Archive for March, 2011

Kyoto Amore

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

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

“But a whole school of lady koto players

Best kimono and Japanese hairdo

Perform on tatami platform underneath falling blossoms”

Philip Whalen

I’ll never forget the night in 1989 when we danced at Melarkey’s on Broadway in Sacramento, dancing for joy because in a free and fair election, for the first and only time in history, the majority voted to shut down an active nuclear power plant. And only a handful of people know that Ben Davis started the whole thing, and I, in the beginning, helped him keep the ball rolling.

Ben, an eccentric, stubborn, self-educated advocate for the public good, first tried to shut down the Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Facility by single-handedly taking SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) to court for not having an adequate emergency evacuation plan in the event of a catastrophe such as the multiple catastrophes ongoing in Japan today. The courts wouldn’t oblige Ben for the usual putrid reasons (putrid as in corrupt), though Ben had more than ample proof that SMUD, for all intents and purposes, had no evacuation plan at all.

Failing to overcome the entrenched putrescence of California’s so-called legal system, Ben thought he would get a proposition on the ballot and encourage the people of Sacramento to shut the plant down, since SMUD was a public utility owned by we, the people. With zeal and naiveté, (and before the advent of the internet) Ben and I thought we would use a pyramid scheme of friends to get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot; and that is what we set out to do. Joining us in our endeavor were two others, Martha Ann Blackman and Melinda Brown. Ben wrote the ballot initiative and had a lawyer friend help him get the wording right, we had a couple strategy sessions at my house, and then we alerted the media.

When an article about us appeared in the Sacramento Bee, and we got a bit of radio coverage, all hell broke loose. To make a very long story short, our little organization was quickly joined and taken over by professional environmental peeps who got all the credit for getting an initiative on the ballot, passing the initiative, and shutting down the power plant. But I know that Ben Davis started the whole thing and got none of the credit. So what else is new? The important thing is that we, the people, shut down a piece-of-crap nuclear power plant that almost surely would have partially or entirely melted down by now and irradiated most of northern California had it been allowed to stay in operation.

How can I say such a thing? Because after I joined forces with Ben, I did a ton of research and learned more than I ever wanted to know about nuclear power plants, Rancho Seco in particular. And by the way, Rancho Seco is still home to piles of nuclear fuel rods that will remain murderously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Those cancerous rods sit in that massive mausoleum of human stupidity because, oops, there’s no safe place on earth to store them.

Buckminster Fuller pointed out that Nature knew exactly how far from humans and other living things to site a nuclear facility: 93 million miles. He also suggested the only safe way to dispose of nuclear waste was to deliver that waste to our sun (93 million miles away) where said waste would be harmlessly incinerated. However, getting the poisonous radioactive guck to the sun without blowing up the planet in the process is seriously problematic, so forget about it. Instead, we must swiftly end all the needless wars, carefully dismantle every last nuclear power plant on earth, and spend the next half-million years safeguarding the poisonous guck and never making another drop of it.

“Autumn comes now triumph chrysanthemum harvest

Moon burnished persimmon plumed Suzuki grass

The spirit perishes when the season turns.”

Philip Whalen

Sick with sorrow about the devastation in Japan, I am also furious that amoral corporations in collusion with amoral governments have poisoned and continue to poison the planet with radioactive waste. The media coverage of the nuclear crisis in Japan has been, to me, most remarkable for the enormity of the lies and misinformation spewed forth by the offices of propaganda. The truth, alas, is in the isotopes, and they have been unleashed in quantities the nuclear overlords will never admit to. The next time you hear someone say nuclear power is safe, please know that they are either extremely stupid, morbidly ignorant, or insane.

“We have going to change it all.” Philip Whalen

When I was twelve, my mother went back to college to get a master’s degree in education. To replace her on the home front, she hired Doris Ishigawa to clean our house, do our laundry, and be on hand when my little brother came home from school. Never was our funky old house so deeply cleaned as when Doris cleaned it. The previously perpetually filthy windows became so clear the house seemed wholly new and better—flooded with light. Doris introduced us to salmon and bass sashimi, fresh-caught by her husband. She created exquisite flower arrangements using flowers and twigs and grasses she found in our largely neglected garden. She was, as I recall her, gentle and generous and kind.

When Doris died of a stroke some years later (she was in her fifties when she died) her obituary revealed that she and her husband, prior to World War II, had been wealthy, successful, and revered members of their community. However, while the Ishigawa’s were incarcerated in an American concentration camp for the crime of being Japanese, their house and land and money and possessions were stolen from them by opportunistic crooks. And when our putrescent legal system negated the Ishigawa’s attempts to reclaim their stolen property, Doris became a cleaning lady, her husband a gardener; none of which I had known about because Doris never once spoke of her ordeal.

