Archive for February, 2012

Greek To Me

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“The church is the great lost and found department.” Robert Short

The terrace at the Presbyterian in Mendocino can be a wonderful place to sit and read and write and eat a snack, especially on a sunny day. From every bench one has a view of either the ocean sparkling in the distance or of the stately white church with its impressive shingled spire. Tourists and itinerants frequent the terrace, and sometimes these visitors will notice me there on a bench, deduce from my appearance and demeanor that I am a local character, and then ask me questions, which I do my best to answer.

“Where is the historical monument?” I think you mean historical landmark, and this church is the landmark.

“Is it a Catholic church?” No.

“Can you go inside the church?” I can, but I prefer to stay out here.

“I mean can we go inside the church?” If the door is unlocked, ye may enter.

“Is there a good Mexican restaurant in the village?” No.

“Is there a homeless shelter around here?” Not in Mendocino, but there is Hospitality House in Fort Bragg providing shelter for well-behaved homeless people.

“How far is it to Fort Bragg?” Eight to ten miles depending on which sign you believe.

“Is there an inexpensive motel around here?” No.

“Where is the best place to watch whales?” Alaska.

“We meant around here.” Take Little Lake Road to where it ends at the ocean. Get out of your car and…

“We have to get out of our car?” No. You can watch from your car, though your chances of actually seeing a whale or a whale spout will be greatly diminished if you stay in your car.

“Is there a good Chinese restaurant around here?” No.

“German?” Nein.

“Pizza?” Frankie’s.

“Any spare change?” Let me see.

“Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” the Dalai Lama

One fine day in February, the sun playing peek-a-boo with puffy white storybook clouds, I look up from my scribbling at the approach of a young couple and their dog, a trio extraordinaire I have seen several times of late around the village and hitchhiking north and south along the coast highway. The fellow has fantastically curly brown hair, a wild beard, and dusty black clothing. The gal is a cute brunette with big almond eyes and kiss-me lips, and in contrast to her dusty mate, her clothing is clean, her jeans blue, her Mexican blouse sparkling white. They both carry green canvas knapsacks and the gal totes a basket full of books and assorted odds and ends. Their dog, a smallish pit bull mix, is reddish brown, slightly cross-eyed, and held close to them by a six-foot length of white rope knotted to his leather collar.

“Hey,” says the young woman, her smiling eyes lit from recent puffs of pot. “How’s going?”

“Hey,” I reply, expecting they will ask me for money. “Going okay.”

“Can we ask you something?” Her voice, deep and strong, reminds me of a favorite friend, so I decide to give them ten dollars when they make their pitch.

“About Greece,” says the young man, whispering gruffly.

“Greece,” I say, looking down at my notebook wherein I have just written Greece.

“About why they’re rioting,” says the young woman, sorrowfully. “Burning the old buildings.”

“We saw pictures in the paper,” whispers the young man. “Of this beautiful old building on fire.” He frowns and shakes his head. “Is it like a revolution?”

As it happens, I’ve been sort of following the Greek crisis by reading various news reports and articles, only a few of which mention that Greece, and especially the people of Greece, are victims of the massive interlocking Ponzi schemes otherwise known as the global stock market and banking systems.

“Who do they owe money to?” asks the young woman. “Other countries?”

“Well…”I begin, realizing the impossibility of answering their questions without first explaining how the international financial system used to work before it was thoroughly corrupted by Clinton and Thatcher and their amoral cronies throughout the world, so that I can then try to explain bundled mortgages and delusional derivatives in order to set the stage for the greedy and shortsighted Greek government feeding at the trough of… “Have you got a half-hour?”

“At least,” says the young woman, nodding to her companion. “See? I told you he’d know.”

“I only sort of know,” I say, wondering if even sort of is overstating my understanding of the Greek, Portuguese, Italian, European, Japanese, American financial quagmire and the criminals who caused the mess and continue to make the mess worse.

