Archive for December, 2010

Propaganda of Childhood

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

“What we remember from childhood we remember forever—permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.” Cynthia Ozick

The propaganda of my childhood said that Santa Claus rewards children for being good by giving them what they want. And long after I figured out that my parents were Santa Claus, I continued to believe that the reason I never got what I wanted was because I was not good. Every year I was given clothing I did not want, books I did not want, and things my father wanted, so that as I unwrapped those gifts he would chortle, “What a coincidence. Just what I needed.”

However, when I was ten-years-old, my parents gave me a real bow and arrows with steel tips, something I had been asking for since I was old enough to ask for something. And when I went outside to shoot that bow and arrows, and found that my father had also bought a bale of hay to which he had affixed a beautiful target, I was more than happy; I was filled to bursting with the sense of being good.

I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” Shirley Temple

In response to the depressing fact that the latest tax bill signed into law by President Obama actually increases taxes on the poorest 150 million Americans while allowing the super wealthy to pay no taxes at all, a friend remarked, “That doesn’t fit with the propaganda of our childhood.” And her comment struck me as a cogent explanation for why my peers and I continue to be so deeply disappointed by the machinations of the corporate overlords as carried out by their trusty puppets. And her comment also explained why we, the people, gorge on documentaries and articles recounting sordid truths about our government and our history yet remain powerless to effectively respond to these revelations. Why? Because we are programmed from the cradle through high school to believe the opposite of the truth.

For instance, nowhere in the propaganda of our childhood does it say the President of the United States is a puppet manipulated by corporate overlords. Indeed, according to the propaganda of our childhood there are no such things as corporate overlords. According to the textbooks and teachings of my childhood, the President of the United States and the senators and representatives in Congress and the governors of the states are men (and a few women) who love the poor and downtrodden and are dedicated to helping them. Our rulers are special people, war heroes and people from humble beginnings who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and want to help other people do the same.

But what was impressed on us even more persistently and deeply than the special goodness of our leaders was the unimpeachable truth that these special people cannot lie. The president tried to lie when he was a child (all the presidents tried at one time or another in their childhoods to lie) but he felt so bad about lying that he confessed his lie to his father or mother or grandfather or teacher, and rather than (or along with) spanking him, they showered him with love for admitting his mistake; and their love empowered him to overcome a thousand hardships and to marry a lovely, intelligent, essentially submissive woman who was his rock from which he rose to the position of commander-in-chief. Amen.

“Childhood is a promise that is never kept.” Ken Hill

In the California public schools of my youth, circa 1955-1967, American History was the main Social Studies event in Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade, Third Grade, Fifth Grade, Eighth Grade, and Eleventh Grade. The fundamental operating principle of that system was: The Salient Information shall be foisted on their malleable brains over and over again, year after year, and they will be compelled to memorize and regurgitate this information dozens of times as their brains develop so that whether they can remember a single date or historical tidbit at the end of their indoctrination, the underlying ideology of subservience to an imaginary system run by good and wise white people is deeply and permanently ingrained.

This is not conspiracy theory. Public education as it exists in America today was designed and implemented in the early twentieth century by industrialists working directly with their national, state, and local proxies to transform a largely agrarian population of people recently arrived from myriad foreign societies into a homogeneous population of factory workers. That is actual history, not propaganda. If you have ever wondered why public school classes are exactly one hour in duration and begin and end with the ringing of a bell, it is to simulate the experience of working in a factory, and to condition the nervous systems of the students for that eventuality.

Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.” Larry King

Luck? According to the propaganda of our childhood there is only one way to succeed and that is through hard work and perseverance. Luck has nothing to do with success. You start in the mailroom or the equivalent of the mailroom in your chosen profession and if you work hard and loyally at delivering mail without questioning the value of what you’re doing you will eventually be noticed by someone further up the chain of command who will say, “Wow, that person is really working hard and persevering so I’m going to give him a better job and more money.” Eventually, if you never stop working hard and never question authority, by golly, you’ll rise to the top and become president of the company or discover a cure for some dread disease or win an Academy Award or something like that.

Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Well, long after my childhood I moderated a panel of successful movie and television writers speaking to an audience of aspiring young writers. Before the public show, the panelists asked me what questions I was going to ask them. Since the panelists all knew each other, they had a good and raunchy time answering my questions by recounting their family connections, sexual connections, drug connections, and nauseating (to me) cronyism that launched their various careers near the top of the heap. But in front of that crowd of eager young writers, each of these famous people spouted phony nonsense about working his or her way up from some mythical bottom, with two of them actually referencing the mailroom!

In contrast to such propaganda, Henry Miller recounts in his memoirs that it was not the quality of his writing that first got him published, but a sexy girlfriend who traded sexual favors with a few editors to grease the wheels, as it were; and he followed this plan of action by having his lover’s wealthy and well-connected husband publish and promote the novels that made Henry famous. Yet we recoil from such truth because it was impressed upon us ten thousand times in our youth that if we created an original and valuable thing, we would be rewarded with wealth and fame, when in truth such valuable creations were more likely to be stolen from us than to bring us any kind of reward.

“Memory itself is an internal rumor.”  George Santayana

In the propaganda of our childhood, Thomas Edison was a great guy who invented the light bulb. Henry Ford was a great guy, too, and he invented the assembly line and the Mustang. Can you imagine your child coming home from school troubled by the news that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and hosts of other American icons were not, in fact, great guys, and that they perpetrated all sorts of dastardly deeds along the way to owning the patents on light bulbs and automobiles and just about everything else defining modern life? Imagine all those famous white guys, the Founding Fathers and Founding Inventors and Founding Explorers and Founding Paragons of Virtue and Pluck revealed to our children in the light of truth. What kind of people would we Americans be in the absence of all that bogus information hardwired into our psyches?

