Archive for April, 2012

My Father

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

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

When my father died five years ago, my siblings and I did not hold a memorial service in his honor. We were each of us so wounded by our father’s incessant criticism and disapproval of us that his death unleashed our long suppressed anger toward him, and being so angry we could not see our way to put on a show of loving memories. But now I wish to speak of his goodness and the gifts he gave me. I wish to propitiate his ghost, something my father would have scoffed at, and to communicate my gratitude for his presence in my life.

When my sisters and brother and I were little kids, my father told us the most wonderful bedtime stories, and sometimes we would be the characters in those stories, which was especially thrilling to me. Imagine being a character in a story! My father would just make up the stories without the help of a book, and my brother and sisters and I marveled that he could do that. I am certain that my fascination with stories and story telling began with listening to my father invent those magical stories for us.

My father taught me how to plant trees when I was six-years-old, and we planted many trees together over the years—fruit trees, redwoods, birches, and pines. He would show me where to dig the hole, and I would dig as big and deep a hole as I could. Then he would deepen and widen the hole considerably; and I would admire how strong he was and how easily the ground yielded to him. Then we would refill the hole halfway with a mixture of peat moss and compost and soil. I remember we stirred this mixture in the hole with our bare hands, and then we would place the baby tree atop this mixture and fill in the hole. With the leftover soil, we would construct a circular basin around the tree and I would fetch the hose to fill this basin with water again and again until the ground around the tree was saturated. And thereafter my weekly chores included watering the young trees.

Speaking of trees, one day when I was ten, my father and I were in a nursery and he saw a little olive tree selling for what he thought an exorbitant price. Our house was surrounded by huge old olive trees that dropped thousands of olives every year, many of which subsequently sunk into the soil and were covered with leaves and eventually sprouted into baby olive trees. My father spoke to the nurseryman and learned that the nursery would pay three dollars each for hearty one-year-old olive trees, as many as they could get.

“Now there’s a great way for you to make money,” said my father. “Pot up olive seedlings, tend them for a year, and sell them to this nursery. Fifty times three is 150 dollars!”

So we got fifty one-gallon pots and I eagerly potted up fifty olive seedlings, placed them in the dappled shade under one of our ancient olive trees, and cared for them diligently for a few months until life intervened and I forgot all about them.

Ten years later while visiting my parents for Christmas, I was wandering around their overgrown yard and came upon the sole survivor of those fifty seedlings, now a tiny bonsai olive tree which I potted in a long shallow bonsai pot, adorned with a miniature granite boulder, and gave to my father to add to his collection of a dozen bonsais. My father was most delighted with that miniature olive tree.

My father loved to body surf and taught me to body surf not long after I learned to swim. Our family went to Los Angeles for a week every summer when I was a boy, and we always went to the beach for a few of those days. The water was warm, the waves perfectly formed, and we would shout for joy when we got good rides. Body surfing was truly my father’s bliss, and after he spent a couple hours in the water he was always so sweet and happy.

My father took our family camping and backpacking every summer. He taught us how to pitch a tent, build a fire, light a Coleman lantern, and many other things a person needs to know to be a good camper. He also taught me how to fish, how to prepare my pole and reel and line, how to bait a hook, how to cast, how to set the hook when a fish strikes, how to play the fish, how to kill the fish, how to clean the fish, and how to dip the fish in cornmeal and fry it on a skillet over a campfire.

When I was in my twenties and became a vagabond for a few years, I was essentially a highway backpacker, and virtually everything I needed to know in order to survive I had learned from my father, including mending my clothes with needle and thread and repairing my backpack and boots with an awl.

Some of my fondest memories of my father are of him fishing for trout in the high Sierras. He was an avid fly fisherman and for some years he even made his own flies. We often had our camps on the shores of small lakes at the base of granite peaks, and it was my father’s particular delight to set out from camp and try his luck all the way around the lake. When he hooked a trout, he would let out a musical hoot that resounded in the otherwise silent wilderness, and I would watch him play the fish, his slender pole bending, his face alight with delight.

