Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Do I Know You?

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”

Moronic Individualism

Monday, October 16th, 2017

newrealityM

“We are in crises where we are finding that the old systems don’t work. But that sort of disillusionment is only discovering that what you thought was so, isn’t. It’s the first step in learning. So I celebrate disillusionment.” Buckminster Fuller

The United States spends a trillion dollars a year on war.

We are told that several of the terrible fires raging in northern California this October were started by downed power lines sparking dry brush. How is it that in the year 2017, the richest nation on earth still has most of its power lines above ground? Part of the answer is that this nation spends a trillion dollars every year on war. Another part of the answer is that the state of California has a tax structure favoring wealthy people and corporations who do not feel they need to contribute to the greater good, so the state government lacks the muscle to compel the owners of those power lines to bury them.

We live in Mendocino, and every winter, often several times per winter, we are without power because of downed power lines that should not be suspended above the earth so they can be downed by annual winds and falling trees, but should be safely buried below ground. But because our utilities are not publicly owned, this endemic idiocy continues year in and year out. Why are our utilities not publicly owned? Because wealthy corporations control our government.

We wonder when the electorate will wake up to the inadequacy of our system of governance and taxation? Judging from the responses to the catastrophes that have befallen Puerto Rico and Texas and Florida and California, the answer is Never. We have evolved into a society of shortsighted self-serving stupid people, capable of bravery and bursts of generosity, but mostly we fend for ourselves in the face of a social system that punishes us for cooperating with each other.

That we do not have Single Payer healthcare, free healthcare for all our citizens, is conclusive proof of our collective myopia and disregard for the wellbeing of others. People may rant about how horrible our current President and Congress and Supreme Court, but our deplorable representatives did not come to power through a violent insurrection. They rose to power through the will of a society composed of profoundly self-serving people. Not bad people, but people trained from birth, and from generation to generation, to prize the individual, the self, above all else.

I recall when I was involved with a group of people in the 1970s planning to buy land and create a rural commune. At the initial meetings, I and a few others made the case that our first orders of business should be the establishment of a dependable water supply, a good road, an excellent septic system, and a reliable source of electricity for the entire community, to be followed by the construction of a community center with a kitchen adequate for the needs of the entire commune. Thereafter, we would turn our energies to building our separate dwellings.

No, said the majority of those involved. First we build our separate houses; then we’ll do that collective stuff.

I could not understand why these seemingly intelligent people thought this way, but I have since come to understand that they were simply being Americans. In America the needs of the individual, however absurd, always come first. And this is why we don’t have Single Payer Healthcare and why Donald Trump is our President and why we spend a trillion dollars every year on war and why we don’t have trains going everywhere instead of roads that are constantly deteriorating and why power lines are still above ground and why everything that has made our country the giant mess it is today continues to hold sway over our lives.

We know several people who barely escaped with their lives in the Santa Rosa and Redwood Valley fires, people who lost virtually everything they owned. Their losses are tragic, but such losses can also present us with opportunities to make changes in our lives we might not otherwise make that can ultimately benefit us.

I say this because I read a fascinating study done of people who lost everything in the great Oakland firestorm of 1991, and the gist of the study was that many of those people came to feel the loss of their material possessions was the beginning of much improved lives. And more personally, in 1980, shortly after moving to Sacramento, my house was broken into and thieves took virtually everything I owned including the food from the refrigerator, art from the walls, records, books, camera, typewriter, manuscripts, vacuum cleaner, clothes, bed sheets—only my piano and mattress remaining.

For some days after the robbery I was in a state of shock, but eventually the shock gave way to myriad realizations, one of which was that there were people in my life who were emotional thieves and robbing me blind. In my new state of awareness, I was able to eliminate those emotional burglars from my life.

This is not to suggest that catastrophic disasters are good, but that sometimes we can, individually and collectively, learn from experiences of loss and make changes—such as burying power lines—that will benefit us in the future.

And in the midst of the terrible political and economic wildfire that is the Trump presidency and the Congress of Selfish Monsters and the many state houses controlled by sexist racist gun fanatics, I hope previously asleep people will wake up to realize that the old way of the Demopublicans and Republicrats is moribund and always leads to psychopathic presidents serving the corporate overlords.

The meaningful alternative to our corporate totalitarianism is to build a system with housing for everyone and healthcare for everyone and safety and food and meaningful work for everyone, with a small efficient defensive military, and a system of taxation that does away with a small percentage of the population having most of the goodies and everybody else living on the verge of losing what little they have.