So the young man sits beside me on the bench and the young woman sits cross-legged on the ground in front of me, their pooch napping beside her, and we discuss the international Ponzi scheme masquerading as global finance, and the coming collapse that will make all previous collapses pale by comparison.

In the course of our rambling discussion, I learn that the young woman is twenty-two and thinking of becoming a nurse because, “no matter how bad it gets, they’ll need nurses,” though what she’d really like to do is “work in a bookstore and rent a little place, maybe have a garden. Get a cat. Just, you know…live a simple life with no hassles.”

I learn that the young man is twenty-three and a triple Leo, an astrological alignment that strikes me as a wonderful name for a band—Triple Leo—especially if there were three guys in the group named Leo. “I’m a super-fast trimmer,” he confides in his gruff whisper. “Trying to get hooked up with local growers until I get my own grow situation going.” He says he has been playing the mandolin since he was twelve-years-old, but recently sold his instrument because “we were starving and sick and it bought us a week in a motel.” He describes his music as “kind of blue grassy folk rock.” He is unsure of what caused the loss of his voice, but it’s been gone for a week and shows no sign of returning.

The young woman has been homeless for eighteen months, the young man for two years. They met six months ago at a homeless encampment in Tilden Park—“up behind Berkeley”—which is also where they got their dog, and they have been traveling together ever since. They like Mendocino “better than almost any place we’ve been,” says the young woman, “but unless we can find a safe living situation pretty soon, we’ll go up to Arcata. I know a guy there with a house where we can crash if I’ll cook and clean for him, and stuff like that. It’s not safe being homeless around here. Too many crazies and the drug scene is bad. Really bad.”

To make the current Greek collapse comprehensible to my new friends (and to myself) I compare Greece to an American homeowner. As the economy was fueled by real estate and stock market bubbles, the house (Greece) was said to be worth 500,000 dollars. The bank offered the homeowner (Greece) an equity line of credit, meaning the homeowner could borrow on the ever-increasing value of his house (country). So the homeowner borrowed 300,000 to remodel, travel, send his kids to college, and to invest in delusional derivatives that paid him 15-30% interest per year. Greece invested this borrowed money in derivative junk to pay for pensions and government expansion and to invest in more junk. As the bubbling continued, the house (country) was said to be worth 700,000. The homeowner thought he’d eventually sell his house for a profit and pay off the loan, and Greece thought the economic boom would eventually pay off the debt. In the meantime, the homeowner (Greece) borrowed another 200,000 dollars on the ballooning equity and bought more high yield delusional derivatives.

Then the bubble burst and the house (Greece) was only worth a tiny fraction of what was owed. The investments of both the homeowner and Greece turned out to be worthless. But, oops, the homeowner and Greece owed the bank (the crooks) 500,000 dollars plus interest on the house (and hundreds of billions on their country). They couldn’t pay. The bank foreclosed. The homeowner was kicked out of his house. However, Greece is a country, not a house, and the people cannot be forced to leave their country (though thousands of Greeks, including many of the best and the brightest, are emigrating rather than live in poverty.) So the people of Greece are being asked to give up everything they have to corporate invaders in order to pay off the crooks (those same corporate invaders) that perpetrated the fraud.

“Which is why,” I conclude, “we, the collective we, need the financial systems to sink to their true values, which is not much, so we can rebuild our society on the real value of things.”

“Man, I’d riot, too,” whispers the young man. “It’s like they’ve been conquered.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” says the young woman, glaring at him. “You didn’t riot when it happened to us.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. “When did it happen to you?”

“We were both living at home,” she says, bowing her head. “With our parents. I was going to community college and, you know, having a life, and then they got foreclosed and had to move into this dinky little apartment and…I was on my own.” She gazes forlornly at the young man. “Same with him.”

A silence falls. A big white storybook cloud drifts in front of the sun and the temperature plummets.

“Hey,” says the young woman, smiling wearily. “Any chance you could give us a few dollars?”

