Archive for May, 2012

Children

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

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

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

I was in Corners a few days ago, perusing the bananas, when a little girl, four-years-old, came right up to me and said, “Know what?”

“What?” I replied, never having seen her before.

“I made up a special song.” She nodded to affirm this. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course,” I said, delighted by her. “Who wouldn’t?”

And without a moment’s hesitation she began to sing about how beautiful the day was and how happy she was and how much she loved her mother and having chocolate milk. The melody was something of a hybrid, Mary Had A Little Lamb meets Oh What A Beautiful Morning, and the tune changed key several times throughout her rendition. In short: a masterpiece. Oh, and she danced as she sang, a subtle shimmying hula. Brilliant.

“That was fabulous,” I declared, applauding. “I loved it.”

“Do you want to hear another one?” she asked, frowning quizzically, as if she couldn’t quite believe my reaction.

“Sure,” I said, nodding enthusiastically. “Who wouldn’t?”

So she launched into another song with a melody not unlike the first, this one about her favorite foods: fruit, chocolate, ice cream, pizza, popcorn, and spaghetti, with each verse ending in “minestrone soup.” Another masterwork.

I applauded again and said, “Thank you so much. You made my day.”

“I would sing another one,” she said, shrugging apologetically, “but we have to go.”

“There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.” Bill Evans

“When I was two-years-old,” said my grandmother Goody, her voice ringing with passion, “my mother had another baby, and a few days later the baby died in her crib and my mother screamed at me, ‘Did you touch the baby?’ That’s the very first thing I remember about my life.” She reflected for a moment. “I think that’s why I always feel responsible for anything that ever goes wrong.”

“For anything that goes wrong in your life?” I asked, adjusting the volume on my tape recorder.

“In my life, your life, anybody’s life.” She laughed her musical laugh. “I’m responsible for everything bad that happens to anyone. It’s all my fault.”

Goody was born in 1900 in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit, her father a cantor with a golden voice who made a few pennies preparing boys for bar mitzvah, while Goody’s mother was the primary breadwinner by keeping a little grocery store above which Goody and her two brothers and parents lived. When Goody was six-years-old, her performances at school—singing, dancing, and acting—caught the eye of a wealthy Jewish matron who felt Goody possessed talent worth cultivating, and this matron offered to pay for Goody to have the best singing, dancing, and acting lessons Detroit had to offer. Alas, Goody’s parents, orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, believed the theater world was the Devil’s playground and so they rejected the generous offer.

“I might have been a star,” said Goody, aiming her words at the tape recorder. “I could sing like a bird and dance like Isadora what’s-her-name, but what I loved most was acting, turning myself into people who did all the things I was forbidden to do.”

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung 

When I lived in Berkeley, I earned a small portion of my income as a babysitter. My favorite babysitting job was a three-hour stint, two afternoons a week, overseeing three little boys playing in my neighbor’s backyard. The boys were five-years-old and they had a fort, a small wooden platform four-feet off the ground accessible by a wooden ladder. The railing around the platform was tall and sturdy enough to keep the boys from accidentally falling off, though the boys sometimes climbed over the railing and jumped to the ground.

Because these boys had a fort and were possessed of fine imaginations, I had very little work to do except watch from a distance, intervene on rare occasions when their sword play became too emphatic, and serve them snacks around four o’clock to tide them over until supper. Sometimes they would tire of their games and come ask me to tell them a story, but usually they played happily without me for the entire three hours. Their fort was variously a spaceship, submarine, tree house, castle, armored attack vehicle, clubhouse, and pirate ship. Their bamboo sticks were variously swords, spears, guns, lasers, propulsion devices, magic wands, and fishing poles. The boys were usually united in combat against some imagined foe, though now and then they would war against each other. And what struck me as most interesting was that in all their games they imagined themselves to be men, not boys, but men they hoped to become—strong and daring and resourceful.

