Archive for July, 2012

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

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

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.

Humility

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

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

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot

Several recent conversations with friends focused on how might we counter the cyber takeover of our society while at the same time fomenting positive change and a more vibrant local community; and the answer seems to be to invite people over to share a meal and talk.

“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.” Omar Ibn Al-Halif

A friend wrote that in an effort to regain the souls of her husband and children she instituted a rule that cell phones and cyber pads were not allowed at the dining table. The initial response to this rule was that her children and husband wolfed their meals and rushed back to their devices. So she instituted a second rule that dinner had to last half an hour. After a week of dismal dining experiences filled with complaints, her children and husband adjusted to the brief nightly respite from tweeting and staring into little screens and “there have even been some nights when the family lingers at the table after the half hour is up because we are so engrossed in conversation.”

“Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to the enduring fact of mystery.” Henry Miller

One of my favorite Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories is about an outwardly successful man, pious and wealthy, who is not very nice to his wife and children and other people. He rigorously follows the religious and civil rules of his society and continuously wins the economic battle, but no one likes him. Eventually this man’s sons and daughters want nothing to do with him, his wife is perpetually distressed by what a sourpuss he is, and he finds himself more and more isolated and unhappy. So he goes on a journey to a famous spiritual teacher and explains his situation (as he perceives it) to the teacher, and the teacher whispers a little something in the man’s ear.

Having gained the sage’s advice, the man returns to his home and is so changed that his wife and children and business associates can hardly believe he is the same person. In just a few days, this tight-fisted, judgmental, self-righteous egotist has become a generous, open-minded, loving, humble sweetie pie ready to lend an ear to anyone who needs a good listener, a hand to anyone who needs help. And as the years go by, the man becomes so loving and wise that he is regarded as a saint.

One day the man’s oldest son, who previously hated his father and now adores him, asks his father what the spiritual teacher whispered to him all those years ago that so transformed him. And the man reveals that the teacher suggested he pretend to be generous and loving and open-minded, and to continue pretending until the pretense became his habit and transformed him.

“What this world needs is a new kind of army—the army of the kind.” Cleveland Amory

I recently had a visit from a friend who arrived armed with an Iphone, an Ipad, and a Kindle reader. “I don’t know how I ever got along without these,” he said as he searched for something on the screen of his phone.

“I remember you without those,” I told him, “and you seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“I’m a thousand times better organized now,” he said, continuing to scroll around on his phone. “Much more connected to everything. No more waiting to get news or books or movies. Everything I want fits on these three devices with room to spare.”

He gave me a tour of several apps on his Ipad, took photos of this and that with his Iphone, instantly posted the photos on three social network web sites, and then downloaded an e-book version of my novel Under the Table Books onto his Kindle.

“See,” he said, grinning triumphantly. “We did all that in no time at all.”

And because I love the guy I said, “Amazing! Truly amazing.”

“The twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity.” Edward Hoagland

The late great Juliette White of Albion was a master of the spontaneous dinner party. Sometimes she would invite us the day before the party; sometimes she’d call an hour before the food was ready. To our question, “What can we bring?” she might reply, “Just yourselves,” or “Salad” or “Anything.” Of the twenty or so spontaneous dinner parties I attended at Juliette’s, the largest number of people in attendance was ten, the smallest number was six. The most remarkable thing to me about these gatherings was that there was nothing remarkable about them, yet I always felt I was taking part in Holy Communion.

Humility (from Buddha In A Teacup)

Thomas is seventy-seven. His wife Denise died unexpectedly in her sleep a year and a month ago.

Thomas’s work—the completion of the seventh and final volume of an exhaustive history of the English language—has not progressed a word since Denise’s death. An oppressive sorrow has lain upon Thomas for these thirteen months, and he has little hope of living beyond his grief.

A tall, lean Englishman with pale blue eyes and red hair going gray, Thomas is roused from his stupor at the kitchen table—his bagel and tea untouched—by loud rapping on the front door. His first thought is to ignore the summons, but the rapping persists, so he reluctantly rises and goes to the door.

