Archive for September, 2012

Connections

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

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

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

The stock market was way up yesterday on news that Bank of America announced that he (being a gigantic person according to the Supreme Court) plans to cut sixteen thousand jobs by Christmas. How nice. What a fine and humane time to fire sixteen thousand people in order to increase quarterly profits for a quarter or two.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

So I was in the hardware store buying screws and varnish and masking tape and grout and glue, and having a laugh with the fellow helping me find things (about the trials and tribulations and triumphs and compromises of fixing things), when a couple entered the store and my Super Wealthy People alarm went off. That is to say, having grown up in Atherton, a town that is not really a town but an enclave for super wealthy people and those who serve them, a shiver passes through me when one or more of these folks comes near, and then I try to get away as fast as I can.

The woman was elegant and beautiful and perfectly coiffed and wearing a gray silk dress and a strand of fat white pearls and these amazingly svelte red leather boots, an ensemble that probably cost as much as most people’s cars, and the man was wearing a shirt and trousers I would more likely frame and put on the wall than wear. As is the habit of many super wealthy people, the woman walked up to the fellow helping me find things and began speaking to him as if I did not exist and he and I were not already having a conversation, because as far as this beautiful wealthy woman was concerned I was invisible.

“I know you probably don’t carry the kind of thing we’re looking for,” she said to the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. Then she laughed in a sophisticated sort of way and added, “This being Mendocino and all, but…we’re looking for poison. To kill weeds.”

“Oh, we’ve got poison for killing weeds,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. “What kind of weeds are you wanting to kill?”

“They have it,” she said, turning to her husband who was peering into his phone and frowning gravely. “Tell him what we want it for.”

“We have a place here,” said her husband, flourishing his phone like a baton. “About a mile south of here. We only get up here a few times a year and there are these weeds that grow in the gravel driveway. We have them pulled, but then they come back. We want to kill them for good. Do you have a poison that will do that?”

Another fellow who helps me find things in the hardware store beckoned to me and I moved away from the Super Wealthy people to pay for my purchases and make my escape, but not until I heard the fellow who had previously been helping me say to the super wealthy people, “Well, I don’t know that anything will kill weeds forever. Even the strongest poison eventually dissipates.”

“Oh,” said the woman, pouting in a sophisticated sort of way, “but it’s so annoying to turn into our driveway and find those weeds there again.”

“Well,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me, “you could always pave the driveway. Weeds don’t grow through asphalt.”

“But we like the gravel,” said the woman. “The rustic feeling of the tires crunching on the gravel.”

“How about something that would last five years?” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “Or three? We could have someone apply it every three years.”

“There’s only two things that money can’t buy—that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.” Guy Clark

I was thinking about those super wealthy people and the poison they wanted to buy as I was reading about the suddenly vanishing Greenland ice sheet, a shocking turn of events that even the most savvy of ice sheet scientists hadn’t expected to happen for some decades, if ever. And now the ice is gone. The ramifications of this astonishing disappearance can hardly be imagined, but oceans rising and catastrophic weather events are certainly to be expected; and there is nothing to be done about this unfolding disaster in the short term except to fasten our seatbelts, so to speak. In the long term, we can stop burning fossil fuels and, it seems to me, stop using poison to kill weeds in gravel driveways.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m no more environmentally responsible than those weed killing wealthy people. After all, I drive a little truck that runs on gasoline and I turn on myriad electric lights to banish the darkness, and I use a computer and buy clothes made in China. And, in truth, people of all economic classes in America use poison to kill weeds. We all contribute to the sum total synergy wreaking havoc on the natural world, and we all have the opportunity to lessen our contributions, if only we will.

In related news, the net worth of the four hundred richest Americans grew by thirteen percent in the past year to 1.7 trillion dollars, while twenty-eight states report large increases in unemployment. Hmm. The stock market goes up when corporations fire lots of people, and the four hundred richest Americans, philanthropists all, I’m sure, keep getting richer and richer, and at an accelerating pace, just as the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating pace.

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

I learned about the phenomenon of ephemeralization from reading Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which Bucky defines in his stream-of-consciousness way as “the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed.” An illustration of this would be that the first moderately successful computer was the size of a huge office building and nowadays our little personal computers are thousands of times faster and more efficient and sophisticated than that original behemoth.

Bucky believed that ephemeralization would ultimately provide humanity with everything we needed to live successfully on spaceship earth without our needing to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. He also believed that computers and the worldwide interweb could provide the means for a shift in global awareness that would bring an end to war and overpopulation and the mistreatment of women and children and the needless destruction of the environment. Alas, computers and the worldwide interweb have not saved us, nor have they slowed our ravenous gobbling of the forests and oceans and mountains. Indeed, as our computers have gotten smaller and faster, the poor have gotten more plentiful and the richest four hundred people…

 “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Many years ago I ran the Creative Writing program at the California State Summer School for the Arts, my students talented teens, one of whom, a sassy eighteen-year-old vixen, presented me with the book of poems Rain by William Carpenter, and said, “I want to have this man’s child.”

I read the book that night and found his poems as exciting as great short stories. I then wrote to Bill Carpenter and he and I eventually became pen pals. I told him that I was using his poems to inspire my young charges, and that certain of his poems seemed to help unlock their creative flow. Here is one of those poems that came to mind as I was writing this essay.

THE ECUADORIAN SAILORS

The Ecuadorian sailors arrive in Bucksport.

