Archive for January, 2014

Chosen

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Mendocino Coastline, Todd

Mendocino Coast photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“The best is the enemy of good.” Voltaire

You have probably heard the provocative news that the New York Times recently declared the village of Mendocino and the surrounding scenic coastline to be the Third Best Travel Destination in the World. Not the best place to visit in America or in the Western Hemisphere, but in the entire world.

When I heard this startling pronouncement I went into a trance and heard someone say, “It was a tossup between Bali or Venice, but then we got the idea of cruising the fjords of Norway and we were about to book our flight to Oslo when we read the article in the New York Times about Mendocino being the third best place on the planet to visit! We rushed to make reservations at one of the inns there and soon we’ll be ogling the rugged coastline and buying T-shirts and sampling seaweed and drinking local wine and beer and eating lots of California Cuisine and, you know, reveling in the magnificence.”

Emerging from my trance, I read the article in question and was surprised to find nary a mention of the current devastating drought that puts Mendocino near the bottom of a number of other Best lists, including Best Places in the World To Take Long Showers and Best Places In the World To Grow Rice In Flooded Paddies. Nor did the article mention Mendocino being dead last on the list of Best Places With Decent Public Restrooms and Best Places With Good Chinese and/or Mexican and/or any sort of ethnic food.

Indeed, the upshot of the article seems to be that the rugged coast and gorgeous crashing waves and redwood forests are what make Mendocino the third most wonderful place in the whole world, not the amenities for humans, which I think does a great disservice to my favorite places in the village: Zo (copy shop extraordinaire), post office (world class), Mendocino Market (superb deli), Corners of the Mouth (stupendous avocados), Goodlife Bakery & Café (yummy combo salads), Harvest Market (olive bar heaven), Gallery Books (be still my heart, they carry my books), Rubaiyat (beads meet Buddha), Frankie’s Pizza (and ice cream), our lone bank (sympathetic tellers), and last but not least, the little hardware store that could.

“Avoid popularity; it has many snares, and no real benefit.” William Penn

In the mid-1970’s I moved to Ashland Oregon, having lived there briefly and happily in the early 1970’s. To my dismay, the place had changed dramatically in just the few years I’d been gone. Real estate prices had skyrocketed, Southern Oregon College had been absorbed into the state college system and doubled in size, the airport in nearby Medford had been greatly enlarged, and people from all over America, not just from California, were flocking to what was fast becoming a kind of Carmel-Not-By-The-Sea with year-round Shakespeare.

Most of the artists and eccentrics and free thinkers I’d found so appealing during my brief sojourn there in the 60’s had fled the burgeoning hamlet in search of less expensive pastures and been replaced by…well, people like Gerald, a big blustery overweight middle-aged real estate developer from New Jersey. He had only been in Ashland for two years, yet had already built two hideous, crappy, environmentally disastrous four-unit apartment buildings and was in the process of building two more such monstrosities.

I rented a room in Gerald’s house—Gerald being one of those extremely wealthy people who leave no income-producing stone unturned—and he was a nice guy, albeit reflexively combative, a reflex that quickened in direct proportion to his alcohol intake. Gerald was also extremely pragmatic, and because he liked to get smashed several nights a week but didn’t want to drive drunk, he would go to bars, meet people, buy them drinks and invite them home with him to continue their drinking in our living room. Thus on many nights for those few challenging months I shared a house with Gerald, the living room was full of strangers drinking and talking over the din of Gerald’s always-on television.

While attending my first such impromptu party, I asked Gerald what had brought him to Ashland from far-away New Jersey.

He glared at me and said, “Same thing brought everybody else here.”

“Shakespeare?” I said dumbly. “No sales tax? Pretty women pumping your gas? Rafting the Rogue River? What?”

“The thing on CBS News,” he said, his glare intensifying. “You know, the list. Come on. Don’t say you didn’t see it. Everybody saw it. The Ten Best Places To Live In America Nobody Knows About Yet. Ashland was number two. They made it look like heaven.”

“I missed that show,” I said, apologetically. “So you came here because you saw something about Ashland on television?”