“Yes?” he says, frowning curiously at an enormous young man with dark brown skin, a shaved head, and muscular arms covered with tattoos.

“I’m Oz,” says the young man, holding out a piece of paper to Thomas. “You the tutor?”

“I don’t believe so.” Thomas peers at the paper and realizes through a fog of despair that his daughter Maureen must have gone ahead and fulfilled her threat to sign him up for after school duty.

“Got the address right,” says Oz, his voice deep and sonorous. “Seven seven six.”

“I stand corrected.” Thomas chuckles at his daughter’s audacity. “Come in.”

“Like a library,” says Oz, stopping on the threshold to gaze around the living room, every inch of wall given over to bookshelves. “You read all these books?”

“Most of them more than once.” Thomas scans the thousands of volumes for any he might have skipped.

“Smells old in here.” Oz wrinkles his nose. “You got a sunny room?”

“The kitchen,” says Thomas, leading the way. “I’ll make a fresh pot of green tea.”

“I ain’t never had no green tea,” says Oz, pausing in the hallway to look at a picture of Thomas as a young Oxford scholar. “Get a buzz?”

“There is some caffeine in green tea,” Thomas replies, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Make yourself at home.”

“Coffee jitters me bad,” says Oz, taking a seat from which he can observe Thomas. “Green tea don’t do that, do it?”

“No, it’s more subtle.” Thomas fills the kettle. “It invigorates in a wholly different way than coffee.”

“You show more accent than your daughter,” says Oz, nodding his approval of the cheerful room. “Me likes.”

“Oh, so you do know my daughter.” Thomas sets the kettle atop the flame. “That was my supposition.”

“Word,” says Oz, grinning at Thomas. “She chose me special just for you.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?” Thomas peruses his collection of teas and decides on a pungent green from Taiwan.

“She flunked me twice.” Oz nods slowly. “But she knows I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re obviously exceedingly intelligent.” Thomas clears away his lunch dishes. “May I offer you something to eat?”

“No.” Oz looks glumly at the floor and cracks his knuckles. “How come you use that word? Exceedingly? Means more than enough, yeah? Like you think I’m very smart. Which I am, but…how come you think so?”

“The way you take things in.” Thomas sits down opposite Oz. “The way you listen and respond. We’ve been in real conversation from our very first moment together, and that’s quite rare in my experience.”

Oz nods. “You write books?”

“I have written books,” says Thomas, studying Oz’s handsome face, the chiseled cheeks and jaw, “though I doubt I will ever write another.”

“How come?” asks Oz, hearing sorrow in Thomas’s voice. “Must be nice to write a good book.”

“I have lost my inspiration,” says Thomas, thinking of Denise and how everything he wrote, he wrote for her. “I’m old now. Tired.”

“So why you want to be a tutor?” Oz rises to quiet the whistling kettle.

Thomas is about to reply that he doesn’t want to be a tutor, that this is all his daughter’s doing, that he’s very sorry but he’s just not up to it. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Perhaps I can still be useful to someone.”

“Someone maybe like me,” says Oz, shaking dry tealeaves into his hand to inspect them. “You wanna show me how to make this drink?”

“Ah,” says Thomas, raising a knowing finger. “The art of tea.”

Salt and Song

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

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

“Things filled men with fear: the more things they had, the more they had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves on to the soul and then telling the soul what to do.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

Marcia and I recently watched the marvelous documentary The Salt Men of Tibet, and if you’ve been feeling jangled by modern life, I think you will find this movie a helpful antidote to that jangling. The pace of the movie reflects the pace of life for these nomadic salt men who leave their womenfolk and children to walk with a great herd of yaks, forty yaks per man, to a remote salt lake from which they harvest salt to trade for barley so they and their people may survive another year. Walking to the lake takes the men and their yaks a month or so, with the return trip—each yak now burdened with two large sacks of salt—taking forty-five days or more. Thus three months of every year in the lives of these men is consumed with going and getting salt, and each minute of those three months is part of an all-encompassing sacred ritual.