Oregon

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Rita

Rita photo by Todd

“He walked joyously, triumphantly, through the peace and beauty of springtime in California.” Katharine Grey

My great grandmother Katharine Grey wrote a pair of novels Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold, published by Little Brown in the 1930s. Based loosely on the experiences of my paternal ancestors, Rolling Wheels is about a family coming to California from Indiana via wagon train in the years before the Gold Rush of 1849, and Hills of Gold is about that same family living in California during the Gold Rush.

Throughout my childhood, my father impressed upon me that we were real native Californians, being descended on my father’s side from people who came here before California was even a state—never mind the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before my Anglo ancestors arrived, or the Mexicans who settled here hundreds of years before the first Anglos came to California.

I was also repeatedly told that my ancestors came to California in the same large wagon train that included the ill-fated Donner party, except my ancestors made it over the Sierras before the onset of winter and founded the town of Fremont while the Donners starved and ate each other.

And this is some of why when I travel to Oregon, I think of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and the Oregon Trail and pioneers and the wilderness that was Oregon and California before cars and freeways and computers and everything that has transpired in the last little while of human history.

Marcia and I just returned from an eight-day drive-about in Oregon, and the trip was a Big Deal for the likes of me, one who rarely leaves our watershed here on the Mendocino coast and rarely rides in a motorized vehicle for more than a few minutes at a time every few days. We spent two nights on the Oregon coast, four nights in Portland, a night in Bend, a night in Eugene, and another night on the Oregon coast before returning to California. We took many hikes, ate many good meals, communed with good friends, and saw many sights, some marvelous, some not so marvelous—a fine trip all in all.

The biggest motivating factor for making the trip was to visit our friends Bob and Rita who recently moved to Portland from our neck of the woods. They have both become adept at navigating the byways of Portland and were marvelous guides and hosts as we explored that sprawling metropolis full of trees and roses and bridges and breweries and cafés.

On our last full day in Portland, we took the light rail from a station near Rita and Bob’s house to the center of downtown. A few decades ago, Portland became the first large metropolitan area in America to begin using most of the monies returned to them by the federal government (from the federal tax on gasoline) to create an urban transportation system that would make a good life possible for city people who don’t drive cars. Thus Portland has an excellent and ever-expanding light rail and trolley system second to none west of the Atlantic seaboard.

While riding the light rail into downtown Portland, I became aware that everyone in the crowded car, save for Marcia, Todd, Bob, and Rita, was staring into some sort of portable computer and occasionally diddling the keyboard: small and large smart phones, pads, and laptops. Everyone. No one was looking out a window or at another person. The young woman sitting in front of me was scrolling through photographs of tattooed naked women posed provocatively; and the man sitting beside her was playing a violent video game and snorting every time he killed something.

When we detrained downtown, I noticed that many of the people walking around and sitting in cafés and on benches were also staring into portable computer screens and jabbing them with their thumbs. In fact, save for the legions of homeless people occupying downtown Portland, almost everyone who was not walking fast or riding a bike was staring into a screen and diddling. For some years now I have been aware of the entrainment-to-screens phenomenon in America, but I had never before seen this mass entrancement on such a huge urban scale; and I was both astonished and weirded out, if you know what I mean.

A few days later in Eugene, we were eating good Indian food with our friends David and Joan and Eileen. David is an elementary and middle school music teacher who combines song, dance, comedy, marimbas, ukuleles, drumming, improvisation—you name it—to create exciting and engaging musical experiences for his students culminating in fabulous group performances.

“But,” he said, while telling me about various aspects of his work, “I now feel the most important thing I can do for my students is give them time to engage with me and each other and their own creative impulses without interfacing with their diddle boxes. Because interfacing with their diddle boxes is the main thing most of them do all the time now.”

“If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.” Alan Watts

There is a square in downtown Portland, one of the main squares, that has lots of places to sit and gawk at passersby, and in one part of this square there is a small parabolic amphitheater made of bricks. If one stands in the center of the parabola facing the ascending tiers of brick half-circles, and one speaks aloud at a normal volume, one’s voice sounds incredibly loud and clear in one’s ears—a totally neato auditory experience.

So I’m standing in the center of the parabola facing a young woman who is sitting slightly above me in the amphitheater and facing in my direction, though not seeing me. She is hooked up to her smart phone with wires connected to tiny earphones plugged into her ears, and she is diddling her screen.

I say, “Hello there,” and the words sound loud and clear in my ears. And then I say to the young woman, “You’re doing this aren’t you? You’re making this happen.”

She frowns quizzically at me and takes the earphone out of her right ear. “Are you talking to me?” she asks, her voice remarkably sonorous.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “You’re doing something to make my voice sound loud and clear in my ears, aren’t you?”

After a moment of silence between us, a sweet smile claims her face and she nods in agreement.