“Me, too,” said a cute gal with impossibly red impossibly curly hair. “I was living in Cleveland because my husband got transferred there from Chicago, otherwise I never would have gone there. Who would? And then we got divorced and…anyway I saw the same news thing, only I think it was NBC. Anyway…they did make it look so good here, and John Denver was singing and everything was so green and the swans swimming on the pond by the Shakespeare theatre so I thought…”

“No, it was an orchestra thing,” said a guy on the sofa, holding his glass aloft. “You know…with violins? Not John Denver.”

“Yeah,” said Gerald, pointing at the guy on the sofa. “That’s the one I saw, too, the one with violins. Not John Denver.”

“I was living in Riverside,” said the guy on the sofa. “And my eyes were watering all the time, and I had this horrible cough that I could not get rid of because the air was so bad, and the traffic…ridiculous, so when I saw that show about the best places nobody knew about yet I hopped in my car and drove up here and…”

“They must have shown it more than once,” said the cute gal from Cleveland, “because the one I saw definitely had John Denver singing.”

“Avoid popularity if you would have peace.” Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday, sitting on the headlands overlooking Mendocino Bay, enjoying the spectacular coastline and listening to the crashing waves and marveling that I actually live in the third best place in the entire world to visit, I was approached by a man and a woman, their eyes shielded by dark glasses reflecting four little funhouse Todds.

“Hi,” said the woman, exhibiting brilliant white teeth. “You live around here?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

“Told you,” said the man, looking away as if embarrassed by the success of his guess.

“We were wondering if you could recommend any interesting things to do around here,” said the woman, glancing at her partner. “You know…besides the scenery.” She gestured toward Japan. “We went to the bakery for coffee and scones. That was nice. And we had a beer at the hotel. And now…” She shrugged pleasantly. “Any suggestions?”

“Gosh, that’s a tough one,” I said, gazing out to sea. “We have three excellent chocolate shops in the village and a number of curio stores, but the cultural hub of the area is Fort Bragg, ten miles north of here.”

“We went there,” said the man, his voice devoid of enthusiasm.

“The Botanical Gardens? Cabrillo Lighthouse? Headlands Café?”

The woman nodded. Waves crashed on the rocky shore. Gulls flew north, ravens south. Seven vultures circled in the sky above us, patrolling paradise for dead things to eat.

“Hey, thanks,” said the man, turning to go.

“Yeah, thanks,” said the woman, turning to go, too. But then she looked back at me and asked, “Which one is your favorite chocolate shop?”

“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers

I asked my neighbor what he thought about Mendocino being touted by the New York Times as the third best place in the whole world to visit, and this is what he had to say about that.

“I’ve lived here sixty-seven of my seventy-four years and things were real good around here until about fifty years ago when certain types of people started moving in and growing you know what and then those crooks got hold of the lumber companies and started cutting the trees way too fast and selling all the wood to Japan and that ruined everything. No, if I were younger, I’d move to Idaho. You can still live the way you want up there, step out your door and shoot a deer. Used to be like that around here, but not anymore.”

The Source

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

 The Source Cropped

Snail Mail photo by Yogini Lena

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“The fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” Vincent Van Gogh

Every now and again I will come across an article or a documentary or a book about an artist no one ever heard of until that artist died and it was discovered she left behind paintings or drawings or sculptures or musical compositions or novels or poems or mathematical equations or architectural designs hailed by some authority or another as works of towering genius. This kind of art is nowadays referred to as Outsider Art, which I think is a silly name for the work of artists who are anonymous while they’re alive, either by choice or through the exigencies of fate, since that definition includes nearly all the artists there have ever been or ever will be—outsiders.

And just what are these creative people outside of? This is a good time of year to be asking that question, as we are in the thick of the annual awards season, when members of our tiny cultural elite give each other awards for being members of the tiny cultural elite that jealously guard and control the spigots of what most people in our culture watch and read and listen to. Those who win Oscars and Pulitzers and Golden Globes and Grammys and Emmys and Tony’s and MacArthurs are the visible insiders, and they owe their memberships in that exclusive club to the less visible but much more powerful members of the ruling elite. Everyone else is an outsider.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve known many writers and artists and musicians in my sixty-four years of stumbling around, and though I cannot prove scientifically with double binding cross lateral placebo control group studies what I am about to aver, I know this to be absolutely true: insiders imitate, outsiders innovate. Which is not to say innovators don’t become insiders—they do. And then, no matter how hard they resist the ferocious forces governing the inside, they become imitators of themselves or imitators of other insiders—the only cure a return to the outside.

