer who live for ten or twelve years until the natural ends of their lives, just as there are small humans and small banana slugs and small heads of lettuce and small carrots. Sometimes things come out smaller than the same kinds of things that come out larger.

In any case, we currently have four super cute fawns gamboling around the property these days, and every time I see them, I marvel at their cuteness and their obvious delight in being alive.

getting the drop

Speaking of rebirth, we recently had a visit from the piano technician Michael Hagen. He came all the way from Rohnert Park to Mendocino and spent thirteen hours over two days regulating and voicing the fifty-year-old grand piano we bought from our friend Carolyn. I spent most of those thirteen hours watching Michael work on the piano, and I marveled at his mastery of the complex process. The result of his mastery, which I am tempted to call wizardry, is the rebirth of our piano.

When I first sat down to play our newly regulated and expertly voiced beauty, I was wholly unprepared for how easy she was to play and how gorgeous she sounded. The keys no longer impinged on each other, the overly bright jangly tones were gone, and gone was the resistance to my light touch. I stopped playing after just a few minutes because my brain was having a hard time reconciling this mellow nuanced instrument with the obstreperous old cranky thing I’d been trying to get used to.

earth is round

In other rebirth news, to celebrate the Summer Solstice, I walked to town via Big River Beach and found the beach completely different than it was just a few days before the solstice. Well, not completely. The far inland reaches of the sand will remain unchanged until next winter’s storm surfs reach those inland expanses and shift the many massive logs around, carry some logs away, and add new ones to the collection.

But the bulk of the beach was transformed. This is the glorious nature of our beach—a swiftly flowing tidal river conspiring with the high and low tides to reshape millions of tons of sand every twenty-four hours—a creative fun fest for the forces of nature. As of today, the river has carved two distinct routes to the sea, this split of the outflow and inflow causing all sorts of new shifts in the sand mass—a brand new landscape every day.

Speaking of brand new, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I find myself playing several seriously groovy songs I wrote long ago and never recorded, and I’m so curious about why I didn’t record these groovalicious tunes when I was so zealously recording songs ten years ago.

My current theory is that I didn’t record these catchy tunes because the time was not right. Is the time right now? Or has the window of viability closed for my songs composed in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s? Isn’t a great song or book or movie or play timeless? Maybe not. Maybe there is Art of the Moment and Art For A Generation and Art To Last Three Generations and Art To Last A Thousand Years.

What if artists are merely pawns of the unseen creative forces of universe? What if these groovy songs were given to me to record, but only when the universe wants them recorded? What if the universe is waiting for me to be whoever I am at the moment of the recording, if that recording ever happens? Why do we do the things we do when we do them?

Speaking of when we do things, we recently watched the movie Big Night again, one of my all-time favorite movies, and not having seen Big Night since 2006, I worried the opus might have fallen into the Art of the Moment category and would fail to pass the test of time.

But I’m happy to report that for my taste Big Night is better and more pertinent today than it was when it came out in 1996. To say they don’t make movies like Big Night in America anymore is a humongous understatement. This is a classic European film made by Americans in America—the pace, the dialogue, and the unfolding of the story and relationships languid and lovely and astute and complex—a rare dramatic comedy.

When I lived in Berkeley circa 2001, I was introduced to a woman at a party, we liked each other immediately, and when a fellow came by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres—scallops in mint sauce—we each took one. Delighted by the delicious comestible, I couldn’t help referencing a scene from Big Night by saying with my best Italian accent, “That was so good, I have to kill myself.”

“My favorite movie,” said the woman, gasping in delight. “I’ve watched Big Night dozens of times with my kids. We know every line by heart. We act out the scenes when we cook dinner and breakfast. And next year we’re going to Italy on our Big Night tour.”

“A Big Night tour? What’s the itinerary?”

“Bologna, of course,” she said, her eyes aglow. “Where the food is so good you have to kill yourself, Rome, and…”

I don’t remember what else she said, but I will never forget her wild joy.

Guitar Porn

June 18th, 2018

musicsexlove

music sex love drawing by Todd

“The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” Lou Reed

I recently started playing the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, and after some weeks of aching fingers and sore wrists, I have regained enough of my former chops so playing is pleasurable and fascinating again.

The guitar I’m playing is not a very good instrument. I gave away my excellent guitar a few years ago when I was jettisoning things freighted with bad mojo. Now, as I practice on a lesser instrument, I don’t long for the guitar I gave away, but for a guitar of equal excellence. However, I have decided not to purchase a better guitar until I have gotten as good as I can on this little axe I bought to determine if the magic is still there. For some reason, I want to earn the right to own and play a fine guitar again.

That’s kind of silly, actually, because the better the instrument, the more pleasurable the experience of playing, which would be added incentive to practice and explore, but I am often kind of silly. This earning process feels right to me at this point in my physical and spiritual and emotional evolution.

Meanwhile, I occasionally receive musical instrument catalogues filled with photographs and descriptions of awesome guitars, and I find myself staring at these pictures as I might stare at photos of attractive women. I imagine holding those guitars and playing them and thrilling to the feel of them against my body as I strum them and their bodies resonate with mine. Hence the title of this essay: guitar porn.

