Archive for February, 2011

Your Inner Bushman

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The five groups of San or Bushmen are called the First People. Most call themselves Bushmen when referring to themselves collectively.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from her book The Old Way

I wanted to open this article with that quote from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a great friend of the Kalahari Bushmen, so I would not be accused of using a derogatory term when speaking of the people from whom all humans on earth are descended. One of my favorite scientific discoveries of the last few decades is that every human being currently alive on the planet can trace his or her lineage directly to the same Bushman woman who lived in Southwest Africa 172,000 years ago.

The gathering of pertinent genetic data from around the world, as well as the complicated figuring that went into determining the identity of our great Mother, has now been duplicated by multiple scientific teams, and there is today universal agreement among physical anthropologists and geneticists (though not among members of Congress) that Eve, as the European-centric researchers have named her, was, indeed, a Bushman. The name I prefer for our Very First Lady is N!ai, the exclamation point indicating a loud click made by pressing the tongue against the top of the mouth and popping it down simultaneously with the sound ai (I).

Among the many groovy things about tracing our collective beginning back to N!ai is that until the 1950’s there were still extant bands of Bushmen in and around the Kalahari Desert living very much as they had for tens of thousands of years, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and her parents and brother were among the first and last non-Bushmen to gently interface with these people and to record in great detail, in writing and film and sound recordings, how our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. Thus we know, in a tangible way, from whence we came.

“Interestingly, no anthropologist wanted to join us, although my father tried hard to find one and would have paid for his or her salary and all expenses. However, unlike the modern Kalahari, where the anthropologist/Bushman ratio often seems to be one to one, in those days (1950’s) no anthropologist took an interest in our project.” from The Old Way

The first book I ever read about Bushmen was The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post. What a great adventure story! I was sixteen and intent on becoming an actor and a musician, but I was so thrilled by van der Post’s book I decided if I had to go to college to avoid going to Vietnam, I would major in the study of Bushmen. I subsequently devoured the sequel to The Lost World of the Kalahari entitled The Heart of the Hunter, and then I found Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People and read it twice. By the time I matriculated at UC Santa Cruz in 1967 with a major in Anthropology, I had read virtually everything there was in print about Bushmen.

Upon my arrival at that bucolic campus, and much to my dismay, I was informed by my snooty professors that Laurens van der Post and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas were to be ignored in regard to Bushmen because, heaven forbid, neither was an accredited anthropologist, and thus their data was suspect and I was a fool for admiring them. Nevertheless, their books introduced me to Bushmen and I have subsequently been privileged to correspond with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas about many things, most especially about the first people.

“What determined the size of our groups? Water was the single most important factor—water and the food supply around it.” from The Old Way

This may come as a surprise to you, but there was no pasta in the diet of the first people. Indeed, the so-called hunter-gatherer diet now being hailed by avant-garde nutritionists as the healthiest possible diet for most human beings contains no dairy, no gluten, no wheat, almost no grain, and very little sugar. I know several people currently reveling in newfound health since making the shift away from a grain-based diet to one composed largely of fruits, vegetables, nuts, tubers, and…wait for it…meat. And why is such a diet so good for most humans? Because, quite simply, our metabolism, our inner Bushman, if you will, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years eating what our hunter-gatherer progenitors ate and not much else.

I cannot recommend highly enough Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The Old Way to anyone interested in his or her origins. Ms. Thomas published this remarkable volume in 2006, nearly fifty years after publishing The Harmless People, having decided to revisit the copious notes she made while living with the Bushmen in the 1950’s, and to tell a new story imbued with experiences and insights accrued over her long life of study, exploration, and contemplation. I have loaned my copy of The Old Way to several people, and every one of them reported that the book inspired a profound and positive shift in their perceptions of themselves and the world.

For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, as I generally do, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has also written two great novels—Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife—of what may ultimately be a trilogy of interconnected sagas focusing on a group of hunter-gatherers living somewhere in the northern hemisphere at a time when mammoths still roamed the earth, and when lions and tigers were much more likely to kill people than vice-versa.