“So impossible

The odds against it

Too high and yet

We must feel free to do with it

Whatever we can, for laughs

or for serious” Philip Whalen

Once upon a time a long time ago I’m minding around sitting my own business when I get a call from Crazy Cat, and I mean in-and-out-of-mental-hospitals-on-a-semi-regular-basis Crazy Cat, and he says, “Tawd, I got this space, man, a big space, a huge space, a magic space, a miracle, you’ll see, and I want to put on a show, you know, poets and musicians, and Larry and Lisa said they’ll paint a huge like backdrop of stars and unicorns and shit with glow-in-black-light paint, and Tim said he can light the place like Las Vegas, you know, neon tubes and spotlights and sparklers, and Twilby said he’ll do the sound with those same gigantic speakers he used for the famous concert he did at the Esquire, and Margot is jazzed out of her mind about running some modern dance between the readers, and Eric and Gino and Jessica said they’d play music all fuckin’ night, and the only thing is…I kinda already told everybody you were doing the show, and they said if you were doing the show they would definitely do it, too, and so I kinda already printed up the posters and put them up around town and put your name at the top so…”

Now I had told this Flipped Out Feline if he ever did this kind of thing to me again I would not only boycott the show, I would call every peep he used my name to con (because I am known hereabouts to have a verifiable fan base numbering well over three) and blow the whistle on his crazy ass…but for some unforeseen undoubtedly mystical reason at that particular moment on that particular day I was feeling especially outside of everything including myself, you know, and feeling gruesomely grim about the dearth of original anything in our kicked-to-shit culture, and I was longing for some kind of zany collaborative improvisational happening to lift my suicidal gloom, so I say to Crazy Cat, “Okay, I’ll do it, you sneaky lunatic, but we have to meet right now and put a stop to you promising every cock and pussy you meet star billing on a roster that by now may number in the dozens.”

I take a quick shower and dress in artfully stained blue jeans and a Ludwig Von Hendrix T-shirt (pink with red lettering) and try not to think about the last time this psycho duped me into headlining a happening in an underground garage we absolutely packed with hundreds of peeps ready to partake of the random ferment of artists chosen by dumb luck to strut their stuff when Crazy Cat took the stage before anybody else had a chance, and he snarled so ingloriously for such a murderously long time about the genius of his penis and his intimate relationship (on the astral plane) with Kerouac and Ginsberg and Marilyn Monroe that those hundreds ran away like someone had set the place on fire with noxious gas.

And if not for the intercession of Crazy Cat’s insanely cute intelligent gorgeously ultra-reasonable girlfriend Kitty (why was she with that maniac?) I would have slugged that crazy jerk just so I could say, “And then I slugged that crazy jerk!” But Kitty purred me out of my violent impulse with paragraphs of libido-tickling innuendo and actually made a viable case that Crazy Cat’s garage-emptying diatribe might have been culturally significant, however immeasurable, and there was no telling what kind of poetry and music and new thinking his outburst inspired (subtext: please imagine sex with me, frequently and deeply satisfyingly, okay? Okay!)

So we meet at the Big Buzz Bistro, Crazy Cat unshaven, unwashed, and ugly as sin, Kitty clothed in a pleasingly prurient purple paisley cleavage-celebrating dress clinging to her every glorious curve, and we drink lattes out of huge green bowls and get so high I’m sure the barista must have spiked my java with at least cocaine and maybe opium, and with Kitty taking notes in a gigantic sketchpad full of superb Renoir-like nudes she’s drawn of men and women and women and women, her postmodern handwriting maddeningly abstract yet entirely readable, we design the show and I have Crazy Cat sign in blood that he will perform dead last and I retain the right to kill him before during and after the show for any reason whatsoever and he waives his right to haunt me in perpetuity etc.

Then we go to the huge old warehouse that Crazy Cat scored for the happening, a former hotrod hangar smelling vaguely of motor oil and not so vaguely of wino piss and we walk around in a state of wonder, for truly this is the Sistine Cavern of the Forgotten Grandchildren of the Lost Beatnik Tribes of Brooklyn, and we are Diaghilev and Barnum and Colette imagining the divine transformation with a soundtrack by Miles and Cannonball and Satie, and I envision the baby grand bathed in a baby blue spotlight as I appear in a baby turquoise T-shirt and baggy black corduroys and red ballet slippers, adjusting the piano bench to fit my tush while a big silver potato of a microphone descends from the rafters on a silver chain glittering in the soft white spot that frames the poets I accompany with quietly tasty noodling.