Perhaps you know someone, most likely a man, who owns multiple guitars, and I don’t mean two or three guitars, but seven or nine or seventeen or possibly thirty-seven guitars—and perhaps he rarely or never plays these guitars. Nevertheless, having these guitars defines who he is—to himself and to others. Searching for guitars gives him purpose. Maybe he only allows himself to own a total of twelve guitars and he must sell one before he can acquire a new one. Or maybe there is no limit to how many he can have, and he recently built an addition on his house where he keeps his forty-nine rare and frighteningly expensive guitars in a dust-free humidity-controlled environment.

Once in my life, for about two months, I owned two guitars simultaneously. I might as well have brought a third wife into my house, my first two wives being my other guitar and my piano. There was no way I could give any of my wives the attention they wanted if I was trying to please three of them. Two I could please, but three was one too many. In my case, I was not collecting guitars just to have them, but to play them every day. I would guess that most people who own more than a few guitars do not relate to guitars as spirit beings incarnate as musical instruments, but I could be wrong.

At the moment, I have two pianos. I’m waiting to find out if the new grand piano in my life can be regulated and repaired so it becomes as fine an instrument as the upright piano I’ve had for forty years. They are very different instruments, so I might keep them both, though I think I will feel I am neglecting the upright if I choose to make the grand piano the main focus of my piano playing.

How do my pianos feel about my taking up the guitar again? I suppose if I played them less than I did before I resumed guitar playing they would be unhappy, but actually, playing the guitar seems to have increased my appetite for playing the piano. So they don’t seem to mind. They are more concerned about each other than they are about my guitar.

As it happens, I took up the guitar when I became a vagabond and could not carry a piano with me. After a few months on the road without a piano, in 1970, I bought a not-very-good nylon-string guitar in the famous gigantic Mercado de Guadalajara, and I played that guitar every day for three years until I bought my first steel-string guitar, a slinky little Ovation with which I became a professional guitar-playing singer songwriter.

Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, I sold the Ovation for a hundred dollars to prove to my crazy angry girlfriend that I did not need a guitar to feel okay about myself. However, the only thing I proved by not having a guitar was that I missed having a guitar or a piano or both. Some people are just happier with musical instruments than without them. I am one of those people.

Perhaps those people, mostly men, who collect multiple guitars would not be happy without their guitars even if they don’t play them. After all, some people collect pottery and don’t eat out of the pottery, and some people collect jewelry and don’t wear their jewels, but enjoy looking at them and fondling them. Some people collect porcelain figurines of cherubs and repulsively cute children that are easy to break and take up shelf space and collect dust. Some people have five dogs. Some people have seven cats. I have a neighbor with four vintage Toyotas. I’ve known women with hundreds of pairs of shoes. When George Harrison of The Beatles died, he left behind hundreds of ukuleles.

Life is mysterious, but one thing is certain: the day I walk into a guitar shop intending to buy an excellent guitar, I will activate those neurological sectors of my being that evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of looking for and finding love, and by love I mean powerful emotional and physical resonance.

Cambridge

June 11th, 2018

i must go into the sea again tw

I Must Go Into the Sea Again painting by Nolan Winkler

Christine, the most excellent gluten-free baker of Mendocino, delivered some bread recently and mentioned she’d just returned from Boston where she attended her niece’s graduation from Harvard. And that reminded me of my Harvard adventure of 1972.

I dropped out of college in 1969 after two years of majoring in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, though Frisbee, basketball, piano, and writing were my main pursuits whilst enduring academia. For the next two years I lived as a hitchhiking vagabond, and in the late spring of 1971 I found myself in Boston with little money and wondering where I would sleep that night.

Schlepping my guitar and backpack into a café to get some tea, I fell into conversation with a guy who was keen to see my guitar. So I got out the handmade beauty I’d bought for fifteen dollars in the gigantic mercado in Guadalajara, and while the guy noodled on my guitar, I asked if he knew of any communes or hostels where I might stay for a few days.

“Go out to Cambridge,” he said, nodding. “Lots going on out there.”

“You mean Harvard?” I said stupidly.

“Yeah, Harvard,” he said, nodding. “Lots of communes out there. Hippies. College girls. Bookstores. Music. You’ll dig it.”

And then I remembered that two guys I’d gone to high school with had gone to Harvard, Dan and Joe, and if they were still there this would be their senior year. I caught a train over the river to Cambridge, found a phone booth, called Harvard, and sure enough they had a phone number for Dan. So I called him and he invited me to come crash in his dorm.

Now this dorm where I ended up living for a few weeks was not a typical dorm, but a huge brand new co-ed dorm built with millions of dollars given to Harvard and Radcliffe by the parents of a woman who had attended Radcliffe and died young. Everyone in the dorm had a large room outfitted with a comfy bed and a big desk, and on every floor of the massive four-story building there was a luxurious lounge and kitchen, some of these lounges outfitted with pianos.

On the ground floor there was a swank commissary providing excellent food, if one happened to be a resident. On my second day there, Dan presented me with the meal card of a Harvard student who was studying elsewhere for the semester, and the young gal who sat at the entrance to the commissary checking meal cards happily waved me in whenever I went there to dine, so…

The best part was that I was given my own room with a view out over the tennis courts where I played almost every day. Yes, overnight I went from homeless pauper to faux Harvard student living in a luxurious dorm, going to movies and pizza parlors and parties, attending lectures and playing tennis and romancing a young woman whose name I can’t remember.