They stare at the American girls who stand

on the oil wharf in shorts and halters, eating

pistachio ice cream in the long Maine afternoons

as the sun drops behind the refinery. Evenings,

the Ecuadorians gather on deck. From the town hall

you can hear their slow, passionate music

as one of the officers, immaculately dressed,

sings something about love, about a man murdered,

a woman stolen in the night. The Bucksport girls

throw daisies to the Ecuadorians, who place them

behind their ears, and the officer sings about

a flower blooming in a forgotten place. The next

morning, the girls wear yellow flowers between

their breasts, but the sailors do not see them.

They want to shop in the American stores. They move

through Bucksport talking rapidly. Soon they find

Laverdiere’s Discount Drug Store, where you can buy

anything. A line of Ecuadorian sailors streams

from the ship down Main Street to Laverdiere’s.

Another line returns, carrying brown paper bags.

Where the two meet, they talk and touch fingers

like ants describing the source of food and pleasure.

Some have small bags with radios and calculators,

others have large mysterious bags. Two of them

carry a color television while a third holds the

rabbit-ear antenna and tells them where not to step.

One solitary man carries a red snow shovel, as if,

when he brings the shovel home to Ecuador, it

will snow in his village for the first time since

the Pleistocene. When Laverdiere’s closes, girls

come to the ship with long dresses and daisies

plaited in their hair. The air fills with music

from guitars, with emotions like red and blue rain-

forest parrots that no one in Bucksport has ever seen.

Each Ecuadorian sailor invites a girl to dance

and speaks to her in Spanish, which she understands

fluently, like a lost native language, like words

uttered by eloquent red parrots in a country where

it is always afternoon. At night, among the oil tanks,

the girls all become women. They go to their houses

before dawn, but they are not the same, they have

new languages, new bodies, they have grown darker

and will wear flowers forever between their breasts,

even when the sailors have returned to Ecuador, even

when they marry and take their clothes off for the

first time in a lighted room, the flowers will be there

like indelible tattoos. Their husbands will grow silent

as winter, but it will not matter, they will teach

their children three or four words of Spanish, a song

about red parrots crying in a place of sunlight where

it never snows, and where the heart is everything.

William Carpenter

 

Moving Experiences

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

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

Marcia and I are moving from the house we’ve rented for the past seven years into a house (five miles away) we just bought. Miracle of miracles, the little gem came to us as if in a dream, and in the dream we could afford to buy her, so we did. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the new (old) house has required a great deal of work (eight weeks every day from morning until night) to be habitable when we make the great leap to living there this coming week, and the worse news is that we have to leave this house we have become so deeply attached to, and in so moving deal with ALL OUR STUFF!

Moving Experience #1: I confront a heavy cardboard box I dragged from Santa Cruz to Sacramento in 1979, Sacramento to Berkeley in 1995, Berkeley to Mendocino in 2006, and now Mendocino to another place in Mendocino in 2012. In faint felt pen on the outside of the box are the words Todd stories, go through. And I realize that I have never followed the dictates of that bygone felt pen but have continued to schlep this fifty-pound archive around with me for thirty-some years because…

Maybe I had better things to do. Maybe I had more room, more time, more tolerance for mysterious stuff taking up space. In any case, now I open the box and spend a couple hours skimming through dozens of short stories, two plays, and two novels I have only the vaguest memories of writing, though each novel consumed a year or more of my life. I end up saving a few of the stories and the two plays because a few of the lines grab me and hint they might lead to something good and new. The rest I dump into the recycling can to be picked up tomorrow, and as I dump those thousands of pages I feel a brief twinge of sorrow followed immediately by stupendous relief.

I move to the next behemoth box inscribed in purple felt pen: Todd screenplays, 1995,  check out. And so on.

Moving Experience #2: My friend Bob calls and we talk about how work on the new house is going and how going through my accumulated stuff is going, and we share our thoughts about throwing things away. I brag that I have reduced the contents of a four-drawer legal-sized file cabinet to a half-drawer worth of stuff, and Bob asks, “So what was the stuff you got rid of?”

“Letters from friends, unpublished stories, works-in-progress that never progressed, photographs from the beginning of time to the present, cassette tapes, old book contracts, sketches for paintings I never painted…like that. The letters from friends were the hardest to let go of, though I had no interest in reading the letters again. I’m not sure why I saved them except…”

“Maybe having their letters was like having the people with you,” Bob suggests. “Their energy was present in those letters.”

“Which would explain why throwing the letters away was…is like a little death, the person no longer present.”

“Yes, death,” says Bob. “In the sense of absence. In the sense of letting go. Releasing a psychic bond. Giving something away that will never come back.”

Moving Experience #3: I recall reading interviews with several people who lost everything, as in every thing, in the great Oakland Hills fire of a couple decades ago, and how almost all those people spoke of the experience as initially devastating and soon thereafter incredibly liberating, for they were then free to re-invent themselves.

Yes. Moving gives us the opportunity to re-invent ourselves by what we choose to get rid of and what we choose to keep. I weigh several hundred pounds less than I did before we began this move, and I have come face to face with dozens of things I long ago ceased to use and certainly don’t need to carry with me so I can go on not using them. Yet if we weren’t moving, those things would continue to fill up my life and weigh me down. To get rid of things necessitates confronting those things and making decisions, and moving forces us to do that. So in a sense, moving is like a slow moving fire, sort of.