And after weeks of honing the unhonable, the mythic night of nights finally arrives as fierce winds howl and shake the roof of the old hangar mobbed with ugly beautiful young old hip square white black brown stoned drunk straight lucid sad happy crazy good souls yearning for even just a phrase of inspired something to hang onto as they make their way through yet another tomorrow on the battlefield of what who where why how will we find our way to love? And will she be waiting? How will he know me? How will I know her? Etc. And most important: will we be brave enough to fight through those bloody roadblocks of self-doubt and dare to say to whomsoever it may concern, “You! Yes you! Wanna dance?”

Afterwards in the wreckage of whatever we did, our collective heart dancing to an irresistible bossa nova beat, scores of peeps hurrying home to get laid with the fantabulous energy of what just transpired, and with our ideas of the possible expanded way beyond our ideas of the possible, Kitty more beautiful than (name your favorite goddess) is packing up her flashlights and ukulele and harmonica and tambourine and masks of comedy and tragedy and making ready to leave with Crazy Cat though I know she’s gotta love me more, I ask her, “Why you going home with him and not with me?”

To which she replies in a husky honeyed voice that makes me love dizzy every time she speaks, “Because he’s the one puts on these shows, honey pie sugar pea cute boy piano guy. He puts on these shows with nothing but chutzpah. From nothing came the universe. From nothing came you. From nothing came me. He is the gritty unwashed source, I his sorceress. Mazel tov! See you in your dreams.”

Funny

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

groovity-poster

Incongroovity painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“While thou livest, keep a good tongue in thy head.” William Shakespeare

We were having supper with friends recently, and somehow the conversation came around to Shakespeare and the news that a number of American universities have dropped the Bard entirely from their lists of required courses for English majors. And the question was asked, “Why should Shakespeare be required reading for English majors in this age of tweeting and texting and unedited garbage topping the bestseller lists and the English language disintegrating faster than the earth is warming?

Then someone mentioned seeing Denzel Washington as Brutus in a horrendous Broadway production of Julius Caesar, a smash hit because Denzel was in the play, though his delivery of Shakespeare’s lines elicited snickers and giggles from his adoring audience throughout the hilarious (not) play—as if there was something kind of cute about a famous movie star butchering Shakespeare. Tee hee.

And that reminded me of a favorite joke about Hollywood: an enormously successful movie star, famed for his roles in bloody senseless car chase thriller detective sci-fi 3-D blockbusters in which he kills and has sex with ruthless efficiency and speaks his few lines with terse tough guy bravado, grows weary of pundits saying he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. So at the height of his wealth and fame, he spends a large part of his fortune and builds a fabulous state-of-the-art theatre in Los Angeles and announces to the world that he is going to play the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a supporting cast of brilliant British actors and actresses.

The much anticipated opening night finally arrives, the audience composed of celebrities and critics and drooling fans, and our handsome hero takes the stage and surprises everyone by speaking more than ten words without shooting someone. But the surprise soon turns to horror as the Bard’s poetic lines are clearly too much for the superstar’s untrained tongue (not to mention his leaden ear) and when he launches into the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the giggles and snickers turn to booing and hissing, and finally the superstar stops mid-monologue, stalks to the front of the stage, and shouts at the belligerent crowd, “Hey, I didn’t write this shit.”

“Experts always know everything but the fine points. When I took my citizenship exams, no one there knew how the White House came to be called the White House.” Hedy Lamarr

One of my great pleasures is pruning fruit trees that have been properly cared for. Alas, that is not the sort of task I am most frequently asked to undertake. No, most homeowners for whom fruit trees are beautiful adornments to their gardens and the occasional providers of fruit, tend to let their trees grow untamed for years or decades before finally realizing something must be done if those trees are ever to be anything more than gigantic wild shrubs; and those are the jobs I enjoy the least and do the most.