Shooting Hoops

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

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

She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks.” Sherman Alexie

I suppose it’s a good thing we don’t have a basketball court at our house or I might never go anywhere, but if someday housing prices around here fall from insane to merely absurd and we manage to buy our own place, and assuming the house is not on a cliff, I’ll put up a backboard and hoop. In my younger days I had a big sign on the refrigerator that said When In Doubt, Shoot Hoops, and doing so saved my sanity a thousand times. Shooting hoops should not be confused with playing basketball, because one can shoot hoops alone and have an experience more akin to walking meditation than that of a full-blown game of basketball.

We recently watched Smoke Signals, a movie based on the short stories of Sherman Alexie, with a screenplay by Alexie, and we loved it. I hadn’t seen the film since it came out in 1998, and I had forgotten how important basketball is to the story, not in terms of plot, but as a metaphor for the game of life. Smoke Signals is definitely not a basketball movie, nor is it really an American Indian movie, though the film is peopled almost entirely with Indians and set on the Coeur d’Alene reservation. But below the skin, this is a tender and universal story about parents and children and sorrow, and how the unresolved past may impinge on the present and trap us in anger and confusion. Smoke Signals might have been set in Poland or Iraq or San Francisco rather than on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, but that’s where Sherman Alexie came from, so that’s where the movie takes place, with a brief cameo by the inimitable John Trudell as the reservation radio DJ intoning, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.”

The reason we decided to watch Smoke Signals was because something remarkable happened to me this week involving Sherman Alexie (who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.) The remarkable something is that I was contacted by a publisher bringing out a new line of books, each book to feature a well-known writer choosing a long out-of-print book he or she thinks is worthy of revival, and writing a new preface for that book. And Sherman Alexie has agreed to participate in this new line of books if the publisher secures the rights to my novel Inside Moves, which has been out-of-print for thirty years. Now it remains to be seen if this magical confluence will produce a viable artifact, as Buckminster Fuller would say, but no matter what happens I am gratified to know that Sherman Alexie would like to see my book revived.

Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidence rather than mysterious cosmic intervention), a couple months ago I agreed to speak at a screening of the movie Inside Moves at the Point Arena Theater. So on Monday, a few days after hearing about the possible Sherman Alexie/Inside Moves (the book) conjunction, Marcia and I met Texas Jon Jones of the Point Arena Film Club, and Larry and Margy Bauman of Mendocino (esteemed audio book publishers) at the Point Arena Pier Chowder House for an excellent supper, and then we migrated inland to the gloriously refurbished Point Arena Theater, proudly owned by the people of Point Arena, speaking of socialism.

What a gorgeous theater! What a lovely venue. And while an audience of forty watched Inside Moves, I stayed in the lobby and made occasional forays into the theater to gaze at the screen for a few minutes before returning to the lobby to catch my breath. I cannot watch the movie of Inside Moves for more than a few minutes at a time because I get so emotionally agitated I feel I might explode. I used to think my extreme agitation was caused by anguish over the changes the moviemakers made to my original story, but now I understand that the movie is an epic enactment of the foundational emotional challenges of my life, and too much psychodrama in a single dose is more than my little psyche can handle.

At film’s end I took the stage, thanked everyone for coming, told a few stories related to the film, and took questions and comments from the audience. One man said that for him the character of Roary, played by John Savage, rang so true that he wondered if the veracity was born of Savage’s brilliant performance or if this was the nature of the character as I had written him. His question prompted me to read aloud the first two paragraphs from the novel Inside Moves; and as I read those lines, I heard how close the voice of Roary, the novel’s narrator, was to the voice of John Savage’s Roary in the movie.

“My name is Roary and I’m the kind of person that scares people just looking like I do. I’m the kind of person people see coming and lots of times they’ll cross the street rather than walk by me, or if they do walk by me it’s quick and nervous, like they’d walk by a dog they weren’t sure of. I don’t blame them at all because I am pretty gross-looking and I walk funny because I’m a cripple.