Moving Experience #4: Old photos. Good God, I was a little boy and a teenager and a young man. I had a cute high school girlfriend and I was a hippy and had nothing and then I married a woman who looked like a movie star and I owned a big house in Sacramento and there I am on the set of the movie they made of my novel and then I wasn’t married and had nothing again and…I don’t need to keep these pictures anymore. I don’t need to review my life every time I move. Enough already.

Moving experience #5: The past impinges. The past clings to things. The past imparts mojo to things and if that mojo is not sweet and inspiring, then I say jettison the thing! Yes, you’re right. That is a perfectly good chair. And someone will come to the garage sale we’re going to have at our new place and they will buy the chair and not be adversely impacted by the mojo because mojo depends on psychic interconnectedness, which garage sales tend to obliterate. What I’m saying is, it’s fine to get rid of perfectly good things because, in truth, they may not be perfectly good for me or for you because of the aforementioned psychic interconnectedness being troublesome.

Moving Experience #6: Indeed, psychic interconnectedness seems to be what is making this particular move such an ordeal. We are not just moving our bodies and our things to a new place and getting rid of things as we move, we are moving and getting rid of things encrusted with thousands of tons of memories and feelings. And it might be that we have held onto this stuff for so long because we have been afraid of losing our memories, which remind us of where we’ve been, what we’ve done, what we had. and who we were. Perhaps we are afraid that if we jettison all these artifacts we will find ourselves wandering in a void haunted by the question: Who Are We?

Moving Experience #7: So one question is: are we our stuff? No. Do we think we are our stuff? Maybe so. Oh, my. Look. There is the proof of dreams unrealized, or proof of happier, richer, better, younger times. Marcia looks at old pictures of me and invariably exclaims, “God, you had so much hair!”

Moving Experience #8: The big strong men come on Monday with their big truck to move the big heavy things, notably my piano, best left to big strong men without hernias. Thereafter, we will sleep at the new house and come back to the old house to mop up, so to speak, for the next week or so. Then we will come here no more. We will be absent to this place and this place will be absent in our lives, but for some weeks and months I will continue to know the contours of this place and the curves in the road from town to here better than I know the contours of the new house and the curves in the road from town to there. And a moment will come when my knowing of each place will be equal, and then in the next moment I will know that new place better than this place.

Going (a short story)

Friday, September 14th, 2012

(This story was published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)

“We were all on this ship in the sixties, our generation, a ship going to discover the New World.” John Lennon

“Things have changed,” says Caroline, thirty-three, tall, slender, beautiful. “Love would be nice, but my window of opportunity is closing fast, so…”

Marjorie, Caroline’s mother, sixty-five and six inches shorter than her lovely daughter, waves for the waiter to bring more coffee. A few pounds heavier than she likes to be, Marjorie is vibrantly healthy, her long brown hair streaked with silver and gray, her green eyes sparkling with life. She wants to say to Caroline, You think I don’t know things have changed? We’re going backwards! The 50’s are here again, the 30’s close behind, then 1900, the Dark Ages, witch-hunts, slavery! But instead she says, “Of course things have changed. Things are always changing. But love is still the reason we’re alive. To love and be loved.”

“Oh, please,” says Caroline, rolling her eyes. “The sixties are over, Mother. Forty years over. Look where love got you”

Marjorie thinks back to a sunny day in 1967 when for the first time in her adult life she wore no bra, her nipples caressed by the thin cotton of her tie-dyed blouse. She was twenty-two, a graduate student at Berkeley, tripping down Telegraph Avenue looking for love—and finding it in the person of Hal, Caroline’s father, playing Frisbee in People’s Park.

“I admire Jeremy,” says Caroline, gazing up at the ceiling as she always does when stretching the truth. “He’s really quite nice and very bright, and he absolutely mints money. He just sold his third start up company for sixty million dollars. He dresses impeccably, knows everything about wine, owns a fabulous house in Hillsborough, a condo in Maui, a vineyard in…”

Marjorie listens to the litany of Jeremy’s assets and thinks I can’t believe this is happening. I’m the mother. I’m supposed to be urging her to marry him because he’s rich and she’s supposed to be saying But Mother, I don’t love him.

“I loved John,” says Caroline, shaking her head. “For five years. Insanely. Look where it got me. Nowhere.”

“Where is it you want to get?” asks Marjorie, smiling painfully as the waiter fills their mugs. “John was an artist. You had marvelous adventures together.”

“I want to be comfortable,” says Caroline, about to cry. “I’m tired of the hassles, the bills I can’t pay, saving myself for some guy who doesn’t exist. If I marry Jeremy it’s carte blanche from here on out. No more confusion. No surprises. A perfectly nice guy with buckets of money. I’ve paid my dues. Time to have babies.”

“You don’t think babies are confusing and surprising?” says Marjorie, her heart aching. “Believe me, honey, babies are, by definition…”

“Only if you’re poor,” says Caroline, squeezing her eyes shut. “Like we were. But Jeremy has millions of dollars. Many millions. Can you spell nannies?”

Marjorie remembers the rallies, the marches, the be-ins, the banners and placards and signs that said FREE LOVE! She used to think Free Love meant Love Without Cost, but now she realizes it was demand: Release Love From Its Shackles. Set Love Free. And in setting love free, set women free.

“Anyway, the point is,” says Caroline, gnawing at her thumbnail, “he needs me to decide before the end of the month, in eleven days, when his fiscal year ends. For his corporation. Because he wants to buy me a car. And to get a deduction he needs to make me an employee, but if we aren’t going to get married I don’t want to put him through the hassle.”

