Archive for April, 2010

Big River Spring (2010)

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2010)

The copious rains of 2010 made Big River the big muddy for much of the winter, the beach in late April grandiloquent with new sand. The probable summer beachscape is shaping up to be quite different than last year’s when a large shallow lagoon featured prominently and made a perfect swimming hole for kids to play in. I’m guessing we won’t have more than a puddle this year. Summer is the only time when the beach at the mouth of Big River holds its form for weeks on end, whereas the rest of the year the beachscape changes dramatically from day to day.

This will be the first summer, and therefore the first tourist season, since the dunderheads absconded with the Big River porta-potty and moved it to Heeser Drive where a perfectly good brick and mortar bathroom already exists but has been deemed too costly to operate. Let it be known that whichever candidate for the Board of Supervisors representing my neck of the Mendocino woods promises to put the potty back in the Big River beach parking lot not only gets my vote but I will be happy to appear on their campaign brochures standing beside the potty in question holding a placard reading

Candidate’s Name

Knows What Matters Most

But seriously folks, I smell (pun intended) a minor disaster looming as the annual thousands of tourists and locals descend upon our gorgeous beach to swill beer and soda and buckets of bowel-loosening dips and salsas, only to find there is no place to relieve themselves except in the peripheral poison oak-infested shrubbery. Yucko. I can see it now. Driftwood outhouses erected by capitalist vagrants to service the desperate turistas and their hysterical children, the stinky spillage perfuming the beach until the next high tide saves the day.

I have noticed a definite decline in beach usage by humanoids since our blessed outhouse was carted away. Not only do fewer people visit the beach nowadays, but those middle-aged and older visitors tend not to tarry as long as they used to in our pampered past. I, and others of my ilk, can be seen leaping up from our angles of repose and striking out purposefully for the far northern end of the beach where various caves and propitious indentations in the cliff face provide cover for the quick piss. Thus we emulate the myriad dogs running free on Big River beach contrary to the rarely enforced leash law, the dogs and we hoping no one catches us.

In other beach news, resident surfers tell me that this year’s sand bar promises excellent summer wave sets for surfers unable to afford trips to warmer climes. And birdwatchers (identifiable by their binoculars and bird books and furrowed brows) have confirmed my suspicions that this is a stellar year for the birds of Big River.

The resident ospreys (I counted seven overhead just yesterday) are happy and fat and in fine voice as they mingle with the legions of ravens and gulls composing the avian cyclone to be seen for much of nearly every day in the sky directly above the place where the river meets the sea. I assume this confluence of waters is rich with tiny organisms to be eaten by little fish to be eaten by bigger fish to be eaten by even bigger fish and seabirds and seals, and this abundance of foodstuffs explains why so many fish-eating birds congregate here. But why do the gulls and ravens and osprey (and occasional hawks) spend so many hours of their lives spiraling en masse above this collision of waters?

Yesterday, with the avian whirly gig in full swing and fulgent sunshine having brought several dozen humans to the sands at low tide, I asked my brethren why they thought the ravens and gulls spend so much time spiraling around in that particular place in the sky. Here are a few of their answers.

“Oh, wow, I never noticed those birds. Hmm. I don’t know.”

“There must be an updraft there caused by some sort of temperature exchange. You know, inland heat meets ocean cool. Birds love updrafts.”

“It’s a power spot.”

“It’s a magnetic thing.”

“Birds enjoy flying without having to flap their wings. People think animals do everything for some sort of survival reason, but they like to have fun as much as we do.”

“They’re exchanging information about, you know, weather and food and, you know, things of interest to birds.”

In other bird news, pelicans are more prevalent over Mendocino Bay than in any of the previous four years, and our cormorants are wonderfully fat these days as they share their islets off the headlands with platoons of visiting Canadian geese. The headlands themselves, soggy after years of drought, are verdant with mustard and wild roses and calla lilies, the multitudes of swallows and finches and hummingbirds zipping around in high spirits.

And then there are the humans. I was sitting on the beach yesterday, my back against a driftwood log, watching ravens perform the most amazing aerial acrobatics, when a woman walked by followed by a little boy with a bucket filled with rocks and shells.

“My bucket’s full,” said the boy, his sorrow palpable, “but there’s so much more to get.”

“Maybe you could just select the very best ones to take home,” suggested the woman.