Gauzy emerald

goldfinch music

pleasure & delight

Philip Whalen

I have been punctuating this article with snippets from poems by Philip Whalen because he was a great lover of Japan, lived in Kyoto in the late 1960’s, and is one of my favorite poets. Whalen wrote funny lyrical insightful poems while in Japan, and thereafter about Japan. I experienced a profound transformation of how I saw myself in the world when I heard Whalen read his poetry in 1966, and I became a devoted reader of his work. I possess a handwritten note from him giving me permission to use one of his poems to begin my novel Ruby & Spear, and every now and then I’ll get the note out and feel amazed and grateful to see Philip’s scrawl. Here is the poem.

LATE AFTERNOON

I’m coming down from a walk to the top of Twin Peaks

A sparrowhawk balanced in a headwind suddenly dives off it:

An answer to my question of this morning

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, nearly eight-hundred pages, was published in 2007 by Wesleyan University Press, and though I had read most of Whalen’s poems several times before, I devoured every word in that fat volume from first poem to last, inspired anew by Whalen’s originality and musicality.

In my anguish about Japan and the madness of nuclear power—which I know is your anguish, too—I hear Whalen exhorting us to pay special attention to the present moment, to the joy and sorrow and miracle and mystery and humor and pathos of Now; for the past no longer exists, nor has the future yet arrived, so to dwell persistently in either is to miss the boat, miss the point, miss the present—to not receive the gift.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

Philip Whalen

Cliff’s Bowl

Friday, March 18th, 2011

(This piece first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

Cliff Glover recently gave us one of his bowls. Cliff is an excellent potter and a superb cook. Tall, and possessed of a magnificent froth of silver gray hair, Cliff and his partner Marion Miller share a house and ceramic studio a couple miles inland from the hamlet of Albion. Marcia and I met Cliff and Marion for the first time at one of Juliette White’s spontaneous dinners, Juliette being Cliff and Marion’s neighbor for many years. The mugs we drank from that night were Cliff’s mugs; and for my birthday two years ago, Juliette gave me a Cliff Glover teapot, an exquisite two-cupper. Juliette was a big fan of Cliff’s pottery.

The bowl Cliff gave us on Marcia’s birthday in February is now my favorite bowl, and possibly my favorite thing, after my piano and not counting myriad mammals—Marcia, friends, cats; although the trouble with cats…but that’s another story. Cliff made it clear when he gave us the bowl that even though he was giving it to us on Marcia’s birthday, the bowl was for both of us. I asked him to repeat that when I was sure Marcia was listening so there wouldn’t be any confusion…that the bowl was for both of us, or in legal terms: the bowl is our joint property.

My previous favorite bowl, which I still love, (though not as much as I loved her before I met Cliff’s bowl) was given to me by my dear friend Katje Weingarten, an extraordinary poet who lives in Vermont, which is crazy. Katje should live around here. Both she and our community would be much happier if she lived in, oh, Caspar or Philo, but she’s married to Roger, and you know how that goes. Anyway, I showed Cliff the bowl Katje gave me and he knew who made it. He knew the actual person who threw the bowl and glazed it. Cliff can do that. He can glance at a ceramic bowl or vase or plate made somewhere in California, and most of the time he can tell by the glaze or the shape, or both, the potter who made the thing.

Which reminds me of a tea story. When I lived in Berkeley, I was adjuvant to Helen Gustafson, famous for introducing fine tea to the menu at Chez Panisse and training the servers there to make and serve fine tea as it was meant to be made and served. When Helen died in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times called her one of the pioneers of the fine tea renaissance in America. Helen often took me to lunch and supper at Alice’s restaurant (Chez Panisse) where she, Helen, had carte blanche in exchange for her tea duties. I was frequently under-funded in those days and always esurient, so…just imagine. Helen liked to introduce me to her cohorts and admirers as her editor—an understatement and a compliment.

One evening Helen threw a dinner and tea tasting at Chez Panisse for the famous tea writer James Norwood Pratt, Norwood’s marvelous mate Valerie Turner, moi, and Roy and Grace Fong, preeminent tea importers, Roy a bona fide tea master. We tasted several black teas that were essentially priceless. By that I mean, they were teas of such rarity and in such short supply, they could not be purchased at any price. The denouement of the evening was that Norwood had brought along a mystery tea with which he hoped to stump Roy Fong as to the origin of the goodly leaf.

