Archive for October, 2009

The Devolution of Basketball

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

birthday jester

John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA basketball team just turned ninety-nine. Wooden coached the UCLA team from 1948 to 1975 and won ten National Championships in a span of 12 years, including 7 in a row from 1967 to 1973, a feat so unimaginable today it seems more myth than fact. As a college player, Wooden was a three-time consensus All-American, the first ever, and spent several years playing in the early professional leagues while simultaneously coaching high school teams. During one 46-game stretch as a pro he made 134 consecutive free throws. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He never made more than $35,000 a year as the UCLA coach, and never asked for a raise.

Wooden said: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team,” and “What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.”

In an interview with him on the day before his 99th birthday, he was lucid and wry, and made a fervent wish that “they” wouldn’t do anything special for his birthday. “If I make it to a hundred, well, okay.”

Among Wooden’s many famous protégé’s was Lew Alcindor who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar. We often hear superlatives connected to the superstars of today, but none of them single-handedly changed the game of basketball as Alcindor did. Few remember that when Alcindor began his college career at UCLA, freshmen were not permitted to play on varsity teams. Alcindor’s freshman squad played the UCLA varsity squad, the number one-ranked team in America, and beat them 75-60. Alcindor scored 51 points, many of his baskets dunks.

As a result of this overwhelming display of his dominance, and before Alcindor could join the varsity squad as a sophomore, the NCAA banned the dunk in college basketball, a ban that was lifted three years later when Alcindor graduated and turned pro. That’s right. They imposed a national ban to contain one specific player. But even without the dunk, Alcindor was so dominant (and seven-foot two inches tall) that for the first time in the history of basketball, referees allowed defenders to constantly foul another player (Alcindor) to keep him from scoring. I am absolutely certain that when defenders were given the green light to hold and push and hack Alcindor, the game of basketball began its swift devolution to the completely different game we have today.

Basketball was invented as a non-contact sport in 1892. And by non-contact, I mean No Contact. No touching; something hard to imagine as one watches the physicality of today’s pro and college games. When I played basketball in high school in 1964, we were stringently coached that any contact with the player we were guarding was a foul. Any touching at all, even a slap on the wrist, was a foul. The only permissible contact was when players bumped each other going for a rebound. If you went over somebody’s back or intentionally pushed another player to get a rebound, you were committing a foul. Five fouls and you were out of the game.

I played on the university team in the early days of UC Santa Cruz. We played in an industrial league that included Sylvania, a cannery, a meat packing company, a couple taverns, and a Bible college. No contact allowed. Good referees. Big fun. When I dropped out of college, I continued to play in pickup games and on city league teams wherever I lived. Then in 1974 I moved to Eugene, Oregon and encountered the newest kind of basketball, a dangerously violent game wherein if I dared call a foul when someone shoved me or punched me, I might get punched again.

As it happened, John Wooden was in his next to last year as coach at UCLA when I lived in Eugene, and he seriously considered forfeiting the Eugene game with the University of Oregon because “the kamikaze kids”, as the Oregon team was nicknamed, might seriously injure one or more of the UCLA players as part of their game strategy. Yikes. I soon discovered that such intentional violence had taken hold in the gymnasiums and on the playgrounds of Eugene, along with another truly absurd wrinkle in the game: legal traveling. Traveling in basketball refers to a basketball player carrying the ball several steps without dribbling the ball, a thing that used to be verboten. But in Eugene, players were suddenly taking several steps with the ball before shooting or passing, and the few times I called someone for traveling I was threatened with bodily harm.

I am not a large person, and one of the supreme joys of the original game of basketball came from knowing that the rules protected me from having to go mano a mano with anyone, let alone someone a hundred pounds heavier and a foot taller. Finding these protective rules removed, I spent the remainder of my year in Eugene shooting hoops solo or playing volleyball with a net separating me from my opponents.

John Wooden was horrified by this sea change in the game he loved, and he became a vocal advocate of raising the height of the hoop from ten feet to at least eleven feet, and the addition of a new rule: when the shooting team got a rebound, the rebounding player had to make a pass before that team could take another shot. He tried using this new rule with his teams in scrimmages, and sure enough, much of the bullying big man domination was neutralized.