“We lived in groups; we could dig roots; we could find water; we could catch grubs, snails, tortoises, porcupines, and other small animals that were not fast runners (sometimes called “slow game”); some of us could run down large antelopes; and we had fire. We had lived on the savannah for a million years.” from The Old Way

We lived in groups, and we dined in groups, and we shared our kills and harvests with friends and loved ones, which brings to mind our dear friend Juliette White, globetrotter, cellist, and patron of artists and friends, who died a little over a year ago. She was, among many things, the hostess of wonderful spontaneous meals devoured by lucky last-minute invitees to her cozy cottage a couple miles inland on Albion Ridge Road.  I met Juliette three years before she died. Her gift to me at the end of our first meeting was her blessing to marry her good friend Marcia, which I did. Thereafter, I was invited to a number of spontaneous dining soirees in Juliette’s commodious cottage; and some six months before she died, Juliette asked me to help her write her obituary.

So one morning over a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes bursting with huckleberries plucked from bushes growing in the forest surrounding her house, I interviewed Juliette about her long and multi-faceted life, and quite unexpectedly she said, “That was the year we went to Africa and lived with the Bushmen.” I nearly fell out of my chair. But it was true! Juliette had gone to Africa and made the long and dangerous trek by land rover into the Kalahari Desert to live for a time with the same Bushmen people that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lived with and wrote about; and Juliette had several gorgeous photographs of those Bushmen people to prove it.

I then had the pleasure of sending copies of Juliette’s photographs to Elizabeth, who then wrote to Juliette and told her that she recognized the people and was glad and very touched to see them again.

And that story reminds me of huckleberries, which Juliette loved, and which the hunter-gatherers in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s novels are frequently saved by in the absence of water or any other food as they trek across the rugged earth seeking food and safe shelter and, with any luck, dry firewood.

This past fall the huckleberries were thick on the bushes that grow around our house on the edge of the redwood forest. We picked several quarts to freeze so we would have berries through the winter and into spring, and this morning I made gluten-free pancakes with some of those huckleberries, and I thought of Juliette and Elizabeth and of the hunter-gatherer diet, and how chocolate is not on that diet, but honey is, because Bushmen love honey. Oh, yes we do.

There is a bird that lives symbiotically with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a brave and beautiful bird called the Honey Diviner. And this Honey Diviner comes to the Bushmen camp singing, “Hello my friends, I bring tidings of a big tree where the bees have amassed a great store of honey that is at this very moment oozing out of the hive and crying to be harvested. However, I do not have hands to get that honey from the bees, but you do, and I know you love honey as much as I do, so…”
And so the people follow the Honey Diviner to that big tree, even if it means running many miles across the desert, for they love honey as much as they love meat. And when they have braved the stings of those angry bees and filled their ostrich-shell bowls with honey, the people give the Honey Diviner a generous share of the sweet ambrosia, for without her they might never have found the hive.

My Butt: the musical

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“If a man love the labor of any trade, apart from any question of success or fame, then God has called him.” Robert Louis Stevenson

So…some extremely wealthy and astoundingly unimaginative people have now spent over seventy million dollars concocting a musical version of Spiderman, with songs by Bono and Edge of the middle-aged boy band U-2. The Spiderman musical is apparently so bad, pundits cannot find words sufficient to describe the awfulness of this thing, though neo-fascist icon Glenn Beck apparently loves the show and has seen it twice. Yet despite universal media damnation, the musical is expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. And why am I wasting my breath on such trivia? Well, because seventy million dollars would cover the Mendocino County budget shortfalls for many years to come, only we don’t have that seventy million. And why don’t we? Because we haven’t had a surefire way to get it. Until now.

My Butt: the musical. A two-hour extravaganza about buttocks. With songs by Bob Dylan. And if we can’t get Bob, I’m thinking Justin Bieber. And if we can’t get the Biebster, then Paul McCartney. And Sting. Yes! Paul and Sting. They certainly don’t need the money, so no one can accuse them of doing it for the money. No way. They’ll write the songs for My Butt: the musical because they believe in the project.

My Butt: the musical will require the construction of enormous and incredible theaters in dozens of cities around the world where the show will run for decades. From the outside, the theaters will look like, well, someone’s butt. On the inside of these palatial pleasure domes (and each building will, indeed, be a double dome), the special stage(s) will feature huge flesh-colored mounds that rise and fall with the action. What action? I don’t know. That’s irrelevant at this point in the creative process. What’s relevant is a boffo idea combined with a team of famous artists and celebrities combined with expenditures of hundreds of millions of dollars stolen by Wall Street hucksters and used to create a useless spectacle for morons.