“Wait,” says Marjorie, her head throbbing. “You’re deciding to marry him on the basis of a car?” She thinks of women in Africa being traded for cows.

“Don’t lecture me, please,” says Caroline, folding her arms. “I knew you were going to lecture me.”

“I’m not lecturing,” says Marjorie, rummaging in her purse for aspirin. “I’m asking a question.”

“You think Jeremy is stupid, don’t you?” says Caroline, nodding. “You think he doesn’t have a sense of humor because he didn’t get Alex’s stupid little ironies. And because he didn’t think Young Frankenstein was funny. Right?”

“I have met Jeremy twice,” says Marjorie, waving frantically for the waiter to bring water. “He seemed…remote.”

“Why?” says Caroline, snarling. “Because he’s totally focused on where he wants to go? What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” says Majorie, her eyes filling with tears as they always do when Caroline snarls at her.

“Jeremy isn’t confused,” says Caroline, nodding resolutely. “That’s one of the many things I admire about him. He isn’t looking for himself. That’s all your generation ever did was look for themselves, and you never ended up getting anywhere.”

“Where should we have gotten?” asks Marjorie, the room spinning.

“Somewhere,” says Caroline, raising her hand to call for the bill. “As opposed to nowhere.”

_

Hal, Caroline’s father, meets Marjorie for drinks and appetizers at the Hyatt on Union Square. Hal is tall and handsome, sixty-seven, with bushy gray hair and pale gray eyes, a restless fellow with big hands and broad shoulders and a roving eye. He downs his first beer in a single gulp and signals the waitress for another.

“We used to eat for two weeks on what it costs to have two beers here,” whispers Marjorie, always uncomfortable in opulent surroundings. “It’s outrageous.”

“We were hippies,” says Hal, making eyes at their waitress. “I make more in a day now than I did in a year back then.” He thinks about his boast for a moment. “We were kids. Ignorant as mud. Miserable. What? You want to go back?”

“Were we miserable?” she asks, smiling at memories of their joyful lovemaking. “I remember being excited most of the time. Happy.”

“We were kids,” he says, dismissing the past with a wave of his hand. “Kids are excited most of the time. What did we know?”

“Speaking of kids,” says Marjorie, taking a deep breath, “has Caroline spoken to you about…”

“I told her to take the car. In his tax bracket it’s the new engagement ring. Definitely a win-win situation. What’s she got to lose? No big deal.”

“I remember my engagement ring being a big deal,” says Marjorie, realizing as she always does at some point during her infrequent meetings with Hal that she still finds him supremely attractive.

Hal downs his second beer and signals for another. “I bought the stupid thing on Telegraph Avenue from a pothead jeweler. Two peace symbols melted together.” He snickers. “We dropped acid before I gave it to you.” He shakes his head. “A miracle we survived all that shit we ingested.”

“I still have it,” she says, blushing. “Reminds me of our innocence.”

“You’re never gonna get married again, are you?” he says, marveling that he stayed with her for a month let alone eleven years, and that despite his constant infidelities she never ceased to love him.

“You’re never gonna stay married, are you?” she replies, recalling a few of his many wives, how alike they all seem to her.

“What are you talking about?” He winks at the waitress as she delivers his beer. “I’ve been with Louise for three years now. Going strong. The thing with Janice was an escape. To get over Gina. Besides, Janice was way too young for me. Ditto Anna.” He sighs. “Oh, and Denise.” He reddens and laughs. “But who’s counting?”

“Going strong with Louise,” says Marjorie, smiling sadly, “but you’re having an affair. I could always tell when you were cheating on me and I apparently can tell when you’re cheating on your current wife.”

“Hardly an affair,” says Hal, raising his hand and making a scribbling motion to call for the check. “Every couple weeks. Besides, it’s acceptable now. Nobody really minds so long as you follow the protocol.”

“There’s a protocol?” says Marjorie, aghast. “Louise doesn’t mind?”

“Louise is very comfortable,” says Hal, nodding emphatically. “She lacks for nothing and has her own…diversions.”

“Oh,” says Marjorie, overcome with sadness. “Well, okay.”

“You don’t approve,” says Hal, winking at the waitress again as she places the bill before him. “But you made love with my best friend and I made love with yours, and we watched each other do it. Remember? So we could move beyond jealousy and guilt and possessiveness. So we could get free of the patriarchal Judeo-Christian bullshit. But we didn’t get free of anything, did we?”

“I don’t know, Hal,” says Marjorie, remembering how thrilled she was to move beyond jealousy and guilt and possessiveness. “I just don’t think she should marry him for a car.”

“It’s not the car,” says Hal, dropping a fifty-dollar-bill on the table and rising to go. “It’s what the car represents.”

_

Marjorie and Alex are sitting on their two-person sofa in the living room of their little flat on Polk Street, smoking pot and watching the fish in their aquarium. Alex is small and quiet, sixty-two, entirely bald with brilliant blue eyes. He owns a window washing business that employs former drug addicts. In 1968, Alex took three hundred LSD trips and ever since, he claims, has been free of doubt.

“My daughter wants to marry a man for a car,” says Marjorie, overcome with sorrow. “And to be comfortable. I can’t quite grok it.”

“There are many roads to love,” says Alex, getting up to clean a smudge on the aquarium glass. “Maybe she’ll drive there. What kind of car?”

“Either a Jaguar or a Mercedes,” says Marjorie, sighing. “That’s part of the ritual, not knowing what kind of car until the moment he gives it to her, but sort of knowing.”