But Wooden’s suggestions came too late, as size and brute strength and dunking became all the rage in college and pro ball, and by the time Magic Johnson played one year of varsity college ball as a freshman and then turned pro in 1979, the old game was dead. Magic was six-foot nine inches tall, and played guard, the little guy’s position.

In 2008, the NBA added yet another new rule to professional basketball: players who have the ball low in the key, within five feet of the hoop, can charge and knock over any player between them and the hoop without being called for a foul. They’ve even painted a No Charge Will Be Called stripe in the lane to mark the magic boundary. This ridiculous new rule allows huge players like Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James to use their enormity to shove or scare defenders out of their way. Violence has now been officially written into the professional rules, along with allowing players more and more steps without dribbling prior to a dunk. This new dunking protocol facilitates more spectacular dunks, which are now the most popular part of the professional game.

As a teenager, basketball was my escape from an unhappy home, and as a young adult basketball was a big part of my social life. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent shooting hoops from age twelve to forty I could buy a nice new Japanese pickup truck. Two of my eight published books are novels with basketball as backdrop to the human comedy, which is to say the devolution of what was once my favorite sport saddens me. My novels Ruby & Spear and Inside Moves can be purchased for mere pennies, and I mean a few coppers, from myriad used bookseller on the internet.

For many of us who knew the game thirty years ago, today’s professional games are fairly redundant variety shows of semi-staged performances by amazingly gifted athletes, but not often contests between whole teams. And as the pros play, so do the young players who watch them. I recently gave a ride to a tall young man hitchhiking with a basketball under his arm. We began to speak about the game, but within a sentence or two, I realized he might as well be Russian and I Turkish, with no common language regarding the game, so we fell silent.

I have a friend with whom I used to avidly play basketball. For the last twenty years, he has been playing basketball four mornings a week at the YMCA in Sacramento with a bunch of guys who play by the old non-contact rules. He says the game continues to be a fabulous workout and a supreme blast, and I am deeply jealous.

Todd’s web site is underthetablebooks.com

Competitive Meditation

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

What a silly idea, competitive meditation. Yet in America all things become competitive and hierarchical as reflections of the dominant operating system. Twenty years ago the notion of competitive yoga would have been just as absurd as competitive meditation, yet today yoga competitions are all the rage with big cash prizes for top asana performers ranked nationally. An asana is a particular yoga pose. Could league play be just around the corner?

The history of Buddhism, with meditation as its foundation, is a fascinating study in what happens to a non-hierarchical, non-competitive, crystal clear philosophy when it comes into contact with different societies, each with entrenched systems of social organization and religious dogma. Because Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, it is easy to discern how in coming to China, Tibet, Japan, and now the United States, the original tenets of Buddhism have been deformed to fit the pre-existing religious or pseudo-religious structures.

Organized religions universally feature a head priest or priests, priest lieutenants, their favored adherents, the less favored, and so on down the steep slope of the pyramid. Trying to fit the fundamental Buddhist notion of the essential emptiness of reality into such a pyramidical structure is akin to building a complicated factory in order to produce nothing. Delusion, greed, arrogance, jealousy, all of which Buddha called enemies of enlightenment, are, ironically, the building blocks of organized Buddhism in America.

One of my favorite stories about Freud, not to change the subject, is that he said to his American cohorts on several occasions before his death, and I paraphrase, “Whatever you do, please don’t make being a medical doctor a prerequisite to being a psychiatrist.” He made this plea because many promising psychotherapists in Europe, among them Erik Erikson, were not medical doctors, and Freud didn’t want to preclude this valuable source of input to the field.

Sadly, the Americans did just what Freud feared they would do, and we suffer the consequences to this day. Why didn’t the Americans heed Freud’s advice? Because greed, arrogance, and most importantly the desire to control who gets into the exclusive club, won the day. People at the top of pyramids will do almost anything to stay there, and since there isn’t much room at the top, the maintenance of the ruling elite requires the ruthless exclusion of anyone or any idea that threatens the status quo.

Indeed, our government and our entire economic system reflect this basic tenet of organizations structured as steep-sided pyramids. Ironically, the collapse of such pyramids is inevitable because without new ideas and original personalities, these systems decay from the top down. This is why Jefferson suggested revolutions at regular intervals were essential to the continuing health of any large organization such as a nation.