Norwood directed one of Helen’s well-trained servers in the making of a pot of the mystery tea, and after the leaves had steeped for the appropriate number of minutes, the pot was placed before Roy. Without lifting the lid or bending close to the pot, Roy concluded, “Thailand.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Norwood, his accent richly North Carolinian. “How…”

Roy lifted the lid of the steel pot, glanced at the leaves, inhaled again, and correctly named the region, the plantation, and the location in the plantation where this particular tea had been grown. He then filled our cups and prophesied, “It will be some time before tea from these plants will be of any note. If ever.”

Cliff’s bowl, on the other hand, is of great note now at our house. Why do I love this bowl? Let me count the ways.

First, it is a perfect size: four inches tall and seven inches wide at the top.

Second, it has a beautiful shape: assuming nearly its full width close to the base.

Third, it is surprisingly light, and a delight to hold in one’s hand or hands.

Fourth, it is the color of an East African topi (antelope), of carob powder, of the skin of certain Moroccan nomads, and graced with that random mottling all living flesh is prey to.

Cliff declared the bowl to be a standard noodle bowl, nothing special, and so I dutifully ate noodles in it the first time I used it (brown rice spaghetti) but I have since used the bowl for goat milk yogurt topped with banana and apple and raisins with a dollop of huckleberry jam, for beating eggs for an omelet, for making pancake batter (and pouring the batter directly from the bowl into the frying pan), for watering house plants, for drinking water, and for eating rice with vegetables and spicy sausage. I have also gently tapped out several nifty rhythms on the bowl with chopsticks, and I sometimes place the bowl on the table in the living room as an object to contemplate and admire.

Do I believe Cliff’s bowl is alive? Yes. And I remind myself that not so very long ago our ancestors believed that all things, from the tiniest pebble to the mountains to the rivers and oceans and the gigantic earth in her entirety, were as animate as humans or whales or fleas. Fool’s Crow, a Lakota holy man I admire, used the ancient vernacular of his people when referring to rocks as stone people, trees as standing people, clouds as citizens of the cloud nation, and so forth.

I possess a stunning black and white photograph of Fool’s Crow taken by Michelle Vignes when Fool’s Crow was in his early nineties (he died at the age of 99); and when I look into his eyes, my entire being relaxes. Every time. While reading his book Wisdom & Power, I came upon his observation that some people need to carry stones in their pockets in order to feel grounded. I gasped in amazement and gratitude when I read this passage because I have carried stones in my pockets since I was a little kid, knowing intuitively I needed them, yet rarely revealing to anyone that I toted rocks in my pockets to stay sane in a world gone mad.

Cliff’s bowl, I think, is a divine manifestation of animate mud, composed of animate earth and animate water, shaped into exquisite form through the synergy of centrifugal force and gravity and the skillful ministrations of the strong hands and generous intentions of a practiced artisan: Cliff.

“I’ve made thousands of bowls,” Cliff declaimed, responding to my raving about the magnificence of this particular bowl. “And, yes, this is a good bowl. I was surprised when I found it because my good bowls sell pretty fast and I’m not sure why I still had this one…but I don’t think it’s all that special.”

I wanted to be a potter. I took Ceramics in high school as part of my rebellion against my parents wanting me to use only the left side of my brain; and three subsequent times in my life, I have endeavored to center balls of clay on potters’ wheels and make bowls. But I was not persistent, and so I failed. My only clay creation that I still have is an embarrassingly heavy little lumpish object I refer to as a bud vase because only a bud might fit therein. I love the little thing. The glaze, a murky greenish accident, is…subtle. And sometimes I tell myself I could make a good bowl if only I would commit myself to the task.

In the meantime, I (we) have Cliff’s bowl to inspire me (us) along with Cliff’s beguiling mugs and Marion Miller’s quietly erotic vases. Oh, and I must tell you about Cliff’s clay canisters, two of which I own. These elegant brown cylinders are ten-inches-tall and four-inches-wide. They are the only objects (other than the teak Buddha that Paula Mulligan brought us from Bali as a wedding gift and Marcia’s cello bows) I allow to reside on my piano. I am not a fan of pianos being used as display spaces, and until the advent of Marcia’s cello bows in my life, I never let anybody put anything on my piano. But the piano is teak, so the teak Buddha…and now Cliff’s lovely dark canisters, well…I’m not playing any less because of these inspiring passengers, and the piano sounds fine, so…

A few months before Juliette died, we were sitting around in her cottage having tea (or was it wine?) in Cliff’s mugs, and I fished in my pockets and brought forth two of my stones, each roughly the size of a walnut, one jade green, one bluish gray, both rounded and polished in a grand lapidary of surf meeting intractable stone. Juliette took the rocks from me, tumbled them around in her wise old hands, and then correctly identified their source as a tiny beach not far from the village of Mendocino—a brief spit of gravel that only comes into being at the lowest of tides.