I posed this question to someone of my father’s generation, a middle-class liberal, and before he could invent a more judicious reply, he blurted, “Oh, but if we taught them the truth there might be rebellion.”

I wonder. Who knows what might happen in the absence of the ongoing barrage of propaganda, now that this bogus morality and bogus history is so deeply entrenched in us? It seems that no matter how loud our conscious minds yell “Beware!” our more powerful subconscious programming commands us to believe (name any American president, senator, celebrity, industrialist) is telling the truth.

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” Mark Twain

According to the propaganda of our childhood, America was solely responsible for the good guys winning World War II. When I was eighteen and finally read a detailed history of World War II, I was shocked to learn that for each of the many armed divisions (approximately 15,000 men in a division) deployed by the Germans on their western front against the British, French, and American troops, five divisions were deployed against the Russians. Even so, we were taught that if America hadn’t entered World War II, the Germans and Japanese would have conquered the world and made everyone on earth their slaves. And we were certainly never taught the terrible truth that the bankers who funded the German war effort funded the American and British side of the conflict, too; yet that is the case.

We were taught that our leaders didn’t want to drop those atomic bombs on two cities filled with women and children and civilians, but it was the only way to defeat the Japanese who were irrational and evil, as were the Germans. Americans, and to a lesser degree people from England, were rational and good. Cigarettes were good, too, according to the propaganda of my childhood. Indeed, if you were in a hot steamy hell you could come all the way up into a mentholated paradise by sucking on burning Kools.

“The living moment is everything.” D.H. Lawrence

So. Is the propaganda of today’s childhood qualitatively different than that of my childhood? I would say Yes, for sheer volume alone, but also for the use of special visual and sonic effects that make it virtually impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. That is to say, the foundational lies are much the same, but the spectacular presentation of those lies makes the lies appear more real than reality, certainly bigger and more colorful, with all the rough edges of truth airbrushed away.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

After Rain

Friday, December 24th, 2010

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser Christmas 2010. I am grateful to Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella for giving me the space to share my fiction and non-fiction with their readers.)


After Rain

1

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

“I think,” says Bob, scratching his scalp through his wiry white hair, “I was writing a poem in that dream.”

A slender man, Bob often thinks of his bowling ball of a beer drinker’s paunch as a tumor, ugly and discomfiting, yet benign. He is also handsome and remarkably graceful, yet wholly unconscious of those traits.

Bob consults his Gauguin calendar on the kitchen wall to confirm the moon will be full tonight, and here is Christmas three days in the future, Christmas reminding him of his son Daniel who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, and of his daughter Alice who calls him on his birthday in June to give him a rundown on how she’s doing, only she never gets very far before she starts taking other calls, and Bob grows weary of being put on hold so he hangs up and she doesn’t call him again until his next birthday.

His children remind him of his house in Sacramento that is no longer his house, and of his wife Andrea who is someone else’s wife now, which makes him think of the thirty-three years he worked for the state because he couldn’t imagine any other way to give Andrea and Daniel and Alice what he thought they wanted. Oh, how he hated that mind-numbing job of incessant phone calls and emails and senseless meetings to organize seminars on traffic abatement when all he ever wanted to be was a poet.

He recalls the bad air, the crowded malls, and the countless things he bought for his wife and children because he felt he had to buy them. He remembers Daniel and Susan tearing open their gifts, both starving for what was never there. He remembers sitting in church feeling cold and tired and bored and false.

All of which brings to mind the annual trip in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Sacramento to San Jose for Christmas eve and Christmas morning with Andrea’s parents, and gobbling breakfast while ripping open presents before jumping back in the car for that hellacious drive to San Luis Obispo for Christmas supper with his mother, the children squirming and miserable in the backseat, Andrea vowing for the millionth time, “Next year we make a choice,” but they never did.

Bob’s dog yips three times in quick succession.

“Sorry, pup,” says Bob, turning away from Gauguin’s portrait of brown-skinned women in paradise.

Boots, a yearling Malamute, huge and black, sits at the front door waiting as patiently as he can for Bob to let him outside to chase the delicious scents of deer and rabbit and coyote.

“Here you go,” says Bob, opening the door for Boots and letting in the sweet mountain air.

Bob has lived on String Creek for two years now, the nearest town Willits—a slow, bumpy, half-hour drive away. When he was a young man living in a garret and striving to write good poems, he dreamt of living in a fertile valley such as this, a valley surrounded by wilderness, but in those youthful dreams he was not yet bitter, nor was he so entirely alone.

He steps out onto the front porch and watches Boots race across the meadow and leap over the little stream that is String Creek, a tender flow not three-feet deep where salmon will soon be arriving at their journey’s end. Bob didn’t believe the realtor when she told him that salmon, big salmon, swam up the mountain every year to spawn in the tiny creek. “They swim hundreds of miles from the ocean,” she said matter-of-factly, “and climb two thousand feet to spawn right here in your own backyard. How’s that for a selling point?”

The idea of enormous fish finding their way to a stream that was no more than a trickle in September seemed so preposterous to Bob that he banished the thought until the week before Christmas last year. And then, after unceasing torrential rain kept him inside for six days, Bob braved the deluge and went out to walk his twenty acres; and there were the salmon, beaten and bloody, crowding the rain-swollen creek to birth their next generation.

