Archive for August, 2011

Flow

Friday, August 26th, 2011

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

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting what you are doing. This is the ultimate.” Zhuangzi

Something happened to me a few days ago the likes of which hadn’t happened to me in eons. I was shooting hoops at the elementary school, playing alone, as is my custom now that I am deep into middle age and easily injured, when I became aware that I was caught up in an extraordinary flow of action involving my body, the ball, the air, the backboard, and the hoop. I think this was what sports commentators mean when they say a player is “in the zone,” playing with seeming effortlessness, yet playing superbly and flawlessly for an extended period of time. A frequently used adjunct comment to saying a player is “in the zone” is “he’s unconscious.”

That adjunct comment turns out not to be true, because the cool thing about being in the zone, and this has been corroborated by many athletes speaking about their in-the-zone experiences, is that they were not unconscious, but rather fully aware of being in the zone yet not consciously controlling what they were doing. That is to say, they were not conscious of making decisions about what to do next while they were caught up in the flow of action because they were, in essence, inseparable from the flow of everything going on.

It is also true that the more practiced and skillful an athlete, the more easily and often she will find herself in the zone; zone being a misnomer since it is not really a place, but a state of being. My in-the-zone moment was probably the result of playing more often these past few months when school has been out and my access to the courts has been unlimited.

My experience of being inseparable from the ecstatic flow began with the awareness of the ball coming into my hands as if thrown to me by an invisible cohort, the ball leaving my hands as if self-propelled, the ball arching high into the air and tumbling down through the center of the hoop, the ball returning as if passed to me by that same invisible friend, my body dancing back from the hoop to a distance I usually, consciously, avoid, the ball leaving my hands again, arching high, smacking through the net, on and on, dozens of times without a miss from near and far, until I had the thought, “This is so fun!” and the ball caromed off the rim into the weeds.

“As far as I’m concerned, the essentials of jazz are: melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing, and instrumental personality.” Mose Allison

Musicians, artists, dancers, inventors, thinkers…all creative people aspire to be in the zone.

“Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.” Tobias Wolff

On the way home from my in-the-zone experience on the basketball court, I fell into a memory of my largest (in terms of numbers of dollars) experiment with money. I was a pauper by American standards from 1969 when I dropped out of college until 1980 when I made what was for me a small fortune through the sale of the paperback rights to my first published novel and the simultaneous sale of the movie rights to the same novel. Shortly thereafter, I paid a large amount of income tax, moved to Sacramento, and bought the only house I’ve ever owned. And then in 1984, just as my movie money was running out, I got married and resumed my practice of making just enough to get by.

Then in 1995, hot on the heels of my divorce and the concurrent disappearance of my house, I made the second small fortune of my life through the unlikely sale of a one-year option on the movie rights to my obscure novel Forgotten Impulses, published in 1980, for one hundred thousand dollars, and the even more unlikely sale of my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam for twenty-five thousand dollars. In the case of Forgotten Impulses, no movie was ever made, and in the case of Ruby & Spear, Bantam took the wonderful book out of print the day it was published (though copies of both novels can still be found on the interweb for pennies, and you may listen to me read Ruby & Spear (and play all the different characters) at Audible or iTunes). But in any case, I suddenly had, by my standards, another large pile of money.

And I decided to give this second fortune to favorite friends who had very little money and would greatly appreciate some cash. Having spent much of my first fortune on myself, a strategy that brought me little joy and much sorrow, I was curious to see what would happen if I shared my wealth. My hope was that in giving away my fortune I would be priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, which priming would eventually bring me even more money.