“But not a BMW?” asks Alex, frowning. “Curious.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” says Marjorie, her vision blurred by tears. “Right?”

“It does and it doesn’t,” says Alex, sitting beside her and pretending to be driving a car. “Mileage, repairs, comfort.”

“I’m sixty-five,” says Marjorie, shaking her head. “I’m a high school teacher who smokes pot every night and has a daughter marrying a man for a car. Not really, but sort of.” She frowns at Alex. “How long have we lived together?”

“Ten years,” says Alex, kissing Marjorie’s cheek. “Ten incredible years.”

“And where are we going, Alex?” She gazes forlornly at the darting fish. “Where?”

“To the kitchen for a snack, then to bed.”

“And then?”

“Dreamland,” he says, kissing her again. “Then to work. I to make glass clean, you to impart wisdom to fourteen-year-olds.”

“It’s insane,” says Marjorie, exhausted. “We should move to the country. Grow our own food.”

“Few windows out there,” says Alex, imagining a vast field of tall brown grass.

“We could grow all we need,” says Marjorie, thinking of her one gangly tomato plant on the back stoop. “Couldn’t we?”

“You don’t like it here?” asks Alex, pouting. “San Francisco is Mecca. I love this place, this moment. You.”

“I hate that Caroline would marry a man for a car.”

“It’s not the car,” says Alex, rising to clean another smudge on the aquarium glass. “It’s what the car represents.”

“That’s exactly what Hal said.”

“Hal didn’t mean it the way I mean it, “ says Alex, glaring at a school of Neon Tetra.

“What did Hal mean it meant?”

“Hal meant it meant security and success.”

“And how do you mean it?”

“I mean the car represents the mechanistic plane of reality. She is marrying a machine, not a person. She is marrying a thing that is not intrinsically alive. A system of organization. A file cabinet, if you will, and she will try to fit into one of the files.”

“But I can’t say that to her. I’m her mother. Anything I say is loaded.”

“She knows what she’s doing,” says Alex, torn between chocolate ice cream and a bagel with cream cheese. “We all know what we’re doing, only we aren’t aware we know because we’ve clogged the channels of awareness with fear.”

“So what should we do? Just…go along?”

“Yes,” he says, ice cream gaining the upper hand. “Go along and do the best we can and help each other and love thy neighbor and relish those moments when we are truly…comfortable.”

“What does that mean? Comfortable?”

“Like cats. You know? Turning and turning and turning, changing positions until we get comfortable. And then we stay in that position until we are compelled to move by hunger or curiosity or the need to go to the bathroom. Yes?”

“I don’t know,” says Marjorie, closing her eyes and seeing Caroline climbing into a huge filing cabinet. “I only know that my daughter is about to marry a man for a car. Or what the car represents.”

Alex shrugs. “Well…there’s always the next generation.”

“Wow,” says Marjorie, dumbstruck. “Caroline with children. What a trip.”

_

Marjorie is having dinner with her mother, Gloria, at Legumbres Organica. Alex is at his Judo class and Gloria’s fourth husband, Bert, who doesn’t like Marjorie’s politics, is at a baseball game. Marjorie is having a tofu tostada and a wheat grass spritzer. Gloria, eighty-four, a spunky aerobics nut, is having a green power shake and a lentil tostada.

“But Mom, you were right there with me during the sixties,” says Marjorie, remembering the first time she got stoned with her mother, how they howled with laughter and wept like babies. “And Caroline was so enlightened and advanced as a child, and now she’s practically a Republican, and I don’t mean a moderate.”

“We all have to rebel,” says Gloria, shrugging. “I drew the line at some things, psychedelics for instance, you went over some lines, stayed behind others. You didn’t draw any lines for Caroline. Maybe she had too many options. Maybe this is her way of drawing her own lines so she can have something to go over. I don’t know. And please be careful about the word Republican. Bert is a Republican and he pays my bills, thank you very much, though in the privacy of the voting booth he knoweth not for whom I vote.”

“Still, Mom, a car? Marrying someone for a car?”

“I did the same thing,” says Gloria, shrugging again. “Exactly.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Marjorie, waving the thought away.

“It’s true, sweetie,” says Gloria, smiling sheepishly. “And you are the fruit of such folly. I was seventeen. We’d been in Los Angeles for two years, refugees from Detroit, and I was desperate to get away from my parents. My mother, contrary to everything she told you, hated my guts and my father was meshuggah. Crazy as a loon. And I was a cutie pie and there were three fellows courting me. Peas in a pod. Herb Morris, Jack Scott, and your father. Herb Morris had a fruit stand, Jack Scott was a carpenter’s apprentice, and your father was a bill collector. They were all dabbling in real estate and they all asked me to marry them, but I said no.” She pauses and lowers her voice. “Then one day your father drove up in a brand new Ford. My heart started pounding. I lost my mind. I ran out of the house, jumped into your father’s arms and said, ‘Yes, yes, yes. I’ll marry you.’”

“Mom,” says Marjorie, deeply shocked. “You never told me that.”

“There are many things I’ve never told you,” says Gloria, sipping her power shake. “Many things best unsaid.”

“Still,” says Marjorie, her voice shaking, “those were hard times.”

“The Dark Ages,” says Gloria, nodding. “When I divorced your father it was considered a revolutionary act.”