Further Architectural Notes: These buttocks theaters would be mass produced in China to guarantee precise sameness and then airlifted to their ultimate resting places, each Lowering of the Buttocks (in London, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, etc.) a culture-specific Christo-like event eating up two or three years of media coverage that otherwise might go to covering war and famine and icky things like that. Tens of millions of dollars will be spent in each metropolitan area on design conferences and political forums and other nonsense related to preparing a major urban area for the landing of a fifty-thousand-ton building made in the image of human buttocks. Wow. Just imagine a butt that big slowly descending to earth from the sky. Gigantic blimps will be used to transport the gargantuan buttocks from China to wherever, colossal blimps resembling you-know-whats that presage the sequel to My Butt: the musical.

Which brings us to the inevitable question: whose butt will be the butt in My Butt: the musical? Choosing that iconic butt will require a talent search that will make American Idol look like a Mendocino potluck. Remember: these buttocks will not only adorn millions of provocative and painfully ugly posters and billboards and screensavers and shower curtains, these buttocks will figure prominently in hundreds of animated advertisements, Super Bowl ads, refrigerator magnets, and coffee mugs.

But now that we’ve broached the question of whose butt will be used for the butt, here come those sibling questions of ethnicity, gender, size, and why not say it, age. Should the buttocks be white or brown or one of each? Mauve? Should the buttocks be male or female or one of each? Should the buttocks be young or middle-aged or one of each? Large, small, medium? And how much of the buttocks should we show? From the waist down to the back of the knees? From just above the crack to just below the bottom of the big downward curve? Something in between?

And just who is the I of My in My Butt: the musical? Oh, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Details like plot and character are way down the To Do list. Remember: stupidity must forever reside at the top of the To Do list, which point cannot be overstated, no matter how hard we try to overstate it. Everything about My Butt: the musical must take the wasting of human potential to new all time lows. That’s what makes the plays and movies and literature of America peerless in the world today, and unless we want to be seen by potential investors as uncool wimps we must prove ourselves to be a powerful force in the downward trend.

My Butt: the musical will be designed to appeal to people of all ages and religious persuasions and therefore must contain a modicum of romance, tons of violence, hints of teenage alienation, sexual frustration, and implications of illicit drug use imbued with maudlin sentimentality jarringly juxtaposed to moronic sadism masquerading as comedy. And, of course, every minute of the dizzying spectacle will be punctuated by state-of-the-art special effects involving butts morphing into, I don’t know, different things.

Music Note: One or two of the songs should be vaguely melodic, but most will require shouting hoarsely over deafening mechanical rhythms.

As for costumes: less is more.

As for dance numbers: think lascivious strip tease culminating in tableaus falling just short of sexual intercourse. Just.

As for the lead roles, the key here will be to give everyone in the audience someone to identify with and/or lust after: a handsome older man with a lost childish air, a verging-on-older woman with the body of a twenty-year-old swimsuit model, a slender young man just barely no longer a boy, and a heartbreakingly beautiful girl barely a woman with the moves of a seasoned pole dancer.

Should they be a family? Should they be a multi-racial family? Should they be human? Should they be aliens? Vampires? We are leaning toward a self-referencing play-within-a-play family-within-a-family multi-layered multi-dimensional presentation that pushes the N in narcissistic several type sizes larger than the rest of the word. Something like Narcissistic. That is to say, My Butt: the musical will be about a family that is not a family going to see My Butt: the musical in a My Butt: the musical theatre where the lines between actors and audience are so blurred, and we are so profoundly confused and bewildered (yet continuously titillated and visually and sonically overwhelmed), that by musical’s end we have no idea what we’ve seen or what has been done to us.

In short, we won’t know anything. And that will be the point of My Butt: the musical, except, wait, we will know one thing. We will know that even though My Butt: the musical makes absolutely no sense and leaves us feeling shattered and lost and inferior and questioning everything, including how good or bad or wrong or right our butts are, at least this thing, this awesome spectacle, exists; and that, in itself, is something.

