Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs

October 8th, 2015

Crater Lake Chipmunk

Crater Lake Chipmunk photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

1972. Santa Cruz. Never enough money. I was working days as a gardener, nights playing music. My girlfriend was a waitress and house cleaner. Rent was cheap but wages were negligible.

So one day my girlfriend said to me, “My brother and his wife are making good money housesitting. If they can do it in Philadelphia, why can’t we do it here? People go away for a night, a week, a month, and they pay us to stay in their house, water the plants, feed the cats, walk the dog, maybe take care of their kids.”

She put an ad in the Sentinel. Something like: Responsible couple with good references will housesit for you. We are clean non-smokers, good with pets, good with plants, good with children.

Truth be told, I was not keen on housesitting, but my girlfriend was tired of our lack of cash and Spartan lifestyle.

A few days later, a woman called in response to the ad. Ellen. She was going away that Friday and returning Sunday. Ellen had a ten-year-old son and a dog. We went over to her house that night to audition. She was large, mid-thirties, we were skinny, early twenties. Her very fat son Perry was sitting on the sofa eating candy and watching television.

We met the dog, a friendly German Shepherd named Georgia. Her parents were purebred mega-champions. Ellen was planning to breed Georgia with another champion and sell the puppies for big money.

“Oh,” said Ellen, “I forgot to mention, Georgia is in heat, so we’ve been keeping her locked in the garage at night because lots of male dogs are coming around. Oh, and the reason I’m keeping Georgia in the garage at night instead of in the house is ever since she went into heat she’s been acting crazy. She barks and growls at the guinea pigs. Oh, I forgot to mention the guinea pigs. Chester and Madge. They’re purebred prize-winning longhaired black and white guinea pigs. That’s their cage on the high shelf. Their special food is in the refrigerator. I sell their babies for big money. Oh, and my most prized possessions, handed down from my great grandparents, are an onyx chess set and four onyx teacups and an onyx teapot. Hand-carved by a famous Mexican artist. They’re on the shelf above the stereo. Oh, and Perry is fine with TV dinners. He likes three or four of them for lunch and dinner. Cereal for breakfast. He has a television in his room, too. Helps him go to sleep.”

I was about to say maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, two complete strangers taking care of a big crazy-in-heat dog. My girlfriend was having second thoughts, too. But then Ellen said, “How does a hundred and fifty dollars plus twenty dollars for food sound?”

Considering I made two dollars an hour and my girlfriend made one-fifty plus tips, this was a dizzying sum so we said yes.

When we showed up on Friday afternoon, several male dogs were hanging around the house. Ellen was dolled up. Her perfume was so strong, I nearly fainted. She gave us the name of the motel in Monterey where she was attending a conference. We didn’t ask what the conference was about.

She served us beer and chips. Perry was eating a TV dinner and watching Leave It To Beaver. Georgia was asleep on the living room rug. Ellen had given her a tranquilizer in ground beef. When Georgia woke up, we were to lock her in the garage.

A horn sounded. Ellen grabbed her suitcase and dashed out the door. Perry looked up from Leave It To Beaver and said, “She’s not going to a conference. That’s Hal. He’s married.”

We made supper. My girlfriend got drunk and fell asleep beside Perry on the sofa. I fed the guinea pigs. Georgia woke up and I locked her in the garage. Perry fell asleep with his head on my girlfriend’s shoulder. At midnight, I woke up Perry and my girlfriend and we brushed our teeth and went to bed.

In the wee hours of the morning we woke to a loud crashing sound and whining and moaning. We got up to investigate. The guinea pigs were fine. The onyx teacups and teapot and chess set were fine.

But the whining and moaning coming from the garage did not sound fine, so I opened the door connecting the kitchen to the garage, turned on the light, and there was Georgia, daughter of registered champions, locked in coitus with the ugliest mongrel I have ever seen.

“Stuck together,” said Perry, giggling. “His penis has kind of a hook on it.”

The ugly mongrel had gotten into the garage by hurling himself through the window-top of the outside door. When the dogs finally separated, we shooed Ugly outside, I nailed a piece of plywood over the broken window, and we brought Georgia into the house and gave her a tranquilizer in ground beef. She was exhausted from her sex with Ugly and fell right asleep.

Alas, Georgia did not stay asleep. While we slumbered, she knocked the hamster cage off the shelf, tore the flimsy door off the cage, and slaughtered Chester and Madge. Then she annihilated the onyx teapot, teacups, and chess set.

The next day and night and day were torture as we waited for Ellen to come home from her conference with Hal. I spent the long hours gluing onyx shards together. But miracle of miracles, when Ellen came home and learned of the disaster, all she said was, “My fault. I never should have left you with Georgia in heat.” Then she handed us a hundred and seventy dollars.

A few days later, we got a check from Ellen for an additional fifty dollars and a note saying she felt terrible about putting us though such an ordeal. Would we consider housesitting for her again? We were the first sitters Perry had ever liked.

And though we were glad to know Perry liked us, we were no longer in the housesitting business.


September 29th, 2015


Grace Upon The Visit painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley          

Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.

I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.

Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”

Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?

To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.” George Bernard Shaw

The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.

Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.

“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”

Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.

“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.

“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”

“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.

“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”

“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.

“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Spear takes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”

“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James

As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.

I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.