The worship of celebrity, not to change the subject, is a hugely important aspect of the American psyche. Americans aspire to be celebrities, to associate with celebrities, and to know all about celebrities. I attribute this particular mania to our collective genetic memory of being subjects of kings and queens for the thousands of years when members of the royalty were the primary celebrities until the Industrial Revolution spawned a middle class. Regardless of how it came about, celebrities rule our psyches, individual and collective, and American Buddhism has become a celebrity-based system, too; a happenstance every bit as absurd as the notion of competitive meditation. Absurdity, however, is another hallmark of American culture along with ignorance, racism, and senseless violence.

The historical Buddha, Gautama, so say the texts, witnessed these hallmarks of American culture as they manifested in India circa 600 B.C. and was so disturbed by the terrible suffering such ignorance and violence caused victims and perpetrators alike that he left behind his princely life and embarked on a journey, both inward and outward, to discover the root causes of pervasive human misery. And the vehicle he rode, as it were, on his quest to discover the source of suffering, was meditation.

Now here is something crucial to remember about Gautama Buddha: no one anointed him, no one taught him, and he did not belong to a lineage of teachers. Through meditation he attained enlightenment and discovered what he believed to be the source of suffering, and he did this…drum roll…all by himself.

Today in America or Japan or Tibet or China or Indochina, one would be extremely hard-pressed to find any “officially recognized” Buddhist master who would dare say that a practitioner can find his or her way without the guidance of an “accredited master”. I am currently reading for the third time Sogyal Rinpoche’s wonderful text The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in which he repeats ad nauseum that no one can ever hope to understand the true nature of mind or really make much spiritual progress without devotion to, and instruction from, an accredited, official, bona fide Buddhist master, and to think otherwise is dangerous and foolish and wrong. In subtle ways, he contradicts this message throughout the text, yet he seems terrified to overtly suggest otherwise.

Which brings me to The New Testament, not to change the subject. There is now both academic and popular support for the theory that the gospels of The New Testament were selected from a much larger body of Gnostic gospels in order to espouse the view that it is impossible for a regular person to connect with God except through an accredited, official, bona fide priest who somehow or other is linked by direct transmission to Jesus Christ. Any gospel that suggested you and I might connect directly with God through our own efforts without the intervention of officially accredited priests were simply not allowed into the anthology, i.e. The New Testament.

I may be stating the Gnostic case in an extreme nutshell, but I think it an accurate description of how a hierarchical system was imposed on the teachings of a Buddha-like being (Jesus Christ) who got His download, so to speak, directly from God, with no accredited anybody officiating. Which brings me back to Buddhism and competitive meditation.

I first became interested in Buddhism when I fell in love with the poetry of Philip Whalen in the late 1960’s. Searching for texts to explain Whalen’s passing references to Buddhism in his poems, I came across a little book, and I mean a tiny paperback of less than a hundred pages, written by Alan Watts entitled The Wisdom of Insecurity. Reading this book was more than a revelation to me; the experience rearranged my synapses. The basic premise of The Wisdom of Insecurity is that if I am thinking about the past and/or thinking about the future, I’m not actually here because our awareness determines our place in time and space; from which followed the popular expression Be Here Now.

The Wisdom of Insecurity was new stuff in America when it was published in 1949 (the year I was born) and it was one of Watts’s many attempts to elucidate the primary purpose of Buddhist practice, which is to bring the mind into communion with the present moment and thereby reveal the past and future to be illusory. Watts, it should be noted, has of late been marginalized by contemporary American Buddhist orthodoxy because he adamantly rejected the idea of official anointment and wasn’t particularly keen on formal modes of meditation. In this way, he was another of those folks who apparently “got it” without being knighted by an official of the hierarchy he helped found.

Inspired by Watts and Whalen, I continued to read Buddhist texts, contemporary and classical, for some years, and I was inspired to write a batch of contemporary short stories springing from various aspects of Buddhist philosophy. For instance, I would read about generosity, meditate with generosity as my starting point, and then write a story that welled up from that meditation. Then I’d send copies of the story to several friends, some versed in Buddhist philosophy, some not, wait for feedback, and then rewrite the story. Over the course of three years, I wrote forty-two such stories that eventually became a manuscript entitled Buddha In A Teacup, the title homage to Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories.