As it happens, giving away a fortune in America is not as simple as simply giving money away. First of all, one must pay a large portion of the fortune to the federal and state governments, and this portion is especially large if one is not in the habit of making big sums of money and does not have shelters and deductions and depreciations and such to mitigate the taxes owed. Not wanting to go into debt, I called my accountant and, despite his good-natured assertion that I was insane, we figured out I could give away seventy-six thousand dollars and still have enough left over to pay the taxes I owed, make an impressive contribution to Social Security, and have a few thousand dollars left for rent and food and a new basketball. So I made a list of people I wanted to give money to, most of them artists and poets and musicians working at low-paying jobs while painting and writing and making music and hoping for big breaks such as the two big breaks I’d gotten, and I gave them each two thousand dollars.

Some weeks after mailing out those thirty-eight checks, I got a postcard from Paris from one of the recipients informing me that on the day she got my check she bought a round trip ticket to Europe, packed her bags, and, as she wrote, “I knew it was now or never, so I went for it. Merci!” Another recipient sent me a list of how she spent her two thousand: one thousand donated to a non-profit organization dedicated to spaying feral cats, three hundred for art supplies, six hundred and fifty rent, and fifty bucks on expensive coffee beans. Several recipients said they felt weird taking money from me and wanted to give the money back. When I insisted they keep the cash, they all seemed mightily relieved. And most fascinating to me were the four recipients who never said a word to me about receiving the money, though cancelled checks confirmed they had, indeed, gotten the loot.

Did my giving away my small fortune prime the cosmic pump as I hoped it would? I assume so, though my income for the next several years remained barely adequate to cover rent and vittles, and the Internal Revenue Service did audit me for that year because of what my auditor called “an unlikely income spike.” But money, after all, is not the only measure of how Universe indicates her support for what we do and how we do what we do.

“My hand does the work and I don’t have to think; in fact, were I to think, it would stop the flow.” Edna O’Brien

So today I’m sitting on a bench on the terrace at the Presbyterian, summer fog cloaking the village, and I overhear the following snippets of conversation going on two benches away where six people, four men and two women, are passing pot pipes around and shooting the breeze.

Woman #1: Dude. You were married? For real?

Man #1: So, yeah, I was like totally married. Only she was like thirty and I’m like six years younger, so she just didn’t get me, you know? Like we were from totally different generations.

Woman #1: So are you like…divorced?

Man #1: Totally.

Man #2: Hey, where have you been? Nice shoes.

Woman #2: I was, you know, in LA and like…now I’m out on fifty thousand dollars bail.

Man #2: Dude. Fifty thousand. What did you do?

Woman #2: Lots.

Man #1: Pot?

Woman #2: No. I said lots. Credit cards and shit.

Man #1: Whoa, Dude. I thought you said pot.

Woman #2: No and one of the big credit card things was totally not mine, so…

Man #1: You want to smoke some hash on top of that?

Woman #2: Sure. Why not?

Woman #1: Totally, dude. Go with the flow.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Rich People

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“ Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least studied.” John Kenneth Galbraith

I know people who own nice houses and multiple cars and have sufficient wealth to eat and drink whatever they want to eat and drink, and to take occasional vacations, too, yet they do not consider themselves rich. That is, they do not think of themselves as people who should pay higher taxes because, well, they feel they pay high enough taxes as it is, too high, actually, and besides, they aren’t part of that one per cent we hear so much about, those multi-millionaires and billionaires who pay no taxes at all. These people I know don’t own three and four homes, for goodness sake. Some of them own two houses, and maybe a rental or two, but no one ever gave them a golden parachute. They voted for Clinton and Obama. They proudly click buttons on web sites to indicate their opposition to icky pipelines and their sympathy for homeless people and their support for endangered species. So…now their houses are plummeting in value, their stock portfolios are crashing, and the price of everything edible and the price of anything that produces heat and electricity and horse power is skyrocketing, so it’s not as if these people have much to spare. In fact, when you add everything up, these people I know with houses and money are, relatively speaking, poor, though the words poor and rich are not precise terms; so let’s just say that these people I know with houses and cars and money are adamant that they are not rich.