And when he saw those salmon in the little creek, the wall around Bob’s heart came tumbling down. He wanted to shout and weep in amazement and grief and triumph, but no shouts or tears escaped him. Still, he wanted to weep, and this was enough to inspire a new poem, the first he’d written since the birth of his daughter thirty years ago.

But a few days later, Bob woke to find the wall around his heart rebuilt, and no more poems came to him. So he cursed himself for failing as a poet and for selling his soul for money and for being a terrible father and a rotten husband and a disgraceful human being, and he burned the new poem.

Boots returns to Bob, laughing in the silent way dogs laugh.

“Smells good out here,” says Bob, scratching the big pup’s head. “I’ll get my boots on Boots and meet you down the road.”

Reassured by Bob’s voice and touch, Boots races away to sniff the myriad traces of animal news.

2

Are we expressions of dreams?

Bob walks north on the valley road, moving slowly until exertion lessens his stiffness. The air is icy, the sky void of clouds, the sun an hour away from cresting the ridge.

“Gonna finally have some blue sky,” he murmurs, smiling in anticipation of meeting Boots along the way, their day officially begun when they return home together, Boots to come and go as he pleases, Bob to spend time in his woodshop making beautiful little boxes, and in his living room sitting by the woodstove reading history and short stories and poetry. And after supper, Bob will play Scrabble and chess with himself at the kitchen table before moving into the living room to practice Bach For Beginners on an old teak upright piano until he’s good and tired and ready for bed.

Afraid the pup would run away and be eaten by coyotes, Bob kept Boots inside all day and on a leash whenever they went out until Boots was five months old. But now that the dog is so huge, Bob’s fear has largely subsided, though he still worries when Boots is gone for more than an hour or so; and he keeps him inside at night.

3

Are we flesh and bone bagpipes

to be filled with air and played?

There are eight homes on String Creek, and everybody knows everybody else, except for Bob, who made it perfectly clear from the outset he wasn’t interested in making friends with anyone. Indeed, to this day he never waves when he drives past other people coming and going in their cars and trucks, nor does he wave to people working in their orchards or out chopping wood or walking their dogs. He is a recluse and his neighbors leave him alone.

As he approaches the house of his nearest neighbor, a modest one-story home watched over by five colossal oaks, Bob is surprised to see a woman in the road. She is wielding an axe and striking ineffectually at a tangle of enormous oak limbs that have fallen across her drive and trapped her car. Small and pretty with gray hair in a ponytail, she’s wearing brown boots, black jeans, and a black Giants sweatshirt—a strong, healthy woman, but no match for the massive branches.

Bob has met this woman twice before. The first time was on his third day in the valley when she came to his house to welcome him with a bottle of red wine and a bouquet of yellow roses. He declined her gifts, saying he didn’t drink wine, which was a lie, and that he was allergic to roses, which was an even greater lie since roses are his favorite flowers. And the second time he met her was a few months ago when she walked Boots home after the pup spent the morning playing with her dog. On that day, she caught Bob out chopping wood and managed to tell him a little bit about herself before he escaped. She is German, a therapist of some sort, lives alone, has children and grandchildren, and is exactly Bob’s age: sixty-six.

“Do you have a chainsaw?” asks Bob, surprising himself by asking. “I can clear a path for you to get your car out.”

“Oh, thank you,” she says, her blue eyes sparkling. “I have one in my tool shed. Would you mind? I’m picking up my friend in town. She came all the way from Switzerland to celebrate the solstice with me.”

“But first I need to get my dog,” he says, hurrying past her. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Oh, I’ll send Lily to get him,” she says, looking toward her house. “She and Boots are good friends.”

Bob is about to decline her offer when a big wolfish white dog appears beside the woman and gazes at Bob with her big brown eyes.

“Go find Boots,” says the woman, touching Lily’s head. “Bring him home for snacks.”

Lily sings a high musical note and runs away.

“Are you sure she knows what you mean?” asks Bob, suddenly aware of the musical burbling of String Creek.

“Oh, yes,” says the woman, beckoning him to follow her. “She knows exactly what I mean. And she knows my feelings, too.”

“I had a cat,” says Bob, recalling his long ago life when his greatest joy was to be writing a poem he thought might be good. “A big orange tabby. And she always knew when I was sad.”

“What would she do when you were sad?” asks the woman, turning to look at him.

“She’d come to me and mew until I picked her up and held her.” He smiles wistfully. “But only when I was sad. Her name was Athena.”

“I had a wonderful cat, too,” says the woman, sighing. “A gray tabby named Omar, after the baseball player. But she killed so many birds and then a coyote killed her so I never got another one.”

Bob blushes. “Forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“Irene,” she says, bowing in a sweetly clownish way. “Irene Weintraub.”

“Bob,” he says, bowing a little, too. “Bob Webster.”

“So how do you like living so far from town?” she asks, her accent beguiling. “We’ve all been wondering about you.”

“Oh, really?” he says, oddly flattered. “What have you been wondering? Whether I grow pot or not? I don’t.”

“No, it’s just that most people who come to live on the creek only keep to themselves for a year or so before joining in or running away, so…”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m here to the bitter end.”

“Why so grim?” she asks, pouting sympathetically. “When the air is so sweet.”

4

hungry animals

Irene’s chainsaw is out of gas and in need of oiling. She finds some oil, but her gas can is empty.

“Do you have a length of hose?” asks Bob, glaring at the funky old chainsaw. “For siphoning gas from your car?”

