Archive for January, 2012

Going Postal

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Saroyan Envelope by Jenifer Angel

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

“I claim there ain’t


Another Saint


As great as Valentine.” Ogden Nash

The notices currently taped to both sides of the glass doors of the Mendocino Post Office proclaim that starting February 14, 2012, our post office will henceforth be closed on Saturdays, and postal business shall only be conducted Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 4 PM. That our government, otherwise known as the Council of Evil Morons, would choose Valentine’s Day to kick off this latest contraction of our terrific postal system strikes me as ironic and cruel, as well as evil and moronic.

I and most Americans over fifty first learned how the postal system worked when we were in First and Second Grade and our teachers helped us create and operate our very own in-classroom post offices for the purpose of sending and receiving Valentines to and from our classmates. At Las Lomitas Elementary School we had actual post offices (built by handy parents) that took up big chunks of classroom real estate. These one-room offices featured windows behind which stood postal workers from whom we could buy stamp facsimiles (fresh from the mimeograph machine) to affix with edible white paste to our properly addressed envelopes. These envelopes contained store bought or handmade Valentines, and we would drop these childish love missives into cardboard mailboxes located across the rooms from the post offices. Then every hour or so postal workers would open these mailboxes, empty the contents into transport bags, and carry the mail to the post offices wherein the letters would be sorted into cubbyholes bearing the names of the recipients. And we, the children, got to be the postal workers and do all these fun jobs. How cool is that? For a six-year-old, way cool.

These Valentines postal operations stimulated many other sectors of our classroom ecology. Making art took on new and urgent meaning, as did writing. Anyone could send a regular valentine, but only artists and poets could make valentines covered with glitter (affixed to that same edible paste) bearing heartfelt original (or accidentally plagiarized) rhymes. Roses are red, violets are blue, please be my Valentine, shoo bop doo wah.

Valentines were the gateway drugs that turned me into the snail mail addict I am today, which is why I am so sad and angry about the decline and impending fall of our beloved postal system. Yes, I appreciate a good email missive, one without typos or grammatical errors; but the best email pales next to a mediocre piece of real mail found in my post office box, a one-of-a-kind Easter egg of love waiting to be discovered amidst the bills and junk mail, something made just for me that took someone more than a few seconds to compose and send, something steeped in what psychologists call “quality time”—loving attention undivided.

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

Get over it, Todd. No. I take Marshall McLuhan’s observation “the medium is the message” as a warning that what we think we’re doing may not be what we’re actually doing. McLuhan was speaking about mass media, television in particular, a medium through which I thought I was watching shows I wanted to watch, when in actuality I was allowing myself to be seduced by processes designed to entrain me to think and feel the way our corporate overlords want everyone to think and feel. Television is a medium of conquest and control. The message of that medium is “Do and be and buy what we tell you to do and be and buy or you will never be safe and happy. Ever.”

So it came to pass that I and many other people figured out the real message of mass media and television and broke free from that enslavement and stayed free long enough to help engender and partake of a brief renaissance of creative freedom known as the Sixties, a cultural revolution largely defined by its independence from mass media and corporate control. Some say the Sixties lasted into the 1970’s, and some say reverberations of that renaissance continued into the 1980’s, but for however long the groovy vibes of the Sixties kept on vibing, the important thing to know is that the innovative energy and expressions of that renaissance were eventually captured and drained of their power by the corporate media apparatus; and the next iteration of television was the computer and the internet and all the attendant satellite devices that define this digital age.

When I quit watching television in 1969, very little else changed in my life. My arts of writing and music were independent of television, and communications for personal and business matters were fast and effective by telephone and through the post office. But a couple years ago when I came out of a trance to find myself watching a basketball game on my computer, having sat down with the specific intention of rewriting a story, it suddenly dawned on me that computers are nothing more than interactive televisions, and now, oops, virtually all my personal and business dealings are inextricably bound to the use of the computer. Today I send my essays to the Anderson Valley Advertiser and other prescient publishers via email, I offer my music and books and art for sale through the internet, and to abstain from using my computer in the same way I abstained from using television would render me immediately and entirely removed from all but the most local of cultures, counter or otherwise.

Yet to stay hooked up to my computer is to be an active and addicted user of a medium that is the message, “Do and be and buy what we tell you to do and be and buy or you will never be safe and happy. Ever.” Except just as there are more layers to the computer/internet interface with our lives than there were with that earlier version of television, so are there more layers to the new medium’s message. Now, along with being told a million times a year what to do and be and buy, we are also compelled through the brutal elimination of alternatives to spend most of our time peering at our computer screens if we wish to feel connected to what we think is most important and meaningful, i.e. what is happening right now in those fields of endeavor we are most interested in.