One night, I and six peeps from the dorm piled into a big old car and went to a double bill of Five Easy Pieces and I Never Sang For My Father, and after the movies, because everyone except Todd was stoned or sans driver’s license, I was entrusted to drive the mob home.

Upon our arrival in the vicinity of the dorm, there were no available parking places, but after much driving around we chanced upon a small car pulling out of a spot just a half-block from the dorm. The consensus was that there was no way our big car would fit into the spot vacated by the small car. And I’m sure if I were confronted by such a challenge today, I would not do what I did then, which was to deftly and in one neat move parallel park our big car in that space with about six inches to spare on either end.

My feat was greeted with applause and huzzahs, and the next morning my parking job was the talk of breakfast and prompted a pilgrimage by several of us to view the miracle in the light of day.

I went to lectures given by famous anthropologists whose books I had read while at UC Santa Cruz, and while I enjoyed listening to these fellows pontificate, I was troubled that they, as had my professors at Santa Cruz, insisted on speaking about defunct and vanished societies in the Present Tense, as if these long-gone cultures were still intact.

At the conclusion of one lecture, having nothing to lose, I raised my hand and asked the esteemed professor if the childrearing practices and coming-of-age rituals he spoke of were still practiced by the Lakota today, given the genocidal demolition of their culture.

He squinted at me and said with obvious irritation, “No, of course not.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding. “I see. Thanks.”

After the lecture, a young man and young woman approached me and said how much they appreciated my asking that question. They, too, had grown disenchanted with the pretenses of academic anthropology.

“I just wish they’d call it historical anthropology,” said the young woman. “Why not tell the truth?”

“It’s curious,” said the young man. “They seem uneasy with the idea that the societies they speak of are no more.”

As the school year drew to a close, Jerry, one of my new friends from the dorm, landed a summer job on Nantucket Island attending to a wealthy Harvard alum who had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Jerry would be living in a converted windmill on the island, and he invited me to come visit him. So that’s where I headed after my free digs at Harvard were no longer available.

I hitchhiked to Wood’s Hole and caught the ferry to Nantucket, and after a fine week with Jerry, I took the ferry back to the mainland and hitched up into Maine en route to Canada. But how did I pay for all that before I ran out of money in Maine?

Well, I had a three-day gardening job in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, so that would account for thirty dollars or so, but in thinking back I remember a gathering of people in one of the dorm lounges, and Dan’s father Hugo was there. He must have come out from California for Dan’s graduation. He was concerned about me heading off into the unknown with just a backpack and a funky guitar. I remember assuring him I would be okay, but he was still concerned.

“I know you may not need this,” he said, getting out his wallet, “but I want to give you a little something. Okay?”

I think he gave me fifty dollars, which was a lot of money for the likes of me in those days, and proves the old maxim: if you want to get ahead in this society, go to Harvard.

Old Perry

June 4th, 2018

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

Forty years ago, I wrote a short story called Old Perry. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, made a valiant effort to sell the story to various magazines, and three interested editors could not convince three disinterested publishers to run the story, so the fable was never published. A few years later, I showed the story to Richard Marks and he thought Old Perry would make a fine movie.

Richard was, and still is, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. I first met Richard those same forty years ago when he was working at the late great Ziegler, Diskant, and Roth Agency, an agency specializing in representing novels to the movie industry. Following the demise of that agency, Richard and I remained friends and he endeavored to interest a movie producer or two in Old Perry, to no avail.

Somewhere along the winding path of my life, I lost track of Richard and also lost my few copies of Old Perry, and until a few weeks ago I never thought I would see that story again. Every once in a while something would remind me of Old Perry—the running of the Kentucky Derby or a visit with a friend’s horse—but I remembered little more than the gist of the tale.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I was in need of a little advice from an entertainment lawyer. Richard is the only entertainment lawyer who has ever befriended me, so I looked him up via Google, sent him an email, and we restarted our friendship after thirty-some years. He inquired about Old Perry and I told him I lost the story long ago. Then a few weeks ago, Richard wrote to say he found a copy of the story while cleaning out his garage. He scanned the story and sent me a copy of the scan and I had the fascinating experience of reading a story I penned forty years ago—fascinating because I can’t imagine present-day Todd writing such a story, yet I enjoyed the energy and spirit of the tale.

Here for your reading pleasure is Old Perry.

Old Perry

It hurt me because he was too good for that and I always said we could make more money if we just let him win his races, but Jackie said he was too good not to use him as our bread and butter horse and he also said Old Perry didn’t mind losing. But I never believed that, or that Jackie believed it.

Okay, now what a bread-and-butter horse was to Jackie was a horse that could win almost all the time in low stakes races, but you didn’t let him win. You held him back in five or six races in a row, or maybe even ten races if your other horses were makin’ money, and you built up the odds against that horse until he was a real long shot, say twenty-five to one, and then you’d bet four or five hundred on him, win, and there was your money for keeping seven horses in good shape for a couple months anyway.