Watching those little boys play, I would often recall the large wooden platform in the far corner of my childhood backyard, a makeshift deck ten-feet long and six-feet wide piled with old hand-hewn redwood grape stakes. This platform served as the stage for much of my play with one particular friend, Colin, when we were six and seven and eight-years old, Colin being much more inclined to partake of character-driven dramas than those carnage-driven dramas preferred by my other friends.

Colin and I pretended our platform was a raft floating down a mighty river, and we imagined ourselves to be fugitives, heroic outlaws, with much of our discourse the recounting of harrowing tales of how we came to be fugitives. In this way, we spent many summer hours inventing plots and autobiographies, excellent practice for what would become the main literary focus of my life: writing fiction.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

Here is a very short story, a chapter from my novel of stories Under the Table Books, about children and memory and imagination.

The Big Green

People have always told me I’m weird. But who isn’t a little weird? You know what I mean?

In First Grade, I would stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and I could feel stories coming into my feet and traveling up my legs and through my heart and out my mouth into the air. At first, the other kids laughed at me, but I had to do it. Every recess I would run to the tree and pull off my shoes and start babbling.

I didn’t have a single friend when I started telling the stories, but one day this boy sat down nearby and listened for a few minutes. Then he got up and ran away and came back with four other kids, and pretty soon they got up and ran away and came back with more kids, and I just kept telling about the children lost in a mysterious forest called the Big Green. Pretty soon there were dozens of kids sitting around me and when the bell rang none of them would budge until I said The End.

Well, from then on I had lots of friends and my teacher invited me to tell stories to the class while she took little naps and pretty soon I was going to other classes and telling them stories, too, until finally I was named the official story teller of the school and I was interviewed and photographed for the school paper. And then there was an article about me in the local newspaper, which is when my mother and father found out about what I was doing.

I’ll never forget that night—the day before my seventh birthday. My father came home from his office and my mother showed him the article in the paper about me and he became furious. “What are all these stories about?” he wanted to know.

I told him they were mostly about lost children and he said, “You’ve never been lost. That’s lying.”

“They’re just stories,” I said, trying to defend myself. “They like us to make up stories.”

Who likes you to?”

“The teachers.”

“Why didn’t you tell us about this?” He glared at my mother. “Did you know about this?”

“Heavens no,” she said, cringing. “He doesn’t tell me anything.”

“So now all our friends are gonna see this and…”

“We’ve had five calls already.”

“Sonofabitch,” said my father, clenching his fists. “That does it. No more story telling. You hear me? No more.”

“But…”

“But nothing. You quit telling stories or you’ll be in big trouble.”

So I stopped. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I lost most of my friends and I got beat up by some older kids who tried to force me to tell them stories, but I’d been in big trouble with my father before and it wasn’t something I would risk again until I was seventeen and left home for good.

Now here’s the amazing part. I didn’t remember any of this until last year when I went to a psychic astrologer to celebrate turning forty-seven. The first thing she said to me was, “Your great gift emerged when you were six, but something happened and you were forced to squelch it.”

“Gift?” I said, remembering only my profound loneliness. “What kind of gift?”

“You were psychic. And judging from your chart, such a gift would have been unacceptable in your family. Even dangerous for you.”

“I don’t remember,” I said, straining for any sort of memory from my early years.

“Then you turned to the physical. Sports?”

“All I did,” I said, remembering the endless baseball—the safe simplicity of bat meeting ball, a boy drifting back in left field to catch another towering drive, never wanting the day to end.

“And now?”

“I work at a preschool. I’m a teacher’s aide.”

Then it hit me, the way I keep the kids entertained between four and six waiting for their mommies to pick them up. I stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and tell them stories about the children lost in the Big Green. And though the children in my stories are definitely lost, they are not alone. They have each other, and so never lose hope of finding their way home.


 

Austerity

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

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

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.