“I got hurt in Vietnam. This land mine blew a hole in my upper back and destroyed some vertebrae and part of my spinal cord and part of my brain. I was paralyzed for about a year. Then one day I was talking to this guy Schulz, who was just an orderly, and I told him I felt okay, that I was pretty sure I could walk and use my arms. Next thing I know, this psychiatrist is there telling me that I’ll just have to accept the fact that I’m gonna be paralyzed for life. He was trying to help me face reality, which I suppose was his job, but since I knew I could walk he just irritated me. Sometimes you just know something, no matter what anybody else tells you.”

Which reminded me of a fascinating moment from my week on the set of Inside Moves, a moment when John Savage said to me, “You know, I am Roary. When I read your book, I thought, ‘This is me. Exactly. I am this guy.’”

Then I mentioned to the audience the possibility of the novel Inside Moves being re-issued with an introduction by Sherman Alexie, and the audience cheered. What made their cheering surprising to me was that I had previously mentioned Sherman Alexie to a number of friends, and most of them had never heard of him. But the Point Arena crowd knew him because, I soon learned, Sherman had been to that very theater to present Smoke Signals and to read from his books. It turns out Sherman is the friend of a local English teacher whose class voted Sherman Alexie the author they would most like to meet, and so he came down from Seattle to meet the kids and the people of Point Arena. Is this a small world, or what?

That was Monday night. On Tuesday night, Marcia and I went to the jam-packed Mendocino High School gym to watch the big basketball game between Mendocino and Point Arena, both teams vying for first place in the league. Mendocino, coached by the indefatigable Jim Young, played suffocating defense for the first quarter and built a sizeable lead, only to have Point Arena make the game close by the half. And then with just a few minutes remaining in the game, the score tied 50 to 50, the Mendocino hoopsters executed three beautiful fast breaks in quick succession to go up 56-50 with only a minute and a half to play, and Point Arena could not close the gap before the final buzzer sounded. Wowee!

We came home jazzed from the game and I found myself thinking about how when I played basketball in high school and college in the 1960’s, the three-point shot did not yet exist, and how entirely different the game is today because of that lucrative reward for making a basket from way outside. Indeed, I wrote and published Inside Moves before the advent of the three-point shot; and I wondered if Sherman Alexie might mention that in his preface to the new edition should the gods of manifestation allow such an artifact to come into being.

That was Tuesday night. Wednesday afternoon I went to Raven Big Tree Learning Center (Mendocino K-8 School) and shot hoops for twenty minutes and was about to quit when two young guys showed up and started shooting around on the court next to mine. I took what I intended to be my last shot from the top of the key, the ball swished through, and one of the young men called out, “Hey, nice shot, man,” which for some reason (ancient warrior viscera?) kept me shooting (showing off in my slow motion kind of way) for another fifteen minutes until I was seriously winded and thought it the better part of discretion (forget valor) to quit before I hurt myself.

I arrived home moments later to news that my new CD of piano/bass duets Mystery Inventions had just been played on Echoes, the nationally syndicated radio show, which is the kind of confluence of events that always makes me think of my favorite Buckminster Fuller teaching, to wit: Universe instantaneously reacts to what we are doing right now, though we may think (because of our linear logic programming) that these reactions are in response to actions we took days or weeks or years ago. Which is to say that Mystery Inventions may have been played on Echoes, according to Bucky, in response to that last splendid shot I made on the court at Raven Big Tree Learning Center.

There I was, twenty-five feet from the hoop, the ball leaving my hands and swimming the air to catch the upper edge of the backboard and carom sideways and down through the hoop, the net snickering from the kiss—music of the sphere.