Post offices, in my view, are among the last few vibrant vestiges of the non-computer way of doing and being, which is the real reason the Council of Evil Morons wants to strangle that marvelous system; so there will be no alternative, none at all, to computers and the internet as a means of doing and being, except on a local basis—very local. Which brings me to my latest idea for kindling the next cultural and social and political renaissance that will save the world and usher in the long awaited age of global enlightenment, which then may or may not precipitate contact with brilliant aliens who have been waiting for us to make the evolutionary leap from stupid selfish poopheads to smart generous sweetie pies.

My idea is that we start our own local post offices, without the aid of computers. We can use telephones to get the ball rolling, but not cell phones. These extremely local post offices will be adult versions of the post offices we had in First and Second Grade, manned by fun loving volunteers. Stamps created by a wide range of local artists will cost a nickel. You will need one stamp for every ounce of mail you send. Post office boxes (cubbyholes) will rent for ten dollars per year. The money collected from selling stamps and renting cubbyholes will go into maintaining the postal buildings with their clean and commodious adjoining public restrooms and teahouses.

Among the many cool things about these local post offices will be that they will be open seven days a week from morning until night, they will have tables and chairs where people can sit and write letters and decorate envelopes and gossip, of course, and they will have multiple gigantic well-maintained bulletin boards whereon anyone may post anything. Neato one-of-a-kind rainproof mailboxes created by local artisans will be scattered throughout the local watershed—and mail will be collected from these neato mailboxes several times a day and transported to the post office in colorful burlap bags. Then the letters will be sorted into our cubbyholes throughout every long day, thus making everyone feel safe and happy.

Yes, it would be easy to set up this kind of local post office using computers, but making something easy doesn’t necessarily make it good.

Todd’s snail mail address is P.O. Box 366 Mendocino CA 95460

 

 

 

 

Crazy Memory

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” Aldous Huxley

I used to know a loquacious drunk who punctuated his pontifications with the disclaimer, “Of course, memories are, at best, only fair approximations of what actually happened, so please don’t quote me.” At least I think that’s what he said. And I took his disclaimer to mean that his memory was not so sharp, whereas my own recollections were essentially photographic and therefore highly accurate. Silly me.

A few nights ago we watched the movie Bedazzled (the original work of genius, not the execrable remake) created by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with a stirring cameo by the preternatural Raquel Welch, and we laughed so hard at some of the scenes I felt five years younger at movie’s end. I hadn’t seen Bedazzled in thirty years and feared the sarcastic romp might not stand the test of time, but it did with ease. However, what did not stand the test of time were my memories of favorite scenes from the film, for they were, as the drunk foresaw, only approximations of the actual scenes.

Indeed, I was crestfallen that my most favorite scene (as I remembered it) only barely resembled the actual scene in the film. Which scene? The one in which Raquel Welch brings Dudley Moore breakfast in bed. In my misremembered version, Raquel’s seduction of the hapless Moore lasts a good ten minutes and features the nearly naked Raquel erotically enunciating each syllable of the expression, “hot buttered buns” as part of an excruciatingly slow build to an orgasmic finish; when in actuality Raquel spat that delectable phrase rapid fire in the midst of a badly blurted speech prelude to seductus interruptus. Yet thirty years ago my brain seized on those three little words and made them the centerpiece of a seduction scene far more lurid and glorious than the one they filmed.

“Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.” Pierce Harris

During one of my many stints as a single man, I attended a party featuring scads of married couples and two single women, one seven-feet-tall, the other a midget, though now I’m not so sure about their heights. I am sure I fell into conversation with a vivacious married woman and ere long her jealous husband joined us. To assure him I had no designs on his wife (though she certainly inspired several marvelous designs) I asked them how they first met.

Vivacious Woman: We were working on the same float for the Rose Bowl parade and…

Husband of Vivacious Woman: No, honey. Rex and Sally set us up on a blind date a couple weeks before the parade.

Vivacious Woman: No, dear, you’re thinking of Tom and Rita. And it was two weeks after the parade. And it wasn’t a blind date because we already knew each other. No. You approached me ostensibly to borrow some pink flowers, but I knew you just wanted to get a closer look at me.

Husband of Vivacious Woman: Honey. Come on. You think I don’t remember how we met? It was only four years ago.