Everything Connected

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

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

“When we express our true nature, we are human beings. When we do not, we do not know what we are.” Shunryu Suzuki

Planting sugar snap pea seeds yesterday, I was thrilled to find the raised bed rife with earthworms, young and old. We garden in soil known hereabouts as pygmy, which left to it’s own devices will not grow vegetables or much of anything except bonsai pines and huckleberries and the nefarious Scotch Broom. Thus we have eight raised beds in boxes and four beds in the ground, all requiring manure and compost in addition to the local soil to give us a decent harvest.

This past fall I scored a truckload of rabbit manure and I surmise it is this precious poop that has proven such an elixir to the worms. When I moved here six and a half years ago and set up my above-ground composting bin (and before the bears demolished that flimsy plastic thing) I was dismayed to find nary a worm coming up out of the ground and through the slots in the floor of the bin to gobble the tasty leftovers and give birth to myriad wormlets. In Berkeley where I gardened a small plot for eleven years, my composting bin (a gift from the city to encourage us to do the rot thing), produced gazillions of worms in collaboration with the local ground. But in pure pygmy soil, earthworms are as scarce as pumas, and it took a good three years of feeding massive amounts of worm food to the soil before any sort of worm population took hold.

This rabbit poop is apparently some sort of earthworm Viagra, for now when I turn the soil, the good earth literally dances with hundreds of little wigglers. May they grow large and happy, and may our vegetables and flowers and herbs thrive on their castings.

“Once you are in the midst of delusion, there is no end to delusion.” Shunryu Suzuki 

One sunny day in my Berkeley garden, about ten years ago, I was enjoying eavesdropping on the conversation raging among three teenaged boys and one seventeen-year-old girl gathered around a table on the deck that jutted out from our house and looked down on my garden, the girl being my de facto daughter Ginger, a beautiful and sociable young woman who attracted males as catnip attracts cats and pineapple sage attracts hummingbirds. As a consequence of Ginger’s charms and sociability, our house was frequently overrun by young men, many of them from good Berkeley homes and heading for college, if they were not already in college. Of these three on the deck that day, one was bound for Harvard, one for Stanford, and the third had recently matriculated at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

When Ginger sashayed into the house to fetch drinks for the thirsty lads, two of them came to the railing of the deck and peered down at me as I thinned carrot seedlings in ground next to my verdant broccoli.

“Is that…” began Jeremy, the Harvard-bound Physics major, “…um…hey, excuse me. Is that like broccoli in those little bushes?”

“Yes, it is,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Oh my God,” he said, his jaw dropping. “Jason, you gotta come see this. Broccoli is like growing on a little bush right in their garden.”

Soon to be studying politics at Stanford pursuant to becoming a lawyer, Jason joined Jeremy and Raul at the railing. “Where?” he said, looking down on the mass of greenery. “I don’t see anything.”

“There,” said Jeremy, pointing emphatically at a head of broccoli. “Right fucking there, man. I never knew it grew like that.”

“Me neither,” said Jason, shaking his head. “Jesus. Look at all that food. Is that like lettuce?”

“Indeed,” I replied, wondering if perhaps they were spoofing me. “Would you like a garden tour?”

“I would,” said Jeremy, skipping down the stairs, “but those guys are like totally fixated on you-know-who.”

So I gave Jeremy a ten-minute tour of my patch of vegetables and herbs. He pulled a carrot for the first time in his life, washed it in the hose while watering the parsley, took a bite and declared, “God, that is so sweet I never would have known it was a carrot.” Then he smiled beatifically. “I’m blown away. I never knew how any of this stuff got here. What a trip.” Then he frowned and shook his head. “Hey, not to change the subject, but we were just arguing about the Vietnam War. Jason said it was kind of an extension of World War II and was about trying to get their resources, and Raul said, ‘Like what resources?’ and I thought it was like to stop the communists. But was it the Russians or the Chinese we were trying to stop? Or…like…do they have oil in Vietnam? I mean, if they had oil wouldn’t they be like rich today?”