I was crazy for ballgames from the moment I could walk, and though my father wasn’t the least interested in sports, he would sometimes play catch with me on the lawn when he came home from work. He was left-handed and I loved watching him throw the baseball—a perfectly natural curve ball. I was tireless and my father was often tired after a long day of work, so he would set a limit on how many throws he would make, a number we would count down together. When we got down to one, my father would call out a new number, and we would play a while longer, and I was overjoyed by his generosity.

When I was twelve, I helped my father install a backboard and basketball hoop atop a tall pole on the edge of our sloping driveway, and every day for the next five years, rain or shine, I shot hoops out there for hours on end. I was often out there shooting hoops when my father got home from work, and sometimes he would watch me shoot a few before going inside. When he was in a good mood, my father would compliment me on my skill and maybe try a shot or two; and I always loved it when he gave my favorite game a try.

My father was a successful psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he taught clinical psychology to psychiatric fellows at Stanford Medical School. He also helped found a ward for psychosomatically ill adolescents at Stanford Children’s Hospital, an accomplishment he was very proud of.

I wrote and published several books while my father was alive, and he was extremely critical of all of them. As for my music, my father barely acknowledged that I was a musician and once asked me, “Why do you write such sad music? You should write music that makes people happy.”

I didn’t think my father would ever like anything I created. But a few months before he died, I sent him the manuscript of my novel Under the Table Books, and he wrote me a letter in which he praised the book and predicted it would one day be a great success. I read his words over and over again because I could hardly believe my eyes. And even more astonishing to me was how he signed his letter,

My son! Love, Dad

Big Data

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

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

“Mathematics are well and good but nature keeps dragging us around by the nose.” Albert Einstein

A wintry April day—rain, cold, our two woodstoves hard at work translating matter into energy so we may carry on in comfort. Yesterday we celebrated the idea of spring, if not the reality, with the delivery of four cords of firewood from Frank’s Firewood of Boonville, so now several days of stacking wood are upon us. I am graduating from my seventh Mendocino winter, and Frank’s fantastic firewood has kept me snug and warm through every one of them. Thank you, Frank!

Yesterday also brought an email from a friend with the subject heading Data Plague, with a link to an article from the New York Times about Big Data, a hot topic in the world of computer science and technology. Big Data is the incomprehensibly large amount of raw data piling up from all electronic activities that leave digital traces, including scientific research and social media. For instance, every minute of every day some forty-eight hours of video are uploaded to YouTube: the equivalent of eight years of content each day.

According to the Big Data article, many people in government and academia and private industry are interested in mining this rapidly growing data universe, and President Obama has earmarked 200 million dollars for his Big Data Research and Development Initiative. And just last month the National Science Foundation awarded 10 million dollars to Berkeley’s A.M.P. Expedition, which stands for “algorithms machines people,” a team of U.C. Berkeley professors and graduate students working to advance Big Data analysis.

As usual, no one asked my opinion about any of this, but here are my thoughts on the intrinsic and extrinsic value of Big Data. Once upon a time there was this emperor, see, and he wasn’t actually wearing any clothes, but because he was the emperor everyone had to pretend he was wearing clothes even though he wasn’t.

“The man ignorant of mathematics will be increasingly limited in his grasp of the main forces of civilization.” John Kemeny

Stacking firewood, one might surmise, is something like trying to make sense of Big Data. There on the driveway (in cyber space) is a huge jumble of firewood (pile of data) composed of many separate pieces of wood (bits of data). Over time, I will get all that wood neatly organized in eight or nine stacks in the woodshed, and over more time I will burn those stacks to heat our home. Meanwhile, the Big Data geeks will try to organize their ever-expanding pile of data bits (measured in petabytes, one million gigabytes, and exabytes, one billion gigabytes) and then…and then nothing.