“You started the revolution and we carried it on,” says Marjorie, frowning in confusion. “Only here we are back to …”

“It’s a pendulum, or a circle,” says Gloria, laughing gaily. “We come back around, but we’re a little higher up the cone or the pyramid or…I don’t know. We go along and do the best we can.”

“Higher up the cone toward what?” asks Marjorie, never having thought of life as a cone.

“I’m not a mystic,” says Gloria, taking Marjorie’s hand, “but I’m more optimistic than you are. Remember, I lived through Hitler and the Great Depression. You survive times like that you can’t help but have a different view of reality.”

“But what about the sixties?”

“Yes,” says Gloria, sighing wistfully, “Just yesterday I was thinking about that trip we took in the Volkswagen van, you and I and Hal and that wonderful guy Larry with the long hair and the guitar. Ecstasy under the stars of Arizona. Naked without shame. I think maybe it was a glimpse of the future, so we’d know what to look for. A myth to guide us.”

“But we’ve forgotten the myth, and Caroline spits on the myths of the sixties.”

“She’s just drawing lines,” says Gloria, kissing her daughter’s hand. “Don’t worry.”

_

On a warm September evening, Marjorie and Alex, Hal and Louise, Caroline and Jeremy and a hundred other people are drinking fine wine on the mammoth brick patio of Jeremy’s baronial mansion in Hillsborough to celebrate the impending nuptials of Jeremy and Caroline. Dozens of servers ply the crowd with platters of scrumptious hor d’oeuvres, the air pungent with the scent of roasting lamb—an electrified string quartet playing classical music with a reggae beat. Upon sampling the splendid food and saying hello and congratulations to Jeremy and Caroline, Majorie and Alex are about to sneak away when Jeremy strikes an enormous gong to get everyone’s attention.

Jeremy is tall and fit, thirty-six, his blue eyes clear, his blond hair stylishly wavy, his voice a deep monotone. He smiles at his audience and says, “We just want to thank you for coming tonight. Caroline and I. This is just such an awesome night for us. We’re totally stoked and we’re so glad you can be a part of where we’re going.”

Someone shouts, “Here, here!” and the people raise their glasses and echo, “Here! Here!”

Marjorie, barely in her body, asks Alex, “Are they saying h-e-r-e or h-e-a-r?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, putting his arm around her to hold her up. “The origins of the ritual have long been lost.”

Marjorie gazes at her lovely daughter standing beside Jeremy and tries to feel sad or happy or angry, but she feels nothing. Absolutely nothing. Caroline is drunk on champagne, high on cocaine, and waiting impatiently for Jeremy to give her the keys to the mythic car.

“I feel nothing,” says Marjorie, whispering in Alex’s ear. “Take us home.”

“Go beyond nothing,” he says, giving her hand a playful squeeze. “Think of this as theater. Think of your daughter as a brilliant actress playing the role of her lifetime, which she is, set on another planet.”

“This is another planet,” says Marjorie, relaxing in Alex’s embrace. “What happened to earth? Who stole it from us?”

“So anyway,” Jeremy continues, “in honor of our engagement and to seal the deal…”

Silence claims the moment as Jeremy reaches into the pocket of his black leather slacks and brings forth a red leather ring box.

“Oh, yeah!” shouts Caroline, holding out her hand to Jeremy.

“Hope you like it,” says Jeremy, placing the box in her hand. “One of a kind just for you.”

Caroline opens the box. There, on a felt pedestal intended for a ring, are two golden keys to her new car.

“Benz or Jag?” someone shouts. “Jag or Benz!”

Caroline peers at the keys and shrieks, “Benz! Benz! It’s a Benz!”

“Now I do feel something,” says Marjorie, clutching Alex’s hand. “I feel I’m going to be sick.”

The crowd stampedes, some people rushing through the house, some rushing around the house, everyone heading for the behemoth circular drive in front of the baronial mansion where the mythic car awaits. Alex leads Marjorie through the cavernous home, pausing with her under the colossal crystal chandelier in the gargantuan foyer.

“Imagine having to clean all those,” says Alex, gazing up at the several hundred dangling crystals. “No thank you.

Marjorie stops in the colossal front doorway and gazes out at the fabulous scene—dozens of stylishly dressed men and women swarming around the new car like crazed bees around a dazzling flower, the Benz long and sleek and dark turquoise, Caroline’s favorite color.

Jeremy gallantly opens the driver’s door for Caroline and she gives him a peck on the cheek as she climbs in. Now she starts the engine and the people cheer—Hal standing in front of the car, transmogrified by the headlights into a phantom.

“Did you know they made the ovens?” asks Alex, whispering to Marjorie.

“What?” says Marjorie, mystified. “Who?”

“Mercedes-Benz. They built the ovens Hitler used to incinerate the Jews.”

“Oh, why?” says Marjorie, moaning. “What happened to us?”

Now Jeremy appears at Marjorie’s side. “May I speak to you?” he says in his unwavering monotone. “Alone?”

She doesn’t want to go with him, but she does. She follows him down a wide hallway and into his magnificent study, everything huge and made of dark mahogany, the towering bookshelves full of rare old hardbacks. He closes the door and goes to a desk as large as Caroline’s new car. He opens a drawer and brings forth a black leather check register.

“What are you doing?” asks Marjorie, mesmerized by the calm precision of everything Jeremy does.

“What do you think?” he asks, smiling pleasantly.

“I don’t know,” she says, desperate to make meaningful contact with him, “but I feel like I’m in some sort of weird movie.”