“No,” said the boy, adamantly shaking his head. “I need more buckets.”

“But what are you going to do with all those rocks and shells, honey?”

“Keep them,” he said fiercely. “In the backyard.”

As they passed out of earshot, a big black Lab trotted up to me and dropped a soggy tennis ball at my feet. A man yelled to me from the shallows where he was filming ripples with his cell phone.

“If you throw it for him,” said the man, “he’ll never leave you alone.”

So I ignored the ball. The dog barked at me, a piercing bark.

“Leave him alone, Sam,” shouted the man, aiming his phone at me to record the funny scene of his dog harassing a guy on the beach.

But Sam continued to bark. And then Sam picked up the ball and dropped it in my lap, which inspired the following haiku.

Birds wheeling in the heavens

Dog saliva

Time to go

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books and his collection of short stories Buddha In A Teacup just won awards from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, the former for Best Fiction, the latter for Best Short Story Collection. Yay!

Carma

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser: April 2010)

Yesterday a tree fell on our car. Fortunately no one was in the car when the wind snapped the top third off the pine tree and a thousand pounds of soon-to-be firewood fell twenty feet though the crystalline springtime air and smashed the roof, the windshield, and the hood of our dearly beloved cello-toting 1996 Toyota Corolla wagon.

We had just gone for a brief spin in our old pickup truck, eschewing the wagon because she was low on gas, and I had just said to Marcia regarding the formidable westerly winds, “This is a trees-falling-on-power-lines kind of day if I’ve ever seen one.” Upon our return from the spin, there was Zephyr (so named in a fit of poesy when I bought her five years ago) half-buried under the glossy needles and sappy timber of the former upper reaches of a quasi-stunted pine doing his best to survive in that nutrient-stingy soil known hereabouts as Pygmy. The bottom two-thirds of the still-living tree loomed over the wreckage; the scene only lacking a raven perched on the stub cawing, “Nevermore.”

We were in shock. When we got married two plus years ago we not only exchanged rings, we exchanged cars. I needed a pickup for pruning jobs and toting manure, Marcia needed a zippy little car for the aforementioned cello toting and friend toting in all sorts of weather. Now Zephyr was totaled. Marcia immediately called AAA and within the hour we were on our way to Fort Bragg to pick up her rental car so the cello toting could continue unabated. Say what you will about the decline and fall of the American Empire, if one has comprehensive auto insurance, the system will seamlessly keep you rolling along. Now if only health insurance would work so seamlessly when trees, as it were, fall on your health.

What does it mean when a tree falls on your car? Well, the most mundane interpretation is that a tree falling on your car means that a tree has fallen on your car. But why did that particular tree fall on that particular car at that particular moment in our lives? Is this a sign? An omen? A message? Was this an act of divine intervention or an attack by the forces of evil? We will almost certainly never know. However, when things like this happen to me, I like to interpret them as I would interpret a dream. What for? Fun, of course.

I’ve read numerous books about dreams and dreaming, countless articles both scientific and fanciful, and I’ve even taken a dream interpretation class, which is the only class of any sort I’ve taken since dropping out of college forty-some years ago. My father was a Freudian psychoanalyst and cursorily introduced me to dream interpretation when I was twelve by giving me a copy of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a tome I found to be largely useless for my adolescent purposes. But what really got me interested in dreams and dream research was/were beagles.

I was a freshman Anthropology major at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1967, the campus just beginning to spread its concrete tentacles over the former cattle ranch and throughout the third and fourth-growth redwood groves. One of my favorite extracurricular activities was to head off into the largely unexplored woods and hope to get lost, so that in trying to find my way home I would have an adventure. This was a free and fairly safe way to experience the thrill of being lost, because going downhill from anywhere on the campus eventually brought me to a road; and I knew all the roads in that watershed.

So one sunny day I got lost in the forest, had a splendiferous daydream by a sun-dappled pool in a grotto of ferns, and at day’s end I headed downhill. I emerged from the forest in a place unknown to me and espied a cluster of a one-story buildings and a cyclone-fenced enclosure containing several dozen beagles. Curious about this remote installation, I made my way thither. The dogs saw me and charged en masse to the cyclone fence to bark at me. But their barking made no sound. I could see they were barking, but no noise was emanating from their mouths. So, yes, I thought I had gone deaf if not mad.