Still more astonishing is that world of rigorous fantasy we call mathematics.” Gregory Bateson

Eight years of Youtube video uploaded every day? That’s 240 years per month! Joe points his phone camera out the bus window as we make our way through Chinatown. Okay. Cool. Click, click. Uploaded to Youtube. Here are Margaret and Binny eating ice cream. Good. Click, click. Uploaded to Youtube. Ralph’s three-legged cat named Popsicle is eating a mouse. Ew! Click, click. Uploaded to Youtube. Becky’s Great Dane Buffy rolls on something dead. Hardee har har. Click, click. Uploaded to Youtube. Here are millions of videos of people looking into their cameras and making silly faces. Yes! Click, click. Uploaded to Youtube. And here is Zigmund Olafson, pulling down two hundred grand a year (of taxpayers’ money) as Permanently Visiting Professor of Theoretical Cyber Whatever at U.C. Berkeley running 1700 centuries of such stuff through a super computer in the basement of ADE (Algorithms Digest Emptiness) and after nine months of data digestion and crunching and analysis discovering that…kittens and puppies are cuter than heck!

“We’ll judge our success by whether we build a new paradigm of data.” Michael Franklin, director of A.M.P. Expedition.

A new paradigm of data? Puh-leez. How about a new paradigm of excellent and affordable healthcare for everybody? How about a new paradigm of equitable taxation? How about a new paradigm of funding our parks and schools? How about a new paradigm of peaceful resolution of conflicts? How about a new paradigm of closing all the insanely dangerous nuclear power plants and insulating our homes and solarizing every viable rooftop? How about a new paradigm of generosity and love? Oh, no. What we need is a new paradigm of data. And just what might that new paradigm of data look like? We have absolutely no idea, but we’ll let you know if we think we’re successful in building that paradigm after we’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars, you know, feeding digital stuff into really fast computers. Okay? Cool. Click, click. Uploaded to Youtube.

“I don’t agree with mathematics; the sum total of zeros is a frightening figure.” Stanislaw J. Lec

Of my many unhappy experiences with publishers, one of the saddest had to do with a chunk of data that followed me around like the Hound of the Baskervilles and is no doubt following me still. This chunk of data suggests that my second, third, fourth, and fifth novels did not sell many copies. Never mind that the various publishers involved did absolutely nothing to promote or distribute my books, and in most cases suspended all support for the books before they were published. No, the data says the books did not sell, which translates in corporate parlance to “Todd does not sell.”

Being reminded of this damning data every time I approached an agent or publisher, I nevertheless continued to try to interest mainstream publishers in my work for many years, with and without the services of literary agents. Of course, agents are privy to this same database, and so I was a pariah to most of them. But eight years ago, shortly before moving to Mendocino, I succeeded in interesting an agent in representing my novel Bender’s Lover, a metaphysical love story comedy thriller set in San Francisco and having to do with music, friendship, and power. I warned this agent about the damning data that was following me, but she seemed undaunted. “After all,” she said, “those sales figures are over twenty years old and this book is so good that…”

She sent copies of my tome to fourteen editors in New York, eleven declining to consider the manuscript because of the aforementioned database. Three said they would give the book a read, and lo a miracle occurred (or so we thought.) A senior editor at Viking went mad for the book, called my agent with a fat offer, and asked that we all get together for a conference call the next day, which we did. My oh my, did we have fun, a ménage á trois love fest during which we designed the cover and cast the movie and read aloud our favorite parts from Bender’s Lover; and for the next forty-eight hours I believed the curse had finally been lifted from my career and I would at last be allowed to ascend to my rightful place in the pantheon of American novelists.

This delightful editor’s last words to me were, “I don’t anticipate any problems, since I have carte blanche here, but as a formality I do have to run this by a couple people in Sales and then I’ll call you with my formal offer. I cannot tell you how excited I am to be getting this book. It’s going to be huge.”

Alas, Sales nixed the deal because the data says Todd doesn’t sell, never mind how old the data or what the data is based on. Never mind anything except the raw little numbers, which in truth are miraculous for being more than zeros.

My agent’s voice was trembling as she gave me the sorry news, and then she took a deep breath and said, “So…under the circumstances, I don’t think there’s really any point in our continuing to work together. Do you?”

Cue the howling hound!

And that is just one of many reasons I do not care much for data, big or small.