Magical Dancer

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Vito & Clare

Vito & Clare photo by Todd

“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” William Stafford

As I mentioned in a recent article, though I’ve been playing the piano every day for fifty years, and have often been paid for my playing, I can barely read music. I have tried to overcome the trauma that kept me from learning to read music—my six-year-old fingers being whacked with a heavy metal pen by a bad piano teacher—but I am still stuck at the very early stages of being able to play written-down music.

I am also a professional writer of stories and novels, though had I not first been encouraged by my friends in elementary school to write and read my stories aloud to them, and then received modest encouragement from my elementary school teachers, I’m sure I never would have been able to overcome the harsh criticism and denigration of my work by my high school and college teachers, not to mention rejections from countless editors in the employ of mainstream publishers.

Thankfully, despite the confederacy of dunces that controls much of our culture, I managed to publish several books; and though contemporary commercial publishers are largely indifferent to what I’ve written in the last ten years—my best work—I carry on because I love to write and there are several marvelous people eager to read my stories.

But how did I come to love the piano again after being so frightened and hurt while trying to play the instrument as a child?

My mother played the piano, not often, but when she played, she was happy, and that is most significant. From the time I was a very little boy, whenever she sat down at our big old upright and got out the Tams-Witmark songbooks of hits from the 1920s and 30s and 40s, I would stand beside her as she played and we would sing “It’s Only A Shanty In Old Shanty Town” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and many others. Thus my early neurological wiring regarding the piano was all about pleasure and joyful communion with my otherwise not-very-happy mother.

Neither the violence of that bad piano teacher nor the rolling eyes of my father could inhibit my love of singing or curtail my frequent renditions of show tunes and pop hits. When in high school, I had roles in musicals, and at that same time, the late 1960s, I was lead singer in a rock band I formed with a guitar-playing friend named Dave. We did mostly original songs and were not great, though we thought we were.

One night Dave was at my house—my parents gone to a party—and we were working on new songs. During these songwriting sessions, I sang and played bongos, while Dave played his Rickenbacker electric twelve-string and sang, too.

Tiring of our bongo-guitar combo, Dave said, “Play something on the piano and I’ll play with you.”

I glanced at the dreaded keyboard. “No, I don’t play that thing.”

“How about a simple pattern of bass notes?”

“No,” I said, furiously shaking my head. “I’m terrible.”

“Like this,” he said, reaching over to the keyboard and playing Middle C and then G below Middle C and then C below that G, and back up again.

With great trepidation, I played what he had played.

“Now keep that going.”

So I kept the pattern going and he tried out various groovy sounding chords on his twelve-string and…

Six weeks later we were the opening act for a rock band in a teen nightclub in the huge basement of a church in Woodside, California. I don’t know how Dave got us this gig, or why he thought we were gig-worthy, but there I was sitting at a large upright piano in fairly good tune. Dave had his twelve-string guitar plugged into his trusty little amp and I had a microphone suspended in front of me for introducing the tunes and singing wordlessly on a few of our musical inventions.

We’d been playing and developing our piano-guitar creations for hours every day after school and on weekends for those six weeks and enjoying ourselves tremendously, but I was terrified about playing in front of an audience. Dave was giddy, but not terrified.

There were about forty teenagers sitting at tables or standing at the soft drink bar, and many of these teens were high on marijuana, having toked outside before entering the club. They had come for the rock band and were talking and laughing and not paying any attention to us. There were also a few parents present and some college guys hired to maintain order.

One of those college guys introduced us with, “Here’s Dave and Todd.”

My hands were shaking as I began to play a simple pattern of notes I’d figured out for my left hand combined with a few notes played with my right hand; and after I found my groove, so to speak, Dave started playing his guitar—the room wonderfully resonant. We called our songs ragas, and they were certainly raga-like if not technically ragas.

We had no idea what anyone might think of our music, but the moment we began to play, everyone in that resounding basement stopped talking and we could feel them listening to us, which was one of the most exciting feelings I’d ever had.

Then out of the shadows came a young woman bedecked with scarves. She may have been wearing clothes, too, but all I remember are her green and red and gold scarves. She walked to the center of the room and danced a fabulous dance full of eloquent gestures and graceful spins; and as she danced I realized she was dancing to the rhythm of my pattern of chords.

Then other people joined her on the dance floor and we played that raga for a long time because the people were digging what we were laying down.

When we finished that first tune, in my memory, the applause was thunderous, though it was probably just applause in a reverberant room—and nothing ever again could stop me from playing the piano.

Know Your Audience

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

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

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

What Comes Around

Monday, September 11th, 2017

What Comes Around

What Comes Around photo by Todd

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

So the other day Max wrote to say he loved my piano tune “What Comes Around”.