“Buddha was more concerned about how he himself existed in this moment. That was his point. Bread is made from flour. How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing.” Shunryu Suzuki

I just returned from the farmers’ market in Mendocino with two vibrant young tomato plants, Sun Golds, orange cherry tomatoes with delicious flavor; cherry tomatoes being the only kind of tomato we can grow in our cool clime without the sheltering warmth of a greenhouse. Buying Sun Golds at the Mendocino farmers’ market has become a tradition for me, five years running now, and though I could easily start my own Sun Golds from seed, I prefer to buy my starts from a grower at the market. I suppose if I had a greenhouse, I would be more likely to start my own tomato plants from seed, but maybe not. I like the tradition of going to market to get plants, and I look forward to hunting for the most promising ones, speaking to the growers as I search, maybe sharing a tomato growing story or two. All of which begs the question: why don’t I have a greenhouse, even just a little one, to enhance my gardening experience?

I have now been a renter for eighteen years following fifteen years as a homeowner following ten years as a renter, and for all twenty-eight years of my life as a renter some part of me expected to become a homeowner any day now. When I rented my house in Berkeley for eleven years, I did not plant a lemon tree for the first five years because I was convinced that if I were destined to live in Berkeley for more than a few years, surely I would find a way to buy a place and plant a lemon tree there. And now I have lived for six years in this wonderful house we rent on a piece of paradise a few miles from the village of Mendocino, and though my rational mind knows we may never own a house in this kingdom of expensive houses, I have yet to plant blueberries or grapes or fruit trees, or to build a small greenhouse because of that same expectation of possibly owning a home one day. Of course, what makes my reluctance to build a greenhouse entirely silly is that I could easily build the greenhouse to use in our garden now and take the blessed thing with us should we ever fulfill our dream of owning our own place.

“When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything. Without air, we cannot breathe. Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment. So we are completely dependent and independent.” Shunryu Suzuki

I vow to be more consciously a swinging door, to do the things I want to do now and with much less care for what may or may not happen in the future. I vow to plant a lemon tree if a place in the ground calls out to me and says, “Hey you with the arms and legs and shovel. We could use a lemon tree right here, whether you stick around after you plant it or not.” I vow to live in this house we rent as if we may never leave here until we die. The moment, as Shunryu Suzuki would say, is what we’ve got. The rest is illusion.

I’ve been here before and made similar vows, which I am just now remembering. Five years ago I was quite ill and wondering if I would be around in this body much longer. I had long been planning to publish my book of short stories Buddha In A Teacup, and I kept saying to Marcia, “I will, I will…after I’m completely well.”

Marcia was wonderfully patient with me through my long ordeal, but one evening she said, “By waiting until you think you are completely well, might you be suggesting to your body and the universe that you don’t entirely believe you will get well? Why not go ahead and publish your book and trust that in doing so you will speed the process of your healing?”

So with great trepidation, I followed her counsel and published my book, and in the process of bringing forth Buddha In A Teacup my health improved and life became rosy again, rosy and suffused with the energy of no longer waiting around for some other moment than this one. And because everything is connected, I have since received a good many letters from people who read Buddha In A Teacup and wanted to thank me for reminding them that when we live in the past or dwell in the future, we aren’t really here; and what fun is that?

 

Laughing

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

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

“Humor is just another defense against the universe.” Mel Brooks

Once upon a time, so many years ago it might have been another lifetime, I got two kittens, a boy and girl, and after much thought and research named them Boy and Girl. Boy was an orange tabby, Girl was a gray tabby, and in the hallowed tradition of kittens, they played and slept and mewed and ate and clawed things and were wonderfully cute.

When they were about four months old, Boy and Girl played a particular game that made me laugh until I cried. No matter how many times I watched them play this game, I laughed until I cried. Sometimes other people would watch with me as the kittens played this particular game, and some of these people laughed, too, and a few of them even laughed until they cried; but there were other people who watched the game and did not laugh at all, which was amazing to me, and troubling. Here is the game the kittens played.