I made a photocopy edition of a hundred and fifty copies of Buddha In A Teacup, informed my friends I had done so, and within a few months sold all the copies for twenty-five dollars each, which covered my copying and mailing costs. Many of my readers urged me to try to get the book published, so I sent the manuscript to a half-dozen publishers of Buddhist texts in America and Canada. Reaction was swift and universal; the book was fascinating and fresh, but I, Todd Walton, was no one of even minor note in the galaxy of Buddhist celebrities, so No Thank You. To which I replied, “Is not the goal of our practice to transcend the illusion of ego and embrace the essential truth of our no oneness?”

Only one editor replied to my reply. He reiterated how much he liked the stories, and regretted that his company only published well-known Buddhist teachers armed with rave blurbs from really famous Buddhist teachers.

I eventually self-published a lovely edition of Buddha In A Teacup through Lost Coast Press in Fort Bragg, and though not a single Buddhist publication large or small would deign to review the book, Buddha In A Teacup has now sold over fifteen hundred copies and continues to gain a wider audience. People, those not constrained by the worship of celebrity or constricted by devotion to orthodoxy, love the book, and I think they do because the stories illuminate essential messages of the Buddha; that we are all on the same path, each of us seeking to become less fearful and less judgmental of ourselves and others, each of us aspiring to become more loving and generous.

In the vast Buddhist library there are many versions of what happened at the moment Buddha’s body died and his essence returned to the essential ground of being, an extremely subtle and eternal energy field from which you and I and all things arise and dissolve. My favorite version of this last corporeal moment is a poem by Mary Oliver entitled The Buddha’s Last Instruction in which his only spoken words are, “Make of yourself a light.”

And that is what I suggest you say to anyone who challenges you to a meditation contest. “Make of yourself a light,” and leave the competition to the organized and fully accredited yoga teams.

Copies of Buddha In A Teacup signed by the author are available from Underthetablebooks.com.

(This article first appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)

Three Presidents (and a First Lady)

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

For most of my sixty years on the planet I have been a social recluse. Yet through no conscious intention on my part, I have come face-to-face with three presidents of the United States (and a First Lady).

In 1962 I was in the seventh grade in Menlo Park, California. I was a baseball fanatic and not much interested in politics, though I was fascinated by Fidel Castro and the possibility of nuclear war.

“Class,” said Mr. Arbanas, our perpetually befuddled teacher. “President Kennedy is coming to the University of California to give a speech. Each core class will elect two students, one boy and one girl, to attend. If you want to go, raise your hand.”

We all raised our hands. By secret ballot and the intercession of angels, I was the boy chosen to represent my class. On the morning of March 23, 1962, I boarded a school bus with several other students and a gang of teachers, and we rumbled across the San Mateo Bridge and up through Oakland to Berkeley. We had been advised to bring a sack lunch and binoculars. I was one of those unfortunate children whose mother had no interest in making my lunch. Ever. From the age of five I made my own lunch, the same lunch, every day: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and a carrot. This is the lunch I brought and ate on that historic day.

I did not have a pair of binoculars, but everyone else had a pair, so my plan was to borrow. We most definitely needed binoculars since our seats were the very highest in the stadium, the podium on the stage at midfield barely visible to our naked eyes.

There came a great parade of men and women in caps and gowns representing their illustrious alma maters, the day being the 94th anniversary of the charter establishing the public universities of America, which is what Kennedy spoke about. To my twelve-year-old ears and mind, the speeches preceding Kennedy’s speech, and his speech, too, were numbingly boring. I certainly enjoyed my glimpses of Kennedy and his marvelous hair through borrowed binoculars, and I thrilled to his voice, but not nearly so much as I thrilled to the myriad alluring females filling the stands around us.

Near the end of Kennedy’s address, a lunatic classmate threw an orange that struck the back of my neck. The shock of this sudden and unexpected attack caused me to pick up the exploded orange, turn in my seat, and hurl the gucky missile back at my assailant. He ducked, and the mess struck Miss Imbach (destined to be my eighth grade teacher) in the face. For this heinous crime, I was immediately yanked from my seat and marched out of the stadium by someone (I can’t recall who) to wait in ignominy on the bus.