Course you had four or five people bet a hundred each so the big take wasn’t so obvious, and you had to move your horse around to different tracks all the time, which we did anyway, and you had to talk down his workouts if they were too good, and maybe once in a while you let him Place in a couple races or Show a couple times, so people didn’t get suspicious, when actually Old Perry could have won every race he ran at those second-rate tracks, and I always thought he could win at the best tracks, but Jackie said he couldn’t and was just a damn good bill payer.

But it still hurt me. I couldn’t ever look Old Perry in the eye after a race, even if he won, because I’d ridden him some mornings when he felt so strong and smooth and powerful and came in way under his fastest official time, close to the track record, and I would tell Jackie, though I didn’t have to because he was there most of the time watching it happen. But he would say, “No, we can’t ever let him race like that or we’ll be in big trouble.”

And that’s also why Jackie named him Old Perry (he’s only three now) because when people saw that Old they backed off, because old means slow, right? Most people are so damn stupid and superstitious, including horse people, you can scare’em off easy. They don’t take the time to really look at a horse. If they’d ever really looked at Old Perry they would have seen he was good, because sometimes people who really knew horses would watch him work and say to me, “Man, that’s some animal. Wonder why he doesn’t win? No guts, huh?” Which would hurt me.

But Jackie had a point because you had to have a really good horse, a winner, if you were gonna put down a big chunk of cash so you could keep your operation going. And Old Perry was perfect for that. He’s a real big horse and bettors don’t like real big horses in low stakes races. They like peppy little horses that come out snorting. And Old Perry walks with his head hung low, which bettors hate. And he always had a geek for a jockey because Jackie wouldn’t put anybody good on him or word would have spread fast how good he really was.

He ran thirty-two races as a two-year-old, which was crazy for an animal that fine, but he did, and we bet him to win in seven races and he won all of’em easy. I know because I was that geek jockey and I was holding him back even when he won.

But it got to hurt me so much I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I’d keep Floss up late, talking to her, whining actually, and she’d try to calm me down by making love to me, but I couldn’t even do that after a while because Old Perry and Jackie were screwing me up so bad.

So I decided to let him go in his first three-year-old race, even though Jackie told me to hold him. That was in May at Golden Gate fields, last race of the day. I’ll never forget that race. Triple Jump, a big black monster from New Zealand was the heavy favorite and Jackie thought this would be a good race to bring Old Perry in second and maybe we’d win a little cash that way without wrecking the long-shot buildup. But I told Floss to bet a hundred on Old Perry to Win since I knew Jackie was betting a hundred on him to Place and the damn odds were thirty to one before the race and jumped to forty-five to one at post time because nobody there had seen him run, so nobody bet on him at all.

I swear to God I just let him do whatever he wanted. Didn’t whip him, didn’t push him, but I didn’t hold him back and he won by twenty-five lengths and came within a half-second of breaking the track record, which we coulda massacred if I’d even touched him a little.

Naturally Jackie was pissed. He was pissed when he got the purse check for five thousand and even more pissed when I gave him four thousand more and he was really pissed when the reporters came around and asked him how it felt to have a turkey like Old Perry win at forty-five to one odds. He tried, oh God he tried to smile for them, but he couldn’t, and if he’d killed me that night I would have been surprised.

Next day he calls me in and says, “Listen you little shit, if you ever do that again I’m gonna kick your butt so hard you’ll never sit on a horse again.” Then he scrunched up his ugly face like he does so you don’t know if he’s in pain or just pissed and says, “Jimmy, I wish I could make you understand about that horse. He’s gonna keep us in chips for a long time, and we can’t screw that up. He can’t ever make us rich, but he can keep us going.” Then he stalked around the stall (his office was always a stall he fixed up) and he says, “Cause if he wins too much down here, I gotta move him up, right? If I move him up, I gotta pay more to enter him, keep him, insure him, everything…and he ain’t gonna win up there. He’s a good horse, Jimmy, but he’s not a great horse, and we can’t take any chances because I might never find such a sure thing again in my life.”

And that’s when I saw for the first time that Jackie actually thought Old Perry might be a great horse, but he was afraid to admit it because he was scared shitless of winning big. Which is true of lots of little time trainers. And Jackie was definitely in the little time habit. He was a sweet guy, but he just never saw himself as quite good enough for anything. That’s why he got divorced three times, because his women got sick of him not liking himself. That was pretty obvious.

And so here was this horse that was really something, that Jackie and I had made into whatever he was, that even a two-bit, too tall, scaredy-cat jock like me could win with, and Jackie didn’t have the balls to try with him.

So I said it wouldn’t happen again and then I went out and ran a couple of our nags and tried to figure out how I was gonna convince Jackie to let that horse really run. And then as I was going by Witherspoon’s fancy pants part of the facility, I realized maybe Jackie was right. You get a champion or a near champion and you’re suddenly talkin’ huge operating fees. Which I knew we could win by betting on Old Perry, except it’s crazy to bet much on your own horses. Nobody stays in business for long betting heavy on their own horses. I mean you bet a little, naturally, because that’s what it’s all about in a way, but you’re not supposed to bet big, whatever big means to you, except we were betting our own horses, Old Perry in particular, which is why, I guess, we were considered scum by the class trainers. They looked down on us so much they didn’t even think about trying to buy Old Perry, either outright or in a claiming race.