September 23rd, 2015


Ganesha photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

Ganesha, also known as Ganapati and Vinakaya, is the male Hindu god with a human body and head of an elephant. His Rubensesque androgynous form is most often represented with four arms, each arm with a five-fingered hand, though some drawings and statues of Ganesha have as few as two arms and as many as twenty. Revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom, he is also the patron deity of writers.

I knew nothing about Ganesha until nine years ago when Marcia and I got together, and Marcia revealed she was a devotee of the chubby multi-talented deity. She owns two small statues of Ganapati, one a handsome two-armed drum-playing fellow carved from wood, and the other an alluring six-armed dancing guy made of brass.

A remover of obstacles is my kind of deity, so with Marcia’s permission I placed her wooden Ganesha on top of my upright piano where he shares the lofty plateau with two statues of Buddha, one a happy standing fatso, the other a mellow lotus-positioned fellow with his thumbs and fingers touching each other in an intriguing mudra. The only other idol atop my piano is a tiny glass baseball player currently stationed in the shadow of Ganesha—my last gasp plea for the removal of the Dodgers from the path of our floundering Giants.

The more I learn about Ganesha, the more I like him, and when we recently removed the obstacle of an unsightly outhouse from a cirque of redwoods viewable from the eastside windows of our house, we decided to look for a large statue of Ganesha to stand in the grotto previously occupied by the ugly pooper.

And lo we were directed to Sacred Woods in Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, an impressive yard containing hundreds of statues imported from Thailand and Indonesia by Rachelle Zachary, the owner of Sacred Woods. After a delightful hour of statue shopping, we settled on an exquisite four-and-a-half-feet-tall white-stone statue of the elephant-headed god, hand-carved by a Balinese master, and a few weeks later the weighty objet d’art was delivered to our south-side deck.

Our plan was to have the redwood trees surrounding the proposed location for the statue limbed up before we engaged a trio of strong men to transport the statue to the grotto. However, after two weeks of gazing out the south-facing dining room windows at the magnificent statue standing on the far edge of our ground-level deck, we decided to move the statue just a few feet off the deck from where he was. We had fallen in love with seeing him from the dining nook, which is also where I do much of my writing.

And so I began clearing away the dense grass and brambles and vines and dead fern fronds clogging the ground where we envisioned Ganesha standing in the embrace of two stately ferns, and after a few minutes of work I uncovered a massive flat-topped granite stone butting up against the deck. We briefly considered placing the statue on top of the granite stone, but the top was too narrow and too close to the deck where rambunctious dogs and exuberant children and clumsy adults might unwittingly topple the statue.

When Marcia came outside to see how my work was progressing, I gestured at the mass of dead branches and fern fronds and chunks of old bricks and rotting abalone shells left by the previous owners and said, “The ideal thing would be a little brick pad right in there.”

Marcia nodded, winked at Ganesha, returned to her studio, and as I filled my wheelbarrow again and again with the brittle remnants of the past, I held in my mind’s eye an image of our magnificent Ganesha standing on a small brick pad surrounded by an expanse of gray gravel populated with large stones.

Then something astonishing happened, something a non-believer would call a fortuitous coincidence, and something a devout follower of Ganesha would call His doing.

As I clipped away the last of several dozen dead fern fronds from the lower reaches of a large fern, I espied the corner of a pink brick lying in the ground. Having previously removed several chunks of old brick from the vicinity I thought this might be another such chunk. However, upon removing more of the detritus, I exposed a perfectly level pad made of eight whole bricks.

And that is where our statue stands today, surrounded by an expanse of gravel populated with large granite stones. We have no idea what stood on the brick pad prior to the coming of Ganesha, nor are we certain the brick pad was there before I suggested to Marcia and Ganesha that such a pad should be there. Judging from several other artifacts left behind by the previous owners, I would guess a statue of John Wayne or possibly Ronald Reagan stood where our Ganesha now lords it over the ferns and stones.

I was inspired to write about Ganesha today, remover of obstacles, after a visit to Main Street in Mendocino to view the sturdy white fence recently erected on what is now the end of the sidewalk just to the west of Gallery Books.

A public servant, or as A.A. Milne might have written, a Person Of Very Little Brain, is no doubt behind this blood clot, so to speak, in a major artery of our little town, and as I stood at the ridiculous fence and gazed out over the headlands and Big River Bay, I thought of Monty Python and Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers, for this travesty of a mockery of a sham is a hilarious commentary on how far we humans, collectively speaking, have not come since we climbed down from the trees millions of years ago and sallied forth to people the earth.

Oh Ganesha, Ganapati, Vinakaya—we implore you to help us remove the Dadaesque obstacle on Main Street.


September 16th, 2015

Homage to the Kumulipo

Homage to the Kumulipo (Na Lei Hulu) © 2012 David Jouris / Motion Pictures

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

Number of people displaced internally in Syria: 6 million

Syrian refugees registered in other countries: 4 million

Mediterranean Sea crossings by refugees so far in 2015: 300,000

Expected asylum seekers in Germany 2015: 800,000

Refugees United States will accept in 2015: 70,000

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the ongoing wars in the Middle East have walked and are walking to Western Europe. Thousands of Africans have traveled through Spain into France and reached Calais where they hope to walk or ride through the tunnel under the English Channel to get to England. Thousands of Libyans and Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean in boats, hoping to find food and shelter in Greece and Italy and Spain.