“My car is electric,” she says, apologetically. “The man who cuts my wood brings his own fuel.”

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” says Bob, turning to go. “I’ve got a much better saw and plenty of gas.”

“Great!” she says, calling after him. “You’re a prince, Bob.”

5

desperate criminals

Bob likes Irene. He admits this as he jogs back to his house. And he likes that she needs his help, which reminds him of how he met Andrea.

He was shooting hoops at McKinley Park in Sacramento when Andrea walked by disconsolately pushing her flat-tired bike. Bob had a pump on his bike and offered to fill Andrea’s tire so she could ride a bit further before having to walk again. He ended up riding with her and pumping up her tire every few blocks until they got to her house.

6

lost children

Bob eats two bananas and three big handfuls of almonds to give him energy for the work ahead. Now he loads his saw and axe and toolbox and gas can into his pickup; and as he is about to get into his truck, he realizes that he is happy. So he stands still for a long moment and enjoys the rare sensation of being eager to help someone.

7

visionary geniuses

Irene comes out of her house as Bob is inserting his earplugs.

“Good news,” she says, smiling warmly. “My friend, her bus is delayed, so we have extra time to clear things.”

“Extra time,” says Bob, daring to return her smile. “What a concept.”

“All the time in the world,” she says, laughing. “In no time at all.”

“I should have this cleared by then, I think,” says Bob, putting on his work gloves. “I hope.”

“You’re an angel,” she says, gazing fondly at him. “My savior.”

He pulls the cord and his saw roars to life.

Irene covers her ears and retreats into her house.

Bob lowers the whirring blades onto the bough and braces himself as the teeth bite into the wood.

8

earthworms

Eleven months ago, on a rainy day in January, Bob was driving into Willits to buy his suicide kit—a gun and bullets. On a hairpin turn halfway to town he came upon a little girl, barefoot and filthy, carrying a cardboard box.

Bob stopped to see if he could help her, and she said, “My dad wants to drown them so I’m going to Safeway in Willits and give them away.”

There were four pups in the box, three dead, Boots barely alive.

Bob steps back as the blade comes through the bottom of the bough, his seventh cut complete. He shuts off the motor and sets the saw down. His heart is pounding, his shirt soaked with sweat, his beard and face and hair covered with sawdust.

Irene brings him a big glass of water. “Boots and Lily are in the kitchen,” she says, speaking loudly so he can hear through his plugs. “I think I will keep them inside so they don’t run off. Lily hates chainsaws.”

“Thanks,” he says, gulping the water. “Big old tree. Too bad so much had to come down.”

“Yes,” says Irene, taking his empty glass. “But I can use the firewood, and now I will have more light in winter.”

“The benefits of tragedy,” he says, laughing self-consciously.

“The opportunities of crisis,” she says, dancing away.

9

indigenous hominids

Bob has been working for three hours and is exhausted, the driveway not yet clear.

“Help me,” he whispers, speaking to God. “Help me do this.”

He tries to lift the saw to start the next cut, but his arms are too tired. So he kills the motor and sits down on the last bough he has yet to clear, the largest of them all, and recalls the last time he saw his son.

Five years ago. Sacramento. Bob arrives at Daniel’s house in River Park to visit Elise, his beloved grandchild. She is four years old, Bob’s only certain joy in those terrible days of his horrid divorce and the nightmarish selling of his house and the humiliation of training his replacement for that insipid job that defined him for thirty years.

After a few beers, Bob begins disparaging Andrea.

Daniel interrupts and asks to speak to Bob outside.

On the front lawn, the Gingko leaves turning yellow, Daniel says, “I don’t want you saying bad things about Mom in front of Elise. It isn’t fair. She wants to love you both. Needs to, Dad. She needs to love you both.”

“Fair?” says Bob, trembling with rage. “Was it fair that bitch used me for thirty years and dumped me like so much garbage?”

“That isn’t true,” says Daniel, shaking his head. “You used her as much as she used you.”

Bob explodes—blasting his son with cruel obscenities.

Daniel goes inside and closes the door.

Bob lifts his head as a big brown United Parcel Service truck comes around the bend and stops a few yards from Bob’s pickup.

Now a beautiful man with creamy brown skin hops down from the truck and says, “Sorry to bother you, but could you move your truck? I have a package for Bob Webster. Last house on the road.”

“I’m Bob Webster,” he says wearily. “Trying to clear this tree so Irene can get out.”

“You want some help? I’m Alfredo Lopez. Brought you a million books from Amazon. I wondered if I’d ever get a look at you.”

“I hide whenever you come,” says Bob, laughing at how silly he has been for so much of his life. “But now I’m too tired to hide.”

“I’ll get my earplugs,” says Alfredo, hopping back into his truck. “You lend me your gloves, I’ll get that last limb for you.”

“You’re a prince,” says Bob, slowly rising to his feet. “Thank you.”

10

goldfinches diving out of the sky

Driving home from Irene’s, Boots beside him in the cab, Bob begins to shiver violently.

Too exhausted to bring in his tools, Bob barely has the strength to open his front door.

His heart beating erratically, Bob somehow manages to take a shower and crawl into bed.

11

angels descending with wings extended

Bob and Alfredo hover in the air over String Creek, the tender flow dammed with logs and debris. Below the dam, hundreds of salmon lay gasping for oxygen in the dry beds.

Bob and Alfredo attack the dam with huge electric carving knives.

The dam gives way and Bob runs down a wooden tunnel into the living room of his old house in Sacramento where Daniel and Alice are hiding behind an unadorned Christmas tree.