So then I figured, who cares, I’d let him win again the next race and see what Jackie did then. Except two days later, Jackie told me he wanted me to win, that he’d entered Old Perry in a big purse race and we were gonna load the windows, too.

I was high as a kite for the rest of the week, and the night before the race I took Floss out to dinner and to a show and the next morning early I went to see my horse, to work him light before the race that evening, and he was sick. I checked him over and could see he’d been doped, and I just wanted to kill Jackie.

But I didn’t say anything because we still had thirteen hours until the race, so I got Floss to stay with him so Jackie couldn’t give him anything else, and I got Pike over. Pike wouldn’t tell on a doped horse but sure knew how to undope a horse if anybody could. He gave Old Perry something to make him piss extra and something else that made him shit extra, and then I gave him a long walk and chanced a little more water than usual, and by race time he wasn’t perfect but he was okay, pissing steadily, all the way out into the paddock.

And Jackie was there acting like nothing had happened. I tried to ignore him while he saddled Old Perry, but I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to be there. He was whistling, making wisecracks, pretending not to see the horse wasn’t lookin’ so good. I coulda killed him.

Then I got on and we got out on the track and I wondered if we’d cleaned out most of the dope. And then I thought to myself What kind of a man would poison his own horse just to keep a dumb jock from letting him win? I mean I knew I was important to Jackie. I’d been with him for six years. He liked me and he needed me because I was a jockey/trainer/stable boy/everything sorta guy, and me and Floss were just about all the family he had. But still, what was he trying to prove? That he was boss? Was he trying to put me down so I wouldn’t buck him anymore? He must have known I knew he’d doped my horse. I couldn’t figure him out.

But anyway, there we were out on the track, and I was thinking as I headed Old Perry down to the starting gate, Holy shit, I’m in a serious horse race. It hadn’t even occurred to me how big a race this was. I hadn’t ever ridden against horses like those. Blue Light, Queen’s Four, Cat’s Eye. A damn fast field. Fact is, I shouldn’t have been out there at all because I was a hack. I knew horses and I could feel their moods, but my body was all wrong and I couldn’t move with the horse the way the real artists do, the real pros.

And then I had to swallow to keep from crying, thinking about how if Old Perry hadn’t been doped I mighta had a chance against those bastards. Might, but now I didn’t because he’d been doped, and I hated Jackie and cursed him and cursed his rotten soul that he would do that to a good animal like Old Perry and to me and to Floss. I hated him and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do well, how much I wanted Old Perry to run a proud race and not to fall. Please God, I prayed, don’t let my horse fall, and for a minute I thought about pulling him out of the race, because I’d seen horses fall and later on found out they’d been doped.

So I did something I’d never done before and something that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble if I didn’t have a good reason for doing it. I reined him in and got off out there on the backstretch and I looked him over. I looked him in the eyes and in the mouth and patted him and checked for shivers or anything that might have told me he was too sick to run. But he looked okay. He usually looked great, but at least he looked okay and I knew he wouldn’t fall.

And even though he hesitated a little as we came into the gate, something he’d never done before, I knew he’d make a good run, maybe not a great run, but he’d get around okay and then I’d go into Jackie’s office and I’d say, “Go to hell you rotten bastard. Go to hell and goodbye.” Because Floss and I could get work somewhere else, and I might even report him and try to get Old Perry taken away from him so the horse would have the chance to be the horse I thought he might be.

But then for the few seconds before the race I tried to clear my brain of all my bad thoughts. That’s something Floss and I learned from this book on meditation. I got really calm and relaxed and I looked up at the stands full of people and colors and looked down the row at the other jocks, all so flashy and colorful, and I looked for beauty, like the book said to, and I saw it everywhere, and then I looked down at Old Perry, at his beautiful brown skin, and I patted him and squeezed him with my legs and felt the miracle of life rush through me, and then the bell sounded and we flew out of the gate and we didn’t touch ground for a long time.

The whole first half of the race was like that—floating, flying, and I felt stoned, like all the energy of the lights shining down was being concentrated into me and into Old Perry and the race seemed like a fantastic dream, at least the first half of it.

But then I came out of the dream and saw where I was, a tight third, right on Cat’s Eye’s tail, and Lobato was holding the Cat back a length behind Blue Light, just waiting for the home stretch to take it. And I could feel Old Perry working, struggling to get into his rhythm, but not really being able to because he just didn’t feel fine to himself. Which is when I got mad again, thinking how we hadn’t let this horse be himself, and I wasn’t allowed to be myself and Floss wasn’t herself and Jackie wasn’t himself and almost nobody was themselves because we’re all playing these shitty games to win, to pay bills, to not be ourselves because for some stupid reason we’re afraid. And I got so mad, I just went crazy and laid the crop on harder than I ever have and I could feel Old Perry brace against the blows because he didn’t like that, didn’t ever need it, but I needed it and I couldn’t hit myself, not then anyway.