The film begins in a hut in a mountainous wilderness in which there are no trees. A woman is singing to the salt men, her song the story of Lord Buddha and the events composing the spiritual basis for the reality these men and their families inhabit. The salt people are devout Buddhists and believe their salt lake to be an intelligent and emotionally sensitive being who is deeply influenced by the actions of those who wish to gain the boon of salt from her.

At the conclusion of the woman’s song, the spiritual stage now set, preparations for the incredible journey begin. What we soon realize is that these people live without electricity and motors, their fires fueled with yak dung, their clothing and rope and blankets made from yak wool, and that every aspect of their lives is consciously spiritual, for they believe that everything—every step they take and every word they speak and every animal and object they possess—is presided over by gods and spirits and Buddha to whom they speak and pray and sing throughout their days.

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki

The day after we watched The Salt Men of Tibet, I went out into the garden to harvest our garlic crop, and when I realized I was rushing to complete the task, I thought of the salt men, took a deep breath, and slowed way down. And as I slowed my actions, many blurry things came into focus. I became keenly aware of the beauty of the roots of the garlic clinging tenaciously to the soil as I pulled the dying plants from the ground, which tenacity and beauty reminded me that I was harvesting the children of the marriage of the garlic plant with the soil, children I would soon be eating so I might go on living.

Blessings on the soil and rabbit poop and compost and horse manure and rain and microbes and time and sunlight and darkness and gravity and air and all else constituting the fabric of life wherein our holy garlic flourishes.

“Before the whites came, no one in Australia was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor’s song and the stretch of country over which the song passed. A man’s verses were his title deeds to territory. He could lend them to others. He could borrow other verses in return. The one thing he couldn’t do was sell or get rid of them.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

I am currently reading The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s classic about the aboriginals of central Australia in the late twentieth century. The book was first published in America in 1987 and is by far my favorite of Chatwin’s works. This is my third reading of The Songlines, my first in a decade, and I’m finding the text wholly new, which is both pleasurable and perplexing. How could I have forgotten so much of this fascinating information? If you have not read The Songlines or if it has been some years since your last reading, I highly recommend the book as another good antidote to the frantic pace of modern life that so grievously obscures our perceptions of the infinite nuances of Nature—the aboriginals of Australia believing that for anything to exist, it must first be sung into existence.

 “A ‘stop’, he said, was the ‘handover point’ where the song passed out of your ownership; where it was no longer yours to look after and no longer yours to lend. You’d sing to the end of your verses, and there lay the boundary.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

In 1964, when I was fifteen, my family and I went on a Sierra Club trip to a high Sierra base camp on the North Fork of the San Joaquin, a seventeen-mile hike from the last trace of what might be called a road. Joining us at this remote base camp were thirty other people, and one of these intrepid souls was an elderly Italian man who had played the clarinet in a famous symphony orchestra for most of his life.

Every morning he would rise at dawn and climb to the top of a rocky knoll overlooking our camp and sound the breakfast bell, so to speak, by playing on his clarinet a gorgeous rendition of Oh What A Beautiful Morning; and rain or shine his music ushered in the light of day as I lay in my sleeping bag listening to those voluptuous tones giving form to the formless void and filling me with desire to get up and live.

“Richard Lee calculated that a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

One of the many things I appreciate about The Songlines is that Chatwin resists the impulse to portray the aboriginals as heroic and the Europeans as villains. Each person in the book, regardless of skin color, is presented as an individual with flaws and virtues, beauty and ugliness, so that my own tendency to lionize the indigenous and villainize the colonists is constantly derailed by Chatwin’s fairness, which allows me to surrender to the unspoken message of the story that each of us is the creation of the culture in which we are born and raised; and the most remarkable people are those who practice generosity rather than selfishness, regardless of their particular cultural programming. Indeed, the book is full of little acts of kindness and generosity without which life would be no fun at all.