However, my ejection coincided precisely with Kennedy finishing his speech and exiting the stadium ahead of the ceremonial finale so he might escape the ensuing gridlock. In the tumult outside the stadium, I was separated from my escort and swept along in a crowd of people hoping for a glimpse of the president.

And lo and behold, I found myself walking beside President Kennedy. Right beside him. And he was smiling. And he had a big head and fabulous teeth. And here’s the thing, honestly, he seemed genuinely happy, even perhaps enthralled, as he strolled along in the excitement of Berkeley in early spring being President of the United States. Then he looked at me and said “Hello,” or “How are you?” though I might have imagined that. But I didn’t imagine what I said to him, which was, “Thank you.”

I’m not sure why I said “Thank you”, but it may have been because I was grateful he hadn’t started a nuclear war with Russia over Cuba.

Back on the bus, one teacher after another chewed me out for throwing the orange at Miss Imbach. I was threatened with expulsion for dishonoring our school, and told I would definitely not be allowed to go on the upcoming field trip to the beach. But all I could think about was how happy Kennedy had seemed, and how I wished I had said to him, “Can’t we be friends with Fidel?”

The text of the speech Kennedy gave that day, which is both sad and ironic in light of today’s economic and educational meltdowns, can be read at the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum web site.

&

May 1969. I was nineteen and in my last few weeks of college (forever) at UC Santa Cruz. The People’s Park revolt was underway in Berkeley and I was involved in sympathetic protests at our new university in the redwoods. At the height of the carnage in Berkeley, the Regents of the University of California, including Governor Reagan, came to the Santa Cruz campus to hold their annual meeting. Perhaps they thought Santa Cruz was far enough away from bloody Berkeley for them to be safe, but it’s more likely they were just arrogant despots.

So the fat cats had their meeting in the new cafeteria at Crown College, and I went with a gang of demonstrators to mill around outside and voice our dismay at the university’s support for the war in Vietnam and to protest their violent response to unarmed people trying to create a park in Berkeley on vacant land. That’s what I was dismayed about. The more sophisticated demonstrators were dismayed about many other things, too, but I just wanted the stupid war and needless violence to end so I wouldn’t lose any more friends and we could have, you know, a cultural renaissance.

I suppose for the same reason Kennedy made an early exit from the stadium in 1962, Reagan was hustled out of the Crown cafeteria several minutes before the regents’ meeting officially adjourned. We saw the governor board one of the large snout-nosed yellow school buses used to ferry people around the bucolic campus, and we, the people, went chasing after him.

Crown College was a maze of buildings on a steep hillside with more dead ends than through streets, and it was up one of these dead ends that Reagan’s misguided driver turned. We followed en masse and effectively corked Ronald’s escape route with our bodies, and then several of the protestors began to rock the bus. There were some, perhaps, who hoped to roll the bus, but most of us just wanted to scare the crap out of our putrescent governor.

The cool thing was, before the police came and chased us away, we had several minutes of this good college fun, during which I was hoisted onto the shoulders of my fellows and brought face-to-face with Ronald Reagan. His nose and mine were no more than two feet apart, only the glass of the bus window separating us.

I suppose I might have shouted, “Off the pigs,” or “Get out of Vietnam,” or “Free People’s Park,” but I could only muster a hopeless, contemptuous, bewildered smile, because I really couldn’t think of anything to say that would mean anything to him. I could see by his face and demeanor and, if you will allow me, his aura, that he didn’t have the slightest understanding of why we were so upset. To Reagan, we were just hooligans, and to me Reagan was just a mean man of no great intelligence working for a bunch of other mean men and saying whatever they told him to say. He was a puppet. He was the guy who introduced Death Valley Days and sold Borax. He was nobody. He was a rich dupe and he was annoyed we had him temporarily bottled up, but he wasn’t afraid. He looked me in the eye and smiled a sneering smile, and then he slowly shook his head as if to say, “You’ll be sorry,” and he was right because my comrades dropped me like a hot potato when the cops converged on us, and I hit the ground hard before I ran off into the woods.

Okay. So Reagan wasn’t yet president, but he would be soon enough.