For instance, a neighbor called a few days ago and said, “I’m having a guy come to take care of my old apple tree and my old plum tree, and I’m wondering if you could come over and give him some tips. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s a good worker and he has a chain saw.”

“Did you want me to prune…”

“No, I just want you to tell him how to do it.”

As a pruner of trees and an editor of manuscripts for forty-odd years (emphasis on odd) I have come to think of the two disciplines as closely related sciences, and my neighbor wanting to employ my pruning expertise gratis reminded me of myriad acquaintances who have called me over the years and said, “I’ve got this article (or poem or story or novel or memoir) I think you’ll enjoy and I’m wondering if you’d like to give it a quick look and tell me what you think.”

“Did you want to hire me to…”

“No, I just thought you might enjoy giving it a quick once over and telling me what you think. Shouldn’t take long.”

So, yes, I have grown a bit weary of people thinking the things I do for a living are not really forms of work, but rather semi-skillful kinds of goofing around. Imagine calling your plumber and saying, “Hey, Joe, I’ve got a busted pipe I think you’ll find unique in the annals of plumbing and thought you might enjoy fixing it, you know, for free. Just for the fun and novelty of it. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so.”

Nevertheless…picture a massive apple tree with a trunk three feet in diameter out of which are growing seven massive arms, each arm a foot in diameter and thirty-feet-long, out of which are growing dozens of huge branches out of which are growing hundreds of lesser branches growing so thickly there is almost no space between any of them resulting in many of the branches being dead and dying for lack of sun and air.

Now picture an equally massive plum tree, the central trunk of which stands twenty feet away from the central trunk of the apple tree, and imagine that many branches of both gargantuan trees have grown entangled with each other to such an extent that the two trees appear to be a single organism composed of ten thousand interconnected branches employing every ounce of their energy to strangle each other. And imagine that these two trees are standing in what thirty years ago was a meadow surrounded by fledgling redwoods and fir trees that have grown into towering sun-blocking behemoths causing the plum and apple to send up twenty-foot-long suckers in a desperate attempt to access the ever shrinking supply of sunlight.

My heart went out to those two sorely neglected trees, and though I wasn’t being paid for my labor, I decided to do the job and save the old beauties. So I began directing the good fellow with his dull chain saw to cut here and there as I wielded my razor sharp Japanese pole saw, and after a couple hours of excising masses of mostly dead wood we nearly had the two old giants separated. Then, with but one more massive arm of the apple tree left to remove in order to complete the separating of the trees, my neighbor said to me, “I can see you really are an expert at this.”

As a Buddhist teacher once told me, “Beware how easily the rocket ship of ego may be launched.”

Puffed up by my neighbor’s praise, I signaled for the chain saw man to make that last cut. He did so. And for a moment of brilliant clarity the two trees stood apart, and I saw just how I would sculpt each one into a state of arboreal perfection and…

A loud cracking sound gave us scant warning to Get Out of The Way as the massive apple tree came crashing to earth, the old girl having been held aloft for who knows how many years by the deep-rooted plum. In a state of shock and awe and suppressed hilarity, I went to view the root mass of the apple tree and discovered that this colossus, a tree as big as a house, had virtually no root mass at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to my neighbor.

“Lots of good firewood,” said the guy with the chainsaw. “Most of it already seasoned.”

My neighbor, clearly deranged by the unexpected denouement said, “Let’s just leave things the way they are and see what happens in the spring.”

“The secret to humor is surprise.” Aristotle

Long ago, I was a teacher’s aide at a Palo Alto day care center for children aged two to five. All but three of our thirty children were from single-mother families, thus the three fathers who occasionally came to pick up their kids were looked upon with awe and wonder by the twenty-seven fatherless children, and I was unique among the teachers (pronounced teachoos by most of the kids) for being male.

One of the three children with a father in the familial mix was Damien, an incredibly cute three-year-old who was not yet talking. Our highly analytical director informed us that Damien’s frustration about not being able to speak, and therefore not being understood, might manifest in a tendency to bite other children, and we should be vigilant about averting such outbursts of oral aggression. Damien may have been a child of no words, but he was a fantastic mime, and his imitations of the postures and movements and facial expressions of the teachoos were the source of daily hilarity among the children.