At this juncture, we were joined by a beautiful pregnant woman and her dumpy bald husband, and before Vivacious Woman and Husband of Vivacious Woman could come to blows over their divergent Rose Bowl memories, I asked Pregnant and Bald how they first met.

Pregnant: I was dating his brother…

Bald: You were not. We met long before you ever dated Jack. At the bowling alley. Remember? Then you went out with Jack a couple times, and then…

Pregnant: A couple times? I went out with your brother for a year, and if he hadn’t been transferred to Atlanta…

Bald: Ten months is not a year.

Pregnant: That’s true. Ten months is technically not a year.

“


Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.” Austin O’Malley




Speaking of crazy people and what we think we remember, in my former life as an author of books published by large publishers, I often performed in bookstores, cafés, theaters, and college auditoriums. And though I enjoyed performing and my audiences were generally appreciative, I eventually shied away from such public exposure because crazy people kept coming to my performances and zapping me with their psychic toxins. Here are two such encounters as I remember them.

Encounter #1: I am in a large old bookstore standing on a small dais facing an audience of sixty people. I have sung a couple songs, accompanying myself on guitar, and read a few stories, and the laughter and applause have been raucous. The master of ceremonies (the owner of the bookstore) announces a fifteen-minute intermission, various people thank me for my performance, an aggressively attractive woman hands me her business card and suggests we meet for coffee, and an old friend hugs me and whispers, “Watch out, buddy, she’s crazy as a loon.”

As I make my way outside for a breath of fresh air, a big man with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard approaches me. He is wearing a red plaid shirt, gray slacks and brown hiking boots, and I recall seeing him smiling at me during my performance—smiling gigantically. I stop walking when this man is within six feet of me and I fully expect him to stop at a reasonable distance from me, but he doesn’t stop until his face is within a few inches of mine.

“You kept looking at me,” he snarls. “Why were you looking at me?”

“I beg your pardon, but…”

“Don’t deny it,” he spits. “You kept looking at me because you thought I liked you, didn’t you? You saw me laughing when everybody else was laughing and you thought I was laughing because I liked you but I was only laughing because I wanted you to think I liked you when I don’t like you. I hate you. And if you don’t stop looking at me, I’ll kill you.”

“Now you’ve gone too far,” I say, looking around for help. “And I’m gonna call the police if you don’t leave on your own.”

“Fuck you!” he shouts, running away into the night. “Fuck you famous writer asshole motherfucker piece of shit!”

Encounter #2: I have just finished performing for a good little audience in a small café, (by good I mean they laughed at the funny parts and cheered at the end, and by little I mean more than ten but less than twenty) having larded my reading with improvisations rendered on a remarkably in-tune old upright piano. I am making my way toward a table where a half-dozen people are waiting to buy my books and home made cassette recordings, this being in the days before the advent of CDs and digital everything, when a slender cowgirl blocks my path, her red velvet cowboy hat dotted with silver sequins, her blond hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her black cowboy shirt detailed with creamy white embroidery, her skirt rawhide brown, her shiny boots lime green, her age somewhere between thirty and forty-five.

“Hey,” she says, her voice as breathy as the wind they call Mariah (not really, I just couldn’t resist using that expression), her accent distinctly Serbian, “can I speak with you for little moment?”

“Sure,” I say, happy to see the people waiting to buy my books have fresh drinks in hand. “What can I do for you?”

“You are so generous,” she says, staring at my lips—her eyes shattered blue marbles. “I can hear how generous in your music, and…well…I can see things. Is my special gift. To see things. You know what I mean? What can be and what cannot be when certain things don’t or do fall into place, or not.”

“I think I have an inkling about what you mean,” I say, imagining her face without cowgirl war paint and guessing she is way more than cute. “What do you see?”

“I see you must stop writing.” She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and nods prophetically. “You must give everything to music or gift will be taken away.”

“But why? I like doing both. Music and writing.”

“Maybe you like doing both, but they don’t like you doing them both.” She opens her eyes and glares at me. “Just as I would not like you doing me and doing somebody else, too. I could not stand it. I would go crazy.”

“But music and writing are not people,” I say, relieved to see no holster, no gun. “And I like doing both.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, sudden tears spilling from her eyes. “You are afraid to give yourself completely to music because…such intimacy terrifies you. I can see clear as day. I can see your life on one path or another path. And if you do not stop writing and give yourself only to music you are doomed to play in junky rat holes like this for rest of life begging people to buy your shitty little books and shitty little tapes, when you could be huge.”