I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day

When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May

I guess you’d say, what can make me feel this way

My butt, talkin’ ‘bout my butt, my butt…

Dead Airplane Kerouac Caen

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The past is never dead, it is not even past.” William Faulkner

When my wife and I joined forces four years ago, she came equipped with the nicely aged Toyota pickup I’d always wanted and I came with a Toyota station wagon ideal for toting cellos, so we swapped. The station wagon was subsequently crushed by a falling pine and replaced by a more commodious sedan, but the pickup lives on and I love the old thing.

Marcia bought the truck from the person who bought the truck new, Jim Young, our superlative chiropractor and friend and coach of the Mendocino High School (boys) basketball team. Now and then when I am under Jim’s thumbs, as it were, he will inquire about his former truck and I am happy to report the old thing is humming right along and still getting admirable mileage in this age of fast-rising fuel costs.

The pickup is faded white, eighteen years old, with the requisite rust spots and windows that must be manually cranked up and down. Otherwise non-descript, the truck sports a subtle ornament that Jim affixed to the rear window, an insignia identifying the vehicle as a chariot of the Dead, the Grateful Dead, the band, not my ancestors. I had no idea these five nearly identical dancing bears—blue green yellow orange pink—had anything to do with the Grateful Dead until shortly after I took the helm and picked up a hitchhiker on my way to Fort Bragg, his first words to me, “Love those bears, man. Long live Jerry Garcia.”

Over these ensuing four years, I have been treated to salutes, knowing smiles, waves, words of comradery, and a Pass The Joint victory signal on the order of once a month as a result of Jim affixing those dancing bears to the truck’s window. There seems to be some debate among Deadheads as to whether the bears are dancing in the manner of a famed fan named Owsley tripping on LSD or whether the bears are marching. One Grateful Dead web site claims that a flipbook rendition of the bears proves conclusively that they are marching. In any case, a Gypsy woman winked at me yesterday as a consequence of those bears, and her wink sent me hurtling back to the bygone years of my youth when I and a few of my friends had the Grateful Dead, live, all to ourselves for hours on end.

I feel compelled to admit that I am not a Grateful Dead fan. Indeed, the only Dead tune I ever liked was Barefootin’ from their very first album, and the only words I think I remember from that song are See that girl, barefootin’ along, whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on. When I lived in Santa Cruz in the early 1970’s, I had a friend who was a drummer in a Grateful Dead cover band, if you can imagine such a thing, and after attending their third concert of astonishingly accurate, and, to me, horrifying imitations of their heroes, I have avoided listening to the Grateful Dead for lo these forty years. Yet I do love the Grateful Dead, for they were of the utmost importance to me in my teenage years and provided the soundtrack for a great awakening.

“Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.” Sean O’Faolain

Ladera is a housing development a few miles from Stanford University that sprang up in the 1950’s and was home to professors and doctors and stock brokers and dentists and school teachers, mostly white people with a sprinkle of Chinese and Japanese families, and a few serious artists who liked living close to San Francisco in a rural setting not far from beaches with such beautiful names as San Gregorio, Pomponio, and Pescadero.

Ladera had an elementary school that sent its graduates to junior high at La Entrada in Menlo Park, and from there to Woodside High, famous for being the first public high school in America to have a major pot bust in the early 1960’s, many of those busted being children of the first families of Ladera. And it was there in Ladera that the Grateful Dead, yes, Jerry’s band when the keyboard player was a gravel-voiced guy called Pig Pen, used to rehearse on weekends in the multi-purpose room at the elementary school; and I and a handful of my friends were admitted to that sanctum to dance to the music on a vast expanse of highly polished linoleum.

What I remember most vividly about those amazing afternoons are two superb conga players, each with multiple drums, and several men with long hair and mustaches playing guitars in front of stacks of amplifiers, Pig Pen hunched over his keyboard, the music all of a piece—a vast electric raga made of pulsing chords and hypnotic rhythms over which fantabulous guitar solos cried like phantasmagoric muezzins to which I danced and twirled and danced, my too too solid flesh melting and resolving into sweat and ecstasy, my body free of pain at last, and those persistent inner voices of doubt and shame drowned in the sonic deluge, my entire being steeped in glorious visions of life beyond the choking confines of suburbia and parental neuroses.