&

My dear friends Bob and Patty were married in Sacramento on September 4, 1975. I took the train down from Eugene, Oregon to be in their wedding in an old brick cathedral. The processional was Stevie Wonder singing, “I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever,” and the recessional was the overture from Camelot. Thirty-five years later I’m delighted to report that Bob and Patty are still happily married.

The morning after the wedding, I was strolling down L Street and nearing the capitol when my way was blocked by a barrier of police tape stretching across L Street and the sidewalk and up to the capitol building. Why? President Gerald Ford was staying at the Senator Hotel on L Street and was soon to cross over to the capitol. Had they not strung up this barrier, I am certain no one would have known or cared that Gerald Ford was planning to cross the street there; but that was only the prelude to a most peculiar presidential event.

I was no fan of Gerald Ford or the mass murderer he’d replaced, but I thought it might be fun to see the president and then tell Bob and Patty I had. There were only a few dozen people on hand to witness Ford’s transit, all of them “caught” as I had been and not there out of any abiding love for Gerald. As we stood behind the flimsy barricade in the growing heat, I noticed a woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood on the wrong side of the barrier chatting with a state policeman. They spoke amicably for a moment, and then he gestured for her to get back on the spectator side of the tape, and she did so, standing a few feet away from me.

A moment later, Ford came out of the Senator Hotel flanked by several men in suits. They crossed L Street and started along the walkway that transects the lawn to the capitol building. I remember being struck by how big Ford and the Secret Servicemen were, as if they had armor on under their suits. I remember, too, there was nothing festive in this transit, and that when Ford was ten feet away from me, his face looked grim to the point of horror.

Then Gerald abruptly veered away from the tape until he was at least thirty feet away from the nearest spectator, at which moment one of the Secret Servicemen launched himself toward, I thought, me, but actually toward Little Red Riding Hood, who turned out to be Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson. The big guy wrestled the little woman to the ground as Gerald was literally picked up and carried into the capitol building by his huge henchmen.

Squeaky was sentenced to life in prison for what she allegedly did that day, attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford. She was released from prison in August of 2009 after serving nearly thirty-five years for pointing an unloaded gun in the direction of the president. At the time of Squeaky’s symbolic act, there was hope among Republicans that Squeaky’s and a similarly bizarre attempt on Ford’s life by another woman two weeks later, might improve Gerald’s chances of election, but that was not to be.

The odd thing from my point of view was that in the immediate aftermath of the incident, none of the authorities on hand were interested in speaking to me, though they eagerly recorded the testimony of people standing much farther away than I had been from the flying Secret Serviceman. Perhaps my unruly hair and raggedy clothes and overall counter culture appearance rendered me an undesirable witness. And, yes, whether it was or not, the entire event seemed so obviously staged as to be laughable.

&

Three years after my brief encounter with Gerald Ford, I published my first novel Inside Moves (you can download my new reading of it from Audible.com) and the publisher was Doubleday.

My editor was a young woman named Sherry Knox. She and I had spoken on the phone while working on the rewrite, but we didn’t meet in-person until I flew back to New York for the publication party in the spring of 1978. Judging by her voice and her manner of speaking, I assumed Sherry was a highly educated white woman. As I sat in the foyer at Doubleday, I rose twice as white female editors came out to meet their authors, but neither woman was my editor. Then a beautiful black woman emerged from the editorial catacombs, recognized me from my author’s photo, and introduced herself as Sherry.

And I, thunderstruck by the realization that Sherry must have bought my book (about black and white people loving each other) at least in part because she was black, said without a care for political correctness, “Sherry, I never once thought you were black.”

To which she replied, “I’m glad.”

On our way to Sherry’s office, we stopped to pay obeisance to Betty Prashker, the powerful editor-in-chief who lent Sherry sufficient clout to purchase my unlikely novel, and then Sherry whispered, “Would you like to meet Jackie Kennedy? Her office is right next to mine.”

So we popped into Jackie’s office, and there was the former First Lady looking trim and slim in a crisp white blouse and a gray skirt, her eyes shielded by gray-tinted glasses. She was poring over proofs of an enormous glossy coffee table book, probably something to do with the lives of the super wealthy, of which she was an authority. Sherry introduced me. Jackie took off her glasses, smiled a crinkly smile, and shook my hand.