Germany reports they have accepted a million refugees in the last few years. Austria is receiving thousands of Syrian refugees who rode buses from Hungary because Hungary lacks the financial resources to take care of tens of thousands of refugees. Hungary is erecting a huge fence along its entire border with Serbia from whence the Syrian refugees are coming. Iceland and Finland say they will accept Syrian refugees. France has taken in millions of migrants from Africa in the last few decades, many of them now living in poverty, the social infrastructure of France inadequate to support the vast numbers of migrants, many of them unemployed and unemployable.

The prevalent narrative is that the refugees are fleeing war and squalid refugee camps where they lacked adequate food, shelter, and medical care—families desperate for a better life willing to risk everything to reach the more affluent countries of Europe.

What is not much discussed in the mainstream news is that this refugee problem is but the tip of a crisis so vast, the mind boggles when one reads what climate scientists are predicting. As many parts of Africa and the Middle East become too hot and drought-stricken to support human life, and with those areas now grossly overpopulated, 50-200 million people will attempt to migrate into Europe in the coming decades, depending on how quickly the earth heats up and drought causes massive crop failures.

In other words, what was predicted twenty years ago is now underway. Yes, wars have exacerbated the crisis at this moment in time, but social chaos resulting from skyrocketing food prices, lack of water, and inevitable famine will make the current refugee/migrant situation thousands of times worse.

And the governments of the world are doing nothing substantive to address the underlying problems causing this now irreversible crisis.

I find it incredible that the German government in collusion with Goldman Sachs is willing to torture the entire population of Greece in order to keep the international financial Ponzi scheme going, yet Germany is going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to take in millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Why not take in millions of refugees from Greece? Or better yet, why not leave Greece alone so the Greeks can recover from economic brutalization and stay in Greece?

Here in California, the ongoing drought threatens to change our social and economic reality so dramatically our state may not be recognizable a decade hence. People from southern California are moving to northern California in droves, and every other person I know in northern California is moving to Oregon or Washington. Ere long, the Canadians will find millions of Americans trying to cross the border into those cooler northern climes where scientists tell us wheat and other grains will still be able to be grown when southern North America becomes uninhabitable a decade or so hence.

None of what I have written is hyperbole. Nor can the ongoing insanity of our national policies be exaggerated. When a recent New Yorker article described what might happen to Washington and Oregon and northern California should a massive earthquake and tsunami strike the area, millions of people bought survival kits, and contractors were besieged with calls from people wanting to bolt their houses to their foundations. Yet permanent life-ending disaster from climate change barely causes a ripple of concern.

Thus, I suppose, it has always been. Many times in human history our species migrated north and south and east and west in response to climate change. Our arboreal hominid ancestors came down out of the trees when climate change caused forests to become veldt, and fifty thousand years ago our ancestors moved out of Africa into Europe en route to becoming Vikings.

The difference today is that the world is divided into hundreds of nations with borders and unwieldy governments and armies possessed of sophisticated weaponry, none of which makes mass migration as natural and doable as it must have been when much of the earth was uninhabited.

Chaos may soon be the new norm everywhere, as it is in vast areas of Africa. A recent National Geographic article about the illegal ivory trade reads like a post-apocalyptic horror story, describing in gory detail how most of the slaughter of thousands of elephants for their ivory tusks is being carried out by guerilla soldiers fighting against the governments of Sudan, Darfur, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The illegal sale of ivory is the primary funding source for the guerrillas’ war efforts, which involve raping and slaughtering thousands of women and children and men. Meanwhile, the soldiers of those corrupt and barely functional nations frequently collude with the elephant-killing guerillas to supplement salaries inadequate for survival.

On a hot sunny day last week, I stood in front of the Mendocino post office talking to a man who moved here in the early 1960s. He opined, “Most of the people who moved here in the last fifteen years would not want to live here if the weather was like it was back in the 60s and 70s. Long wet winters. Freezing cold from November to April.”

Which reminded me of my first winter here ten years ago when it rained eighty inches and the days and nights were icy cold. On many a morning I found the water in the cat’s bowl frozen solid and the front steps covered with ice. I would hunker down by the woodstove and gaze out at the tempest and wonder if I’d made a big mistake coming to this place of perpetual rain and cold.

Giants & Dodgers

September 9th, 2015

Giants Mendo Hardware

Giants Hardware photo by David Jouris

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

The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

In my dotage I am willing to admit that my loathing of the Los Angeles Dodgers is irrational, primitive, and downright silly, but I loathe them nonetheless and have hated them with a vengeance since the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958 and I was infected with an incurable Giants virus that not only causes blind devotion to my team, but inflames the adrenal glands whenever the Los Angeles Dodgers are mentioned on the radio or in print.

The recent three-game series in Los Angeles between my Giants and the hated Dodgers was very likely the coup de grace to the Giants’ hopes of making it into the post-season this year, 2015, with the first-place Dodgers winning each of those three games by one run. Their all-star pitchers, Greinke and Kershaw, two humorless, hateful, cheating, balking twits, beat us with their amazing array of dirty rotten borderline pitches in collusion with umpires obviously in the employ of the Dodgers.

To amplify my already enormous hatred for the highest-paid bunch of jerks in all of baseball, several questionable calls by the bought-off umpires tipped the balance in each of the three games in favor of the Dodgers. Every crucial close call, not surprisingly, went the Dodgers’ way to the delight of the hordes of blood-sucking Dodger-loving philistines attending the game in that den of iniquity known as Dodger Stadium, home of sudden updrafts of icy cold air that routinely knock down no-doubter home runs hit by opposing teams so those would-be homers drop harmlessly into the gloves of the Dodgers’ computer-controlled genetically-modified superstar outfielders masquerading as humans.