Totally freaked out (to use a popular expression of that era), I continued my approach and when I was within twenty feet of the pen, several of the hysterical dogs hurled themselves against the cyclone fencing, and I heard the noises their bodies made striking the fence, though nary a sound emerged from their furiously barking mouths. At which moment, a man emerged from one of the buildings, deduced I was the cause of the commotion, and said to me, “Looking for something?”

“I’m lost,” I said. “What is this place?”

“Dream research,” he explained. “We’re using the dogs to map sleep patterns, REM sleep and…”

“What’s REM sleep?”

“Rapid eye movement. Indicates dreaming.”

“What’s wrong with the dogs? Why can’t they bark?”

“We snip their vocal cords,” he said, inadvertently touching his throat. “Impossible to work with the constant din of their barking.”

“Oh,” I said, aghast at his nonchalance about taking away the dogs’ voices. “Why not use humans?”

“We’re laying the groundwork for that,” he said, somewhat condescendingly. “Establishing baselines. Things you probably wouldn’t understand.”

My reports of this canine gulag failed to incite my classmates to storm the lab and rescue the dogs, but something about that encounter and the dreamlike experience of coming upon a pack of silently barking hounds got me reading about sleep and dreams, which took me to Jung and back to Freud and eventually back to Jung, with my simultaneous readings in anthropology leading me to the Dreamtime of the Australian Aboriginals and the Bushmen of the Kalahari who believed there is a dream dreaming us.

Meanwhile, my pal Rico was en route to becoming a psychotherapist, and he, too, was fascinated with dreams and dream interpretation. It was Rico who taught me to recount my dreams out loud in the present tense, which technique invariably improved my recall of important and otherwise overlooked details of the dreams.

Eons later, I would enroll in a ten-week dream interpretation class taught by a brilliant man who was not keen on interpretations that deviated from his, so we butted heads, though I learned many things from him and appreciated the consistency and clarity of his system. And what I especially loved about his class was that we got to act out our dreams, with my fellow students and I taking parts of people and things in each other’s dreams, which enactments often exposed hidden emotions underpinning the dreams.

Then some years ago I caught the end of a radio program featuring a wonderfully articulate woman taking callers’ questions about dreams. A man called to say he wished he had a dream for her to interpret, but that he had never in his life remembered even the tiniest fragment of a dream. And the articulate woman said, “Then tell me what happened to you today and I will interpret that as a dream.”

I don’t remember much else about their interaction, but I have ever since interpreted puzzling and momentous events in my life as I would interpret dreams, from which many groovy insights have emerged. Thus I recommend the practice to you.

Here is the dream version of the tree falling on our car.

Marcia and I emerge from the house we rent and walk toward the Corolla (definition of corolla: the inner envelope of floral leaves of a flower).

“Oh,” says Marcia, “can we take the truck? The wagon’s low on gas.”

“Sure,” I say, noting the Corolla is parked in a place where we almost never park it.

So we take the truck and wend our way along a winding road through the forest, the spring day gorgeous and sunny. The next thing I know we are parking the truck on the side of the road and walking down a wooded driveway to a beautiful house set in a lovely park of old trees and verdant meadows. We pass the house and come to a vast barn-like structure, a fabulous studio on the shores of a lovely lake. In other words, paradise.

“If only this were ours,” we say and think and feel.

We get back in the truck and drive home, each of us lost in fantasies of such a paradise belonging to us. And as we arrive home, we find that a tree has crushed our car.

In short (and drawing from a variety of interpretive schemata): the car (low on gas) represents the means by which the ego navigates the outside world. The tree represents the intelligence and power of Nature. To acquire a house (self) so much larger and more magnificent than our current house (self) and to own (control our destiny) rather than rent (accede control to others) such a grand home (self) would require an entirely different way of conveying our egos in the outside world.

So the question is: do we get another wagon or a sedan? Another Toyota or a Honda? We’re thinking something around three grand.

Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com.

Transformation

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

(This memoir first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2010: photo by Marcia Sloane)

I have read a great deal about dreams and dreaming, and whether you believe dreams are communications from the astral plane or meaningless imagery resulting from cerebral out gassing, they can certainly remind us of people and places and things we have successfully avoided thinking about for the longest time.

I recently dreamt of being in high school again, and of a transformative moment in my less than excellent adventure there. My dream was a fair enactment of the event from my junior year, though the dream ended differently than the so-called real event.