“Maybe so,” I say, wondering what it is about me that attracts such cuckoo birds, “but if not for this junky little rat hole, I never would have met you.”

 “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

What are we without our memories?

When I was forty-three, my seventy-year-old mother led me away from the Thanksgiving feast, made sure we were not overheard, and whispered urgently, “I’m losing my mind and it’s not coming back. I’m in a nightmare and I want it to end. You have to help me kill myself.”

I realize now that my mother’s request was perfectly reasonable, but at the time I couldn’t imagine abetting her suicide, which I felt would make me a murderer. Twenty years gone by, I can easily imagine seeking the proper pill to curtail the horrendous suffering I watched my mother endure for twelve long years until finally, blessedly, at the age of eighty-two, she died in the skilled nursing facility where she had spent her last few years, having spent the previous eight years in a storage facility for those suffering from the brand of dementia known as Alzheimer’s.

Every few weeks for the years of my mother’s internment, I would take the train from San Francisco to Menlo Park and walk the half-mile from the station to that pea-green warehouse where Avis was a favorite of the friendly staff of Mexicans. They pronounced her named Ah-vees and identified her as ella que andando: she who walks, for my mother did little else when she wasn’t sleeping.

One day, after my mother had been in the joint for three years, I found her—lank white hair, plaid slacks inside out, yellow blouse wrongly buttoned, mismatched shoes—walking down a dimly lit hallway speaking to no one.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, catching up to her.

“They wanted fifty-seven and I told them where do you think?” she said, frowning at me. “How did you get here?”

“I took the train,” I said, holding her hand.

“You’re allowed to do that?” she asked, shaking her head. “I don’t trust him. Hiding under the mattress over his bandana.”

I took her outside where we could amble along the cement walkway that outlined the facility, my mother trying the locked gates to see if they might open—the air scented with stink from a nearby car fire.

“Would you like to go somewhere else?” I asked, hopelessly. “Into the village for an ice cream cone?”

“I sleep in a refrigerator,” she said, sitting on a bench and looking at her hand. “What a funny fig.”

I sat beside her and she jumped as if shocked.

“It’s only me,” I said, making light of her surprise.

“Who are you?” she asked, frowning suspiciously. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your son. Todd. I came on the train.”

“How dare they,” she said, pouting. “I gave him fifty-seven and he spilled nobody over again.”

“Are you thirsty?” I asked, wanting only to soothe her.

“I had fifty-seven overviews with red disasters,” she said, shaking her head. “But they couldn’t get over the river. Kaput.”

An old man, bent and grizzled, came around the corner, walking with mincing steps and peering intently at the ground.

My mother leapt up, embraced the old man, and kissed him on the lips.

The old man stuttered, “I haven’t…I don’t…why…who…okay.”

My mother took the old man’s hand and walked away with him, forgetting all about me.

“They hid under the milkshake and stayed there,” said my mother, kissing the old man’s cheek. “And pretty soon the shit was dry.”

Close Calls

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Hawk pen and ink drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

“Fate laughs at probabilities.”  E.G. Bulwer-Lytton

For me to be born, my parents had to meet at Beverly Hills High in 1939, which only happened because in 1932, when my mother Avis was eleven, she went on a long walk in Phoenix, Arizona and learned from the announcement on a hotel marquee that Tommy Dorsey and his band were playing there that very night.

Avis took that fateful walk because she was tired of being cooped up in a motel room with her seven-year-old brother Howard and her thirty-three-year-old mother Goody, and because she was sad and lonely and didn’t know what else to do. Avis and Goody and Howard were living in that Phoenix motel room, having hurriedly left Los Angeles some weeks before, because Goody was fed up with her husband Casey for failing for the umpteenth time to bring home enough bacon, so to speak, to keep the bill collectors at bay and put sufficient food on the table for two growing kids. Casey was a real estate broker and a gambler, and in the depths of the Great Depression things were not going well for him in either field. Goody and Casey were Jewish, their last name Weinstein, and so their struggles were compounded by the fierce anti-Semitism of those times. They would eventually change their last name to Winton so they could pretend not to be Jewish, a tactic they hoped would increase their options for housing and employment.