And I remember my anguish when I arrived at the multi-purpose room one sunny Saturday afternoon and found the entrance barred by a huge man who said the rehearsals were now closed to the likes of me, only invited guests allowed, my magical mystery tour at end. I waited around for my friends to show up, and watched indignantly as the bouncer admitted my most beautiful friends Mona and Cassie, and rebuffed all the boys and the less beautiful girls. But that big goon couldn’t take away the visions I’d had while dancing to those awesome ragas of the Dead; and I vowed to start my own band one day and blow the roof off the jail, so to speak, and set everybody free.

“Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” Denis Diderot

My father had a 1963 Karmann Ghia, red bottom, white top. Cute little long-nosed Italian body, a two-seater with a Volkswagen engine. Remember those? In 1966, gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon, the Karmann Ghia got about thirty miles to the gallon, and it was twenty-seven miles from Redwood City to San Francisco. Four teenagers could squeeze into that little car, one in the cramped back compartment, one sitting on the lap of the one sitting in the passenger seat, and one (me) driving. And that’s how we got to the Fillmore, that vast windowless rotting warehouse in a dangerous part of San Francisco on many a Saturday night to hear Quicksilver Messenger Service (with or without Dino Valenti) open for the Grateful Dead who then set the stage for the Jefferson Airplane, pre-Grace Slick.

I have had several musical heroes in my life, most of them jazz people, but I have only adored one band and that was the original Jefferson Airplane. I saw the Airplane perform with their first female vocalist Signe Anderson four times, and each time I saw them they were brilliant and fabulously musical. Then Signe split and I was devastated, the devastation of a jilted teen. And then Grace Slick came aboard and my misery deepened, for to my ears the magical synergy of my favorite band was gone, so I kissed the folk rock scene goodbye.

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted;

One need not be a house;

The brain has corridors surpassing

Material place.
”

Emily Dickinson

So here we are forty-five years later living in the wilds of Mendocino where through the auspices of unseen patrons the San Francisco Chronicle arrives on our driveway every Sunday morning. The Chronicle of today is largely unreadable junk and wire service propaganda, but I dutifully solve the Sunday Jumble words, skim the Sports section for news of the Giants, and thank those unseen ones for providing us with a week’s worth of fire starter.

And this morning, while I was getting the fire going, a headline in last week’s pink section caught my eye: Jefferson Airplane Mansion for sale. Upon closer examination, I found this headline to be the lead item of a section entitled Wayback Machine, the headline referring to something that happened twenty-five years ago.

“February 4, 1986. The ‘Airplane House,’ a piece of San Francisco rock n’ roll history, is up for sale. The mansion overlooking Golden Gate Park that was once the home of the Jefferson Airplane, one of the pioneer psychedelic bands of the ‘60s, is on the market for $795,000. The three-story, Colonial Revival-style mansion on Fulton Street, with its distinctive Doric columns in front, has 17 rooms, stained-glass windows, silk wallpaper, rich mahogany woodwork, fireplaces on every level and lots of memories. ‘If the walls could talk,’ said Nadine Condon, publicist for Starship, the band that evolved from the original group. ‘We’ve had some great parties here,’ she said, climbing to the uppermost floor. ‘The joke used to be that the higher you got, the higher you got.’ In 1968, still flush from the Summer of Love a year earlier, band mates Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady and their manager Bill Thompson, bought the mansion for $70,000. When the mansion was built in 1904 by R.A. Vance, a lumber baron, the Golden Gate Park did not exist and sand dunes rolled uninterrupted to the ocean. The mansion survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. According to legend, the great tenor Enrico Caruso, a friend of Vance, fled from the Palace Hotel on the day of the quake and found refuge in the house. Most of the house is as it always was, but the second-floor kitchen is trimmed in orange and purple Day-Glo paint. ‘The last vestiges of hippiedom,’ Condon said.”

EARLY SPRING

The dog writes on the window

With his nose

Philip Whalen

So what should I find on the flip side of that pink page with the story of the Jefferson Airplane mansion but a Chronicle Classic reprint of Herb Caen’s column from October 22, 1969, entitled One thing after another, which includes the following:

“Poor, embittered Jack Kerouac, dead at 47, almost forgotten in the North Beach byways he frequented—and helped make famous—more than a decade ago. In his last years, he turned on the young people, sometimes viciously, and they in turn turned their backs on him. Yet a small literary niche will forever be his. ‘On the Road’ remains the finest chronicle of the Beatnik era.”