So how do I explain the Giants winning three World Series in the last five years? The same way I explain my few and wholly implausible successes as a writer and the brief cultural renaissance known as the 60s and that time I found a twenty-dollar bill and a nice pair of sunglasses on the beach—a brief fleeting triumph by the severely underfunded forces of Good over the obscenely well-financed forces of Evil.

 “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” Dale Carnegie

Speaking of the forces of evil, many years ago when I was spending way too much time in Los Angeles trying to get Hollywood sociopaths to make my books and screenplays into movies, I attended a Dodgers-Giants game at Dodger Stadium with my childhood friend Colin Vogel.

Colin was infected by the Giants virus in 1958, too. However, the particular strain of the virus that got him was slightly different than the one that got me because Colin now lives in Glendale. Nevertheless, he is still a diehard Giants fan and regularly risks his life attending games at Dodger stadium when the Giants come to town. What makes his behavior even more bizarre is that he is an excellent psychotherapist. Surely he should know better.

In any case, long before Colin completed his psychoanalysis, he and I arrived at the Dodgers’ den of iniquity wearing our Giants caps. This was several decades before the Giants won their three World Series and millions of people who had never given baseball a second thought suddenly announced they had been diehard Giants fans from the get go. No, in those days there were but a handful of us Giants crazies among the forty thousand attending that Dodgers-Giants game in Los Angeles where we were treated as if we were infected with a deadly virus.

Our seats were so far from the field, the players looked like gnats wearing uniforms. At one point in the game, the corrupt home plate umpire had a mental lapse and allowed the Giants to score two runs and take the lead. Colin and I stood up and cheered. This rash act of loyalty caused hundreds of stylishly dressed and perfectly coiffed wannabe movie stars to glare at us with undisguised hatred.

And then a woman sitting in the row in front of us, a stunning brunette with dark brown hair in a page boy, her silky blue blouse alluringly unbuttoned to the tops of her admirable breasts, her makeup applied so tastefully I wanted to comment on how exquisitely understated yet effective it was, turned to me and said with convincing sincerity, “What is wrong with you? You look like a perfectly nice guy. How can you be a Giants fan?”

Without much thought, I replied, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t look like a complete moron. How can you be a Dodgers fan?”

And who knows where our snappy repartee might have led had the alluring brunette’s large and muscular and superbly tanned boyfriend not turned to me and said, “Nip it, Bud. Unless you want to get seriously hurt.”

Colin nudged me and gave me a meaningful look, so I nipped it, the game went on, the Dodgers won, and I was permitted to live another day.

“There are people who have money and people who are rich.” Coco Chanel

Nowadays, my irrational devotion to the Giants is devotion to a team of multi-millionaires and their billionaire owners, which was not the case when I was a boy. In the early days of my obsession with the Giants, I read every scrap of news and information about the guys on our team, and one of those scraps has stayed with me for a half century.

From 1959 to 1965, the Giants had a big burly pitcher named Jack Sanford. The article about Jack I still remember had a picture of Jack wearing a plaid shirt, a baseball cap, and pants held up by suspenders. He was splitting firewood with an enormous ax. The article said that Jack stayed in shape over the winter, not in California, by cutting down trees, cutting the trees into rounds, and splitting those rounds into firewood, which he sold to supplement his baseball salary.

I’ll bet no stinking Dodger ever did something like that.

Ida Four

September 1st, 2015



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

Two hours into tonight’s Open Mike at Club Muse, a dumpy old pub on San Pablo Avenue in Richmond California, most of the eighty-seven patrons have ceased to pay attention to the performers—the music awful, the comedians worse, hope of anything good fading fast.

Now the master of ceremonies, Tony Glick, a sweaty guy with scraggly gray hair and a huge beer belly, his yellow T-shirt sodden, his skinny blue belt barely holding up his saggy gray pants, steps to the microphone on the treacherous little stage and says, “Okay, yeah, thanks for that, Fred. Tell it like it is. Okay. Now we got a special treat, chick came all the way from Fort Orford to sing for you. Please welcome Nai O’Reilly.”

“Don’t call her chick,” says a bleary-eyed woman in a wheelchair near the stage. “Sexist pig. You want us to call you cock?”

“Whatever,” says Tony, rolling his eyes. “Here she is. Nai.”

The low roar of drunken blabber dies down a bit as a tall young woman sporting a ruby red guitar steps onto the stage. Wearing a creamy white long-sleeved shirt tucked into black jeans, her long brown hair in a ponytail, Nai scans the crowd to get a sense of her audience—the blabber falling to murmurs as the truth sinks in: this pretty gal is way too young to be here legally, yet here she is, standing at the microphone as if she’s been doing this since she was a baby, relaxed and unafraid.

Now she plays a slow progression of minor chords and sings a funny sad country lament, her voice strong and tender and perfectly pitched—even the most jaded of the patrons falling silent to listen.

Six-foot-one in my stocking feet,

still only fourteen years,

I tried to stop my growing

with an avalanche of tears.

Five-foot-seven ‘fore I made it to ten,

I was five-foot-ten at eleven.

Six-foot-even when I turned thirteen;

Cousin Day stopped at five-foot-seven.