“All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world: those that stay at home and those that do not.” Rudyard Kipling

Another thing I love about The Songlines is that the book is a jumble of ideas and anecdotes and theories about human behavior set against the backdrop of a rough and tumble journey through the outback in search of places sacred to the aboriginals, which turns out to be almost every place. At one point in his outback odyssey, incessant rain traps Chatwin in a remote outpost for several days, a time he uses to read through his many notebooks filled with stories about various nomadic societies and remembrances of his fascinating discussions with Konrad Lorenz (author of On Aggression) and Elizabeth Vrba, as well as several mind-bending theories about the evolution of human society in that long ago time when our ancestors were the favorite food of gigantic cats.

“A leopard at the kill is no more violent or angry than an antelope is angry with the grass it eats.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

There is one scene in The Salt Men of Tibet I’ve thought about several times since watching the movie, and every time I think about this scene I feel grateful for the wisdom it imparts. For the purpose of saddling the yaks, one of the salt men is gathering the big animals and tying them to a long assemblage of rope laid out on the ground. As the man goes to get one of the yaks, the big animal moves away, not wanting to be caught. The man follows the yak, but does not hurry. The yak eludes the man three or four times, yet the man never quickens his pace as he follows the yak and eventually catches him.

As I watched the scene, I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the man following the yak, and I nearly shouted, “Just move a little quicker and grab him!” But that is not the way of the salt people. Hurrying and grabbing might frighten or anger the yaks with whom the salt people have a profoundly symbiotic and respectful relationship. The salt people could not survive without the yaks, for these sacred beings provide the salt people with milk, butter, fat, fire, fabric, transportation, and warmth—life!

Apes

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

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

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Sometimes it helps me to remember we are apes. Before the advent of clothing and tools and weapons and religion and cars and nuclear power and nations and money and vast social and economic inequities, we were naked apes looking for sustenance, shelter, safety, and love. We foraged for food, made nests for sleeping, and hung out in groups large enough to dissuade leopards. We had mates and children, we changed locations when our favorite foods grew scarce, and we socialized with family and friends every day. We did not, I think, have long terms goals. We lived wholly in the moment because we didn’t have anything other than the moment to live in. We had nothing to carry, nothing to hide, nothing besides each other.

Okay, so that is a gross oversimplification of ape reality, which is not without violence and danger and sorrow and death; but thinking of myself as an ape in a group of excellent and sympathetic apes living in a jungle full of tasty leafs and fruit helps me grok why so many people are unhappy today and why our so-called advanced society is so incredibly stressful and dysfunctional and stupid and wrong. We have not only lost our collective connection to the earth, we have lost touch with what really made us happy when we were apes—each other.

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” James Thurber

I remember a moment in July of 1976 when I suddenly thought, “This is the happiest day of my life.” I was not thinking about happiness at the time, nor was I aware, until that moment, of being particularly happy. I looked around, wondering what could possibly have inspired such a thought, and what I saw unseated all my previous notions of what great happiness would look like: a dozen males and females and children (in Medford, Oregon on a very hot afternoon) sitting and standing around a picnic table on a scraggly lawn in the dappled shade of a towering elm, eating watermelon and spitting seeds.

I was a landscaper and had given up writing for a time. I didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have much money, and I was living in a funky bunkhouse next to the house of my boss and his wife and their kids. Oh, yes, now I remember it was the birthday of one of my boss’s kids, and we were drinking beer along with eating watermelon and spitting seeds, I and a couple other landscapers and their wives and my boss and his wife and a couple of their kids, including the birthday boy who was turning fourteen.

Why was I so happy? Looking back on that unexpectedly magical moment on that very hot day, I think my happiness came from our just being apes, eating fruit and spitting seeds and hanging out and talking and laughing and enjoying the moment without much thought or care for what might happen next.

I’ve had other happy days since that hot day in July in Medford in 1976, but I’ve never again been struck so forcefully by the thought, “This is the happiest day of my life,” which brings me to that unanswerable question: what is happiness?