When I created the piece fifteen years ago, I played it several times a day as a form of meditation, and the playing became so automatic I assumed I would never forget how to play that particular progression of chords. “What Comes Around,” is entirely composed, unlike most of my tunes, which are designed to be at least partially improvised each time I play them.

After I recorded “What Comes Around” for my album Incongroovity in 2013, I ceased to play the tune. But when Max said he loved “What Comes Around”, I really wanted to play it again. I sat down at the piano and hunted and hunted for the first chord, but the notes eluded me. Then I listened to the beginning of the recording, and after a long hunt found the opening chord. I hoped the rest of the chords would be easy to remember, but they would not stay remembered when I managed to find them, so I resorted to writing down the notes, though not as notes on a staff but as stacks of letters (with flat signs when needed) denoting the notes.

Since then, I have been playing the pattern of chords several times a day. After a week, I can almost get through the whole piece without having to refer to the stacks of letters denoting notes. I am humbled by how hard it has been to re-learn this piece, and I think about how easy this process would have been had I learned to read music and simply wrote down my compositions as sheet music.

Why didn’t I learn to read music? When I was six-years-old I took piano lessons from a sad angry man who yelled at me when I played wrong notes, and one day he struck my knuckles with a heavy metal pen and called me an idiot when I played a wrong note. I ran from the piano, screaming in pain and fear, and I never took another lesson. When I re-engaged with the piano ten years later, I did so as an explorer without a guide or map, and have continued to explore through trial and error and repetition and improvisation for fifty years.

In the midst of re-learning “What Comes Around” I got an email from my friend Rico about Keith Jarrett and his famous Koln Concert recording. Rico had recently heard a Ted Talk about the concert and wondered if he remembered correctly that I loved that Koln Concert recording as much as he did. I wrote him back and said I had tried to listen to that album, but found the music and the performance uninteresting.

Despite my feelings about the Koln Concert, I will always love Keith Jarrett because of his part in one of the most ecstatic musical experiences of my life, courtesy of the Charles Lloyd Quartet circa 1968. That quartet was Lloyd on tenor sax, Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Cecil McBee on bass. I heard them perform a few times in 1966 and 1967 at the Fillmore along with Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.

Then in 1968 the Charles Lloyd Quartet came to Santa Cruz to play at Stevenson College where I was living in a dorm and sometimes going to classes. They performed on the stage in the dining hall for an audience of two hundred jazz buffs. The quartet was in fine form and I was enjoying the show, though I wasn’t wild about the music. I was by then deep into exploring the piano in my own unconventional way that had little to do with classical jazz, of which Lloyd and Jarrett were masters.

So midway through the second set, Keith Jarrett stands by the piano and begins playing random notes on a soprano saxophone. He is not keeping time, just playing random notes with no consistent rhythm. And I’m thinking, ‘This is going to morph into some sort of recognizable tune,’ but Jarrett just keeps playing random notes, not in any particular key, for a couple of minutes. The crowd is getting restless, and I feel restless, too.

Now Charles Lloyd starts playing random notes on his tenor sax, though not in time with Jarrett’s non-rhythmic random notes. I can feel my brain trying to make some sort of sense out of what I’m hearing, but with little success.

Now the bass player starts playing random notes, too, but all his notes are very low, which creates a kind of drone bottom, and this sort of gives form to what I’m hearing. Sort of.

And now the drummer begins to play a conga drum (I think he had a single conga, but he might have had two) and though he begins to play with random untimed hits, he settles into, or seems to settle into, a definable rhythm, and suddenly the separate parts cohere and the totality is incredibly beautiful. I focus on Jarrett and he is still playing random notes, as is Lloyd, as is the bass player, but the sum of their sounds feels impeccably composed, the combinations of notes incredible. People begin shouting and singing and crying and dancing, and none of us ever want this astounding music to end.

After telling Marcia about that miraculous musical experience from fifty years ago, I’m doing yoga by the fire when it occurs to me that the drummer played conga (or congas) rather than his trap set because congas sound pitches, percussive notes, and those pitches played rhythmically supplied an essential bonding agent for that fabulous musical gumbo.

And this is why, though I have never been a big Keith Jarrett fan, I love Keith Jarrett.

Tales of the Heat

Monday, September 4th, 2017

sunflower redwood

Sunflowers & Redwoods photo by Todd

“One of the big questions in the climate change debate: Are humans any smarter than frogs in a pot? If you put a frog in a pot and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t jump out. Instead, it will enjoy the nice warm bath until it is cooked to death. We humans seem to be doing pretty much the same thing.” Jeff Goodell

After a long, wet, and very cold winter in Mendocino, we decided that keeping our woodstove going from morning until night and running expensive space heaters in our offices and dressing like Laplanders, and still not being warm enough, was not the best way to continue, so we had a Mitsubishi electric heat pump system installed.