I suspected that Damien could talk but chose not to for whatever advantages he felt that gave him. In any case, he did not speak aloud within earshot of any of the teachers, and so I related to him as a child who, for the time being, did not talk.

Two of the many recurrent tasks of a parent or teacher of wee tykes are the tying of shoes and the connecting and zipping of zippers, skills most children don’t master until they reach their late threes or older. Thus when we would prepare the kids for going outside on cold days, many laces had to be tied and many zippers zipped. One winter morning, as I knelt before the diminutive Damien and struggled to properly engage the recalcitrant zipper of his jacket, Damien looked down at my fumbling fingers, and in pitch perfect imitation of his father said, “Jive ass turkey zippah.”

Crisis & Opportunity

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


* Sally holding Molly 9-1 - 10-6 & 12-15-2013 email

Sally Holding Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy

According to Chinese philologists, President Kennedy’s famous assertion about the Chinese word for crisis is either untrue, not entirely true, or true under certain linguistic circumstances but not under others. In any case, this now popular idea always reminds me of challenging situations in my life that proved to be opportunities for creative inventiveness.

“I’m trying to use the language of today to express a general existential crisis that I think the world and I are going through.” Sean Lennon

In 1967, when I was a senior in high school and intending to grow up to be a star of stage and screen, I landed one of the leads in the Woodside High production of the not-so-great musical Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neil’s play Ah, Wilderness. The musical ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1960 and starred Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon. I got the Walter Pidgeon part and Joe Tiffany got the Jackie Gleason part, though I was far more Jackie Gleasonish than Joe, and Joe was far more Walter Pidgeonish than I. However, this was a high school production wherein teenagers impersonated middle-aged adults suffering midlife crises; thus the entire play was miscast.

You may recall the title song Take Me Along because the tune became an annoying advertising jingle for United Airlines in the 1960’s. Take Me Along was the show’s only remotely memorable song, though I enjoyed singing my big solo number I’m Staying Young, a song in which my character laments everyone else growing old while his character is determined to stay young, speaking of ironic poignant existential hokum sung by a horny seventeen-year-old virgin hoping to seem convincing as a fifty-five-year-old grandfather.

Existential hokum aside, the climax of the entire show was the song Take Me Along performed as a bouncy upbeat duet sung by the Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon characters while they executed a good old smile-provoking tap dance routine. I don’t know about Jackie and Walter, but Joe and I were vomitously bad dancers, and no matter how many hours we put in with the choreographer (the sweet but wholly inept Miss Stewart) we sucked. Or as we liked to say in those innocent days of late adolescence, “We sucked raw turkey eggs.”

The rest of the production was pretty okay, and our singing of Take Me Along was fine, our harmonies solid. But our dancing was beyond awful, so much so that we never once made it through the entire routine without screwing up, and that included our dress rehearsal performance, which was so painfully grotesque that even the two-hundred drama groupies assembled by the director to cheer us on were stunned and horrified by our colossal ineptitude.

“The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” H.G. Wells

So we spent two more hours after that dress rehearsal and two hours just prior to the opening night performance practicing the dance routine, but rather than improve, we got worse. Miss Stewart smiled bravely and declared, “I’m sure it will come together when you do the dance in the context of the play.”

When Miss Stewart was gone, I said to Joe, “It will never come together, and we both know it. So here’s what I propose. We do our best not to fuck up, but when we do, we improvise. Okay?”

“But we almost got it,” said Joe, giving me a terrified look. “Let’s just…try to get it.”

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.” Charles de Gaulle

The first act of Take Me Along went off without a hitch. The orchestra sounded plausibly orchestral, no one forgot his or her lines, and the audience seemed mildly appreciative. Yes, the production was deadly dull, but the second act rambled along without disaster until we came to that moment we’d been dreading—our climactic Take Me Along duet and tap routine.

Joe and I moved to the front of the stage, the curtain closed behind us, and we were illumined by spotlights that would follow us around the stage for the duration of the number. Joe winked at the conductor and said, “Maestro, please,” and as the orchestra began to play, two straw boater hats and two white canes were handed up to us from the orchestra pit. We popped those hats on our heads at rakish angles, tucked those canes under our arms, and off we went.