Why Phoenix? Family lore has it that Phoenix was as far as they got before Goody ran out of money. Goody’s parents were in Michigan where Goody was born, so perhaps Goody’s plan was to get back to the Jewish ghetto of Detroit where her relatives would not let her starve. But I think Goody chose Phoenix because it was just close enough to Los Angeles (an eight-hour drive) for Casey to visit every weekend to give Goody a little money, if he had any, and to beg her to come back to him. Goody was adamant she would not come back to him until he started making good money and giving most of that money to her.

So. Imagine a lazy Saturday in sunny Phoenix, 1932. Casey, a handsome fast-talking rogue with a Cesar Romero mustache, sat at the tiny table in the kitchenette of a little motel room, sipping coffee and speechifying to Goody and Howard about how very close he was to making several big real estate deals that would lift them out of poverty and into a life of luxury. How did my grandparents define a life of luxury? A nice house in Beverly Hills, a new car (Cadillac or Lincoln), music lessons for the kids, membership in a swank country club, servants, dining out at the best joints in town, and owning several apartment buildings providing endless rivers of cash.

“Name one deal you’re about to make,” snarled Goody, sick to death of Casey’s hollow braggadocio. “A real deal, not some pie in the sky.”

At which moment, my mother, Avis Gloria, returned from her walk. She was a slender girl with long black hair and huge brown eyes, and she was very serious, for her life had not been happy; and she strove to be perfect in every way so she might escape the wrath of her fiercely disenchanted mother.

“Well…” said Casey, clearing his throat portentously, “as a matter-of-fact, I had a call from Tommy Dorsey himself last week about a piece of property I own in the San Fernando Valley, and I would have closed the deal, but he was leaving the next day to go on tour, but when he comes back…”

“He’s here,” said my mother, smiling sadly at her father. “I saw his name on the hotel marquee.”

“Dorsey’s here?” said Casey, jumping up. “Fantastic! I’ll go see him right now.”

So Casey did go see Tommy, and the big band leader was so impressed with the charming young man for chasing him all the way to Phoenix (what chutzpah!), Tommy wrote Casey a check for fifteen hundred dollars (which in 1932 was a fortune) and Casey came back to the motel waving the check in victory. Hugs, tears, laughter, reunion, a celebratory return to Los Angeles and eventual matriculation at Beverly Hills High where my mother met the future conveyor of the spermatozoon that fertilized her zygote, etc.

Had my mother not gone on her lonely walk through downtown Phoenix, and had she not seen Tommy Dorsey’s name on that hotel marquee, I would never have been born. Or…one could argue that my mother had to go on that walk because her doing so was an essential ingredient in the unfathomably complex recipe of events designed by faultless Universe to produce…everything.

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

A fundamental precept of Buddhist philosophy is that our internal emotional processes create our outer experiences. Thus we may run away from unpleasant situations and miserable relationships, but until we change our psycho-spiritual landscape, it doesn’t really matter where we go, for new unpleasant situations and miserable relationships will inevitably manifest as reflections of our interior patterns.

In my former life as CEO of Avoidance Strategies Ink, a highly unprofitable one-person for-profit organization dedicated to running day and night just a few inches ahead of a murderous threshing machine of self-generated karma, the idea that I was responsible for my own troubles was extremely annoying to me. Indeed, I was absolutely convinced that other people were responsible for my unhappiness; that my sorrowful history was writ by scoundrels taking unfair advantage of my intrinsic kindness and generosity. True, some of these men and women had not, at first, seemed to be scoundrels or to be taking advantage of me, but eventually I was able to fit them all squarely into the scoundrel category. And then I turned thirty and stopped fleeing every year from one town to another.

“What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” Charles Dickens

When we first become aware of a lifelong pattern of behavior that has caused us recurrent misery, we tend to think, “Well, now that I’m aware of the pattern I certainly won’t make that mistake again.” Ha! Conscious awareness of part of a deeply entrenched pattern of behavior does not mean we will be able to recognize subtle variations of that pattern, especially since we are almost certainly addicted to the emotional sustenance such patterns provide.

For instance, I am the child of two verbally abusive and highly intrusive alcoholics. Therefore, from an early age I was predisposed to form friendships and relationships with variations on that parental prototype. In textbook terms, I became a Grade AA co-dependent enabler who craved the company of people who constantly undermined my feelings of self-worth and required me to do my best to keep them in booze while maintaining the pseudo functionality of our dyad/family. When, at the age of forty-two, I finally became fully aware of my lifelong relational pattern, I was able to terminate a number of deleterious connections and avoid forming new liaisons with obvious alcoholics and obviously abusive people; but life, as I’m sure you know, has much more up her sleeve than the obvious. And so I embarked on a curious series of relationships with people who had developed passive aggression to a high art, and who were essentially unavailable to me, no matter how mightily I strove to please them.