Heat pump technology has evolved and improved dramatically in the last twenty years, and heat pumps are now extremely efficient and cost effective. Since ours is electric, and we now get our electricity from 100% renewable sources, heating our house contributes very little to global warming. The initial installation is expensive, but the monthly heating bills are so much lower than heating with propane or wood, we are very glad we made the investment. And we still have fires in the woodstove when we want wood heat and flaming ambience. We have yet to go through a winter with our new system, but summers on the Mendocino coast can be mighty chilly and we have already enjoyed the benefits of our very quiet heating system.

The day was warm when the fellows were installing the heat pump a couple months ago, and they reminded us that heat pumps are designed to heat or cool the air coming into our house. We laughed and said, “We will never need an air conditioner.”

Well, a few days ago, on the second day of the historically hot air mass settling upon Mendocino and San Francisco and most of California and the western United States, we did, indeed, use our heat pump to cool our house. And when our brains cooled down enough so we could think clearly again, we rejoiced to be comfortable and clearheaded instead of dangerously hot and semi-comatose.

From 1980 to 1995 I lived in Sacramento in a house built before the advent of air conditioning, with a full basement and an upstairs. My daily routine during the blistering hot days that lasted from May to October, was to rise at dawn to exercise and work in the garden before the heat became overwhelming, close all the windows in the house by eight AM, and leave them closed until the afternoon when the house became unbearably stuffy and hot.

Then I would cover my sofa and office chair with towels, strip down to my underpants, open the windows, and every half-hour go outside to stand under ice cold water pouring onto my head from a garden hose while I stood amidst my zucchini and basil and tomatoes and corn and beans. I was the only person I knew in Sacramento who lived without air conditioning; and most of my Sacramento friends thought my way of adapting to the heat was a form of insanity. I saw my behavior as a way to conserve resources and not contribute to global warming, which none of my friends appreciated me talking about in those days.

I moved to Berkeley in 1995 and rented an old house that did not need air conditioning because of its proximity to San Francisco Bay and being directly across the bay from the Golden Gate. Thus on hot days, I simply opened my front door and the sweet oceanic breezes came rushing in.

When the temperature spiked to 104 on Saturday in Mendocino, I had an email exchange with a friend in Palm Springs where it was a mere 102. Communicating with him put me in mind of times I spent in Palm Springs with my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey. They moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles when they were in their late sixties, having lost their once sizeable fortune in a disastrous real estate deal.

For their first few years in Palm Springs they managed a swank getaway called La Siesta Villas, fourteen luxurious cottages arrayed around a big swimming pool. Their compensation for managing the place was a small apartment and stipend, their income supplemented by Social Security and my generous parents.

Movie stars and celebrities and rich people frequented La Siesta Villas—Natalie Wood and Dinah Shore among the many stars who came there to escape the smoggy megalopolis of Los Angeles.

“I often feel like the madam of an exclusive brothel,” Goody told me during her tenure at La Siesta Villas. “Illicit trysts abound here, all these famous people with their beautiful mistresses and handsome lovers, air conditioners blasting away to drown out the sounds of sexual exuberance. Champagne and caviar delivered at midnight. Sordid elegance!”

Goody and Casey rose very early each day to take a long walk before the temperature soared above a hundred as it frequently will in Palm Springs; and on their walks they would occasionally encounter their neighbor Liberace walking his poodles. Friendly hellos became longer conversations, Liberace was charmed by Goody, and one Christmas he gifted her with two wine glasses etched with his trademark candelabrum.

On one of my visits to Palm Springs, I went walking with Goody and we not only bumped into Liberace and I got to admire his diamond rings and famous pompadour up close, but after saying goodbye to him, we went to an Open House for a hacienda for sale and arrived just as Red Skelton was coming out.

Goody introduced herself to Red by saying, “You won’t remember, but long ago you and William Bendix posed for a picture with me at a party at Jay Sandrich’s.”

“You’re right,” said Red, smiling his famous dimpled smile. “I won’t remember.”

And then my grandmother and Red laughed together, and I laughed, too.

Goody, Red, and William

Stuff of Dreams

Monday, August 28th, 2017

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totality diptych by Max Greenstreet

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare

There’s an old vaudeville routine in which a guy goes to a doctor, painfully lifts his arm above his head and says, “Doc, every time I do this, it hurts like crazy.” The doctor looks at the guy and says, “Don’t do that.”