A heavy brown ceramic vase about fourteen-inches high, round at the bottom and narrowing somewhat at the top, stood on a brick terrace. Girl would chase Boy onto the terrace and Boy would jump into the vase. Girl would sit next to the vase, listening to Boy inside, and when Boy would pop his head up out of the vase, Girl would leap up and try to catch him, and Boy would drop back down into the vase. Then Girl would stand on her hind legs and reach into the vase with her forepaws and Boy would shoot his paws up to fight Girl’s paws, or Boy might leap out of the vase and the chase would resume. Or Girl would be inside the vase with Boy outside and the vase would tip over in the midst of their roughhousing and out would spill Girl.

Why were their antics so hilarious to me? Was it because their play was an enactment of the essential mammalian drama of fright and flight and fight—the thrill and danger of the hunt mixed with the suspense and terror of hiding in order to survive? Yes, I think so. But what’s so funny about that?

“Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end.” Sid Caesar

I don’t have many memories of my mother laughing. My brother and I were forever telling jokes, honing our techniques, and our mother usually responded with a droll, “Very funny,” even if everyone else was howling with laughter.

But there was a time, one glorious time, when my mother and I laughed together so hard and for so long that we literally fell out of our seats and went temporarily blind with laughter. I was fourteen when my mother procured tickets for just the two of us to attend the musical Little Me at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, with the Broadway cast starring Sid Caesar in a dizzying number of roles opposite the ravishingly sexy Virginia Martin, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, a script by Neil Simon, and choreography by Bob Fosse.

As far as I can remember this was the only time in my life my mother took just the two of us to anything. Even more impressive, she splurged on fantastic seats, tenth row, center, which was also highly uncharacteristic of her. What I realize now after almost fifty years was that my mother was giving me the message that though she officially agreed with my father’s opposition to my pursuing a career in music and theater and writing, she unofficially supported my passion for these things.

The success of Little Me depended entirely on the genius of Sid Caesar and his ability to play myriad comedic roles convincingly, not to mention sing well, too. The same play performed with several different actors essaying Sid’s half-dozen parts wouldn’t have worked at all because the point of the play, in a way, is that all these extremely different men are essentially the same guy falling in love with the same woman over and over again. Try as I may, I cannot imagine anyone other than Sid Caesar successfully playing all those parts without becoming tiresome or silly. I knew that was Sid again and again—stumbling off the stage as one character and racing back on as someone else—yet I always believed he was an entirely new character—an astonishing feat. The songs were great, the dancing was fabulous, Virginia Martin was luscious, the chorus girls were gorgeous, the dialogue was snappy and funny, and young Todd was in heaven.

I can still recite whole scenes from the play and sing several of the songs, though I only saw and heard the musical once all those decades ago; but I cannot remember which scene it was that made my mother and I laugh so hard that we fell out of our seats, laughing along with hundreds of other people laughing so uproariously that Sid and his fellow actors froze for a time to let us get through our delirium before they came back to life and carried on with the show. That play and Sid Caesar and Virginia Martin and laughing so stupendously with my mother are burned into my memory more indelibly than almost anything else I have ever experienced.

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” Kurt Vonnegut


When I saw Little Me with my mother, I was a freshman at Woodside High School attempting to fulfill my father’s wish that I become a medical doctor. To that end, I was slaving away in an accelerated program for scientifically ambitious students, something I most definitely was not. Nevertheless, I had yet to work up the courage to defy my father and so was following the prescribed steps on the path he wanted me to follow. As a consequence, I was one of only four ninth graders in a biology class for upper classmen, and we four sat huddled together in a far corner of the big classroom, though we otherwise had little in common.

There came the day of the big mid-term exam, the results to account for half our grade. Everyone in the class was on edge, we youngsters especially so. Our teacher was not a good one, I was badly prepared, poorly motivated, and certain I would botch the test. As we waited for our teacher to arrive with the tests, the four of us began to free associate, someone saying osmosis, someone replying mitochondria, another adding messenger RNA, and so on until we left science behind and were reeling off the names of pretty girls and sports heroes and anything and everything until one of us said something—the ultimate non sequitur?—that proved to be the verbal straw that broke our collective camel’s back, so that just as our teacher entered the room we four began to laugh hysterically.