Cliff Glover can be found at threeriversstudios.com

Myth & History

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable.” Book of Proverbs 25:3

“Have you seen The King’s Speech?” asked a friend.

“Marcia has and loved it,” I replied. “I’m waiting for it to come out on Netflix.”

My wife Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan, and we often don’t find the time to watch even that many.

“Of course,” continued my friend, “they’ve taken great liberties with the historical facts. I read one article that said the movie isn’t even close to the truth and another that said it has some truth in it, but not much.”

“The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly.” Henry David Thoreau

Historical facts. Hmm. When I was attending UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960’s (and I really did do that) Norman O. Brown came to teach at our newborn college. His course Myth & History was open to undergrads, so I signed up to hear what the famous man had to say. Who was Norman O. Brown? Having taken his Myth & History class, and having spent a few hours blabbing with Norman about this and that, I think he would have been amused by the question. Why amused? Because the central theme of his course was that myth and history are inextricably entwined; history being mythologized the moment that highly subjective reporter known as a human being attempts to put into words what he or she thinks may have happened.

Before I tell you a little more about Norman O. Brown, I would like to recount a scene from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel, not the movie. The Norman I remember (which is probably a very different Norman than the Norman other people remember) would have appreciated this digression because his lectures were composed entirely of digressions that would then double back on themselves and culminate in conclusions that, depending on each listener’s perspective, made some sort of larger sense. Or not.

“Great things happen when God mixes with man.” Nikos Kazantzakis

So…in The Last Temptation of Christ there is a memorable scene in which Jesus and his disciples are sitting around a campfire after a long day of spreading their gospel, when Matthew, a recent addition to the crew, is suddenly impelled by angels (or so he claims) to write the biography of Jesus. So he gets out quill and papyrus and sets to work transcribing the angelic dictation; and Jesus, curious to see what’s gotten into his latest convert, takes a peek over Matthew’s shoulder and reads the opening lines of what will one day be a very famous gospel.

Jesus is outraged. “None of this is true,” he cries, or words to that effect. And then Judas (I’m pretty sure it was Judas and not Andrew) calms Jesus down with a Norman O. Brown-like bit of wisdom, something along the lines of: “You know, Jesus, in the long run it really doesn’t matter if he writes the truth or not. You’re a myth now, so you’d better get used to everybody and his aunt coming up with his or her version of who you are.”

Kazantzakis, trust me, wrote the scene much more poetically and marvelously than the way I just recounted it, but…

“All good books have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.” Ernest Hemingway

Back to Norman O. Brown. In the late 1960’s, Norman was among the most famous pop academic writers in the world. Not only had he written Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, which made him famous, he had just published (in 1966) Love’s Body, a mainstream and academic bestseller exploring the impact of erotic love on human history; or was it the struggle between eroticism and civilization? In any case, here is one of my favorite blurbs from the hundreds of reviews that made Love’s Body so famous in its time. I will digress again (thank you, Norman) by saying if any book I ever publish gets a blurb even remotely as stupendous as the following, and said blurb appears in, say, the San Francisco Chronicle or even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, drinks are on me.

“Norman O. Brown is variously considered the architect of a new view of man, a modern-day shaman, and a Pied Piper leading the youth of America astray. His more ardent admirers, of whom I am one, judge him one of the seminal thinkers who profoundly challenge the dominant assumptions of the age. Although he is a classicist by training who came late to the study of Freud and later to mysticism, he has already created a revolution in psychological theory.” — Sam Keen, Psychology Today

The myth and history web site known as Wikipedia says that Norman was a much-loved professor at UC Santa Cruz where he taught and lived to the end of his days (he died in 2002, or so they say). Wikipedia also reports that Norman had the nickname Nobby, which I would like to say I gave him, but I did not. At least I don’t think I gave it to him. On the other hand, I might have given it to him because that was not his nickname when I knew him, so it must have been affixed after I knew him. Thus we might say, “After I got through with him, he was known as Nobby.” That does sort of sound like I’m responsible for his nickname. You decide.

“Personality is the original personal property.” Norman O. Brown

Here are a few true stories about Norman that might as well be myths.

Norman loved to fool around with the order of letters in words and the order of syllables in words and the order of words in phrases. For instance, he began one lecture by…

But first of all, here’s a snapshot of Norman in 1968: a portly white man of medium height with curly brown hair. I wouldn’t say his hair was unruly, but it was certainly not ruly. Is ruly a word? If not, then from whence came unruly? These were the kinds of questions Norman would ask of us, his audience, and not answer. On second thought, his hair was unruly. In either case, he would cast his questions upon his waters, he the fly fisherman, we the trout finning below the surface of his stream of consciousness, and he would allow the flies (the questions) to drift along above us for a time to see if we might rise to the bait. If no trout rose, he cast again.