Yes, I’m six-foot-one in my stocking feet,

still only fourteen years,

I tried to stop my growing

with an avalanche of tears.


That is how the just-published coil-bound photocopy edition of Ida’s Place Book Four—Renegade begins. Naomi, nicknamed Nai, is conceived in Book One, is five-years-old in Book Two, nine-years-old in Book Three, and fourteen-years-old in Book Four. For forty years I wrote single-volume novels focused on less than a year in the lives of their characters, and now I am writing the fifth volume in a series of novels collectively spanning, so far, twenty years.

One reviewer of my published novels described them as contemporary explorations of the lives and interactions of complicated people in various stages of overcoming or not overcoming emotional obstacles to their happiness. The Ida’s Place books certainly fit that description, but because the lives of the many characters unfold over decades, the explorations are of a different nature than those in my single-volume novels.

Had I introduced fourteen-year-old Nai in a single-volume novel as she appears in Book Four, the reader would not have experienced her childhood and be privy to many formative moments in her life. I would attempt to fill in her back story in the course of that single-volume work, but there would be no way to duplicate the depth and complexity of her character as it evolves over four volumes unless I made her the primary character for most or all of a single volume.

I do endeavor to write each volume of the Ida series so it may be read with satisfaction as a single-volume work. Indeed, a few avid followers of the Ida series encountered the second volume first.

Shortly after I brought out Book One, readers suggested I append a Character Glossary at the back of the book so they might refresh their memories of the many characters before, during, and after reading each volume. I have done so, and the glossaries are now a big help to me as I write each subsequent volume.

For Book Four, we enlarged and bolded the frontispiece announcement of the Character Glossary after two readers reported that while reading Book Three they longed for a character glossary, only to finish the book and find the Character Glossary awaiting them.

Please don’t imagine thousands of people are reading the Ida series. Nor are hundreds of people reading this series. Indeed, with each subsequent volume, readership has fallen precipitously. As of this writing, Book One has sold 120 copies, Book Two 66 copies, Book Three 35 copies, and Book 4, just printed at Zo, the best and only copy shop in Mendocino, 22 copies—those twenty-two stalwarts already pounding the drums for Book Five. Most amazing to me is how my enthusiasm for the saga has never waned, and I’m sure the ongoing encouragement of those twenty-two devotees is the main reason I continue.

The satisfactory completion of a single-volume novel requires the author to wrap everything up at the end, everything important, and I often found such labor exhausting and somewhat artificial. In writing the multi-volume Ida’s Place, I feel no compulsion to concoct a grand denouement for each volume, but rather allow the various story threads to reach satisfying and enticing and natural-seeming preludes to what might come next.

Here is a one-paragraph snapshot of the café from Book Three.

Ida’s Place, a splendiferous bakery café housed in a gigantic old building made of purplish-red bricks and massive redwood beams, has been likened to a cathedral by many a restaurant reviewer and postcard writer—the great room endowed with eight large skylights and fourteen gigantic windows through which the ever-changing light comes numinously streaming.

You may read the first three chapters of Ida’s Place Book One—Return on my web site, which is the only place Ida books are sold, each copy signed and lavishly numbered by the author. Who knows? Perchance you are someone for whom the Ida saga will be elixir.


August 26th, 2015

Point of Discovery 3x7

At the Point of Discovery (Zhukov Dance Theatre) © 2012 David Jouris / Motion Pictures

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

“A true friend is someone who thinks you’re a good egg even though he knows you’re slightly cracked.” Bernard Meltzer

I was put in mind of my friend Elgin this morning when I heard the unmistakable sound of an old Volkswagen Beetle going by. Elgin and I met in 1966, my junior year of high school. He was a massive six-three, a formidable football player, grew up in wealthy family, had his own horse, a new VW Beetle, hunted, drank whiskey, and hung out with other football players and their cheerleader girlfriends.

I was not massive, did not play football, did not have a horse or car, grew up in a middle-class family, and hung out with social outcasts who wanted to be artists or poets or actors or musicians.

Elgin and I attended a high school with two thousand students and were never in the same class. Thus our paths rarely crossed. I had watched Elgin play linebacker and offensive lineman on our championship football team and seen him hanging out with a mob of jocks at lunch, so I knew who he was, but he did not know me until our junior year when I landed the role of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

Bye Bye Birdie was inspired by the historical moment when Elvis Presley went into the Army. Conrad is a fictional version of Elvis. The play takes place the week before Conrad enters military service. For a farewell publicity stunt, he and his managers descend upon a small town where Conrad will kiss some lucky high school girl, the event to be televised on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The play is frequently performed by high schools because the chorus can accommodate vast numbers of kids, and the play is largely about teenagers. At our high school in 1966, however, most people considered Drama the domain of girls and homos, as gay males were referred to in those days. I was on the basketball and soccer teams, had a girlfriend, and many people knew I was not a homo, but I was in plays, which made me at least an honorary homo. Because of this endemic homophobia, we had plenty of girls in the chorus, but almost no boys.

However, we had an ambitious choreographer who enlisted a dozen female dancers to give the musical numbers extra pizzazz. As it happened, several of those dancers were also pompom girls and cheerleaders with jock boyfriends. Our ambitious choreographer wanted male dancers who could lift those female dancers—lift them and twirl them and fill out the scenes in which crowds of teenagers cheered for Conrad Birdie.