Bob sings to his children, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

And here under the tree, presented on a red pillow, is the package Alfredo brought.


12

and golden slippers touching down beside the river

Having slept through the night and most of this next day, Bob wakes to the slow steady beating of his heart.

He gets out of bed, his arms and legs aching from yesterday’s labor—dusk giving way to moonlight. He feeds Boots, starts a fire in his woodstove, and runs a hot bath.

And as he watches the water tumble from the spigot into the tub, he conceives the letter he will write to Daniel and Susan and Andrea.

Greetings from String Creek

I hope you’re sitting down when you read this so you don’t fall over in amazement and hurt yourself. Ahem. As you know, I have been a self-righteous, self-loathing, self-pitying jerk for a very long time, and you have suffered greatly because of my actions toward you. I don’t expect you to forgive me for being so unkind to you, or to believe me when I say I have changed, but I want to invite you back into my life, however that may manifest. Maybe we could write to each other. Or maybe you could come and visit me. And should you invite me to Sacramento, I will come in peace as a friend.

From now on I am going to make a conscious effort to live my life with an open heart and an open mind, and do my best to eschew (gesundheit) blame and shame and judgment. I want to love you, nothing more.


13

we kneel to kiss the lucid flow

Lying in his hot bath, Bob weeps for the first time in three decades, and when he is done weeping, he laughs.

14

and imbibe the divine infusion

Bob goes out naked into the moonlight, his body steaming, and immerses himself in String Creek.

Now he hears splashing downstream—the salmon coming home.

15

clarity after rain

Bob shaves off his beard and dresses warmly for the walk to Irene’s. But before he and Boots leave the house, Bob opens the package delivered by Alfredo, a package from Bob’s granddaughter Elise who is nine-years-old now.

Her gift to Bob is a turquoise T-shirt, turquoise being Bob’s favorite color. Across the chest in purple thread she has carefully embroidered

I  AM

ELISE’S GRANDFATHER


16

After Rain

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

Are we expressions of dreams or

flesh and bone bagpipes to be filled

with air and played or hungry

animals or desperate criminals or

lost children or visionary geniuses

or earthworms or indigenous

hominids or goldfinches diving out

of the sky or angels descending with

wings extended and golden slippers

touching down beside the river

where we kneel to kiss the lucid

flow and imbibe the divine infusion

of clarity after rain?

(Photo by Marcia Sloane)

Slow Going

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin

Five years ago, a few weeks before I made my move from Berkeley to Mendocino, I came within a few inches of being killed by a young man who was driving his pickup truck very fast while simultaneously using his mobile phone. I had just stepped into the crosswalk at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Avenue, having been given the go ahead to cross by the illuminated symbol of a human being taking a walk. The young man who was driving his pickup very fast apparently did not see the red light or me or possibly anything as he sped through the intersection with his phone pressed to his ear. I don’t know if he was talking to someone or listening to someone else talking, or perhaps he was listening to music; I am only certain he was pressing his phone to his ear as his two-ton missile shot by within inches of my puny little flesh and blood body. And whether there is such a thing as fate or whether life is a muddle of meaningless happenstance, had I been one step further along at that moment, I would have been smashed to smithereens.

So today I’m driving our old truck into our soggy hamlet to get the mail and groceries, a cold rain falling, and because I am the unelected president of Mendocino Drivers Not In A Hurry To Get Anywhere, I’ve only gotten a few hundred yards down the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway before my rearview mirror is filled with the sight of a pickup closing fast upon me. As is my custom in these situations, I move to the outer edge of the road and slow to a crawl, timing my move so that whoever is driving that oncoming pickup will have an easy time passing me—the road ahead empty, the broken yellow line entirely on our side. But this particular pickup (going at least seventy miles per hour) zooms to within a few feet of my bumper before swerving around me and becoming a dot in the distance; and I, frightened and angry, unleash an obscenity-filled and punctuation-free description of this person’s intelligence, sexual predilection, and everything I wish to befall him in the near future.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Mohandas Gandhi

Seriously, folks, the village of Mendocino is not, I repeat, not a city. I’m not even sure we qualify as a town given we only have one criminally usurious gas station and nary a Mexican restaurant. Yet on most Fridays, some Mondays, every summer weekend, and unpredictably throughout the year, people drive around the village as if they are in Santa Monica at lunch hour late for I don’t know what, surgery? and in mortal fear of not finding a parking place and therefore doomed to die in their cars.

At first I thought these lunatics had to be tourists or weekend residents bringing their urban neuroses to our hinterlands, but over time I have come to realize that such irrational behavior is contagious, that locals participate, too, and that even I, determined to honor my inner slow poke, do at times react to this transplanted insanity by momentarily joining in the madness.

“Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place.” Mark Twain

A good friend recently visited from San Francisco and accompanied me on my errands in the village. He was envious there was no line at the post office, and he was impressed that the postal employees knew me by my first name, but my gabbing with Jeff and Patty at the Mendocino Market as I lollygagged in front of their delectable fish and fowl drove my friend mad with impatience. And as Garnish struck up a conversation about opera with me as he rang up my purchases in Corners, and I having already complimented Sky on the fabulous cauliflower and blabbed at length with Deborah about the benefits of cocoanut oil, my friend began whirling like a dervish and I had to send him outside to wait for me, though he is sixty-one and should know better.

“Teach us to care and not to care.” T.S. Eliot

I first delved into Buddhism in the late 1960’s when I ran into Buddhist references in the poetry of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, my favorite San Francisco Beat poets. For many years thereafter I read essays and books by American, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, and Korean Buddhist teachers discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of Buddhist dharma.