He Touched Me

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

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

“If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.” Pearl S. Buck

Reading Bruce McEwen’s tragic Hug A Kid, Go To Jail, I thought, “My God, there but for the grace of luck and chance and (in my system of belief) the intervention of angels, I, too, might have been arrested for child molestation and been sent to prison and labeled a sex offender for the rest of my life—on several different occasions. What? How?

When I was in my late thirties and living in Sacramento, I played basketball every morning at a neighborhood park. Three days a week I met my friend Bob there for rousing games of one-on-one, and two days a week I shot around by myself. Along with the basketball court, the park featured a big lawn and a swing set and a public bathroom. So one morning I was shooting hoops and these two moms showed up, each with a cute kid in tow, and they wandered to the far end of the park and spread out a big blanket for playtime and snacking and reading and whatnot.

As I continued shooting hoops, one of the kids, a girl, skipped across the lawn to the restroom adjacent to the basketball court and entered the little cinderblock building on the side marked WOMEN. A moment later she let out a blood-curdling scream, and in the next moment I was on my way into the restroom to rescue her. But some unseen power grabbed hold of me, and a loud inner voice said, “Don’t go in there. Whatever you do, don’t go in there!”

The girl screamed again—bloody murder!—and I turned on my heels and sprinted across the lawn toward the moms, waving my arms and shouting, “Your little girl is screaming in the bathroom.”

One of the mothers jumped up and raced to the restroom and found her daughter bruised and bleeding from a head wound sustained when she slipped on the wet floor and smacked into the ceramic sink. The mom carried her daughter out into the sun and said to me, “Thanks so much. We couldn’t hear a thing over the leaf blowers. We’ve got ice. She’ll be fine. You know kids. Always falling down.”

Then the mom and I exchanged long looks, her look saying, “I understand why you didn’t go in there,” and my look saying, “I didn’t go in there because I was afraid I might be accused of trying to harm her.”

But what if I had gone in there and picked up that little girl and…well, I didn’t, though she might have been bleeding to death. Or she might have been in the clutches of a child molester. I was furious for days after, thinking about how if I had tried to help a hurt child I might have…I mean, what if she had said to her mother, “He touched me.”

“I am fond of children—except boys.” Lewis Carroll

In 1969, twenty years before that Sacramento restroom incident, I was traveling around America in an old GMC panel truck with my friend Dick Mead. On a blistering hot August day we pulled into Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, got a camping spot, and went exploring. That was when I saw fireflies for the first time. There was a huge old swing set overlooking a beautiful meadow, and I was swinging on a swing, marveling at the hundreds of little blobs of light floating and flitting over the meadow in the waning light of day, when suddenly a cute little pigtailed girl took the swing next to mine.

“I can go higher than you can,” she said, kicking off and swinging hard.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, being twenty. “We’ll see about that.”

So we swung together, going higher and higher, and she laughed and I laughed, and then we stopped pumping and allowed our swings to go lower and lower until we were barely swinging, and then she started pumping again and going higher, and I pumped, too, and caught up to her. Then we let ourselves swing to a stop and she said, “Hey, you want to do the spider? Me and my dad do it all the time. It’s so fun.”

“What’s the spider?” I asked.

And before I could blink, that cute little pigtailed girl was straddling my legs, facing me, gripping my wrists and shouting, “Okay, go!”

And I was instantaneously consumed with terror. “Uh, no,” I said, standing up and shaking free of her. “I have to go now. Nice meeting you.”

“But it’s so fun,” she said plaintively. “You’ll love it.”

What if I’d gone ahead and done the spider with her and her father had come looking for her and caught us in the act? What if a park ranger had seen the longhaired stranger from California spidering with that little girl? Or what if that little girl had gone back to her family and when her mother asked, “Where were you, honey?” the little girl had replied, “Oh, I was playing with a nice man on the swings.”

And during further questioning the little girl had admitted, “Yes, we were touching there because we were doing the spider.”

“What is a home without children? Quiet.” Henny Youngman

I worked in a Day Care Center when I was in my twenties and again when I was in my fifties. There are many truths about little kids, but one of the largest truths about them is that they are keenly interested in genitals, their own and those of others. They, the children, are particularly interested in the genitals of adult males, which are the most obvious of adult human genitals. Little boys are particularly interested in these larger versions because little boys possess smaller versions and are fascinated by the size discrepancy and the possibility that they, too, might one day have larger equipment.