What I remember most about her was that she didn’t sound at all like the soft-spoken Jackie Kennedy I recalled from her days as First Lady. There was nothing soft or slow in her speech, but rather roughness, even harshness, as if she had taken on the accent of greater Manhattan.

“Sherry’s great. You’re in good hands,” said Jackie, her grip impressively strong. “Good luck to you.” And then for some reason she laughed, and I heard the same harshness in her laughter, and I laughed, too, though more out of nervousness than because anything was funny.

Then Sherry took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant where we were joined by Sherry’s close friend, Olga Adderly, the widow of a great hero of mine, the tenor sax giant Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. And for the entire meal I marveled that both Jackie and Olga had been married to men who were now legends, both men dying at forty-six, which even at my tender age of twenty-eight seemed terribly young to me.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)

Of Trees and Money

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

This is about firewood, water, the San Francisco Giants, and Single Payer Healthcare, among other things.

Marcia and I rent a house on Comptche Road, our backyard abutting a vast redwood preserve last logged some eighty years ago. In the wake of that clear-cut came madrone, manzanita, pine, fir, tan oak, spruce, and redwoods. Now, left alone for the span of three human generations, the redwoods have re-established their supremacy on the north-facing slope and the “transitional forest” is swiftly dying in the persistent shade of the towering monarchs.

Thus our backyard is both fabulous forest and graveyard to thousands of dead and dying trees—fallen, falling, or easy to fell. It has become my practice to harvest a tiny portion of this perfectly seasoned wood with a buck saw and ax to help keep us warm through the winter, give my body a good workout, and to absent myself now and then from the human realm.

I walk down into the forest this morning en route to a copse of several dozen dead fir trees, their trunks eight inches in diameter, each tree about sixty-feet tall, the whole bunch of them sun-starved by an uphill gang of surging redwoods springing from the trunks of giants cut down a moment ago in redwood time. I’m thinking about the San Francisco Giants, another exciting and frustrating baseball season about to end, our valiant squad ultimately no match for the big money teams, and I have a vivid memory of Jack Sanford, a heavyset right-hander who threw for the Giants from 1959 to 1965. My memory is of a picture of Sanford in the off-season staying in shape by sawing up logs and chopping wood. The picture, which must have appeared in the Chronicle, shows Jack working next to his small house. Big-time professional baseball player. Small house. Chopping wood.

As my buck saw cuts into the standing firewood, I realize that when I was a kid idolizing my Giants, it never once occurred to me how much money any of the players made, and most of them didn’t make much to speak of. Doctors and lawyers and plumbers made more than most ball players in those days. Contracts were for a couple years, and if a player ceased to be productive, the team was not encumbered by a long-term contract that kept them from letting the player go and buying or trading for somebody younger and on the upswing.

I further realize that much of my latter day frustration about our team is related to the mess that money has made of sports, all sports, and of our society in general. We’ve got Aaron Rowand, a chunky over-the-hill center fielder making six million a year and we are bound to keep him for three more years because nobody else wants him and our dimwitted general manager signed him to an absurdly long contract. We gave Barry Zito a zillion dollars for what turns out to be almost nothing, and we couldn’t trade him today for a cup of coffee. But we’re stuck with these guys for years to come. Meanwhile, our young stars can now ask for what we gave Barry Zito, because they are unquestionably better than he. And if we don’t give them what they want, the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Angels or the Red Sox will.

The fir falls cleanly down the slope, and it occurs to me that the drought may have something to do with the sudden swiftness of all these trees dying, in combination with the deepening shade beneath the redwood canopy, the same drought that has hastened the disappearance of the salmon as the dunderheaded powers-that-be divert the dwindling Delta flow to the millions of people who shouldn’t be living in southern California because the place was never meant by Nature to sustain more than a few hundred thousand people, if that.

When my folks were born in Los Angeles in 1922, the entire population of southern California—that’s everything south of San Luis Obispo, including LA and San Diego—was less than a hundred and fifty thousand people. When they were cutting down the redwoods in my backyard here in Mendocino eighty years ago there were less than a million people in the entire state of California. Today there are forty million if you count the ones they don’t count.