So she asked those dancers to enlist their jock boyfriends to be the lifters, which meant those jocks would have to be in a play. At first only one football player agreed to venture into homo territory. But eventually ten of the stars of our championship team were in the play, and two of them, Elgin and Eric, were assigned to pick me up and carry me around the stage on their mighty shoulders while dozens of cute girls pretended to be in love with me.

Elgin and Eric were so strong that when they picked me up, all one hundred and fifty pounds of me, I felt both tiny and grateful I was not playing football with the likes of Elgin trying to tackle me. And as it happened, Elgin had a blast being in the play, lifting beautiful girl dancers and tiny actors.

By the time the play was over, Elgin and I were friends, not best friends or even close friends, but friends. Thereafter, he often attended rehearsals of other plays I was in, came to hear me play music, invited me to parties at his house, occasionally gave me rides home when it was raining, and saved me at one party from a huge drunk football player who was about to rearrange my face for gazing too avidly at his girlfriend.

On Grad Night at Mel’s Bowl, Elgin and I were on the same bowling team, came in third, and we all won Parker T-Ball Jotters, after which Elgin got very drunk and told me I was his hero for being brave enough to be in plays despite so many people thinking it meant I was a homo.

Fast forward to the summer after my first year of college. I was hitchhiking to Palo Alto and Elgin stopped for me in his yellow VW Beetle. After gossiping briefly about people from our graduating class, Elgin confided in me that he was considering either fleeing to Canada to avoid going to Vietnam or joining the Army and getting his two years over with so he could get on with his life.

This was in 1968 when American soldiers were dying in large numbers every day in that terrible war. I had a student deferment and would soon get a medical deferment. Elgin had quit college and was smoking lots of pot and experimenting with LSD. His father was pressing him to enlist and several of his friends had been drafted or were enlisting. He said the Army had a new buddy program encouraging pals to enlist together and then…what? Be in the same outfit? Get killed together? I wanted to hook him up with an anti-war Draft counselor I knew, but he said he’d already been to a counselor and it was either exile in Canada or join up.

And then he asked me if I would accompany him to Canada and help him get settled there. He didn’t know anyone else who would help him and he was afraid to go alone. I said I would be glad to help him if that was what he decided to do.

I never heard from him again. Six months later I learned from a mutual friend that Elgin died in Vietnam when he jumped on a live hand grenade to save his buddies. Whether that is how he died or not, I have no doubt Elgin would have done something like that.


August 19th, 2015


Bird Mansion photo by Todd

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

“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” Mark Twain

Something marvelous strange happened with our pumpkins this year. That is to say we are hopeful the strange turns out to be marvelous. Here’s what has happened so far. Four years ago, I bought two pumpkin starts at the farmers market in Mendocino and planted those starts in a raised bed rife with redwood roots, three miles inland from the coast. Those plants were supposed to grow small sweet pumpkins, half the size of bowling balls. I got one little pumpkin. Delicious. I saved the seeds.

When we moved to our new house a mile from the coast, I planted the seeds in a new bed, also rife with redwood roots, and got two little pumpkins. Delicious. I saved the seeds. The next year, last year, I planted the seeds in a bed less troubled by redwood roots, took great care of the plants, and we got six little cuties. Wonderful. Marcia made pumpkin pies and pumpkin soup. Yummy. I saved the seeds.

This year I created a deep rich bed, planted the seeds, and lo, the vines have set five pumpkins, four of which are much bigger than bowling balls. Where did these four mighty pumpkins come from? Why are they somewhat cylindrical? Are they reversions to an earlier type of pumpkin used in creating the hybrid little pumpkin I began with? Why did the reversion take four generations?

My research suggests these pumpkins may not be reversions to an earlier progenitor, but rather a new variety. If we like the flavor of these new pumpkins, I will save the seeds of the biggest and best ones, plant them next year and see if they continue to produce these behemoths, relatively speaking, assuming they turn orange or some other pleasing color. Could this be the birth of Coastal Toddkins? We hope so.

In other news of change, we are on the verge of completing the transformation of the smaller of the two bathrooms in our house into an actual room in which one can take a bath. The outer wall of this small room previously featured a skinny horizontal window near the ceiling that gave no view and was, we assume, for ventilation and nothing more. Replacing that narrow strip of glass with a large picture window gave us a view of a circle of majestic redwoods embracing a not beautiful and not majestic red outhouse with a crescent moon in the door.

This outhouse was there when we moved in and had not been used for decades. And though I wanted the outhouse gone because something about it gave me the creeps, we were not sufficiently inspired to get rid of the thing until we cut the hole in the bathroom wall for the picture window and found we had created little more than a frame for a three-dimensional rendering of an outhouse. I’m sure there are those who would find looking out a new bathroom window at an old haunted outhouse amusing, but I prefer looking at trees, so we gave the outhouse to a family of local homesteaders glad to get the luxurious pooper.

With the outhouse gone, we discovered it had been cradled in the lovely remnant of the burned out trunk of an old growth redwood, the mother of the four huge trees now forming a circle around her. I have subsequently cleared out masses of dead branches from the circle, and now when I look out my office window or out the new bathroom window, the scene is inspiring and inviting. Yesterday I looked up from writing and saw a doe and her two fawns exploring the newly liberated space.