And in the same Caen column: “Steve Frye, a hippie-hating L.A. policeman, now has mixed emotions. Last Wed. night, driving through the rain in Big Sur, he had a flat tire, and the only people who stopped to help him were—two hippies. This so unraveled him that after he drove on he was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge to pick up a hippie hitchhiker. Which he did. There is hope for us all.”

See that girl, barefootin’ along,

Whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on.

There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,

She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street

Creeping Up On God

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and after fifty minutes the psychiatrist says, “I think you’re crazy.”

And the guy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I want to get a second opinion.”

And the psychiatrist says, “Okay, you’re ugly, too.”

My father was a child psychiatrist. Until I was eight or nine, I had only vague notions of what my father’s practice consisted of. I knew he had a playroom adjacent to his office, and in that playroom there were board games and a sandbox and dolls and trucks and other cool things for kids to play with, and I knew my father wore a suit and tie when he interacted with these kids, and that he was sort of a doctor.

So this guy with a chicken on his head goes to see a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist says, “What’s this all about?”

And the chicken says, “I don’t know. I woke up this morning and there he was.”

When I was in my forties, a childhood friend invited me to lunch with him at his mother’s house. After lunch, I called my father to let him know I’d be dropping by a little later. While I was on the phone with my father, my friend’s mother said, “Tell your dad he did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”

So I say into the phone, “Dad, Iris says you did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”

It turns out that Marvin, my friend’s younger brother, had gone to see my father a dozen or so times when he, Marvin, was seven and suffering from insomnia and sudden outbursts of rage. This was before the widespread use of drugs in psychotherapy, so my father treated Marvin with talk therapy and play therapy, and Marvin began sleeping well and his rage outbursts mostly went away.

Until my father was in his seventies and near the end of his time as a practicing psychotherapist, he rarely spoke about his clients to me, and he certainly never spoke about anyone we might know. I later found out that my father treated a number of my classmates, but I did not know this at the time of their interactions with him.

Thus I was mightily curious to know what my father had done to help Marvin, a person I knew pretty well. My friend said, “Marvin never told me.” My friend’s mother said, “I think they played cards and talked. Your father is a miracle worker.”

So when I got over to my father’s house, I said, “Dad, what did you do to help Marvin?”

My father sipped his coffee and frowned as he tried to remember back thirty-some years to his time with Marvin, and then he smiled and said, “Oh, yes. He had two much older brothers. They played Monopoly and cards and all sorts of games with him, but his brothers were merciless and never let Marvin win. No matter how hard he tried, Marvin couldn’t win, and he was so terribly frustrated that he began to act out, and he had nightmares as I recall.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, as his mother told you, we played cards and Monopoly, and he talked about how he hated his brothers, and…I let him win.”

So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my wife thinks she’s a refrigerator.”

The shrink says, “How long has this been going on?”

And the guy says, “Oh, about a week now, and I can’t sleep.”

“That’s only natural. You’re worried about her.”

“Well, it’s not so much that,” says the guy. “But she sleeps with her mouth open, and you know that light that goes on when you leave the door open? Shines right in my face.”

My junior high school brought together kids from two elementary schools, so there were lots of new kids to get to know, and the inevitable question of what my father did came up. And I will never forget my shock when I told a guy that my father was a psychiatrist and the guy replied, “Oh, a head shrinker, huh?”

“A what?” I said, dismayed.

“A head shrinker,” he repeated. “A shrink. Ugga bugga. Witch doctor.”

When I asked my father about the term shrink and the witch doctor reference, my father explained that there were many people (in 1960) who still thought psychiatry was hocus pocus nonsense. He said that many people thought that when a person went to a psychiatrist it meant the person was crazy; and many of my father’s patients were so ashamed about coming to see him that they did so clandestinely.

So these two psychiatrists are having lunch together, and one of them says, “Man oh man, I was having breakfast with my mother yesterday and I made the most incredible Freudian slip.”

“Oh, really,” says the other shrink. “What happened?”

“Well,” says the first shrink, “I meant to say, ‘Mom, will you pass the butter?’ But instead I said, ‘You bitch! You ruined my life!’”

We often wonder, my siblings and I, what our lives would have been like if our father had treated us and our mother as he treated his clients, with kindness and patience and compassion and acceptance. But we will never know, and that’s life.