I remember during my initial indoctrination as an employee of the day care center, how we were told that when a child touched us “there”, it was imperative to instantly put an end to such touching, and to make sure the children knew that such touching was absolutely verboten. Never mind that a large part of my job was helping kids pull their pants down so I could wipe their butts and then help them pull their pants up. Never mind that when the kiddies wet their pants or spilled paint or juice over themselves, it was my job to strip off their sodden poopy pissy clothes, to render them naked and wash them clean and clothe them anew. Never mind that any one of those delightful creatures at any time might have reported to a parent, “He touched me,” which report might have led to my arrest.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Helen Keller

For five years in the 1990’s I ran the Creative Writing department for a summer school for the arts. Ambitious and talented teenagers fifteen to nineteen-years-old were my charges, and among these teens were many sexy young women. I had never taught at any level before then and so had not previously been on the receiving end of the romantic crushes of students.

I will never forget one particular summer evening on the campus of Mills College where our school was being held, a one-month intensive wherein the students lived and breathed their art and the influence of mentor artists. I was walking across the greensward on my way to the music building to find a piano to play, when someone called, “Todd,” and I recognized the voice of Dawn, one of my students.

I stopped, and a moment later Dawn was beside me. I thought her the most beautiful and alluring of my students, and I knew of her crush on me because when I worked with her group of writers she responded to nearly everything I said as if she might at any moment have an orgasm. Then, too, she would linger after class and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me as I tried to concentrate objectively on the excellent erotica she’d written and about which she very much wanted my feedback.

“Hey,” she whispered on that memorable evening, her honeyed breath warm on my cheek. “You and me alone in the dark. Finally.”

“Hey, Dawn,” I said, trying to be cool. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is I want you,” she said, pressing close. “And you want me. And you know it. And I know it. And I’m way over eighteen and I’m on the pill so we’ve got nothing to worry about. Please? Please take me somewhere and make love to me? Please? Or we can do it right here and I’ll make you feel so good you won’t believe it.”

“Nope,” I said, breaking away and running for my life.

And had she been crazy or vindictive, she might easily have gone to the school administrators and said, “He followed me last night and touched me.”

Thankfully she was not crazy or vindictive, though she did show up the next morning for our short story section wearing practically nothing, and brazenly handed me a note—crimson ink on lilac-scented stationery—that said, “Any time, any place. I am so ready for you.”

Stuff

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

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

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Henry David Thoreau

The calendar says it is springtime, but the temperature and relentless rain say winter continues apace, this being the second year in a row that a very wet March will save Mendocino and Northern California from terrible drought. Yes, we are starved for sunlight and the woodpile is shrinking at an alarming rate, but the ongoing deluge bodes well for salmon and redwoods and huckleberries and forest frogs, so we shall not complain.

On Sunday we attended a gathering at the home of a recently deceased friend of Marcia’s, his children and grandchildren and ex-wives and friends filling his moldy old house and spilling outside to honor his memory. I was impressed by his large collection of paperback books from the 1950’s and 60’s, many of them stuck to various shelves and to each other with the mysterious glue of time. When I pulled on a volume of Kazantzakis, the book broke into several pieces, ditto a Kerouac tome, so thereafter I contented myself with reading the spines and forming an impression of the person from the books he read.

But I was most impressed by the dust that coated everything in the house and gathered in drifts in corners and indentations—dust as a measure of many years passing wherein the man left large parts of his life untouched. And I have been thinking about this dust ever since and seeing it on the surfaces of things at our house, particularly on books we will almost surely never look at again.

So on Tuesday, housebound by the pouring rain, I emerged from my den to find Marcia confronting several shelves of CDs and books in the living room, shelves of things we still love and things we once loved and things we never loved but kept because someone gave them to us or because we couldn’t think where else to put them. Now, however, inspired by the dead man’s dust and the coming of spring, we emptied the shelves, mopped up the dust, and put back only those books and recordings we wanted to keep for the next leg of our journey. The rest we will give away and never think about again.