But then we started to move and we seemed to lock into Cat’s Eye’s pace as we slid by Blue Light together, like a matched pair, and it wasn’t like we were trading the lead, we were sharing it, moving step for step perfectly down the run and I didn’t whip Old Perry anymore because I could feel he was locked into that other horse and all we had to do was run that last two hundred yards—no, not run, fly, because we were flying and it was like a dream again and I didn’t even feel it when we touched down. So I guess I didn’t really have to, but right at the end I touched him a little and he moved ahead by a length at the wire, just so there wouldn’t be any question.

And as I stood up in the stirrups as we slowed on the turn, I thought Holy shit, we won. Old Perry and I won. And all the bastards in the world couldn’t undo that.

But you want to talk about a surprise. When I rode Old Perry into that winner’s circle and Jackie was there crying his eyes out and hugged that horse and looked up at me and said, “Jimmy, we did it! You were right!” I about fell off. Because he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t bullshitting. He didn’t know about the dope.

Later on we put it together that somebody from one of the class acts must have doped Old Perry so we’d yank him. It figured because since he almost broke the track record a few days before, they knew he had a chance to win and that must have screwed up somebody’s big plans.

So I worried for a while they’d try to poison him, and me and Floss slept down there with Old Perry for a few weeks after. But we stopped doing that after a while, after he won three more races. And he hasn’t lost since. He’s too well known now for somebody to poison him.

Sure sometimes I wish I was racing him still, but I know if he’s gonna be as great as he can be then we’ve got to have a great jock riding him. I still run him in the morning and walk him and groom him and talk to him, cause he likes me and I can look him right in the eye now and say, “We really are what we are Old Perry. We might lose tomorrow, but not on purpose.”

Morning Coffee

May 28th, 2018

Blessed Brew Nolan Winkler

Blessed Brew painting by Nolan Winkler

“Get out those coffee beans and grind’em just so, make us both a cuppa real good joe.” from Todd’s song Real Good Joe

I was grinding coffee beans this morning, and as I listened to the beans turning into brewable dust, I realized Oh. I’m drinking coffee again, which made me think about my ever-changing relationship to coffee, starting sixty-two years ago when I was a wee tyke.

My mother and father were both hooked on coffee by the time I was born, and my father drank multiple quarts of coffee every day of his life until he died at eighty-four. My mother ceased to drink coffee in her sixties after undergoing successful treatment for bladder cancer.

One of the first difficult tasks I learned to perform as a little boy was the making of my mother’s morning coffee. My father drank that coffee, too, but my motive for making the first pot of the day was to soothe my mother’s jangled nerves sufficiently so my siblings and I might get through breakfast and leaving for school without suffering our mother’s wrath—so easily ignited in those crucial minutes before she had her coffee.

So six-year-old Todd would get up before anyone else, and with the help of a little kitchen stepladder, I would place a medium-sized pot on the electric range and use a two-cup measuring cup to fill that pot with water from the tap. Then while the water was coming to a boil, I would carefully fold a large round paper coffee filter in half, then in half again, and insert this now-triangular filter into the top of a Chemex coffee maker—a large hour-glass-shaped thing made of glass. I would then scoop seven scoops of Folgers drip grind into that folded filter, and used a ladle to pour the just-boiled water over the grind again and again until the bottom half of the hour glass was full of coffee.

As I grew older and stronger, I was able to lift a full kettle and pour hot water onto the coffee, but when I was six and seven the kettle was too heavy for me to lift and safely pour.

My mother, awakened by an angrily buzzing alarm clock, would stagger into the kitchen, pour herself a cup of the freshly brewed coffee, and metamorphose into a functionally civil human being. I don’t recall her ever thanking me for making her morning coffee, something I did every morning until I started going to high school, though I never drank any coffee, nor did I develop a taste for coffee until I was in my thirties—and then, oh boy, did I develop a taste.

When I was in Third Grade, a mob of us from Las Lomitas Elementary School went on a tour of the Hills Brothers coffee plant in San Francisco courtesy of their marketing director who was the father of one of my classmates.

Three things stand out in my memory from that long ago field trip: the heavenly smell of roasting coffee, the fantastic Rube Goldberg-like structure of metal tracks on which cans and lids zipped around the cavernous factory, and the white bag full of coffee candy and miniature cans of Hills Brothers coffee for my mother.

When I was twenty-nine and having success with my writing, I hired my friend Prairie to be my part-time secretary. This was before the advent of personal computers, so having a fast typist to type up my pages of longhand and then retype those pages after I bloodied them with my editor’s pen was a dream come true. Prairie was a religious coffee drinker, and now and then I would have a cup with her, which cup would turn me into a fast-talking jitterbugging crazy person until the caffeine wore off and I descended into gloom. So I stopped drinking coffee.

Five years later, I married a dedicated coffee drinker, and after a few months of marriage I was a daily coffee drinker, too. But coffee made me hella jittery and then horribly cranky once the high went away, so I quit. And then I started again. And then I quit. And so on without end. My marriage fell apart, but my relationship with coffee endured.

Fast forward to about four years ago. Having gone sans coffee for a couple years, I started drinking coffee in the morning, black coffee, in lieu of breakfast, and I was soon drinking two and three cups a day. At the same time, I was suffering from severe shoulder pain for which I was popping lots of aspirin and ibuprofen, often on a stomach containing only coffee.