After a few moments of roughly synchronized approximations of tap dancing, and as predicted…we fucked up. Badly. So I launched into a goofy Groucho Marx kind of dance, spinning and sliding and twirling my cane and hamming things up, while Joe doggedly and gracelessly tried to remain faithful to Miss Stewart’s clunky dance routine. And something about what we were doing—perhaps the ridiculous juxtaposition of elements in tension—struck the audience’s funny bone and we brought the house down. Thunderous laughter shook the auditorium, and as we hit the harmonic bull’s eye with the last notes of the song, five hundred people jumped to their feet and applauded for so long we had to come back out for an encore of me sliding and twirling around while Joe relentlessly butchered Miss Stewart’s dance and the orchestra repeated the last few bars of the song.

And though our ridiculous pas de deux unquestionably lifted the show out of the trough of mediocrity into the realm of sublime silliness, Miss Stewart was terribly upset by our failure to adhere to her choreography. Joe apologized profusely to her and promised it (whatever it was) would never happen again. Fortunately, it happened five more times and saved five more shows. Sadly, the one and only time we managed to sort of get through the routine as we were kind of supposed to, the response from the audience was exactly what we’d gotten at the dress rehearsal—embarrassed silence followed by a smattering of disingenuous applause. But every time we fucked up and I improvised and Joe doggedly tried to get the steps right, the audience went insane with laughter and stomped and clapped and cheered until we had no choice but to come out for a curtain call.

 “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger

Darwin suggested that evolution is a progression of genetic responses to environmental crises; and most scientists, until quite recently, believed that those genetic responses resulting in new physical traits and new behaviors were chemical and random. But now a growing number of epigenetic researchers posit that some or all of these genetic responses are actually choices made by something (what, where, how?) that directs genetic potentiality in a less than purely random way, even, perhaps, as a conscious response to crisis.

Nonsense, Todd, you magical thinking dimwit. Go wash your mouth out with soap and write five hundred times: The Universe does not think. Everything that happens is the result of random chemical centrifugal fractal accidents guided by unfaltering principles that we narcissistic humans actually think we understand, even though we don’t.

 “There are two principles inherent in the very nature of things—the spirit of change, and the spirit of conservation. There can be nothing real without both.” Alfred North Whitehead

A few years into my eleven-year sojourn in Berkeley, I ran out of work, ran out of money, and found myself the sole support of a woman slowly recovering from a nervous breakdown and her unemployed teenaged daughter and two cats, not to mention moi. As a consequence of this wholly unanticipated crisis, and with three weeks to earn enough to pay the usurious rent while continuing to buy groceries, I spent three days and nights trying to drum up editing work. Failing there, I wracked my brains to think of someone, anyone, I could borrow money from, and when I could think of no deep pocket to implore, I got so panicky I ran out the front door, down the nine steps, and along the sidewalk until I was out of breath and slowed to a walk and asked the unseen powers of Universe, “What am I going to do?”

Then I stopped, turned full circle, took a deep breath and turned full circle again. And as I made that second revolution, I saw not one, not two, but five fruit trees in need of pruning. I had not pruned trees for money in nearly two decades, but as I walked home to get my notebook, I felt overjoyed at the prospect of resuming that line of work. I then slipped handwritten notes under the doors of the three houses attached to those five trees in need of pruning. The notes mentioned the specific trees I felt needed attention, identified me as a neighbor who would expertly prune those trees at a reasonable rate and/or be happy to give advice and free estimates for my services. Universe apparently dug where I was coming from because the phone began to ring and I never lacked for work again.

Drought

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Austerity

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore

We are currently in the midst of a local drought that coincides with a state drought that coincides with a regional drought that coincides with the global climate change crisis that more and more scientists believe is now irreversible and will soon, as in the next decade or sooner, lead to famine, wars, plagues, the death of billions of people, and possibly the extinction of all, or nearly all, life on earth. Darn. There go my books and music being rediscovered five hundred years hence as the great unheralded literary and musical creations of Now. There go all my favorite species of plants and animals, and my favorite people, too. There goes living to a riper old age than the age I eventually live to.