Nowadays I’ll go a year or two at a stretch without reading any dharma, and then a book will befall me or I’ll be hunting for something in my bookshelf and pull out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki or White Sail by Thinley Norbu, and the next thing I know I’ll be deep into a refresher course in mindfulness and the wisdom of no escape.

Most recently I couldn’t resist buying a brand new hardback copy of Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, his four-hundred-page treatise on Buddhist psychology for only a few dollars from the Daedalus Books catalogue. Such a deal! One of my all-time favorite Buddhist texts is Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker, a brilliant illumination of both Buddhist psychology and western (derived from Freud) psychology in which Epstein compares and contrasts these two very different yet complimentary views of human emotionality and behavior. So far, I have only read sixty pages of Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, but the text has already proven to be a good kick in my mental ass, so to speak, to slow down and smell the moments.

So this morning I decided to walk very slowly on my way to pick up the morning paper at the mouth of our driveway. As I took my slow and mindful steps, I focused on what I was stepping on. Lost in fascination with the conglomerations of pebbles and soil and dead leaves and tiny green shoots of new life composing my path to the highway, I arrived at my destination in no time at all. The newspaper in its plastic sheath seemed enormous and prophetic, and my hand as it entered the frame of my vision to pick up the paper seemed incredibly complex and beautiful—everything shaped by the quality of my focus.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

I have been practicing the piano every day for forty-five years. Of late, I have been playing tunes as slowly as I can without entirely abandoning their rhythmic forms, and in so doing I have discovered tunes within tunes I would otherwise have never guessed were there.

“People ought to listen more slowly.” Jean Sparks Ducey

In 1972 I attended a single meeting of a group practicing Therapeutic Conversation. Had I been a bit more emotionally evolved, I probably would have attended several more of their meetings, but one of the members so repulsed me I never went back. However, I learned such valuable lessons from that one meeting, I was changed forever as a conversationalist.

The first process of the evening was Circle Talk, in which we took our turn speaking after the person to our right had finished saying whatever he or she wanted to say. However, we couldn’t just jump right in the moment the person finished speaking. We had to wait a full minute before we spoke, the time being kept by the leader. And I discovered, in the silence of that incredibly long minute, that what I initially thought I wanted to say was almost never a real response to what the previous speaker had said, but something only tangentially related. Yet if I could be patient, a true response would rise from the depths of that short infinity.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Happiness

Friday, December 10th, 2010

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.” Edith Wharton

November thirtieth. The weather report said Mendocino could expect rain tonight and for the next several days, so in anticipation of the deluge I spent an hour giving my three garlic beds their second mulching with some well-aged horse manure. I planted my garlic on October 17, my birthday, and now all but a few of the hundred and forty cloves I inserted into the friable soil have sent up sturdy green shoots.

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Mark Twain

Both garlic and humans gestate in their respective wombs for nine months before arriving at the optimal moment for emerging into the light. The poet in me finds this similarity delightful and significant.

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” Colette

I am sixty-one and have grown garlic every year for the last thirty years. I began growing garlic while living in Sacramento where I had a large vegetable and flower garden in the backyard of the only house I ever owned. I have grown vegetables since I was six-years-old, but waited to sew my first bed of garlic until I was certain I would be living in the same place for more than a year.

Before I planted my first garlic crop, I consulted pertinent chapters in gardening books and interviewed an elderly Italian woman who grew gorgeous garlic plants in a large circular patch in the center of her impressively green lawn a few blocks from my house. I gathered from my research that in the event of an early and persistently wet winter I might not need to water my garlic until spring, but if no rain fell for some weeks at a stretch I would need to give my garlic periodic soakings. This meant I could no longer blithely ignore my garden from December to March as was my habit before I undertook the growing of garlic.

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” A.A. Milne

China produces 77% of the garlic grown in the world: 23 billion pounds a year. Zowee! That comes to more than three pounds of garlic for every person on earth. India grows 4% of the garlic, South Korea 2%, Russia 1.6%, and the United States 1.4%. Which suggests that though Gilroy, California claims to be the garlic capital of the world, it is not.

“The secret of happiness is to find a congenial monotony.” V.S. Pritchett

One of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life was making groovalicious pesto from garlic and basil and almonds I grew in my own Sacramento backyard. My two almond trees, planted adjacent to a tall wooden fence, began to produce nuts in their fifth year; and every single one of those firstborn nuts was devoured by squirrels before those nuts were ripe enough for human consumption.

Indeed, until my almond trees were eight-years-old I despaired of ever harvesting more than a few pathetic almonds from my trees. Then one day I noticed that those ravenous arboreal rodents had left untouched a concentration of almonds growing low in the tree and near the fence on which my cats liked to perch. Thus enlightened, I thereafter pruned my almond trees to encourage the growth of several more low down branches so that these branches and their bounty could be easily patrolled by my cats, while the yummy prizes adorning the upper branches were sacrificed to the incorrigible squirrels.

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” Eric Hoffer

Since fleeing Sacramento in 1995, I have never again grown such rampant and mammoth and exceedingly juicy basil, and may never again harvest such delicious almonds from trees I nurtured from bare roots into towering prolificacy; but here in Mendocino I grow garlic that surpasses the best I ever grew in those inland lowlands where the summers were cruel to the likes of me, and the winters were not much kinder, for I was bred and born in San Francisco where Hot is anything over seventy-eight and Cold is anything below fifty.