I recently had a run of lousy nights of sleep. When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I am not a happy camper the next day—an afternoon nap my only hope of regaining equipoise. While searching for reasons why I was sleeping poorly after a spate of nights when I slept like a well-exercised child with a clear conscience, I realized I’d been reading national news within a few hours of going to bed.

To which the vaudeville doctor said, “Don’t do that.”

So I stopped reading or viewing any news for a few days and thereafter limited my intake to a little news in the morning; and thereafter having a good night’s sleep became much less problematic.

“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin

For most of the days of my life for the last forty-five years I’ve been writing a novel or play or screenplay or collection of stories. I write these longer works sequentially, not simultaneously. I’ve tried to write multiple works of fiction simultaneously a few times in my life, and my muse is never pleased. However, she does not mind sorties into non-fiction while I’m creating my larger fictive works. I theorize that my fiction writing employs neural pathways distinct from those used for writing non-fiction; thus the two processes do not collide.

My dreams, on the other hand, seem to share neural pathways with my fiction writing, and if I drift off to sleep thinking about the novel I’m writing, my dreams will compose scenes, often nonsensical, to fit, sort of, the fiction I’m working on. These dream/fiction hybrids can disturb my sleep much as nightmares will, so I try to leave my work at the office, so to speak, when I lay me down to sleep, though I’m not always successful at keeping my characters and plot twists at bay.

“In my dream, I am your customer, and the customer is always right.” Laurie Anderson

Over the course of my adult life, I’ve remembered dozens of dreams in which I am giving a piano concert for an enormous audience, or I am about to give such a concert. In some of these dreams, I enter the concert hall, see the piano I am supposed to perform on, and various obstacles and detours keep me from ever reaching the piano. In other dreams, I make it to the stage, sit down at the piano, and find keys missing or the piano is terribly out-of-tune or the piano is full of vines or cats or naked women, and is therefore unplayable. Or I begin to play and the keyboard disintegrates.

However, in two of my piano dreams, the pianos remained intact and I played gorgeous danceable music, my fingers incapable of making mistakes, every note just right—and the crowd went wild.

“Sleep is the best meditation.” Dalai Lama

The brain/body/mind consortium is highly suggestible. I often forget to remember this. But when I do remember how suggestible my system is, and I take a few minutes before falling asleep to suggest to my brain/body/mind that I will sleep wonderfully well and wake rested and full of energy, I very often do.

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

I’ve always liked this pronouncement of Jung’s, which I take to mean that our unconscious patterns of behavior shape our waking lives as much or more than the conscious choices we make. From what I’ve read by and about Jung, I think he might also have said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it will express itself in our dreams, and we can interpret those dreams to help us uncover and perhaps overcome some of those unconscious patterns of behavior that are interfering with our happiness.”

Joseph Campbell frequently recounted the story of Jung undergoing psychoanalysis and reaching a profound impasse that stymied him for several months until he had an epiphany about the most blissful activity of his childhood: building little stone houses and villages. So he “followed his bliss”, bought some land on the shores of Lake Zürich, and built a stone house. While building this house, he had a series of dreams, the interpretations of which helped him overcome the impasse in his psychoanalysis.

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

Marcia and I both had bizarre dreams last night. Marcia’s dream involved going on a quest to find beer for the many uninvited guests crowding into the living room of our house that was not our house. She eventually made it all the way from Mendocino to India and forgot about trying to find beer.

My dream starred two darling children and their young mother who were trying to teach me their language, which seemed to be a mixture of Spanish and Arabic. I was sitting facing a large blackboard on which the children took turns writing words they wanted me to learn. One of the words was arastó. The children gleefully shouted arastó, but wouldn’t tell me what it meant.

Then a handsome young man entered the room and said his name was Abababus. He warned me to never forget the second ba when saying his name. I woke from this dream and could not go back to sleep until I got up and wrote down Abababus, lest I forget the second ba.

What caused these dreams? Marcia theorizes my spaghetti sauce—turmeric, cumin, garlic, various unusual heirloom tomatoes, red wine, olive oil—may have been the author of our dreams.

Old Souls

Monday, August 21st, 2017

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ladder up diptych by Max Greenstreet

Isaac Bashevis Singer, one my favorite writers, wrote several stories set in pre-holocaust Poland about children who are thought by their Jewish elders to be old souls. These children are prodigies and seem to possess knowledge and wisdom gained in previous lifetimes. This idea of an old soul occurs in nearly all societies and is particularly appealing to those who want to believe in reincarnation. But reincarnation aside, I have always been intrigued by especially wise young children and how they came to be so wise.

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a day care center for low-income children, two-and-a-half to five-years-old. Among our thirty charges were a few unusually mature children, but there was one girl named Susie who seemed to be an adult in the body of a cute little 3-year-old blonde.