Todd’s reading of the novel Inside Moves is available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. Mystery Inventions is available from CD Baby, Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, and UnderTheTableBooks.com

Junior High

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Wolf Me drawing by Todd

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

“Hemingway never grew out of adolescence. His scope and depth stayed shallow because he had no idea what women are for.” Rex Stout

Today I fit several important pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, having found the first of those pieces a few days ago while I was at Mendocino K-8 School on Little Lake Road, shooting hoops despite the biting chill in the air and…

Wait. Doesn’t it strike you as remarkable, even astonishing, that in Mendocino of all places, a town known the world over as a seething vortex of artists and poets and potheads, that our K-8 school doesn’t have at least a mildly groovy name? Fantasia Archetype School. Raven Big Tree Learning Center. Earthling Haven Academy. Middle Earth Education Fulcrum. Doppelganger Nine. Fields of Elysium Lyceum. Mind Body Spirit Cognition Node. But I digress.

So…I was shooting hoops despite the biting chill when down the steps from the school to the playground came two people, a shapely young woman with hair of spun gold and a boy some four inches shorter than the young woman, a skinny, dorky boy with drab brown hair wearing a blue Mendocino K-8 School sweatshirt. And though I was a hundred yards away, I knew this boy and woman were courting, that they were the same age, numerically speaking, and that they were headed for the swings where many Mendocino K-8 junior high couples go to swing and flirt and talk about whatever junior high kids talk about these days.

Seeing these two physically mismatched lovebirds, I journeyed back through my memory archives to when I was a drab dorky boy in Eighth Grade and madly in love with three shapely young women who were, in every conceivable way (and I do mean conceivable), ready to hook up with men but found themselves surrounded by boys. And remembering those uneasy days of biological imbalance, when Lucy and Hannah and Shari were so obviously women while I and my male classmates were still so obviously boys, and having just finished reading The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas for the third time, I suddenly understood why so many girls today turn into women well in advance of their male age peers, which understanding was the aforementioned first of several pieces I just today fit into the jigsaw puzzle of life.

“We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man.” Richard Leakey

I love the many-times-proven fact that every human being on earth is a direct genetic descendant of the Ju/wasi (Bushmen) of southern Africa, and I am so grateful that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a keen observer and gifted writer, dwelt among some of the last Ju/wasi to live in the Old Way so we may know how our ancestors lived prior to the ruination of the African savannah and the decimation of the original Ju/wasi way of life.

To quote from The Old Way (with Ms. Thomas’s permission), “If you happen to see a contemporary film or photo showing Bushmen dressed in skins, perhaps beside a small grass shelter or following a line of antelope footprints or handling a bow and arrow, you are seeing a reenactment. Today, nobody lives in the Old Way. All Bushmen, unless they put on skins for a photographer, wear the clothing of the dominant cultures—invariably Western dress for men, and Western or African dress for women—and none live by hunting and gathering, although with these activities they sometimes supplement their meager diet, which today is often cornmeal provided by the Namibian government as a welfare ration. They have jobs if they can get them, although many cannot; they listen to popular music on the radio, dance the popular dances, are influenced to some degree by Christianity, and are aware of the larger world and national politics.”

The Old Way is a record of daily life among one of the very last groups of Ju/wasi living as their predecessors (our predecessors) lived for at least thirty-five thousand years. And guess what? The junior high biological gender divide of our modern times did not exist among our people for those thirty-five thousand years.

“N!ai reached the menarche (began to menstruate) when she was about seventeen years old. At this time an important ceremony was held for her with eland music and dancing—a much more important ceremony than her wedding. But she and /Gunda (her husband) had no child for three years, when she was almost twenty. This was a very normal age for a Ju/wa woman’s first pregnancy.

“In the Old Way, the human population, like most other populations who live in the Old Way, had it own regulation. The strenuous work and absence of body fat prevented hunter-gatherer women from menstruating at an early age…”

In harmony with this biological truth, a Ju/wa man was not allowed to wed until he had killed an antelope, no easy feat even for a strong and experienced hunter. Thus most Ju/wa men spent the years before marriage growing into their full size and strength while acquiring skills that would enable them to provide antelope meat for their families and relatives.