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Thomas Merton

After fifteen years of growing garlic in Sacramento, I moved to Berkeley and rented a house that afforded me only a tiny garden plot, fifteen feet by fifteen feet, a quarter of which I devoted to the cultivation of garlic. I had honed my garlic chops, as it were, in a climate very unlike Berkeley’s, and so it took me a year to adjust my gardening techniques to fit that cooler coastal clime where lettuce and kale and chard grow year round, Aloe Vera can spread like Bermuda Grass, and hedges of Jade plants are not uncommon.

“On the whole, the happiest people seem to be those who have no particular cause for being happy except that they are so.” William Inge

I usually harvest my garlic bulbs at the end of June or in early July, and from that happy pile I set aside a few dozen of the largest bulbs with the biggest cloves for the next fall planting. I grow two strains of hard neck garlic, one strain descended from spicy white garlic sold to me by a Chinese garlic grower I met at a farmer’s market in Sacramento, the other a pinkish garlic given to me by a woman who said the garlic had been passed down for generations in the family of an Italian man she was dating. And when a fresh shipment of garlic appears on the shelf at Corners of the Mouth in Mendocino, I will go through the lot looking for outstanding bulbs with large firm cloves to add to my arsenal.

“Happiness is a how, not a what. A talent, not an object.” Hermann Hesse

One day an elderly man with a thick German accent stood in the middle of my Berkeley plot and proclaimed, “I zee by your garlic zat you are real gardener.”

I know several gardeners who don’t grow garlic and are far more zealous and prolific than I in the ways of growing vegetables and flowers and herbs, so I certainly don’t consider the growing of garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener. I suppose this German fellow may have labeled me a real gardener because of the beauty and enormity of my garlic plants and my fastidious care of their beds, but in remembering the tone of his voice and the twinkle in his eye, I think, actually, he did consider growing garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener, and though I may not intellectually agree with him, in some ineffable way I do agree.

“Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” Kahil Gibran

The aged manure I use to mulch my garlic comes to me courtesy of my good friend Kathy Mooney, her horse Paloma the manufacturer of the blessed poop. Paloma is a gorgeous, white, blue-eyed Tennessee Walker, friendly and intelligent and possibly clairvoyant, for she always seems to be expecting me when I arrive with a bag of apples for her.

Prior to my coming to collect her manure, my interactions with Paloma were conducted over a fence between us, I feeding her apples and petting her, she allowing me to do so. Thus my entrance into her corral with my wheelbarrow ushered in a new phase of our relationship and gave me a firsthand appreciation of how strong a 1200-pound horse in her prime can be.

Having followed me to the area where she generally deposits her fertilizer, Paloma gingerly fitted her large and beautiful snout under the front rim of my big blue wheelbarrow, and with a flick of her mighty neck flung the wheelbarrow fifteen feet through the air (thankfully not in my direction), as if to say, “Thank you so much for bringing me a new toy. Fetch it, please, and I will toss it again.”

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

As I was mulching the many green spikes with Paloma’s manure, I realized that this fabulously rich organic matter was in part composed of apples I’d brought to Paloma, and those apples came from Joanne’s trees, Joanne being our gracious neighbor and landlord. One of the perks of renting from Joanne is a profusion of apples every fall from her well-tended trees, apples we share with several other households in the watershed.

“The man who has planted a garden feels that he has done something for the good of the world.” Vita Sackville-West

Earlier this year, a consortium of scientists decoded the complete genome of the Golden Delicious apple, which turns out to have 57,000 genes, the highest number of any plant genome studied to date and more genes than the human genome, which only has 30,000 genes. Think about that the next time you eat an apple.

“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half. Examine the centers of the halves. You will find that the seed cavities form five-pointed stars. Now take a large rose hip and cut it in half in the same way you cut the apple. Voila. You will find similar five-pointed stars, for apples and roses are close kin.

“What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Marcia’s Fresh Garlic Dressing (for salad for two)

In a glass jar or ceramic bowl mix together 2-3 large cloves of grated fresh garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar, and a healthy splash of tamari. Now dress the lettuce—a generous handful per person—and for an extra treat throw in half an avocado.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

Changing Seasons

Monday, December 6th, 2010

(Every year for the past four years I have been commissioned by Bay Woof, a Bay Area Dog magazine, to write a Christmas story for them, a short short story about dogs and their people at holiday time. I hope you enjoy the tale.)

Changing Seasons

1

Early December. A sunny kitchen. Tea and cookies.

“The dog is the problem,” says Carol, wasting no time stating the case to her brother Ben. “And because I have four cats, two little kids, a busy husband, a formal Japanese garden ill-suited to a large dog, and no time to take the dog for walks; and you are single, self-employed, have a big unkempt, pardon my French, backyard, and your grown daughter visits only rarely, you should take the dog.”

Ben waits before responding, certain his sister has more to say.

“We’re so close to resolving this,” she adds with a hint of ferocity. “He needs to move.”

“Pop or the dog?” asks Ben, the quip irresistible, though he knows Carol will take him literally.

“Pop, of course,” she says, exasperated. “He spends half his time at Fall Creek Village with Mary already. He’d move tomorrow if he could feel okay about leaving the dog behind.”

“Kirk,” says Ben, stating the dog’s name, short for Kierkegaard, their father a retired philosophy professor. “The last time I talked to Pop he said he wasn’t sure he was ready to give up the house. Or Kirk.”

Carol sighs emphatically. “Our father is eighty-four. He risks life and limb going up and down the stairs to his bedroom. The front porch is a broken hip waiting to happen. The only thing keeping him in that death trap is the dog.”