Our laughter spread to others in the room, but eventually everyone, save for the four freshmen, regained control and prepared to take the test. But we had gone beyond some line none of us had ever gone beyond before, and we could not stop laughing. Our teacher sent us out into the hallway where we fell to the concrete and laughed until our bellies ached. And finally, one by one, we stopped laughing, caught our breaths, and returned to the classroom. But the moment we entered that place of the test, hysteria caught us again and sent us hurtling back outside, our teacher following us out to threaten and cajole, to no avail.

Because we were thought of as good boys, our temporary insanity was forgiven and we took the test the following day, though we were never allowed to sit en masse again. One of us became a professor of Biology, one a conservative federal judge, one a professor of Art, the fourth a writer and musician and the author of this essay. We were as different as four people could be, yet in that moment of youthful hysterics, the pressures of the world too much for us to bear, we escaped into laughter—together.

Sources of Wonder

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

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

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

Marcia and I watched the movie Source Code last night and I loved it. I very rarely watch American movies and almost never watch films containing more than a suggestion of violence, and this movie was made by Americans and is full of violence; yet I did not feel I was watching a violent movie, nor did the film seem remotely American. I will not spoil the show by telling you the plot, but I will say that for me Source Code beautifully and skillfully explicates the Buddhist notion of karma and how through our actions and intentions we create our future.

I was thinking about Source Code this morning while walking on Big River Beach, amazed by how vivid everything looked and felt to me, as if the movie had somehow altered my perceptions. And then I realized I was in a state of wonder, that my personal cares and woes were no longer holding sway as they so often do these days, and I was inseparable from the wind and the roaring of the waves and the ravens gliding through the air and the sand underfoot. I was only there, it seemed, because all these other things were enlivening me, and in their absence I would disappear.

When I got home from the beach, I sat down at the piano and played with such ease and fluidity I was in heaven, and I knew the movie was working in me, though I couldn’t say how. I played and played, riding the waves of sound and marveling at the multitudes of harmonies—the entire escapade improvised yet sounding entirely composed—my hands and fingers guided by muscle memory and forty years of learning to be open to what wants to come through.

 “One never knows how one’s gifts to the world may brighten it for others and contribute to the ever-changing mystery.” Taylor Stoehr

I correspond regularly with three men, and each is a source of wonder to me. Max is about ten years younger than I, Bob is exactly my age, and Taylor is eighteen years my senior. Max is an artist and musician, Bob a former video producer turned Special Ed teacher, and Taylor is a retired English professor, poet, and translator. I am very interested in these guys and what they think and do, and they are interested in me. I have never met Taylor in-person, only met Max in-person a couple times thirty years ago, and only see Bob once a year, though for fifteen years we lived a few blocks apart and we saw each other every day.

These three men are my best friends, other than Marcia, and when I think about the truth of that I am both amazed and grateful—amazed that we have such rich connections through the words we write, and grateful that these sweet souls care enough about me to stay in touch over so much time and space. Their letters always induce in me a state of wonder in which I become for a time inseparable from their thoughts and feelings—a holiday from inhabiting this separate solitary self.

“‘I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit, sometimes, or sometimes an evil imp,’” said the lama, smiling slowly.” Rudyard Kipling

When I was in my early forties, I met a British fellow at a party and we got talking about our favorite authors, and he was wildly effusive about Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the novels of Russell Hoban. I had never heard of Hoban and had only read a short story or two of Kipling’s in my childhood. Because I was ever in search of great writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore in Sacramento, Time Tested Books, and got Hoban’s first three novels, The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz, Turtle Diary, and Kleinzeit, along with a beat up paperback of Kim.