So this priest is sitting in the confessional and a guy comes into the booth and sits down on the other side of the grill and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned.”

“I’m listening,” says the priest.

“I’m eighty years old,” says the guy, “and I’ve been married for sixty years and never once cheated on my wife. But yesterday I’m sitting in the park and this beautiful young woman approaches me and says she’s got a thing for older men and would I like to come to her apartment. So I go with her and we have fantastic sex for hours and hours and hours.”

“Heavens,” says the priest, taken aback. “How long has it been since your last confession?”

“Oh, I’ve never confessed,” says the old man.

“You’re Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”

“I’m not Catholic,” says the man. “I’m Jewish.”

“You’re Jewish?” says the priest, flabbergasted. “So why are you telling me?”

“Telling you? I’m telling everyone.”

I am Jewish, though I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was twelve. When my mother was growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s she was twice stoned by gangs of kids when they found out she was Jewish. Her parents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton in the 1930’s so they could get housing and my grandfather could get work more easily. Thus my mother learned to erase any overt traces of her Jewishness, married a non-Jew, and vociferously denied that she was Jewish for the rest of her life.

So these two cops are driving along and they see a nun walking to town. They know that the only nuns in the area live in a cloistered nunnery and never ever come out except in the direst emergencies. So they pull up beside the nun and one of the cop asks her, “Sister, anything wrong?”

“Indeed,” says the sister, nodding gravely. “The mother superior is terribly constipated and sent me to town to get her a laxative.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” says the cop. “Can we give you a lift?”

“No, thank you,” says the sister, averting her eyes and continuing on her way.

A few hours later, the cops are driving that same part of their beat when they see the same nun walking back to the nunnery, and she does not appear to be steady on her feet. As they get closer, they see she is obviously drunk. They pull up beside her and the cop says, “Sister, you’re drunk. I thought you were going to town to get the mother superior a laxative.”

“I did,” says the nun, slurring her speech. “And when mother schuperior sees me, she’s gonna shit.”

My parents were alcoholics, but they did not appreciate jokes about drunks. Call it a coincidence, but my brother and I became avid collectors of jokes about drunks, and we took extreme pleasure in performing these jokes when we knew our parents were listening.

So there’s a rabbi living in New York City and one day he wakes from a dream and distinctly hears God say, “Rabbi Feinberg, go to the small Arkansas town of Redfern and carry on your work there.”

So the rabbi gives up his life in New York and moves to Redfern where there are no Jews. Having no money and no way to build a synagogue, the rabbi arranges with the Baptist minister to use their church on Saturday mornings. And every Saturday he carries out the duties of his office in an otherwise empty church.

One Saturday as the rabbi is preaching in the Baptist church, there comes a great storm and it rains so hard the town begins to flood. The Baptist minister comes rushing in and says, “Rabbi, sorry to interrupt, but they say the river could overflow her banks and seriously flood the town. Come with me to safer ground.”

“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”

So the Baptist minister leaves and the river, indeed, overflows its banks and the town is soon four-feet deep in water. The Baptist minister returns in a rowboat and says, “Rabbi, get in. The upstream dam is about to break and the church will be entirely underwater.”

“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”

So the Baptist minister rows away and the water continues to rise until it is up to the rabbi’s chin, at which point the Baptist minister returns in his boat and says, “Rabbi, please. Get in the boat or you’ll drown.”

“Nay,” gurgles the rabbi. “God sent me here. If he wants to save me, he will save me.”

Well, the Baptist minister reluctantly leaves, the water rises over the rabbi’s head, and he drowns.

Shortly thereafter, the rabbi arrives at the pearly gates, pushes past St. Peter and storms into God’s office.

“Why did you let me drown?” he cries. “You sent me to that town, so I went. I did everything you asked of me. I, your devoted servant, Rabbi Feinberg. So why did you let me drown?”

“For goodness sake, Feinberg,” says God, with a mighty shrug. “I sent the boat twice.”

My father was a fierce atheist. I tried to follow in his footsteps, but in my early thirties I had the first of several experiences that made it impossible for me to deny the entirely mystical nature of my life. Eventually, I got over my aversion to the word God, and now I use it synonymously with Nature, Universe, and Tim Lincecum.

Todd Walton’s web site is underthetablebooks.com