“Kirk,” says Ben, nodding. “The love of Pop’s life.”

“Mary is the love of his life now,” says Carol, gritting her teeth. “He’ll have a wonderful life at Fall Creek Village, and there’s an apartment available in Mary’s building. He can be moved in by Christmas. Don’t be selfish.”

“Sis,” says Ben, smiling sadly, “this has nothing to do with selfishness. This has to do with Pop being ready to move.”

“The dog is the problem,” says Carol, folding her arms.

“Kirk,” whispers Ben. “His name is Kirk.”

2

A large brownish mutt, seven years old, with a barrel chest and floppy ears, Kirk is often mistaken for a brown Lab, though his face is more St. Bernard and he is a reflexive herder, so sheep dog is suspected in the mix. Whatever his origins, Kirk is definitely a one-person dog, and Oliver is that person.

Kirk is sniffing around the backyard when Ben arrives in the late afternoon. The scent of Oliver’s son elicits nary a reaction from the dog, for Ben is kin to Oliver and therefore part of the pack.

“Come in,” says Oliver, calling to Ben from the kitchen. “Door’s open.”

Ben enters and finds his father bringing forth a perfectly cooked chicken from the oven, the kitchen table set for two.

“I thought we’d eat in here,” says Oliver, setting the sizzling fowl atop the stove. “There’s just the two of us, after all. No need to make the long trek to the dining room. This house was made for a big family, not one old fart and a big farting dog.”

As if on cue, Kirk noses open the kitchen door and trots inside, eager for a taste of the delectable bird. Ben smiles at the dog, and though he can imagine Kirk living with him, and likes the idea, he cannot imagine Kirk being content without Oliver.

“I always share with him just a little of what I’m eating,” explains Oliver, carving a piece of chicken and dropping it into Kirk’s bowl. “He doesn’t beg, but…” Oliver grins at Ben. “I guess I’m telling you all this because…if I ever move from here I’d like you to take him. Would you?”

“I fear he’ll pine away without you,” says Ben, gazing at Kirk gazing at Oliver. “He’s not a cat, loyal to whoever feeds him. You guys are soulmates.”

“True,” says Oliver, nodding, “but you smell like me, and you’re lots of fun, and I’ll come and visit. Probably more than you want me to.”

“You know, I’m surprised were having this conversation, Pop.” Ben thinks of his sister Carol and chuckles. “I didn’t think you were ready to let go of this place.”

“I wasn’t until yesterday,” says Oliver, filling their goblets with wine. “Mostly because of Kirk. But now that I know the secret to a successful transition, I’m ready.”

“And what, pray tell, is this secret?” asks Ben, smiling quizzically. “And where did you learn it?”

“I have now read seven books about dogs, and three about wolves, and the secret, in a nutshell, is familiarity plus trust plus love.”

3

Two days later, Ben comes to live in his childhood home with Oliver and Kirk. And every day he accompanies them on their thrice-daily walks, taking the leash with more and more frequency until Kirk no longer bats an eye when Ben holds the reins, so to speak. The three of them dine together, hang out by the fire together, and go on drives together. Ben wears Oliver’s jackets, and Oliver teaches Ben where Kirk loves to be scratched and all the things Kirk loves to eat.

On the fourth day of Ben’s stay, Oliver leaves Kirk alone with Ben for the entire day. And though Kirk seems a bit anxious in Oliver’s absence, he eats well and walks with his usual vigor, and acts like a happy puppy when Oliver returns.

4

After seven days of Ben’s living at Oliver’s, the three of them move to Ben’s house and resume their routines in this new place. Oliver talks to Kirk several times a day, explaining things; and because Kirk is deeply intelligent, he gets the picture and begins to devote more attention to Ben.

5

Two days before Christmas, Oliver makes the move from his old house to his new apartment at Fall Creek Village. Ben leaves Kirk at home when he comes to help his father pack up the last of his things, but Kirk somehow escapes from the yard and finds his way across town to Oliver’s, twenty blocks away.

“I wonder how he got out.” says Ben, more surprised than annoyed by Kirk’s arrival. “I thought my backyard was hermetically sealed.”

“A most clever fellow,” says Oliver, wrapping his arms around Kirk. “No fence or gate can keep him in when he has a mind to get out.”

“Then how will I keep him from running away to find you?” asks Ben, enjoying the sight of his old man with Kirk, two buddies saying goodbye.

“Oh, he’ll stay with you,” says Oliver, kissing Kirk’s nose. “He just came to be with us one more time at the old den.”

6

Ten o’clock on New Year’s Eve, the night cold and clear, Ben and Kirk arrive home from an evening stroll, and here is Oliver kneeling at the hearth, building up the fallen fire. He is wearing a black tuxedo, which is very unlike him, and shiny shoes. Kirk licks Oliver’s face and wrinkles his nose at the scent of Oliver’s odd new clothes.

“Mary took me to a snazzy party,” says Oliver, getting to his feet. “I haven’t worn a tux since my tenure party a thousand years ago.”

“Where is Mary?” asks Ben, giving his father a hug.

“Back at the ranch,” says Oliver, holding onto Ben longer than usual. “I had her drop me off. I just…missed you guys. Thought you could take me home in the morning.”

“Our pleasure,” says Ben, heading for the kitchen. “Egg nog?”

“I’d love some,” says Oliver, sighing contentedly.

Now Kirk barks to say he wants some egg nog, too.

“Yes, yes,” says Ben, touching Kirk’s head. “Only no rum in yours.”

fin

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.