“Life can be weird,” says Jeremy, nodding. “Very weird. Caroline says you don’t approve of my giving her a car. She says you think the money could be better spent on something else. So please tell me what you think that is and I’ll write a check for the same amount I spent on the car to your favorite non-profit organization. I want you to approve of the man your daughter is marrying. It’s very important to me.”

“Why?” she asks, baffled by him.

“I like you,” he says, his tone unchanging. “I think you’re beautiful and full of life and I admire you for what you went through, the sixties and all that, yet you still managed to raise a wonderful daughter. That’s a great accomplishment and I’m the beneficiary.”

“Don’t write a check,” says Marjorie, tingling from head to toe. “Just…it doesn’t matter.”

“But it does matter,” he says, frowning. “It matters enormously to me. I’ll explain why in more detail someday, but for now I’d like to write you a check.”

“Just be good to her,” says Marjorie, looking into Jeremy’s eyes. “Don’t let her get too comfortable or she’ll go to sleep and never wake up.”

“I don’t understand,” he says, his frown deepening. “Why not be comfortable?”

“Okay, okay,” she says, closing her eyes to think. “How much was the car?”

“That’s a very special car,” says Jeremy, a faint ring of pride in his monotone. “One of a kind. Hand assembled and signed by two of the most famous artisan assemblers in Germany.” He pauses dramatically. “It cost four hundred and thirty-four thousand dollars.” He shrugs. “From which, totally legally, I actually make money.” He smiles warmly. “Do you know how that works, Marjorie?”

“No,” she says breathlessly. “And I don’t want to know. So…write a check for four hundred and thirty-four thousand dollars. And make it to me.”

“You,” he says, nodding slowly as he writes. “What will you do with it?”

“Buy a farm,” she whispers. “Or maybe open a bookstore. Something. Somewhere.”

_

“I’m going to send the check back,” she says to Alex as they spoon in bed, he the outside spoon.

“Good idea,” says Alex, yawning. “First thing tomorrow.”

“He’ll respect me more,” she says, unconvincingly. “He wants me to like him. But I don’t. He seems so…empty.”

“Why did you have him write the check to you? Why not Greenpeace or No More Nukes?”

“Because for just a minute I was tired of all the hassles, you know? I wanted to be free of all that shit and just be…comfortable.”

“Send him back the check,” says Alex, his words free of irony. “We’re plenty comfortable.”

“Then what?”

“Then we keep going.”

“To where?”

“Slowly but surely,” he says, holding her tight, “we’re evolving.”

“I guess that’s something,” says Marjorie, relaxing in his embrace. “Still, I wish…”

“Yes?”

“I wish my daughter had turned out to be a more generous person.”

“There are many roads to freedom,” says Alex, sighing contentedly. “She’s young yet. Maybe she’ll drive there. Maybe she’ll end up more generous than anyone has ever been.”

“I’d love that,” says Marjorie, getting out of bed and floating down the hall to the kitchen. “She used to be. When she was little. Gave everything away. Free as a bird.”

Marjorie has a big drink of water and skips back to the bedroom, renewed.

“Hey, Alex,” she says, climbing into bed. “Next anti-nuke demonstration or anti-war march, let’s go on it. Want to?”

Alex does not reply. He is asleep and dreaming that he and Marjorie are in a turquoise Mercedes. Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez are playing dreamy good jazz on the surround sound stereo. The car isn’t going anywhere, but the seats are very comfortable and the windows are spotlessly clean.

__

 

Cheating Heart

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

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

“It’s like deja-vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

My recent essay Cheating elicited several responses from readers wishing to share more examples of cheaters in high places, cheating as an integral part of our economic and political and interweb reality, and tales of people who don’t cheat being routinely victimized by individuals and corporations who do cheat. So the word cheating was on my mind when I remembered…

Long ago in Santa Cruz, circa 1973, I fronted a jazzy folk rock group called Kokomo, and for the better part of a year we were the Friday and Saturday night band at the popular tavern Positively Front Street, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier. One of my favorite things about that gig was emerging from the smoky confines of the pub in the wee hours of morning and filling my beleaguered lungs with cool briny air as sea lions arfed to each other in the near distance and the somnolent fog horn lowed with reassuring regularity—little waves lapping the white sands of the Boardwalk beach.

In the beginning of our entrenchment at Positively Front Street we— sometimes a duo, sometimes a trio, rarely a quartet—played only my original songs, and to this day I am amazed that the owner of that commodious tavern allowed us such artistic freedom, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when the place was packed. On the other hand, he only paid us twenty dollars for four long artistically free sets (us being the entire band), plus complimentary fish and chips and burgers and beer and whatever tips we could entice from the tipsy crowd. Thus if we wanted to make more than five bucks a set it behooved us to play requests, and to that end we learned to play a handful of standards, two of which were Hank Williams songs, far and away the most requested tunes in that blessed watering hole patronized by many men and a much smaller number of brave women.

The two Hank Williams tunes we learned were Hey Good Lookin’ and Your Cheating Heart, the latter being the most requested of the two, which I found remarkable considering the song was already twenty-years-old in 1973, having been written and recorded in 1952 and released shortly after Hank’s death in 1953. The story I heard about Hank writing Your Cheating Heart is that he was driving drunk one night and musing aloud about his first wife, Audrey Williams, to his second wife, Billie Jean Jones, who was in the passenger seat writing down the lyrics as Hank sang and talked the words out to her.