I cut the dead fir in half and drag one thirty-foot length at a time up the steep slope to my woodshed. I’m fairly winded by the time I get the second piece home, so I take a break and water my vegetable garden. We water our garden with gray water caught in a hundred and fifty gallon tub I sunk in a hole not far from the tallest redwood tree on our property. Without the gray water, we couldn’t have a garden since the spring that supplies our water is perilously low this time of year and serves to quench the needs of two other homes on the property.

So we catch our shower water, bath water, washing machine water, and sink water. Only the kitchen sink and the toilets flow into the septic field; the rest we recycle. And I have to tell you, now that we’ve been growing a big garden with gray water for the last two years, I don’t understand why everybody in this drought-stricken state isn’t compelled by a reasonable law to install such a system.

Reasonable law. Hmm. Something about those two words together sounds funny. Someone, probably Michael Parenti, once said that nearly all the laws in America, federal, state, and local, are essentially about protecting those with property from those without property. What that has to do with recycling water, I’m not sure, but I am sure that for many people the idea of being compelled to reuse bath water to water their gardens would seem like the onset of socialism, so forget about it. Let the salmon die. And let the whales that eat the salmon die. Let everything die, but don’t tell me I can’t take long showers with the last fresh water from the high Sierras. It’s a free country, right? Anybody should be allowed to do anything they have the money for even if it means ruining the environment. So what if some out-of-state corporation wants to buy the local election and evade local oversight to build a monster mall that will be the ruination of Ukiah? Let the free market decide everything, unless the free market turns out to be a massive Ponzi scheme, in which case, please, have the government bail us out. But don’t call the bail out socialism, because, well, socialism is bad.

So I’m sawing up the length of fir. Based on the ease of cutting, I guess the wood has been standing dead for three years. Perfect. I buy a cord of wood every year from Frank’s Firewood in Anderson Valley to augment what I drag out of the forest. We heat the house with two woodstoves, wood heat being one of the rare luxuries of living so far from urban areas where too much wood smoke combines with too much automobile and factory effluent to make the air unhealthy to breathe. Or so they say.

As I’m sawing the wood, my thoughts return to money and how out of whack our culture has become since I was a kid, and how this out-of-whackness and money seem inextricably bound. By American standards, Marcia and I live simply, our three largest expenditures being our rent, health insurance, and food. I didn’t have health insurance until a few years ago when I suffered through a medical emergency and felt threatened with the loss of everything I owned or might ever own.

I remember when I was living in a commune in Santa Cruz in the early seventies and I had an abscessed tooth, though I didn’t know that’s what I had. I only knew my head hurt and I was blind with pain. So my fellow communards drove me to see Doc Willis. He was an old man, a real doctor, and he charged ten bucks a visit. I waited a half-hour to see him. He came into the examining room, winced in sympathy, touched my upper lip, and said, “You need a dentist. Call this guy.”

When I tried to give his nurse/secretary ten dollars, she waved me away. “He said no charge.”

So today the San Francisco 49ers are without the services of their first round draft pick because this misguided young kid Michael Crabtree won’t sign with them because he’s been told he should get ten million dollars a year instead of eight, though he has yet to prove he can do anything as a pro except complain. Today, actors without talent made famous through media saturation get twenty million dollars to be in truly awful movies. Today corporate executives get hundreds of millions of dollars a year for successfully stealing money from a gullible supine population. And today we have a medical system that is the number one cause of homelessness.

If you go see a doctor today, about anything, your usurious medical insurance premium will almost certainly go up. So maybe you don’t go to your doctor, though you really think you should, because you really can’t afford to go to the doctor, either because you don’t have medical insurance or because you do.

The nights have turned chill this early October. I’m about turn sixty. If I had eight million dollars, no, if I had eight hundred thousand dollars, I would never have to work again, and that would be after I gave you half the money. And if we didn’t spend a third of our income on health insurance we’re afraid to use, who knows what we and everybody else might do with our lives?

In the meantime, I’m cutting wood, recycling water, hoping the Giants can re-sign Lincecum and Uribe, hoping we dump Molina and Rowand and Winn, and wishing Sabean would have an epiphany and move to Tibet. I continue to write to Obama and our corporate congress folk urging them to push for Single Payer. I continue to tell my Mendocino friends to vote No on Measure A. And I continue to believe the wisest course to follow is to spend at least as much time being a good friend as I spend trying to make money.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)