Norman had voluptuous lips and frequently wept in front of us, moved by something he felt, or moved by inner demons we could only guess at, or moved by God knows what (if you subscribe to the myth of God.) I knew several people (mostly guys) who were so freaked out by how fragile and vulnerable and weird Norman seemed to them that they dropped the class after the first couple lectures.

“Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense. Freedom is violence.” Norman O. Brown

One day (getting back to Norman’s playing with the order of letters in a word) he stood (wearing a brilliant white Mexican wedding shirt tucked into fine purple corduroy trousers, his feet shod in black sandals, his toenails painted red) with his back to the audience for the first five minutes of his presentation. People began to squirm; a few walked out; and several more were about to walk out when Norman turned to face us. He ran his fingers through his unruly hair three or possibly four times, took three (I’m absolutely sure it was three) tentative steps forward, touched the tips of the fingers of his left hand to the tips of the fingers of his right hand, and gazed at this collision of digits as a lover might gaze at her beloved, or as an autistic person might stare at her fingers, and then he pursed his voluptuous lips, raised his eyes to the audience, and said so quietly we had to strain to hear, “Roma.”

Then he swallowed, licked his lips, touched his fingertips together again as described above, licked his lips once more, and repeated, “Roma.”

I looked down at my notebook and saw that I had written Roma twice. And between the first and second Roma I had unwittingly drawn a heart.

Then I looked at Norman (I usually sat in the seventeenth row, having a particular fondness for that number) and he said, “Roma spelled backwards is…”

He waited a moment for us to begin to figure it out for ourselves, and then concluded, “Amor.”

“‘Tis as human a little story as paper could well carry” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

Norman began another of his lectures mid-thought and mid-sentence referencing James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. I could not, for the life of me, discern when Norman’s sentences ended or began or even if he was speaking in sentences. People ran for the exits as if a fire alarm had sounded. Soon there were only a few of us remaining in the vast lecture hall, Norman rambling on, his tired face alight with what might have been happiness or possibly incredulity to have struck such a rich vein of…something; and I gave up trying to understand him. I simply surrendered to his sound and subtle fury, and fell into a trance from which I did not emerge until…Norman’s voice rose to a girlish crescendo, fell silent for a momentous moment, and finished basso profundo with: “Finnegan’s Wake. Fin! Again! Wake!”

“Hearasay in paradox lust” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

It was following Norman’s fifth or sixth or seventh lecture that I went to his office to show him a four-page play I’d written, a dumb show, a drama without words inspired by something he’d been harping on for a couple lectures. “The slave becomes the king becomes the slave.” In my dumb show, which, come to think of it, might have been choreography for a ballet, I was exploring passive aggression and aggressive passivity and the pitfalls of passion and the pratfalls of sexual positions, and (being nineteen) I thought the play was way cool, and I suspected that if anyone on earth would appreciate my play it was Norman.

I went to his office. He was sitting at his desk, weeping. He dried his eyes, rose to shake my hand, and invited me take a seat. I told him I was taking Myth & History. He said he recognized me. He said I often frowned ferociously at things he said, after which I would scribble furiously in my notebook. He said he often wondered which part of what he had just said made me frown. I said I was unaware of my ferocious frowning but wasn’t surprised to hear I frowned ferociously because ferocious frowning was my father’s habit, too. Norman said the older he got the more he reminded himself of his father, and also of his mother.

I then blurted that I found him captivating and perplexing and thought I was probably not consciously getting most of what he was trying to convey but I was apparently unconsciously getting some of it because he had inspired me to write a short play, which I then handed him. He read the pages, avidly, or so I like to think, then read them again. Then he looked at me and blinked appreciatively. “Yes,” he gushed. “The violence of Eros the inadequacy of the nuclear family to accommodate the sexual divergences of male and female energies of young and old I love the mother becoming lovers with her daughter’s lover only to discover her daughter’s lover is her father transformed. You’ve read Graves, Durrell, Duncan, Camus, Beckett. What do you want to do?”

“I want to write epic poems disguised as novels.”

He frowned gravely and pointed with the fingers of his right hand at the air just above my head. “A path of great danger,” he intoned, wiggling his fingers to incite the spirits. “Don’t be afraid.”

Todd lives in Mendocino where he prunes fruit trees, plays the piano, and writes essays and fiction. His web site is Underthetablebooks.com

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

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

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.