“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky

In 1970, hitchhiking across Canada from east to west, I got a ride from a middle-aged guy driving a turquoise 1966 Ford Fairlane. I had been camped for three days beside the Trans-Canadian highway in the middle of nowhere on the plains of Saskatchewan, and I was so desperate for a ride, I disregarded the stench of cigarettes and cheap wine and got in the car, though my every instinct said No Thanks.

Lon was a badly bruised bull from a small town in Arkansas, “a hunnert miles from Little Rock,” and had been on the run for three years, having thrown a policeman out a two-story window back home. “I don’t know if he died or not,” said Lon, rummaging in his glove compartment. “Didn’t stick around to find out. You see a baggy in there with some whites? I’m fading out. Need some speed.”

“I’ll drive,” I said, thinking I’d quit the ride if he refused my offer.

“Good deal,” he said, showing me his shortage of teeth with a weary grin. “I need sleep bad, but can’t stop until I get to Calgary.”

So I drove and Lon slept, Calgary eight hundred miles away, and I marveled at the exigencies of fate. Why this guy? Why not a pretty woman looking for love? Why not a groovy band looking for a guitar player? Why not a Lakota holy man looking for an apprentice? Why a smelly old drunk on the lam?

In the course of our journey together, Lon told me over and over again how he caught the cop in bed with his wife, threw the sombitch out the window, slugged his wife—“Purty sure I broke her jaw from the sound of it”—and figured he, Lon, was a dead man one way or another if he didn’t get out of Arkansas pronto. “Went to Florida first,” he said, lighting another of his endless cigarettes, “cuz I heard my brother Floyd was workin’ the carny circuit in the panhandle over there, but that sombitch always stays a few days ahead of me, not that he knows I’m lookin’ for him. Sombitch in Winnipeg said he heard Floyd was runnin’ a Ferris wheel at Calgary Stampede, and that party lasts ten days, so…”

We stopped for gas in another part of the middle of nowhere and Lon bought a fistful of candy bars for supper. He said he made his money working in garages doing oil changes and lube jobs and changing tires. Said he could change a tire in a couple minutes, “but I’m shit for a mechanic.” He said he also made money as a bouncer in bars where “fast women, pissed off men, too much booze, and terrible loud music spell trouble.”

“Dangerous,” I offered, stating the obvious.

“I like to hit people,” he said, nodding. “And I don’t mind gettin’ hit. Actually kinda like it. Wakes me up. Helps me focus. You know?”

Just as we were about to drive off with our candy bars, two raggedy longhaired goons came out of nowhere and asked if they could ride with us. One of them was a large blond goon with a big Bowie knife in a black sheath on his belt, and the other was a lesser brunette goon with a lesser knife on his belt; and their vibe, their gestalt, if you will, was bad, and I don’t mean good. They stunk of violence. Lon saw my fear, snorted contemptuously, and said to the goons, “Sure, why the fuck not?”

Every cell in my body screamed Don’t get in that car with those sombitches, Todd. Please. We, your every cell, would rather stand by the side of the road for a month than travel with those monsters.

But I did get in with those sombitches because I was desperate to get out of nowhere and because…well, because. Lon drove, I rode shotgun, and the goons rode in back. And I could feel those monsters trying to decide whether to force Lon at knifepoint to pull over so they could take the car, or whether to just kill us and take the car, or whether to get to Calgary before they killed anybody. I suppose I might have been imagining their violent intentions, but I don’t think so.

For a short infinity the goons seemed cowed by Lon’s bouncer stories featuring the breaking of many noses, arms, and heads, but then the stories began to ring with false bravado and the larger goon said, “Hey, man, pull over. I gotta pee.”

He made this demand as dusk was settling over the plains and we were in the deepest depths of the middle of nowhere; not another car in sight for as far as the eye could see in any direction.

“Yeah,” said the lesser goon. “Pull the fuck over, man.”

To which Lon replied tersely, “In a minute.”

“Hey, man, I can’t wait,” said the big goon. “Just pull the fuck over.”

“You heard him,” said the lesser goon. “He can’t wait.”

“In a minute,” Lon repeated. “Place right up the way here with a john. I gotta go, too. Number two.” And then he laughed a dry, brittle laugh, which ignited in him a horrid fit of coughing that lasted several minutes, which at eighty-five miles an hour carried us up and over a long rise and down into a valley at the heart of which was a blessed roadside burger stand where we parked amidst a bevy of trucks.