We also excised forty shoes surrounding one of the massive trees adjacent to the outhouse. Filled with dirt, these shoes were once home to non-descript succulents, their desiccated remains tangled in the rotting leather and nylon. Tennis shoes, work boots, walking shoes, loafers, cowboy boots, bedroom slippers; these forty rotting pieces of footwear were a small portion of the several hundred such shoes the previous owners of our property deployed around shrubs and trees, and to line walkways. We hope the forty outhouse shoes were the last of the unsightly buggers, but something tells me there are more dirt-filled shoes lurking on the premises.

The previous owners also left behind seventeen large wooden birdhouses sitting atop posts scattered around the property. Some of the houses were a few feet off the ground, and some were as high as seven feet off the ground. No view from anywhere on our land was free of one or more of these birdhouses. These multi-story homes, featuring porches and shingled roofs, bird mansions really, were rotting and falling apart when we arrived, and when I dismantled them, I found they were filled with the nests of rats, not birds. Many of the mansions held spent packages of D-Con, an edible rat poison, and, yes, I found rat carcasses, too.

And there were large wooden archways standing here and there around the property, nine of them, no view of our two acres free of one or more of these freestanding vine holders leading nowhere and festooned with dying honeysuckle or dead potato vine or struggling wisteria. Oh, yes, and blocking the view from every window of our house was dense shrubbery, hundreds of non-descript bushes marching away in close ranks in every direction, filling the space between the house and the surrounding forest.

I’ve gotten rid of the archways and nearly all the useless water-sucking view blockers, and we have attained spaciousness and light and can now see the trunks of the big trees, fruit trees, and lovely Japanese maples. The rat infestation we were warned about by our neighbors has not yet materialized because we have removed most of the ready-made nesting facilities, and when we moved here we brought our cat Django, an excellent ratter, though our great hunting cat recently died and we will not get a new cat or cats until spring.

Now it’s time to take a bath with a view of trees and sky, perchance to dream of pumpkin pie.


August 12th, 2015


Django On Todd photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” Albert Schweitzer

On this first day of August, 2015, as darkness gives way to daylight and the cobwebs of sleep are swept away by a slowly dawning clarity of mind, I wonder what this deep silence is all about. Our thirteen-year-old cat Django is what I refer to as an alarm cat. Like clockwork, promptly at seven every morning, rain or shine, he begins to yowl for his humans to feed him. Marcia does not hear the morning yowls of our large gray shorthaired kitty, or so she claims, thus I am the human who most often rises to feed Django at the beginning of each day.

But today, when my expectant ears hear no feline cries for sustenance, my brain presents me with two options: the time is not yet seven or Django has gone hunting and will be home soon and start yowling. Upon rising, I find the time is 7:22, no cat in sight. I dole out a modest portion of food into Django’s empty bowl, and step outside into the deep quiet of the fog-enshrouded forest.

“Django. Django,” I call. “Come get your breakfast.”

By ten o’clock, Django has not yet appeared, and my brain reminds me that there have been a few times in the eight years I’ve been with Marcia when Django was gone for as long as twenty-four hours.

At quarter to eleven, fifteen minutes before Marcia is scheduled to leave with our neighbor Marion to attend a wedding in Eureka, Marion phones to say she just came home from visiting a friend and noticed the body of a large gray cat on the side of the road where our lane meets Little Lake Road, and she fears the cat might be Django.

In the next moment, Marcia and Marion and I are running down our quiet lane to Little Lake Road, and just to the east of our street lies the body of Django. Marcia bursts into tears, and I can barely see through mine as I lift the already stiff body into the box I brought to carry him home, one of his back legs badly broken and nearly separated from his body.

Because Marcia and Marion have to leave very soon to make the long trek from Mendocino to Eureka to be in time for the wedding, we hastily choose a place in our flower garden next to the agastache—the cones of purple flowers swarming with bumblebees and honeybees—and I dig a deep hole, bury Django’s body, and Marcia makes a beeline for a large brown stone on the north side of our house, a stone she wants to put atop Django’s grave. We fetch the dolly, load the big stone thereon, wheel the stone to grave, and together place the stone atop the freshly turned earth.

“Makes me feel better knowing he’s in the ground before I go,” says Marcia, giving me a farewell hug.

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” Sigmund Freud

Django had a near death health crisis two years ago due to his extreme obesity, and thereafter I became his strict dietician, doling out small portions of cat food, four times a day. He lost seven pounds, regained his energy, and became much happier and more loving—but he was always hungry and not shy about letting me know. Thus it became my daily habit to feed him when I got up in the morning, and again at noon, five, and ten.

With the advent of his persistent hunger, my regimen of late evening stretching exercises became an exciting event for Django—the unfurling of my yoga mat meaning Meal #4 would be served shortly after the mat was rolled up and put away. Thus whenever I would look up from my routine on the living room rug, there would be our big hungry cat on his footstool, watching my every movement, a cat who prior to the change in his culinary reality would sleep through my stretching because it had nothing to do with him.

After some weeks of observing my nightly stretching, the new slender Django apparently decided that if he stretched, too, his chances of being fed would improve, though I always fed him whether he stretched with me or not. In any case, he developed a series of cute flirtatious poses, our favorite being when he would lie on his back on his footstool, and hang halfway off, upside down, kneading the air with his mighty claws and making a high clucking sound.

“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” James Herriot

Django sat with us during supper every night. His designated chair was to Marcia’s right, and he often fell asleep while we ate and talked. But the moment, and I mean the very moment, Marcia put her fork down after taking her last bite of supper, Django would wake up, often from a deep snoring slumber, and reach out to Marcia, his paw suspended in the air.