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields

I was six-years-old when my family moved from a tiny house in a working class neighborhood in San Mateo to a three-bedroom house in Atherton. For those of you unfamiliar with Atherton, it is a town of eight thousand residents and their servants not far from Stanford University, twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco on the northern edge of what is now called Silicon Valley, formerly Santa Clara Valley. The town of Atherton, though there is no commercial sector to speak of so it isn’t really a town but more of an enclave, is where the fabulously wealthy robber barons (Stanford, Spreckels, Crocker, Hopkins, etc.) built huge estates in the late 1800’s to escape the madding crowds and cold foggy summers of San Francisco, the climate of Atherton kin to Camelot. Indeed, those untaxed zillionaires built a private railroad to carry them in gilt coaches from their San Francisco mansions to their Atherton mansions, which railroad became the commuter line that today runs from San Francisco to San Jose.

The vast estates of these robber barons were eventually divided into twenty-acre estates for the next generation of wealthy crooks and entrepreneurs, and when my folks bought their flimsy two-year-old house in 1956 for thirty thousand dollars, most of those twenty-acre estates had been subdivided into one-acre parcels. Today, Atherton is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. That is to say, some of the wealthiest people in the world today have at least one of their houses in Atherton. But when I was a lad, the homeowners in our neighborhood were teachers, doctors, dentists, car salesmen, airline pilots, merchants, stockbrokers, graphic designers, advertising executives, and businessmen; and their wives. Most of these homeowners were children of the Great Depression, came from working class backgrounds, and had surpassed their parents on their way up the economic ladder to snag three-bedroom houses in Atherton.

My parents were forever out-of-step with the Atherton ethos, which is to say my father thought of our acre as a little farm, and so he planted a fruit orchard in the field in front of our house, planted a grove of twelve redwoods, let the wild oaks grow large, and cultivated a big vegetable garden on the edge of a small grove of ancient olive trees (planted hundreds of years ago) behind our flat-roofed one-story sort of modern-looking house. Everyone else in our neighborhood had manicured gardens patrolled by vigilant Japanese gardeners. I am proud to say that in my parents’ fifty-year tenure in Atherton, at least two ordinances were passed specifically to curtail the Beverly Hillbilly tendencies of my derelict father. The first ordinance forbade field grass to be above six inches high, and the second ordinance forbade the hanging of unsightly objects in trees—my father forever dangling strips of aluminum foil in his fruit trees to scare away voracious birds.

Which is all to say I grew up in the midst of rich people, went to school with a mix of rich kids and working class kids, had a few extremely wealthy friends, and was, in fact, rich, though I didn’t know I was rich because my mother insisted we were poor and if I wanted money I would have to work for it, which I began to do in earnest at the age of eleven, gardening for neighbors and babysitting their children, many of whom were not much younger than I.

“Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.” George Bernard Shaw

Shortly after the passage of Jarvis Gann in 1978, the infamous Proposition 13 that put a ceiling of one per cent on property taxes in California, and with the ensuing ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and his everything-for-the-rich-nothing-for-anybody-else policies, housing prices in Atherton went from high to incredibly high. And though my parents’ falling apart old house was by then essentially worthless, the acre it sat upon was worth a million dollars in 1980, two million dollars in 1990, and three million dollars in 1995. When I came home to visit over the course of those fifteen years, I found Atherton undergoing a shocking transformation that reached a crescendo of obscenity at the height of the dot com insanity circa 1997.

In the Atherton real estate parlance of the 1990’s, houses built in the 1950’s and 60’s were called scrapers, not tear-downs, but scrapers, because when such a house sold to a wealthy buyer, the entire lot—house, driveway, trees, everything—was scraped down to bare earth to make way for a massive new house that would cover most of that acre of ground and sell for between seven and fifteen million dollars. These new houses, by the way, were not passive solar, active solar, or even attractive. They were huge blocky hideous monstrosities, ecological disasters housing extremely rich people.

“Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” Thomas Jefferson

True story. Just up the hill from my parents’ house, a shady lane departed from the main road and wended its way around a dozen large homes built in the 1950’s and 60’s, each house sitting on a two-acre lot. I used to go up that lane when I was a boy, braving the growling dogs, because at lane’s end there was a fabulous gorge filled with live oaks and a seasonal creek—a wild refuge inhabited by deer and bobcats and quail and nature spirits. I played there for many a summer, sometimes with friends but more often alone, imagining I was an Indian, and I don’t mean someone from India.

Forty-some years later in the 1990’s, a young man devised a kind of software I shall not name, software used for accounting, and he became a multi-billionaire. With a small portion of his fortune, he bought all twelve of the large houses on that shady lane, and he bought the wild gorge, too, along with several other adjacent properties. He paid five and six and seven million dollars for each of the shady lane houses, and twelve million for the house of an old woman who was not going to sell to him at any price, at first. Then the young man did an odd thing. He invited several of his friends to party with him in those many houses he’d bought, and in each house he and his friends put golf balls on the floors, and using the best golf clubs money can buy, the young man and his friends hit those golf balls through the windows of the houses. Fun? I don’t know.

Having shattered the windows of these many houses (some of which were designed by famous architects and featured in Sunset Magazine and Architectural Digest) this young man and his friends drove gigantic bulldozers into and through and over these houses, for the fun of it, I suppose, before they turned the work over to professionals who really knew how to scrape everything away down to the ground.

Then the young man ordered thousands and thousands of gigantic truckloads of dirt to be brought from faraway to fill the wild gorge so the land would be level for his very own nine-hole golf course, no skimping on distances, designed by a famous golf course designer. Then the young man had a house built at the high point of his property, a house that took dozens of carpenters and masons three years to build, an enormous four-story mansion resembling the castle in the Disney logo; and the young man also had a huge indoor athletic facility built a stone’s throw from his castle, a facility housing a big swimming pool and a tennis court and a racquetball court and a full-sized basketball court. And then, along with two posh guesthouses, one Japanese modern, one Swiss Chalet, he had a beautiful fountain installed at the bottom of the gently sloping hill behind his castle.

Only this is no ordinary beautiful fountain. No, this young man’s fountain, which resides in the center of an enormous plaza accessed by an immense staircase descending from the vast terrazzo behind the young man’s castle, is an exact replica of the largest fountain at Versailles. The young man had the massive fountain and the enormous plaza and the immense staircase built by a small army of skilled craftsmen flown from Italy to California to make these colossal replicas out of exquisite white marble quarried in Carrara.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Brandon Crawford

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

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

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit

By the Imagination.” Emily Dickinson

While following a seemingly insignificant line of thought I will suddenly find myself on a broad avenue of inquiry that becomes the on-ramp to a sixteen-lane super highway of conjecture leading to an imposing citadel wherein is housed the solution to all the problems of humankind. Wow. Talk about grandiose. But isn’t that how our minds sometimes work, leaping from the insignificant to a grand unified theory of everything?

For instance, my recent musings about Brandon Crawford merged onto the super highway of an idea that all the problems of human society can be traced to a lack of imagination, to the inability of people to imagine new ways of proceeding rather than repeating the same old nonsense that dooms us all to slide down the steep and slippery slopes to a most unpleasant bottom of the dysfunctional pyramidal paradigm.

Who is Brandon Crawford? A descendant of English royalty? An up-and-coming politico? A movie star? Nay. Brandon Crawford is a baseball player, an easy-going California guy, a wide-ranging and quietly brilliant shortstop for the San Francisco Giants recently sent back to the minor leagues where, because of the aforementioned lack of imagination by people in positions of power, he definitely does not, in the way I imagine things, belong.