I was a disinterested student suffering from the sudden onset of chronic pain in my lower back that ended my official athletic career in a heartbreaking twinkling. Verbally precocious, I was enrolled in Advanced English wherein my teachers persistently failed to see the genius behind my sloppy prose. In class discussions I invariably scored points with my classmates for wit and irony and double entendre while merely annoying my sadly average instructors on whom subtly and originality were invariably lost. Or so it seemed to my arrogant teenager’s mind.

My English teacher for my third year of incarceration was a very sad woman who never relaxed. Not in our presence. Ever. I will call her Mrs. R. She trembled when she spoke, as if she feared lightning would strike her for pontificating about things she clearly knew nothing about. She was not inherently stupid, but her anxiety rendered her so. Had she not so obviously disliked me, I might have been more compassionate toward her, but she anointed me her adversary from day one, and so we frequently did battle.

The contest, of course, was unfair. Mrs. R controlled the podium, so to speak, while I had all but a few of my fellow sufferers predisposed to my point of view. And I suppose if Mrs. R had merely been a dogmatic nervous Nellie, I wouldn’t have kept up the fight as long as I did; but she had a pet named V who was the grandest thorn in my high school side. Thus when I fought Mrs. R, I also fought V.

Why was V a thorn? Because she was my least favorite sort of sycophant: a perfect parrot, and she loved Mrs. R with a passion verging on the erotic, their heads being often together as they poured over books and poems and V’s insufferable essays that Mrs. R always deemed the best of the bunch so we always had to listen to V read her putrid prose aloud. And to make matters lethal for the miserable likes of me, V was gorgeous and sultry and possessed of a honeyed voice; and she would only date really good-looking college boys.

That is the context. Here is the event recalled by the dream.

Mrs. R stands before us, her outfit annoyingly salmon. She is, as always, trembling, a false smile pasted on her lips. “I was very disappointed in your essays on the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter. Only a few of you correctly identified the primary recurring symbolism.” She smiles adoringly at V who is posed alluringly in the front row.

“Is it possible,” I say, speaking from my desk at the back of the room and neglecting to raise my hand, “that Nate just wrote the story without any symbolism in mind?”

A ripple of chuckles rolls around the deathly fluorescent chamber. Mrs. R grimaces. “I will remind you again to raise your hand when you wish to speak. I’ll take questions after V reads her essay.”

V rises to read, her slinky garb igniting our libidinous imaginations. She is totally at ease in her body, in stark contrast to Mrs. R, this being the raison d’etre of V’s life: to demonstrate her vast superiority over all us dunderheads. “Color,” she intones, sounding very much like Dusty Springfield singing The Look of Love, “is Hawthorne’s secret weapon; red, rust, and crimson his antidotes to Puritan gray.”

I gaze in open-mouthed contempt at V, for she has essentially quoted Mrs. R verbatim, only rendered the words in gooey singsong. I am tempted to say, “I may puke,” but something stays me, for the best is yet to come.

V takes us on a fourteen-page romp through those first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter, pointing out every word that either is or can be construed to be a variant on red until I and my fellow sufferers are driven to the brink of insanity, with Mrs. R and V exchanging simpering smiles with each crimson revelation.

Now comes the denouement. Deeply moved by V’s regurgitation, Mrs. R says, “Yes, yes, yes. The Scarlet Letter is unquestionably the greatest novel ever written.”

There it is: the ultimate challenge to the likes of me. A proclamation of such incomparable wrongness and badness and inanity, that I gaze around at my friends in disbelief that none have yet cried foul. Thus it is left to me.

“You can’t be serious,” I declaim. “The greatest novel ever written? Puh-leez. Moby Dick? A Tale of Two Cities? Zorba the Greek? All Quiet On the Western Front? To name a few.”

“I will see you after class and again after school, Mr. Walton.”

Here is where dream diverges from history.

In the dream I am simply no longer in the classroom or in high school, but in a bedroom with a woman who might be V, though she is older and rounder and not even slightly concerned about the symbolism in the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter.

“I just want to relax you, honey,” she says, slipping her arms around me.

And hearing the word relax, I do relax; and that’s the end of the dream.