The lyrics to Your Cheating Heart as I sang them (slightly different than the official lyrics) are as follows:

Your cheating heart will make you weep

You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep

But sleep won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll walk around and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

Your cheating heart will pine some day

You’ll crave the love that you threw away

But love won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll toss and turn and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

I think what makes these simple lyrics so meaningful to so many people is that Hank not only speaks of his ex-lover’s heart, but of his own. You’ll walk the floor the way I do makes it clear that the craving and pining go both ways; the sorrow shared.

When we played Positively Front Street we installed a gigantic glass tip jar on a high stool on the little stage with us, a jar we would prime with coins and a few dollar bills to make it clear what we wanted from our audience. And several times a night, some guy or gal would stagger or sashay up to the stage and shout over the din, “Play Cheatin’ Heart!” and drop a buck in the jar; and if we hadn’t just played that tune, we would play her again, and our violinist would wring out a heart wrenching solo to bring a few more coins to the tip jar.

Hey Good Lookin’ never failed to get people dancing in their seats or up and dancing to the bar, so we would play that sweetly sexy tune whenever we wanted to brighten the mood and give folks something familiar to balance all my original tunes they hadn’t heard before unless they were regulars.

One of my songs, Loose Woman, was much loved by the Positively Front Street crowd, and we got requests and tips for Loose Woman several times a night. The chorus of that skanky ballad became a sing-along anthem for the love-starved denizens of that beer-drenched dive:

I’m hooked up with a loose woman

A loose woman’s all right with me

She don’t like my songs or my jokes or my dreaming

But she gives me all her love for free

I don’t care what she don’t like

What she don’t like don’t hurt me

Just so long as she’s a loo-loose woman

And gives me all her love for free

But the biggest tip we got—ten smackers every Friday and Saturday night—came to us from the same man; and when I think back to the dozens of times we enacted the little drama I am about to describe, I marvel at how easily I was ensnared in such an odd ritual by the lure of big (relatively speaking) money.

Rodney was an effeminate middle-aged man who rarely missed our shows at Positively Front Street. After every set, as we headed for the bar to whet our whistles, Rodney would come close and whisper, “Please, please, please won’t you play Puff the Magic Dragon?” For our first few weekends of playing the joint, I fended him off by saying we only did original material, but after we felt compelled to learn those Hank Williams tunes and a few other songs by other people, I resorted to saying, “Well, gosh, Rodney, I don’t think Puff really goes with the tone of our show.”

But Rodney persisted, and one Friday night he dangled a ten-dollar bill (my rent was due) and said, “Oh, Todd, please play Puff. Pretty please.”

Wanting that money, I replied, “Tomorrow night, Rodney. Just for you.”

So the next evening on our way to the gig, my mandolin player asked me, “Do you even know how to play Puff the Magic Dragon?”

“Not really,” I said, feeling cornered. “Do you?”

“Easy,” he said, grinning at me. “But the rowdy boys aren’t gonna like that sissy stuff. Prepare to get booed.”

“We’ll play it for Rodney between sets,” I said, thinking fast. “Back in the Pong room.”

Pong, electronic ping pong, was one of the very first video games, ever, and there was a dark little alcove behind the stage where the Pong game lived, twenty-five cents a game, and that is where every Friday and Saturday night for the better part of a year we performed Puff the Magic Dragon for Rodney, playing and singing very quietly so the tough guys and rowdies out front wouldn’t hear us—Rodney singing falsetto on the chorus—so we could make an extra ten dollars, which was a good deal of money to the likes of us in 1973.

And there was one night we sang Puff the Magic Dragon for everyone to hear, that being the last night we played Positively Front Street, our resignation precipitated by the owner of that marvelous tavern making an impossible demand on our artistic freedom such that I had no choice but to give up our lucrative (relatively speaking) gig.

Unaware of what was about to befall us, we arrived a half-hour before show time as was our custom to eat fish and chips and have a couple beers before taking the stage. The bartender said the owner wanted to see me upstairs in his office, so I took the stairs two at a time thinking maybe we were finally going to get a raise.

“Here’s the thing, Todd,” said the owner, smiling painfully. “You know I love your music, and I especially love your voice, but I cannot stand the way the other guys in your group sing. So…I will double your salary if you do the singing and your buddies keep their mouths shut. Deal?”

Well, I wasn’t about to tell my buddies they couldn’t sing with me. Half the fun of playing four hours of music in a smoky tavern was playing and singing together, fueling off each other, trying out new harmonies, playing the fast songs slow and the slow songs fast. And I sure wasn’t going to tell my partners that our patron hated their voices but loved mine. Never.

So I said to the owner, “I’m very sorry, my friend. This gig has been a godsend and a rent payer and I will be forever grateful to you for giving us this opportunity to hone our chops, and I think it fair to say that your business has not suffered from our playing here, but I cannot tell my pals to keep their mouths shut. It would be cruel and mean and they would hate me forever, so…I guess tonight will be our last show here.”

“Okay,” he said, pointing at me in his friendly way. “But if you change your mind, the gig is yours. Fifty bucks a night.”

And you know what? When we sang Puff the Magic Dragon that night for the whole mob of rowdies and tough guys and brave women and college kids and tourists, every last one of them sang along, and our tip jar overflowed, and Rodney was moved to tears, which just goes to show you how little any of us knew about anything. And at song’s end the audience let out such a roar that the owner came down the stairs to see what the hell was going on, and when I saw him gazing in wonder at the happy mob, I turned to my buddies and said, “Let’s finish with Cheatin’ Heart,” which we did, and it brought the house down.