When Brandon was called up from the minor leagues a month or so ago, the Giants were reeling from injuries to star players and mired in a debilitating ennui that threatened to send our team spiraling out of contention for a return to the World Series. Desperation, not imagination, inspired General Manager Brian Sabean and Manager Bruce Bochy to call up the young Brandon, and the results were miraculous. The moribund team came to life, moved into first place, and steadily won more games than they lost. Brandon Crawford, as far as my imagination is concerned, was the catalyst for this revival, and his removal from the starting lineup and eventual demotion to the minor leagues was the cause of the team’s recent collapse. Crawford’s individual statistics may not support my view, but baseball is a team sport, synergy ineffable, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

“The status quo sucks.” George Carlin

Few of the people in power in the Giants organization, and terribly few people in power in our local, state, and national governments, and almost no one in power in the movie business and publishing industry, in energy production and transportation and environmental protection, in education and agriculture and healthcare and foreign policy seems capable of understanding what is blatantly obvious to you and me and millions of moderately intelligent people. Why is this? Could it be that the people in power have little or no imagination?

Assuming that’s true, how did such unimaginative people get into positions of power over so many people with more imagination than they? And the answer is: unimaginative people select other unimaginative people to work for them and succeed them, while actively discriminating against people with original ideas and less conventional ways of doing things. Thus the status quo is forever protecting itself unto decrepitude and terminal ossification. Yes, you agree, but how did those unimaginative poop heads get into power in the first place, from which positioning they continue to perpetrate such stultifying stupidity? Good question.

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Mark Twain

Assuming not every election is rigged (and maybe that’s an unwise assumption), we, the people, elected the amoral dingbats now actively destroying our world, and we’ve been electing them and re-electing them for hundreds of years. Why do we vote for these unimaginative people? Why do we continue to buy unimaginative books and go to unimaginative movies and watch unimaginative television? I think we do these things because we fear our imaginations, which we were taught to fear. I would even say we are a culture that punishes children whenever their imaginations get the best of them and lead them into uncharted territories where their timid elders fear to follow. But why are the elders so afraid?

Because imagination is unpredictable and potentially disruptive of what we are used to; and what we are used to, for most adults, is apparently preferable to the unknown, probably because we’ve also been taught to fear the unknown. I, for instance, spent a large part of my previous life staying in disastrous relationships long after I should have jumped ship, so to speak, because though I could imagine myriad preferable alternatives to my rotten imbroglios, I was frozen by the fear that the fruits of my imagination would never ripen and I would fall into a bottomless pit of loneliness or even lousier relationships.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo

Hold everything. My imagination just did a loop-dee-loop and deposited me at the foot of a monument whereupon is engraved the command: Teach them to fear the unknown. Is this the imperative underpinning what I first imagined to be an imagination deficiency? Would it be more accurate to say that our fear of what we might imagine, rather than a lack of imagination, has brought humanity to the brink, and in some parts of the world, over the brink of disaster?

Buckminster Fuller, who imagined and then created the geodesic dome, convinced me through his highly imaginative writing that the largest impediment to humans making the world an environmentally zaftig and robust utopia is our misguided collective imagination. And just who has been misguiding our collective right brain? Clever, greedy, left-brain-dominated people who won’t allow themselves to imagine that spaceship earth was designed by an impeccably imaginative universe to provide plenty of food and comfort and fun for everyone onboard.

According to Bucky, humanity is choking to death on the ancient fish bone of the idea (the imagining) that life on earth is all about scarcity, when, in fact, with a modicum of creative re-imagining, we can open the non-existent doors to our illusory cages, step out onto the lush playing field, play shortstop, bat second, and be paid handsomely to do so.

“Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” Bob Lemon

Which brings us back to Brandon Crawford. Four days ago, having failed to win a game in five tries since Brandon’s exile to the lesser leagues, our Giants exploded for eight runs (the most this year at home) and our pitcher Brian Vogelsang continued his inexplicable, unpredicted, and hard-to-imagine (except for those of us with sufficient imagination) dominance and allowed but one run. Put another way: we finally won a game without Brandon Crawford. However, since that solitary win, we have played our archenemy the Philadelphia Phillies twice and had our butts handed to us on paper plates. That is to say: they beat us with ease.