“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin

In 1971, having only recently learned to play the guitar, I felt certain that if I could convince a record producer at Columbia or Warner Brothers to listen to me sing my jazzy folk songs I would be the next big thing—James Taylor meets Bob Dylan meets Carlos Jobim—or so I fantasized. A highly impressionable teen growing up in the San Francisco Folk Rock scene of the 1960’s, I watched dozens of obscure musicians vault from garage bands and cafés onto the world stage and saw no reason why I couldn’t achieve the same kind of success. Yes, I was delusional, but without delusions I never would have done most of the things I tried to do.

I found, however, that my ears and psyche could not tolerate Really Loud Music, so Acoustic Folk Rock became my genre. The record companies were in Los Angeles, so that’s where I went, my Aunt Dolly providing a base of operations for me in the living room of her cluttered home. For money I sought work as a gardener, papering Dolly’s neighborhood with flyers and receiving an unexpected response that created a whole new career trajectory for me.

“I don’t need a gardener,” said a woman most definitely from New York and certainly Jewish. “But I’ve got a garage full of stuff I need to sort through and my back is not so good, so…”

Elaine had a two-car garage packed to the rafters with boxes of books, clothing, barbells, golf clubs, photographs, paintings, suitcases, furniture—tons of stuff she and her deceased husband had been stacking in there and forgetting about for thirty years. Now she wanted to go through everything and see if there was anything she wanted to keep. I would carry her things out into the light of day and she would decide what would stay and what would go and what would come into the house to live with her. She paid me two-fifty-an-hour plus lunch, and I could keep anything she didn’t want.

On my second day of working for Elaine, an elderly British fellow stopped by, chatted with Elaine, and then asked me if I might do the same kind of work for him, only in his case it was an attic he wanted to explore. “More of a crawl space, actually,” he said, bowing politely. “Accessible by ladder. What’s wanted is a strong back and good balance. To bring things down and take them back up. Boxes of books mostly. Rugs. And I’m not sure what else.”

So began two months of helping elderly people sort through piles of stuff in their garages and attics and spare bedrooms, with my evenings devoted to recording songs on a neighbor’s reel-to-reel tape recorder pursuant to my becoming a rich and famous troubadour. My most profitable find in those two months of excavation was a mint condition Danny Kaye album, a massive book-like thing containing eight 78-rpm records, each in a separate sleeve. I made a trip to a famous used record store in downtown Los Angeles and sold Danny for sixty dollars! I probably could have gotten more, but sixty was a fortune to me.

The work was one part schlepping and five parts listening to the oldsters tell stories about their various things. Some people wanted to throw everything away, others were more interested in discovering what they had kept. Everyone I worked for was a unique individual, yet to me there was a sameness to everybody’s stuff, and a sameness to their feelings about the stuff—regret and annoyance larded with nostalgia. So I vowed never to accumulate more than I could carry with me on a train, even when I became famous and wealthy. So much for vows we make at twenty-two.

Miracle of miracles, I did actually talk my way into a meeting with a record producer at Columbia, a kindly longhaired guy with gold records on the walls of his office who listened patiently to three of my songs before stopping the tape player and saying, “You’ve got a beautiful voice. What say we stay in touch and see how you’re doing a couple years from now? I wish I could sign you, but you’re just learning, you know? No offense, but you need time to develop your talent. Maybe start a group. Imagine some guy with a really rough voice harmonizing with your sweet tenor. Could be great. Think about it. You’ve got potential. And I’m not just saying that.”

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Joseph Campbell

Fast-forward forty years to Todd and Marcia creating stuff we hope people will buy from us—CDs, books, and note cards—Marcia vastly more successful than I, and with far fewer products. Her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation sells like hotcakes, whereas my creations…well, let us just say that as I peruse the many boxes in my office full of my creations that hardly sell, I, too, experience regret and annoyance, but not larded with nostalgia. No, my regret and annoyance are larded with amazement at the audacity (delusion?) of hope.