Susie gladly played with the other children, especially the quieter ones, and she routinely sought me out for conversation, which none of the other children did. She had a large vocabulary and liked to share with me her insights about what was going on emotionally with the other kids and staff members. These insights would have been remarkable for a teenager, but coming from a three-year-old, they boggled my mind. Susie could be goofy and giggly, but more often she was serious and introspective.

One day Susie came running to me, hugged my leg tightly, and said, “My mother came here. I don’t want to go with her.”

I had not been given much background information on any of the children, which I think was a mistake on the part of our director, an extremely moody woman who often seemed overmatched by her job. But I knew Susie lived with a woman she called Auntie, a woman she related to in a somber way, and by that I mean Susie always became quite subdued when Auntie arrived to pick her up at the end of the day.

Most of the mothers of the kids at our center were single women in their twenties; Auntie was in her fifties. I also knew that Auntie and Susie were in dire straits economically because Auntie frequently asked me for food, which I would give her; cans of fruit and beans and tuna and soup from the day care center kitchen, though I wasn’t supposed to. I could give Auntie food without anyone on the staff knowing because I was also the janitor and the last to leave, and Susie was frequently the last child to be picked up.

So on that day when Susie told me her mother was there, I went out to the playground half-expecting to see Auntie, but there on the street-side of the cyclone fence surrounding the playground was a careworn young woman.

She gave me a fearful smile and said, “I only want Susie for an hour or so. I promise I’ll bring her back before five. Okay?”

“You need to speak to the director,” I said. “I’ll get her for you.”

“Never mind,” said the young woman, running away.

When I reported the incident to our director, I was informed that the young woman was, indeed, Susie’s mother. She was a prostitute and drug addict, and Susie had been taken away from her by the authorities. I asked if Auntie was Susie’s actual aunt or a foster parent, and the director said her records listed Auntie as Susie’s temporary guardian. The director then instructed all staff members to call the police whenever Susie’s mother showed up, which she did a few more times while I worked there, though we never called the police. I think she just wanted a glimpse of her daughter.

On the evening of that first visit from Susie’s mother, while giving Auntie a bag of food, I mentioned that Susie’s mother had come by, and Auntie, who was usually reserved with me said, “If that bitch tries to take Susie away from me, I’ll kill her.”

A couple weeks later, Susie arrived in the morning so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open. The minute Auntie left, Susie lay down on a pillow in a corner of the playroom and slept all morning. And she repeated this behavior almost every day for the next several weeks. But because Susie seemed otherwise well when she woke up, the director decided to allow Susie to sleep when she needed to and not make a big deal out of her sleepiness in the morning. This abrupt change in Susie’s behavior, I later realized, coincided with Auntie no longer asking me for food.

Then one afternoon, I came in from supervising the playground, and found Susie performing a disturbingly sexy dance and singing a torch song for a spellbound group of kids. When she finished her performance, I asked her who taught her the song and dance, and she said, “Auntie did. For my show.”

The finale of this story is that on a weekend a month later, Auntie engaged me to move a new bed and furniture up steep stairs into the little apartment where Susie and Auntie lived. Auntie rewarded me for my labor with a beer, proceeded to get stoned and drunk, and boasted that she had money now because she was taking Susie to private parties in San Francisco where Susie, dressed in a variety of alluring costumes, sang and danced. In between Susie’s performances, the people at these parties, mostly women, passed Susie around, caressing her and kissing her and talking to her, for which they gave Auntie money.

I reported this to our director, she made the necessary calls, and Susie was eventually taken away from Auntie. Susie was then placed in a nearby foster home and continued to come to our daycare center for as long as I worked there. She no longer arrived sleepy and her new guardians picked her up every day shortly after four in the afternoon. Susie would be forty-eight today if she’s still alive.

Another old soul I knew was Amelia. She attended the California Summer School for the Arts when she was fourteen. I was boss of the Creative Writing department at that time, and before I learned otherwise, I thought Amelia must be one of our oldest students. The age range at the school was fourteen to nineteen, and Amelia was by far our most emotionally mature student. She quickly became the motherly friend and confidante of several of my students, and within a few days of her arrival on campus she had a handsome summer school boyfriend, one of our nineteen-year-olds.

Amelia was calm, smart, loquacious, an excellent writer, and very wise for one so young. We became good friends and stayed friends for many years. When Amelia was a senior in high school, I went to visit her and her mother and stepfather. Being with Amelia and her mother was fascinating—Amelia a mature adult, her forty-seven-year-old mother a charming adolescent. And when Amelia and I went to lunch with Amelia’s father and his very young wife, Amelia and I were the adults, while her fifty-year-old father was a classic stoner teenager.