Then one day I woke in the morning feeling as bad as I have ever felt and assumed I had powerful flu. But after two days of growing weaker and weaker, I realized I was on the verge of dying. Marcia called an ambulance, the volunteer fire department folks and paramedics arrived, and I was rushed to the hospital where it was determined I had lost nearly all the blood in my body as a result of punching a hole in my stomach by taking way too much ibuprofen and aspirin on a stomach containing only coffee.

I was transfused with a couple units of fresh blood, spent a night in ICU, and took a year to regain a modicum of my former strength. Since that frightening experience four years ago, I have taken a total of two aspirin and two ibuprofens, and for the two years following my near death I drank no coffee.

Yet here I am today having a cup of coffee diluted with almond milk. For some months now I have been having one such cup a day, and I have no intention of increasing my coffee intake any time soon. The truth is, a little bit of coffee goes a long way for the likes of me. I love the smell of just-made coffee, I enjoy the ritual of making a cup, and I prefer the taste of coffee to tea.

In the afternoon and evenings I drink nettle or chamomile tea, both of which I find soothing and warming.

Some years ago, a friend wrote to say that her morning ritual was to listen to my piano music while she made and drank her first cup of coffee, so for my album of solo piano tunes Incongroovity, I improvised a piece called Morning Coffee with her in mind. Now every time I listen to this tune, I think of her sipping her coffee and listening to my music.

idas2-cover-sm

Minus Tide

May 21st, 2018

Dog & Ball

Molly Waiting photo by Todd

Marcia and I met Sally and Molly at Big River Beach for the extraordinary minus tide on Friday morning—Sally our human friend, Molly a Golden Retriever dedicated to fulfilling the imperative of her breed: retrieving.

The beach was vast, the ocean’s withdrawal awe-inspiring, and ere long we were standing on sand where for most hours of most days the water is several feet deep. We were the only people on the vast fantastical beach, and this reminded me of an encounter I had a week ago with a couple of German tourists.

I was sitting on a log on Big River Beach, eating an orange and reveling in the sun after several days of unrelenting fog, when the Germans, a man and woman in their thirties, approached me and asked in excellent English if I lived around here. I said I did, and the woman said excitedly, “Oh, good. Can you tell us why so few people live here? This is the most beautiful place we have ever been. California is so crowded. Why don’t more people move here?”

“Water,” I said, smiling out at the vast Pacific. “There is very little fresh water here and we are far from any large sources of water that might be readily piped here. So the population remains static at about a thousand people. I’ve been here for thirteen years, and only a handful of new houses have been built in that time and the population has remained unchanged.”

“Water,” said the woman, frowning. “But it is so lush here.”

“We’ve had relatively wet winters these last two years,” I explained. “But before that we had four years of drought. However, drought or no, every year in Mendocino we have more cloudy and foggy days than days of sun. The fog is a great moisturizer.”

“Too many foggy days can be depressing,” said the man, nodding.

“Yes,” I said, smiling up at the sun playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, “but oh do we get happy when the sun comes out.”

Which is true. The day I encountered the German tourists was our first sunny day after a week of perpetual grayness, and when I ran my errands before going to the beach, the bank tellers and postal agents and grocery store clerks and bakery patrons and tourists were all positively giddy, as if we had collectively won the lottery, which, in a way, we had—the solar lottery.

Being on Big River Beach for a minus tide feels like a lottery win, too, and every time I get home from that dramatically transformed landscape—the vast expanse of sand, the waves breaking far out in the bay, the river racing by—I feel rejuvenated. My piano playing is more inventive, my writing energized, and I feel physically and emotionally expanded. I also feel more optimistic, having been reminded so eloquently of what we are born knowing but often forget: we are part of an ongoing miracle.

Which reminds me of when I moved to Mendocino thirteen years ago from Berkeley, how for the first year I lived here I went to the beach almost every day, rain or shine, and I could feel my body and mind and senses healing from decades of city living, my spirit imbibing the wildness and spaciousness and purity of this place.

But isn’t it fascinating how one person’s miracle can be another person’s No Big Deal. For several days prior to the minus tide, I told everyone I knew about the coming miracle of the ocean’s larger-than-usual withdrawal, and though a few people expressed mild interest, for the most part my chattering about the minus tide fell on disinterested ears.

A man at the post office overheard me gushing about the minus tide to someone, and called to me gruffly, “You must be new here.”

“I’m sixty-eight,” I said, bewildered by his contemptuous tone. “And I’ve loved minus tides since I was a wee tyke.”

“I mean here,” he said, clearly annoyed by my reply. “You’re new here, not in the world.”

“I’ve lived here for thirteen years,” I said, knowing exactly what he was going to say next.

“Yeah,” he snorted. “A newbie.”

Big River is currently featuring a couple dozen harbor seals, which means there must be a sizeable population of fish and other tasty comestibles in the river, which speaks well of the health of the watershed. On our most recent minus tide visit, we saw some seals doing something we’d never seen them do before—resting on their bellies on the sand in shallow water with their tails raised behind them and their backs arched so their heads were out of the water, too.