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Kurt Vonnegut

Long ago I read the transcript of a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut about the happiest day of his life. In the tradition of apes, I will relate to you what I remember Kurt told us in his speech rather than locate the transcript on the interweb and copy his words verbatim. What I remember is that Kurt began speaking about the happiest day of his life by first telling us about the happiest day of his grandfather’s life and then about the happiest day of his father’s life.

The happiest day of Kurt’s grandfather’s life was when Kurt’s grandfather was a young man. He and his best friend were walking through an Indiana cornfield on a hot summer day when a freight train came chugging along and stopped in the middle of the cornfield for no apparent reason. Seeing the train idling there, Kurt’s grandfather and his friend were filled with desire to climb onto the cowcatcher and have a ride, the cowcatcher being a big V-shaped steel bumper mounted on the front of the train’s engine. So Kurt’s grandfather and his friend ran through the corn and hopped onto the cowcatcher, the train started moving and picked up speed, and for many miles Kurt’s grandfather and his best friend sailed along through the corn, happier than they had ever been.

The happiest day of Kurt’s father’s life, if I’m remembering correctly, was his wedding day when he was in his early twenties. Kurt’s father had a friend who worked at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the gigantic track where they hold the famous Indianapolis 500) and as a wedding gift to Kurt’s father and mother, this friend let them onto the speedway in their regular car to zoom around and around the track, which zooming filled the newlyweds with joy.

And the happiest day of Kurt’s life was the day he was discharged from the Army.

“If you want to be happy, be.” Leo Tolstoy


Happiness (a short story from Buddha In A Teacup)

Gerald is turning the soil in the narrow bed of earth that runs the length of the south-facing side of the old house he rents—October more than half over. He intends to plant snow peas where the sun and white walls conspire to keep the ground relatively warm throughout the winter months.

He is not conscious that it has been seven years to the day since he learned of his wife’s unfaithfulness to him for all of their eighteen years of marriage. He is divorced now and has grown accustomed to living alone. The discovery of his wife’s secret life shattered his confidence in himself and in his closest friends—two of them being his wife’s lovers. He sold his law practice after finalizing the divorce and has been unemployed ever since.

His days are spent reading, taking long walks, listening to music, writing letters to friends, and sitting still. His money is nearly gone. He has no intention of practicing law again, though he has yet to decide how he will earn his living.

His shovel sinks into the dry ground, and as he turns the soil it crumbles into tiny fragments, leaving only the smallest of clods. Six years ago the soil here was dense clay, but hundred of buckets of kitchen compost and the labor of ten thousand worms have made the soil rich and pliable.

Recalling how difficult this task was a few years ago, Gerald smiles at the ease with which he now readies the bed. He rakes the ground until it is essentially level, and creates a little dam at the slightly downhill end of the bed. Now he kneels, and using his index finger, draws an inch-deep channel in the dirt some ten inches out from the wall of the house.

He reaches into his pocket and brings forth a packet of snow pea seeds. The planting instructions promise bushes thirty inches tall—self-supporting. But Gerald knows the vines will be much taller than thirty inches and will require support to keep from sprawling. He wonders why the seed sellers boast that the bushes will stand on their own when they never do, and he smiles again, happy to know the gangly plants will need his bamboo poles and string.

He drops the pale green pearls into the rough channel—one pearl every three or four inches along the way—and covers them with the rich soil. Now he stands and treads on the row, pressing the dirt down upon the seeds.

The bright blue hose is nearby, the water running noiselessly onto rust red chrysanthemums—wild children of a housewarming gift from a thoughtful friend.

As he takes up the hose from the mums—survivors of a dry summer and his occasional neglect—he remembers his wife and the sorrow of their parting. Now he presses his thumb into the mouth of the hose and sprays the water onto the new bed of peas—the grayish soil turning black—and he remembers his wife’s ecstatic face as they mated on sun-dappled sheets.

The bed becomes a pool with spray dappling the surface—a rainbow appearing in the mist near Gerald’s hand.