One day when I was six-years-old, I sat in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade classroom observing my fellow six-year-olds, and I was overcome with the surety that I was an ageless being in the body of a child. I told myself to never forget this and to check in with this feeling over the course of my life, which I sometimes remember to do.

Postcards & Notecards

Monday, August 14th, 2017

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Card Quest notecard and postcard by Todd

I love the postal service. I love getting letters and postcards and packages. I’m sixty-seven; thus for much of my life there were no such things as personal computers and email and smartphones. The mail, the actual hold-in-your-hands letters and cards, was the great connector over long distances, especially among artists and writers and less conventional folks.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I got two or three letters and postcards every day, and some days I might get seven or eight. Nowadays I get a postcard or letter, if I’m lucky, once a week. And though I gladly partake of email and depend on my email connections for an important part of my daily happiness, I still think of letters and cards I find in my post office box as holy relics.

In response to what I consider the new Dark Ages that have descended upon us, I have revived my habit of writing and sending out letters and cards each week. I don’t expect these missives to elicit replies via the post office or otherwise. I write these notes and letters because I find the process satisfying, and because I know such communications bring pleasure to the recipients.

To facilitate my pleasure and the pleasure of people I write to, I like to create postcards and notecards that are the kinds of notecards and postcards I wish to find in stationery stores or bookshops, but never find them—because they don’t exist unless I create them. In the last year, since reviving my habit of sending handwritten messages on one-of-a-kind postcards, and handwritten letters in one-of-a-kind notecards, several correspondents have asked if they could purchase copies of my cards. One thing led to another and I decided to launch a line of notecards and postcards and offer them for sale from my web site. If you’d like to see the new line, go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on CARDS in the menu. Then on the CARDS page click on Postcards or Notecards. Voila.

Many of my postcards and notecards are ideas related to people communicating with words, and these ideas are written out in colorful handmade lettering. The process of creating the wording for each idea is identical to the process of writing a poem; many iterations resulting in a final construction of words. Here are a few examples.

My SOMETHING postcard reads: Something reminded me of you today and I wanted to let you know I was thinking of you. Then I saw this postcard and thought, “Yes! Exactly!”

My CONNECT postcard and notecard reads: One day a person receives a card that seems to be about a person receiving a card. But that is just the beginning of a story about someone who wants to connect with you.

My WILD ADVENTURE notecard reads: This card went on a wild adventure through time and space to reach you (via the Postal Service). This card is both a message and a carrier of a message. The card’s message is: Look Within. The message within is…

I also have a card called SHALL WE DANCE? An extremely fanciful and colorful parrot is flirting with a flower, with the words Shall We Dance? writ large in the air above them.

So far, the buying public has not beat a path to my web site door, but that’s okay. These are the Dark Ages. Much in our culture and society is obscured, and most things of value are invisible to the general public. Keepers of the flame, you and I, do what we do without regard for fortune and notoriety. We keep the flame burning because engendering originality and excellence is our job.

Taking a break from writing this morning, I walked to the post office and found in my box a package from the visionary poet D.R. Wagner. I haven’t heard from D.R. in several years and I was eager to see what was in the package. But rather than open the package in the post office, I used my curiosity about what D.R. sent me to help propel my body, the old mule as Kazantzakis liked to call the corpus, up the steep hill to home.

In the package were two new volumes of D.R.’s poems, The Generation of Forms and Love Poems, published by small poetry presses—NightBallet Press in Elyria, Ohio, and Cold River Press in Grass Valley, California—keepers of the flame in these new Dark Ages. Reading some of D.R.’s new poems made me hungry to read my favorite D.R. Wagner poem, The Milky Way, which D.R. allowed me to use to conclude my novel of stories Under the Table Books. Here is that poem.

The Milky Way

We live in a spiral arm of a spinning

Field of stars. We whirl around, a carnival

Ride, full of birds, loves, emotions, endless

Varieties of things unfolding in seasons;

Full of bells and an endless weaving of hearts.

These connections ride upon our consciousness,

Demanding constant performance from us.

Each of us, most royal and majestic as night,

Vile, vindictive and spoiled even before we speak;

Sorrow and joy, the way we sound our name.

We endure all of this, our lips kissing each moment,

Crushed, elated, misunderstood, praised for things

We do as part of ourselves, damned for these same things.

There is no road, there is no plan. Only love

Survives. Everything is forgiven, finally.

Understanding limps behind the parade,

Always late, always burdened with qualifications,

Always abandoning every opinion and argument,

Leaving each of us our place only, describing

This place, the swirling arms, the myriad ways

We twist ourselves to achieve

This weaving, this carnival of love.