What happened in so-called reality was that I had to sit in Mrs. R’s classroom for an hour after school for the next three days and watch her and V and a few other pets enacting what I came to realize was a love ritual—sharing favorite poems, working on college application essays, having a sweet, feminine, confidence-boosting time that ultimately convinced me there was no point in fighting them. We were from entirely different universes and would travel through entirely different wormholes to get wherever we got.

And there is also this. I would have forgiven them entirely for everything if only V had given me the time of day.

Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com.

Money Ball (Love)

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Something marvelously strange is going on with my San Francisco Giants. For the first time since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds, the dead wood has been greatly minimized, money is being spent to retain talent, and it appears management may actually try to win the whole enchilada. The odds are greatly against such a grandiose finale to a season yet to be played, but this is the first time since 2003, the year after we last went to the World Series, that there have been any odds at all. These last six seasons have been less about rebuilding and more of a sports version of Waiting For Godot, as in waiting for the second coming of Willie Mays as we plumb the depths of the existential conundrum: is baseball metaphoric of an intrinsically meaningless or meaningful life?

But enough about Samuel Beckett, our fat cat owners are actually paying Tim Lincecum twenty-three million dollars to start sixty-five games or so over the next two years. That’s approximately three hundred and fifty thousand dollars per game or about three grand per pitch. Tim is twenty-five years old. Can you imagine what you would have done with twenty-three million dollars when you were twenty-five? Or with three million? Or even with three hundred thousand? I hope I would have been smart enough to buy a farm, but something tells me I would have blown it making a movie. If someone offered me twenty-three million today (or three million or three hundred thousand) I know just what I’d do with it, as soon as I find my reading glasses and that list I made.

Why this sudden loosening of the Giants’ corporate purse strings? My theory, somewhat convoluted, is as follows. Despite our losing ways, our wonderful new ballpark by the glittering bay has been such a fabulous cash cow and tourist attraction that our owners felt no pressing need to field a particularly upscale team. This is a variant on the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If making money is their primary goal (and it obviously is) the owners were winning even when the team lost. But last year, for the first time since the new park opened, the cow began producing noticeably less cash. For several years now good pitching alone has kept us from abysmal failure in the weakest division in baseball, but last year (never mind Lincecum’s second Cy Young Award) the crowds began to dwindle. The team couldn’t hit or run and management wouldn’t spend a fat dime to buy us a couple bats; and then the economy tanked and the specter of a half-empty ballpark loomed for the coming season.

Combine this specter with a resurgence of the other teams in our division, and the money boys decided it was time to spend some cash to field a winner, because winners fill seats and pitching alone won’t hack it anymore. And since it is a sure bet our owners gained greatly from the recent economic hijinks that have hurt so many Giants fans below them on the slopes of the pyramid, our owners have plenty of cash to spend.

That’s my theory: a confluence of economic factors necessitating infrastructure upgrade combined with the unfathomable workings of a mysterious universe. Now I’m not saying I think we’re going to win it all this season. Indeed, my linear logical brain doubts very much we’ll even win the division. But we have a chance, and a chance is an exciting thing for a fan weary of starring in Waiting For Willie.

And the other thing I want to say about the upcoming season is this. I know a woman of ninety-six who told me that had the Giants won it all in 2002 she would have allowed herself to die. She was ready to go. Her bags were packed, so to speak. We were three outs away from winning the World Series for the first time since 1954. And then we lost. And in that painful moment this woman knew she would have to stay alive. This is a gal who listens to every game, including every game of spring training. She refers to the players and the announcers and the coaches by their first names. They are, as far as she’s concerned, her family. She is blind, so she can only listen to the games. When the Giants win, she is cheerful. When they lose, she is cranky for an hour or so, then she stows her disappointment and gets ready for tomorrow.

She was not a fan of baseball until she married in her late twenties. She and her husband attended many games at Candlestick and watched or listened to every game together for forty years. Her husband died thirty years ago, but she says he is with her still for every game. When I last saw her, she said she thought this might be our year.

“The boys are entering their prime,” she said, nodding confidently. “You can hear the maturity in Matt’s voice, Tim so confident now. I’m glad Juan came back. He comes through more times than not. And Pablo is starting to show some patience at the plate. John sounds more upbeat about the team than I’ve heard him sound in a long time. I don’t think they’re going to settle for almost again.”

“And if we win it all?”

She smiled and whispered, “My work will be done.”

Ah beautiful irrational hope. Let’s play ball!

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. His audio books are available from Audible.com.