What followed was unquestionably Django’s favorite time of every day, lap time, the lap in question Marcia’s. She would pull Django’s chair close to hers, he would cross to her lap and assume the pose of the famous sphinx of Giza, facing forward, his eyes closed, purring profoundly. And he would stay in that pose on Marcia’s lap for as long as she would let him, his bliss so huge and obvious, it never once occurred to me to ask Marcia to put Django back on his chair and assist me with the dishes. How could I possibly disturb Django’s ecstasy? I could not.

In my experience there are few things as marvelous to see as a big handsome cat meditating splendiferously on a lovely woman’s lap, and that is the memory of Django I will cherish for as long as I live.

Skid Marks

August 5th, 2015


Escape photograph by Todd

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

Monday. July 27, 2015. I’m coming home from Fort Bragg, heading south on Highway One in my little old white Toyota pickup truck, going fifty-miles-per-hour. The time is one o’clock on a warm sunny day. I have just been to the doctor and I’m thinking about the long wait, the hurried examination, and the course of antibiotics I have agreed to embark on. I have just crested the rise at the southern exit to the little town of Caspar and I’m on the downhill slope crossing the bridge over Caspar Creek, when a giant white pickup truck loaded with kayaks sitting at the stop sign on the west side of the highway on Road 409 suddenly pulls out and completely blocks my lane.

Before conscious thought, I slam on my brakes and yank the steering wheel to the left, and now, as I have experienced a few other times in my life, everything happens in slow motion.

My little truck arcs to the left, the steering wheel locked, brakes locked, and I numbly await the terrible collision. The nose of my truck passes so close to the nose of the giant white pickup truck I can see into the cab. There is a young man wearing sunglasses sitting behind the steering wheel and beside him is a little boy, not wearing a seatbelt. They are in bathing suits and they are both horror-stricken.

Somehow my truck does not hit their truck and I become aware of a screeching sound and can feel my little truck tipping precariously as only two of my four tires are in contact with the pavement as my truck continues across the oncoming lane where by chance there are no cars coming, and my arcing transit continues into the opening of Road 409 on the east side of the highway where by another chance there are no cars, and my truck settles onto four tires and completes the arc so I am now pointing north toward Fort Bragg and blocking both lanes of Road 409.

Now my truck rolls backwards toward the downhill side of the road and I yank on my emergency brake before I bump into the guardrail. I am alive, but not entirely here. I would be amazed I am still alive but I have apparently lost the amazement function for the time being and am seriously dazed.

Now someone says, “Shall I push you out of the road?”

I turn to my left and look into the face of a handsome young man, not the young man in the truck I almost crashed into.

I say, “Okay,” and he gets between the guardrail and the back of my truck and I release the emergency brake and he pushes me across the road into the wide parking area to the north side of Road 409 on this east side of the highway, and I notice the young man in the truck I almost crashed into is helping him push.

Clear of the road and safe in the parking area, someone opens my door and I get out. That is, my body gets out. Where most of my consciousness has gone, I couldn’t say.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you. Are you okay?” asks the young man who drove his giant truck out into the highway in front of me as I was going fifty-miles-per-hour. He is shorter than I, or maybe he just seems shorter because I seem to be looking down at him.

“I don’t know,” I say, wanting to ask why his son wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, but the words won’t come out.

“I want to make sure you’re okay,” he says, wincing. “I’m so sorry.”

“May I borrow your phone?” I ask, thinking I’d like to call Marcia and ask her to call a tow truck because the brakes of my little pickup are locked and the engine is dead as far as I know.

“I don’t have service here,” says the man who almost killed me.

Now he vanishes forever.

But the young man who pushed my truck across the road is still here. I ask if he has a phone I can borrow and he hands me a little oval thing I suppose is a phone, but in my current state might as well be an onion.

“I need to call my wife,” I say to him. “Call a tow truck.”

“Won’t your truck run?” he asks, smiling curiously.

“Are you local?” I ask him. “I’m local. I’m Todd.”

“Jalen,” he says, shaking my hand. “Yes, I’m local.”

“Do you know about cars?”

“Yes,” he says, getting into my truck and starting the engine and driving forward and testing the brakes. “Seems fine.”

I thank him profusely and the next thing I know I’m driving south on Highway One toward Mendocino with no memory of anything since I got into my truck after Jalen got out.

Now I am in the post office in Mendocino, mailing some packages. I walk to Corners and purchase a dozen eggs. Walking feels odd to me. How do I know how to do this without falling over? I drive home and find Marcia and Marion working in the living room. They say they were hoping I would bring eggs so we can have egg salad for lunch.

I tell them about the near accident and the intercession of the young man and how I am not fully in my body and can’t remember things.

After lunch, I lie down and fall asleep for two hours. I wake up feeling so tired I can hardly move. But even so, I get in my little truck and drive into Mendocino and get my antibiotics from the pharmacy in Harvest Market.

Two days later, I am still spaced out and now I am afraid to drive anywhere. My friend Bob is helping me haul firewood to the woodshed. When we come inside for a water break, Marion and Marcia are working in the living room and Marion says to me, “I was coming back from Fort Bragg this morning and saw the skid marks.”

“The what?” I say, having no idea what she’s talking about.

“The skid marks you made when you swerved to miss that truck. They arc across the highway. Dark black skid marks.”