So now our challenge is to imagine that despite the shortsightedness and lack of imagination by those in managerial positions, the collective imagination of millions of Giants fans will synergize to produce a shift in team consciousness and we will start winning again, defeat the mighty Phillies in the National League playoffs, and return to the World Series against who else but the New York Yankees.

My current dilemma is that I keep imagining dire scenarios involving multiple injuries to perfectly nice players necessitating Brandon Crawford being called back up to the mother team, and his return sparking a renaissance. But that’s old paradigm stuff. Hollywood hogwash. Violence-based winner-loser crap. Why not imagine multiple emotional and spiritual epiphanies overtaking our stars and journeymen alike, epiphanies leading to a harmony of energies that makes of the entire team one gigantic Brandon Crawford, only with a good batting average?

If I can imagine such a transformation of a silly old baseball team, surely we can put our psyches together and imagine millions of obscenely rich people sharing their wealth with everyone else in heretofore unimagined and totally groovy ways, so that war and weaponry and mountaintop removal quickly become things of the past and we are set free to imagine the infinite potential of what Bucky dubbed livingry.

Three Musketeers

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Oh, the women, the women!” cried the old soldier. “I know them by their romantic imagination. Everything that savors of mystery charms them.” Alexandre Dumas

Last Thursday evening, as I was about to go to bed, I had a moment of panic because I had nothing to read. Yes, there are millions of books; and hundreds of new volumes flood the world every day; but I was hungry for a particular literary food I’ve cultivated a taste for over a lifetime, nothing else will do, and I wasn’t sure I had anything of the kind in the house I hadn’t too recently read. Alas, I am allergic to science fiction, murder mysteries (save for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), fantasy, horror, mainstream fiction, exposés of the depredations of the oligarchic octopus, and odes to the coming collapse, thus new prose is, for the most part, of no use to me.

Stumbling into my cluttered office, I espied a volume recently procured from Daedalus Books, that goodly purveyor of publishers’ overstocks—a happily inexpensive Dover edition of the 167-year-old The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I had attempted to read the book as a teenager and found the language too rich for my fledgling taste buds. I had seen a movie based loosely on the book (there have been more than twenty movies made from the novel) and I have always liked myths in which a group of characters compose a collective being, each character a distinct aspect of the whole—Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck; Groucho, Harpo, and Chico; D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. And so with hope in my heart, I lugged the ample paperback to bed, settled in for my customary bout of reading before sleep, and was relieved to find the first two chapters of The Three Musketeers exactly the food I craved.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

Three months before I began to read The Three Musketeers, I was inspired by various twists of fate to begin a series of large and colorful drawings (large for me, small for Picasso), 20 x 16 inches. I have been making pen and ink sketches since I was a child, but it was only two years ago at the age of fifty-nine that I went public for the first time with my artwork by introducing each chapter of my novel Under the Table Books with a pen and ink drawing. When these illustrations were mentioned favorably in reviews, I was emboldened to create seven zany black and white birthday cards (you can color them or not) that failed to cause a commercial ripple, much less a splash. Thereafter I contented myself with using the myriad scans of my drawings to decorate the instant stationery that computers and laser printers make possible.

What do my drawings have to do with The Three Musketeers?

“My heart is that of a musketeer; I feel it, Monsieur, and that impels me on.” Alexandre Dumas

Nine months ago I was invited to submit a short story to the Consumnes River Journal, a literary magazine of Consumnes Community College near Sacramento. I sent the editors a provocative story I was sure they would publish, but they disappointed my hopes. However, they were enamored of a drawing I included with the story, and to this drawing they dedicated an entire glossy page of their journal. Then about two months ago, shortly after the publication of the journal, I was contacted by a curator of an annual art show in Sacramento, a show of visual art created by writers, and this curator asked if I would like to present a few of my drawings in the next such show.