I was determined not to travel another minute with the goons, even if it meant homesteading in western Saskatchewan, so while the goons went to pee in the sagebrush and Lon used the modern facilities, I got my pack and guitar out of the Fairlane.

The goons came back to the car and the large goon said to me, “You gettin’ out here?”

“Maybe,” I said, looking him in the eye to see if I still thought he was a killer, which I did.

And then a most peculiar thing happened, something I am tempted to call a miracle, except I know the word miracle bugs the crap out of some people, so I’ll stick with peculiar. I became someone I hadn’t known was part of who I am—a kind of warrior actor.

“I get violent sometimes,” I said, looking at the ground and nodding. “Crazy. You know? Like I have so much fucking strength I’m gonna explode if I don’t do something with it. And I don’t like to be around other people when I’m feeling like this because I’m afraid I might hurt somebody even if I don’t want to hurt anybody, which I never do unless I think they want to hurt me.”

The goons listened intently—watching me.

“I can do impossible things with my strength,” I said, continuing to look at the ground and nod. “Like…”

I looked up and scanned the parking area, and about fifty yards away from us stood a big gray metal garbage can.

“You see that can over there?” I said, glaring at the big goon.

“Yeah,” said the big goon, glancing anxiously at the lesser goon.

“Watch,” I said, reaching down and picking up a black stone the size of a baseball. “Watch this.”

Then, with the briefest of forethought, I threw that stone at the garbage can, and the stone arced high through the purple dusk, reached the apex of its flight, and fell down into the can—a collision sounding like a gunshot.

“Fuck,” said the big goon, backing away from me.

“Yeah,” said the lesser goon. “Fuck.”

And those two, who were just people, did not travel on with us, but waved goodbye as Lon and I drove off into the sunset, the Fairlane purring like a huge contented cat.

Mystery Inventions

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Daughter Mystery painting by Todd

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

Deeply moved by a concert of music by Martinû and Mozart, a man gives fifty dollars to a street musician, a Venezuelan bass player whose musical inventions are reminiscent of Eric Satie and Bill Evans. The bass player uses the fifty dollars to buy herself the first nourishing meal she’s had in weeks, after which she catches a train to visit her mother for the first time in several months, and arrives to find her mother dying. With her last breath, the bass player’s mother reveals the identity of the bass player’s real father; and while questing to find her father, the bass player meets a pianist with whom she records ten improvisations, each a musical meditation on the question: what is life all about?

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.” Albert Schweitzer

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas makes an excellent case for the digging stick and the ostrich egg being the two most important inventions in human history—more important than fire or weaponry. I am reading The Old Way again, Thomas’s masterpiece about the Bushmen of the Kalahari; and I find her book the perfect antidote to the information overload and resultant anxiety of this digital age. Here is a tiny taste of The Old Way.

“A digging stick is humble, yes. The very name of this item in the English language shows how seriously we underrate it—we assign specific nouns, not vaguely descriptive phrases, to objects that we consider important. Our long stick with a blade at the end is call a spear, for instance, not a stabbing stick. But even if a pointed stick seems insignificant to us in our innocence, as an invention of consequence it ranks with the discovery of the deep roots themselves and has made more difference to our species than virtually all the other inventions we celebrate with more enthusiasm.”

“Then, too, there is the ostrich egg. This useful item is first a meal and then a water bottle. To use these eggs, we had to do only two things—steal a fresh egg without being kicked by the ostrich, and open a hole in the shell. Unless the egg is opened carefully, the contents will spill, so the best way to eat the egg without wasting the contents is to pick up a rock, tap open a small hole in the shell, and stir the contents with a stick. After sucking out the egg, we had an empty eggshell, with obvious implications. An ostrich egg holds from five to five and a half cups of water, more than a day’s supply. No further refinement was needed except a wad of grass for a stopper.”

“On the dry savannah, the need for water limited our foraging. One ostrich eggshell filled with water could expand the foraging range of its owner by fifty to one hundred square miles.”

“Only one kind of primate—our kind—found a way to reach the deep buried foods, carry small amounts of water, and modify tree nests into ground nests so that we could sleep anywhere.”

“There is no greater mystery to me than that of light traveling through darkness.” Alexander Volkov

Writing about inventions, I am reminded of that old joke (and its many variations) about a world conference to determine the most important invention of all time, each nation having an egoistic stake in nominating an invention thought to have originated in their country.