You may have heard of Turtle Diary, which was made into a charming movie in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Each of Hoban’s first three novels is quite short, with chapters only a page or two in length. I gobbled those books and liked them pretty well, though the greatest gift I got from them was to be on the lookout for Hoban’s next novel, Riddley Walker, which is Hoban’s masterpiece, though not an easy read. Written in the imagined vernacular of a twelve-year old boy two thousand years after nuclear war has laid waste to the earth and the English language, I needed three determined tries at the book before my brain was able to translate Hoban’s disintegrated English into something I could understand—but I was glad I made the effort.

Reading Kim, on the other hand, was a complete life changer for me. I have now read Kim ten times in the last twenty years, having consumed it most recently a year ago. When I read Kim, I lose myself entirely in the language and the story, and always emerge from the experience deeply inspired to continue my creative pursuits, to amplify my spiritual investigations, and to relish every moment of life I am given.

For some years I urged everyone I knew (and even people I barely knew) to read Kim, but few of those who read the book on my recommendation found it to be the holy book it is to me. And more than a few women said the book was a male fantasy and not for them, and more than a few people said they thought the story dated and the writing florid, and some said Kipling was a racist and a sexist; and so I have ceased to recommend the book to anyone without massive disclaimers. Still, I read Kim every two years and the grand saga never fails to be a fabulous source of wonder and rejuvenation for me.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

In 1979 I was living in Santa Cruz and frequently attended concerts at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a small joint in those days where jazz people with weekend gigs in the Bay Area would come down to give Monday night performances. One Monday evening I got to the venue early so I could sit close and watch Roland Hanna play. I had seen Roland when he was the pianist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I loved his playing on Jim Hall’s Concierto album, but I had never heard him play solo.

Roland Hanna was sometimes called Sir Elf because he was short and because he’d been given an honorary knighthood by the king of Liberia. But he became a giant to me that night, playing so melodically, so thoughtfully, so spontaneously, and with such groovy swing, that I walked out of Kuumbwa feeling blessed and more determined than ever to keep pursuing my own piano explorations.

My favorite Roland Hanna album was Swing Me No Waltzes, solo piano recorded in Sweden in 1979 on a Bösendorfer grand piano. I wore that record out; my favorite tune Roses Not Mums. Fast-forward several years to a jazz joint in San Francisco, Roland Hanna to play solo piano. Once again, I was there early so I could sit close, except there was some snafu with the club manager who didn’t know anything about anything and was insisting Hanna get a trio together because that’s what had been advertised. So Hanna’s manager got on the phone, and while the maestro sat in a booth sipping wine and waiting for a bass player and drummer to show up, I got up my nerve and went over to tell him how much I loved his music.

To my amazement, Hanna gestured for me to sit opposite him in the booth, which I did, and after I blurted something about seeing him at Kuumbwa and loving Swing Me No Waltzes, he smiled and said, “You play?”

“Um…well…yeah, though…”

He shook his head. “No though, man. You play. Own it.”

“Okay,” I said, sudden tears in my eyes. “Okay. Yes, I play.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.” He sipped his wine. “I like to play for players. You know? Because you guys get what I’m doing in a deeper way, you know?”

He was talking to me as a fellow musician, miracle of miracles, though he knew nothing about me. And then I realized he did know something about me. He knew I loved his music, especially Swing Me No Waltzes, which was an esoteric and wholly original creation, and my naming that album must have told him many things about me, about my taste and my personality. Or so I decided to believe.

“What’s your favorite tune on that record?” he asked, reaching up to shake the hand of one of three bass players who’d showed up in hopes of gigging with him.

Roses Not Mums,” I said, nodding. “Such a great tune, such an amazing journey.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said, nodding in time with me, “but I don’t play that tune anymore. Wrote it for my favorite bass player, and since he died I don’t play it now. But I will play something you’ll dig, I promise.”

I dug everything he played that night, and when he died ten years ago at the age of seventy, I played his music day and night for three days, thinking of him, loving him, hearing him say again and again, “No though, man. You play. Own it.”