As it happened, the day I received the curator’s communiqué, I had just completed a series of three (large for me, small for Picasso) pieces I hoped to enter in a juried show at the Mendocino Art Center. However, I failed to have these beauties framed in time (they are still not framed) for the day of judgment, and so I will never know if I would have won a place in that show or not. Nevertheless, my sketching juices were flowing nicely when I received this invitation from Sacramento, and so there ensued a flurry of pen and ink inventions resulting in the birth of a family of colorful characters named Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Mystery, Mischief, and Merlin.

“D’Artagnan was amazed to note by what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of nations and the lives of men are suspended.” Alexandre Dumas

The central hero (sometimes anti-hero) of The Three Musketeers is a daring young man named D’Artagnan. Whenever Dumas found himself at a cul-de-sac in the plot, he arranged for D’Artagnan to accidentally stumble upon an important someone or something to get the action moving again. These recurring “accidentals” are among my least favorite things about the novel, along with much of the final third of the mighty tome, though when I learned Dumas wrote the novel in serial form (The Three Musketeers was first published in a French magazine over the course of several months in 1844) I was more forgiving of these implausible plot twists, having myself authored a serial work of fiction for a Sacramento weekly in the 1980’s.

And, in fact, we do frequently stumble upon and over things that propel the plots of our lives, so in that sense D’Artagnan embodies the Sufi mystic who goes forth with an open heart and open mind to discover what the universe has to offer. As Paladin’s business card said Have Gun, Will Travel, so D’Artagnan’s card might have read Have Sword, Will Duel, and my card might say Have Pen, Will Make Large (for me, not for Picasso) Drawings.

Speaking of propelling the plot…lacking a studio I have commandeered the dining table for purposes of making my larger-than-usual drawings, and Marcia, my wife and boon companion these last five years, is now privy to my works-in-progress. To my great relief, she likes my drawings and even makes cogent suggestions about color choices and composition, all of which I strictly obey. (Not)

One recent evening Sandy Cosca came over and Marcia said to me, “Show Sandy your drawings,” which I did.

Sandy chuckled at the drawings (because they are funny) and asked, “Are these illustrations for a story?”

And though I heard myself say, “No,” I wondered if they were illustrations for a story. How long a story? A novella? A novel? A serial?

Two days later, Marion Crombie, freshly returned from England, viewed the drawings, smiled brightly, and asked, “Do these go with a story?”

So at last we come back to that fateful evening I alluded to in the first sentence of this article, when I, in a D’Artagnan-like moment of desperation, stumbled into my office, found The Three Musketeers, and began to feed upon that tale. Having gobbled the first two chapters, I fell asleep and had a vivid dream in which the Magician family came to life and revealed themselves to be a complicated and compelling collective being, each character a distinct aspect of a fantabulous whole. The dream, clearly, was the beginning of a story: Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Merlin, Mystery, and Mischief, though what the story is about and how long it turns out to be remain to be seen.

I have only written the first two chapters, and so far the tale seems less about dueling with the forces of evil ala D’Artagnan, and more about parents and children and their struggles to separate and individuate and ultimately come together again to take meaningful action against the larger forces of greed and avarice. The Magicians, though not great swordsmen or the darlings of wealthy queens and kings and cardinals, seem to be social activists of a most unusual kind, and they seem to pose the question: how will we, you and I, give aid to our friends and our communities in the face of the terrible and growing inequities engendered by a ruling class of narcissistic psychopaths hell bent on turning back the clock to feudal times when the likes of D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers served a tiny minority of wealthy people whose pathological selfishness kept all but the luckiest few enslaved by poverty and fear?

You can view Todd’s zany birthday cards (and soon his Magician family drawings) at UnderTheTableBooks.com