In yoga they call this posture Dhanurasana, the bow pose, and humans performing this asana maintain the bow by gripping their ankles or feet with their hands. Seals do not have hands, so they execute the pose without holding onto anything, and they can hold the pose effortlessly for a long time.

Molly, when not chasing her tennis ball, is fascinated by the seals, and the seals seem quite interested in her, too. Sometimes Molly will try to swim out to the seals, and Sally always calls her back before tragedy can ensue. Interestingly, Molly was not the least interested in the seals performing Dhanurasana, perhaps because they were holding so still and she is more interested in things that move.

At one point on our minus-tide sojourn, we were crossing an expanse of sand that is usually underwater, when simultaneously the four of us, three humans and a dog, sank into quicksand up to our shins; and it was not easy getting free of the sucking muck. However, we did not retreat, but sloshed through the goopy stretch to reach more solid sand as far out into the bay as we could go, from where we looked back at the land and saw the cliffs and the beach and the river as we rarely get to see them.

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Opening Words

May 14th, 2018

Big River Meteor

Big River Meteor photo by Todd

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I like to write letters to friends and to artists and writers and movie directors I admire. Sometimes my friends will send me letters, but the artists and writers and movie directors I write to very rarely answer my letters, though until twenty years ago if the admired person was British, Australian, or from New Zealand, no matter how famous, he or she always wrote back—but not anymore.

For many years, before there was email and texting and tweeting, I sent off several letters every week; and almost every day in those halcyon days of postal abundance, the postal service agent would bring me letters from friends. On my computer I have a file entitled Letter Head Quotes. In this file are pages topped with a quote I especially like, and I will either type a letter to someone on one of those pages, or print out the page and use the empty space below the quote to write a letter by hand.

Here are some of my favorite letterhead quotes and a few thoughts about them.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

Alan Jones is an Episcopal priest who was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 1985 until 2009. When I lived in Berkeley from 1995 to 2006, I would attend Evensong on Thursday evening at Grace Cathedral twice a month. I’d take BART from the North Berkeley station, get off at Montgomery Street, hike up the hill to the cathedral, walk the labyrinth adjacent to the cathedral, enter the cavernous church, listen to the Boy’s and Men’s choirs sing gorgeous unintelligible hymns accompanied by a genius organist, and open my heart and mind to Alan’s spontaneous prayer, which always concluded Evensong.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

This quote from Winnie the Pooh is especially dear to me, literally dear, because when I was creating a book of my writing exercises The Writer’s Path with Mindy Toomay, I really wanted to use this quote in the book, and our publisher, 10-Speed before they were eaten by Random House, informed us that Disney, who now owns all things Pooh, was demanding five hundred dollars for the use of those few lines. 10-Speed was not about to cough up five hundred cents for our book, let alone five hundred dollars, so I coughed up the money, which amounted to ten per cent of my advance for the book; and I have never regretted the expenditure.

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.” Jean D’Arc

I first read this quote in Mark Twain’s novel Joan of Arc. I’ve read everything Twain wrote, and though I consider The Prince and the Pauper his finest novel, Twain considered Joan of Arc his greatest work. He spent two years in France meticulously researching his book, and he studied French for several years so he could read the transcripts of Joan’s trial in the original French with the aid of able translators. Despite Twain’s immense fame, no publisher would publish the book, so Twain published the fascinating work himself.

This quote, which comes from the transcript of Joan’s trial, speaks of a desire to be in a state of grace without needing to know whether one is in such a state. In that sense, the sentiment, when separated from the context of Joan’s trial, echoes the Buddha extolling the virtue of Not Knowing, of Beginner’s Mind—an innocent acceptance and appreciation of whatever we are experiencing.

In the context of Joan’s trial, these words are a testament to her astonishing genius, for this simple reply effectively defeated her brutal prosecutor and proved the most brilliant minds in the Catholic Church incapable of convicting her of heresy. Thus stymied, those hideous men tortured her until they imagined her anguished cries to be an admission of heresy—after which they quickly burned her at the stake.

But before they tortured her and killed her, they laid a pernicious intellectual trap for her. There was an arcane law of the Catholic Church stating that anyone claiming to be in a state of grace, or claiming not to be in a state of grace, was a heretic. So if Joan could be tricked into saying, or even implying, she believed she was or was not in a state of grace, she would be proved a heretic. Having been deprived of sleep and sufficient food for several weeks, having stood through weeks of trial in the face of legions of ghoulish priests intent on killing her, Joan, nineteen, illiterate, and knowing nothing of the complicated laws of the church was asked by the prosecutor, “Do you believe you are in a state of grace?”

As Twain describes the scene, the devious prosecutor asks this question almost as an afterthought at the end of a grueling day of interrogation. Joan gathers herself, awaits guidance from her angelic allies, and replies with quiet eloquence, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it. If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.”

In a more modern context, but in a similarly metaphysical vein, the following quote from Buckminster Fuller is a succinct description of how I believe the universe operates. I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained. 

Having shared this quote with many people, I can report that artists and poets and people who have lived unusual lives universally agree that this is how the universe operates, while everybody else says Bucky’s idea is hokum.

Here is one of my favorite Philip Whalen poems.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know