 “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Lewis Carroll

When I was a little boy, my friends and I would pretend to be cowboys fighting Indians, the Indians being in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. When I was an older boy, my friends and I pretended to be American soldiers fighting Japanese and German soldiers, and these enemies, too, were in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. But when I played alone, I was always an Indian with a spear (fashioned from a grape stake or broom handle) and the bow and arrows I’d had since I was eight.

My childhood home stood on the edge of an abandoned estate, twenty acres of oaks and olive trees and overgrown vineyards and grasslands and ravines and chaparral teaming with wildlife—paradise. As far as I know, I was the only boy or girl in my neighborhood to habitually pretend to be an Indian; and there were certainly no other pretend Indians in our neck of the woods who took their pretending to the lengths I did. During those long summers when I was eight nine ten eleven and twelve, I lived for days on end in the wilds back of our house, barefoot and naked save for shorts, spending many a night camped out under the stars, with nuts and raisins and beef jerky for food, and a fire of twigs to keep me company as I gave voice to my invisible companions, wise old storytellers who knew everything there was to know about the animals and plants and spirits of that place.

I played tons of baseball with my friends and rode my bike all over the place, adventuring in the world of roads and stores, and I spent hours hunkered down in my bedroom with books, but no matter what else I might be doing, I longed to be in the woods, to follow a bird or butterfly to see where they might lead me; and to sit hidden and still for so long that the quail would forget I was there and resume their foraging around me, and a deer might appear close by, unaware of me, and I would be filled with wild joy knowing I might kill these animals if I needed to eat them to survive.

“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance” e.e. cummings

I attended school and went insane with boredom, the teachings dead and useless, the only good parts of school being singing and drawing and recess and ball games and socializing with my friends and being secretly in love with girls. And until Sixth Grade all my classmates were boys and girls, and it was only midway through Sixth Grade and from then on that girls became women and boys remained boys, a division that reached a painful zenith in Seventh and Eighth Grade, otherwise known as junior high.

“and down they forgot as up they grew” e.e. cummings

The summer after Eighth Grade I was hired by a neighbor to move many tons of soil from his backyard to his front yard. I shoveled heavy brown dirt from a gently sloping hillside into a large wheelbarrow and wheeled that barrow a hundred yards up and over an incline to the dumping point. This labor—five hours a day—lasted two months and changed my fast-growing body from skinny boy to muscular young man. Then, with only a month remaining before I started high school, I spent two weeks camped in the woods with my spear and fires and beef jerky, knowing these were the last days of my childhood and never wanting them to end.

“and now you are and i am now and we’re

a mystery which will never happen again” e.e. cummings

The week before I started high school, I went to a party; and all the girls my age had become women. They saw I was no longer a boy; and Shari who had been a woman since Seventh Grade kissed me tenderly as we danced and led me outside into the moonlight and we kissed unto mindlessness, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what to do and Shari was clearly frustrated and disappointed.

A few days later, the Saturday before high school began, I came home from my camp in the woods to find Hannah had come to visit, Hannah whom I had secretly loved since Fifth Grade, Hannah with womanly curves and beautiful breasts, Hannah with a deep musical laugh who always got my jokes when no one else did, Hannah who was my primary dream girl and fantasy lover.

We played ping-pong, and as we played I realized I was naked save for shorts, and Hannah was naked save for shorts and a negligible blouse. I had caught up to her, biologically speaking, and she had come to me—never having been to my house before—because she knew I had caught up to her, and because she liked me.

Somehow we went from playing ping-pong on the terrace to walking through the overgrown vineyard to a massive oak, and there we embraced and kissed and kissed some more until she whispered sweetly, “Hey, you wanna do it?”

“I…I…”

“I know how,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “And I can show you.”

I was thirteen. Looking back, seeing myself with Hannah in those last moments of childhood, I may wish I had allowed her to show me, but now that I have found and fit enough pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, I understand that I was not yet fully a man, not yet a killer of antelopes or the modern equivalent, and therefore not allowed to take a wife.

Practice(ing)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

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

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.