So the Russian representative rises. “We nominate sputnik. After all, first satellite started space race that put people on moon and spawned most important technological breakthroughs thereafter.” Loud applause.

The American representative stands. “Hey, there’s no denying sputnik was a good little kick in the pants, but has anything changed the world more profoundly than the computer? We don’t think so. We nominate the computer, that fundamentally American creation, as the most important invention of all time.” Thunderous applause.

Then the representative of the group or nation the joke teller wants to make fun of stumbles to the podium. “Of course, sputnik was a game changer, and life without computers is almost unimaginable, but there is one invention we think is far more amazing than both of those illustrious inventions, and that is the thermos. Keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold. How does it know?”

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

In 1900, the average life span of an American was forty-seven years, and the average life span for people in many other societies in the world was considerably less. The invention and deployment of penicillin in the 1940’s is credited with increasing that average life span to eighty years for citizens of America and other so-called advanced nations. Prior to the widespread use of antibiotics, millions of people, especially infants, children, and the elderly, died annually of diseases now easily cured. The most troubling result of this vast increase in human longevity is the increase in human population far beyond the regenerative capacity of the planet.

Consider this: paleoanthropologists have found almost no remains of pre-historic humans older than thirty. Lose a step ten thousand years ago and you were tiger food, or possibly vittles for your brethren. Now try to imagine the world today if most people still died shortly after their wisdom teeth emerged to replace those molars lost during the first twenty years of chewing on the tough and the raw.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung

I recently came out with a new CD of piano and bass duets entitled Mystery Inventions on which I play piano and Kijé Izquierda plays bass. Each of our ten tunes explores variations on a basic melodic expression underscored by an intriguing bass pattern. Because my piano playing is spacious (some would say spare), the tunes on my previous piano albums 43 short Piano Improvisations and Ceremonies are melody-driven, whereas the bass drives the Mystery Inventions, even when the tempo is slow. I was tempted to bring in a drummer, but the interplay of bass and piano sounded so groovy, I opted for duet.

The most mysterious thing to me about my piano playing is that my left hand operates with no conscious direction from me, whereas my right hand learns through my conscious intentions. Because I do not read music or play music composed by other people, my compositions and improvisations are the result of hours of daily keyboard explorations during which I discover note patterns and interrelationships that captivate me sufficiently so I will repeat those patterns until my fingers remember them. The more thoroughly my fingers memorize these patterns, the freer I am to improvise on those patterns. I have been practicing this way for forty-five years, my right hand learning through my conscious inquiries, my left hand figuring things out on its own.

 “The final mystery is oneself.” Oscar Wilde

I don’t read music because when I was seven-years-old I took piano lessons from a very unhappy man who did not like me. After a few traumatic lessons wherein he berated me for not sufficiently practicing the assigned pieces, there came a horrific moment when he struck my right hand with a heavy metal pen because I was not, in his estimation, holding my hands correctly. I screamed bloody murder and ran out of the room. I can feel the ache in my knuckles to this day.

Thereafter I not only refused to play the piano, I could not look at our piano without feeling sick. Singing became my main mode of musical expression, and at sixteen I was a singer in a very loud rock band. The leader of the band was my close friend, and a talented guitarist. He used to come to my house and noodle around on his guitar while I accompanied him on bongos. One evening he pointed at our old upright piano and said, “Can you play that?”

“No,” I said, reluctant to even look at the piano.

“Oh, go on,” he said, reaching over and plunking a few notes. “Just play anything and I’ll play along.”

“No,” I said, furiously. “I don’t play the fucking piano, okay?”

“Please?” he insisted. “Just a few notes so I can play some harmonies.”

And because I wanted to please my friend, I went to the piano and played a simple pattern of notes; and six weeks later we opened for a rock band at a teen nightclub in the basement of a church in Woodside, California. I played simple patterns of notes and chords while my friend improvised on his electric twelve-string guitar. Two beautiful hippie chicks wearing dresses made of diaphanous scarves danced to our pubescent ragas, and afterwards a big black guy with a shaved head came up to me and said, “Busted hip, kid. You know Monk? Miles? Hubbard? Hancock? Evans? Cannonball? Check’em out.” So I did; and I was a goner.

And now, listening to Mystery Inventions, I bless that very sad man who smacked my knuckles fifty-five years ago, because if not for his striking me so cruelly, I might never have left the well-trod path and gotten lost in the wild jungle of possibilities.