According to even fairly cautious climate change scientists and climate change research institutes, things are beyond dire for human and other life on earth. I wonder if that’s why I’ve been feeling the need to nap more frequently of late. Humans have never lived on a planet with so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and maybe this excessive amount of carbon dioxide induces drowsiness. According to many of these same scientists, the only hope of slowing and reversing climate change and the disastrous effects of that change—an extremely slim hope at best—would be for all fossil-fuel-dependent societies to entirely collapse, which would result in the cessation of fossil fuels being burned, which would quickly lead to famine, wars, plagues, and the deaths of billions of people, but maybe not the extinction of all, or nearly all, life on earth. I say maybe not because of those hundreds of pesky nuclear power plants all over the world that require enormous amounts of electricity and functional infrastructures to keep those tens of thousands of nuclear fuel rods cool (even when the plants are no longer operating) so they don’t melt down and explode and radiate the entire earth.

For the time being, Marcia and I have plenty of water for our minimal water needs, but if the current drought were to turn into a multi-year drought, which it very well might given that local, state, national and global weather patterns are wonkier and crazier and more extreme than ever before, what would we and the other people in Mendocino do for water? Thinking about what we would do in response to a local catastrophe is an interesting (and scary) way to start thinking about what humans will do en masse in response to such catastrophes that are occurring with more and more frequency around the world.

I suppose if most of the people around here couldn’t get enough water to lead minimally decent lives, most of the people around here would try to go elsewhere, assuming there were relatively safe and affordable ways to go elsewhere and there were other places with plenty of water and housing and employment for thousands of people from here and millions of people from other drought-stricken places. You see where I’m going with this. Without enough water, our entire local and state and national economy and society would be kaput. And according to climate change scientists, not enough water is soon going to be reality for billions of people on earth—very soon. So where will all those people go?

To put the current drought in historical perspective, 2013 was the driest year in California in at least 165 years. That is to say, humans started keeping records of rainfall hereabouts in 1848, and since then there has never been a drier year than the year just ending, with not a drop more rain predicted for Mendocino and most of California in the few days remaining in 2013. Mendocino’s rainfall total for the entire calendar year will end up being less than fifteen inches. Our historical average here on the coast is fifty-one inches a year. Let us hope that January and February prove to be fabulously wet months, though we got less than two inches of rain all of last January and February.

Before he died in 2000, Marc Reisner, the famous writer about the history of water in California, predicted that water would become so scarce in California over the coming years that at least half of California’s thirty-eight million human residents would be compelled to go eastward, far eastward, to the New York side of the Mississippi River where rain continues (currently) to fall in abundance. However, Marc was not privy to the current computer models suggesting that most of the interior of the United States will be too hot for human habitation in another ten to twenty years, so those twenty million Californians will not only have to go east, but north. Yet north is…Canada. No problem. Canada has tiny army. America has big army. We conquer Canada for their land and water resources and then several million lucky former Americans will go up there to live.

Sound farfetched? Consider this. Swiftly changing weather patterns in Spain (population 47 million) suggest that the climate and amount of rainfall in the Iberian Peninsula will soon resemble that of present-day Algeria, which means most of those Spanish people will have to head north to find enough water and food to survive. But wouldn’t you know it, France and 66 million French people are already there.

A friend recently sent me a link to a slideshow of shocking photographs of three huge Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. These pictures appear to have been taken on moonless nights, when, in fact, they were taken on sunny days when the smog was so thick that no sunlight could penetrate the dense black air. So toxic is the air in these cities that for many days of the year children and elderly people are not allowed outside. Hundreds of flights a week are canceled at the international airports servicing these cities, yet the people and governments of these cities do nothing to address the terrible problem, though China says they will begin taking steps to slowly shift away from burning coal as their primary means of producing energy. However, for now and the foreseeable future, the people in these cities will live (for as long as they can) with the deplorable situation because the alternative, in the short term, would be the loss of jobs and a slowing of economic growth.

I mention these terrifying images from China because I feel that we, the American people and American government, are doing essentially nothing to address the terrible problem of climate change that has so severely darkened the future of life on earth. What will it take before we realize that our individual actions multiplied by hundreds of millions of us are the cause of these terrible overarching problems? When I look at those pictures of tens of millions of Chinese people trying to live in atmospheres black with poison, I think the answer must be that most of us will never realize we are the source of the problem because we have lost our natural connections to the earth and to the fabulously interconnected processes that make life on this precious planet possible.

Despite (or maybe because of) the dismal prognosis for life on earth, I’ve been having vivid dreams lately (and remembering them) in which I am confronted with seemingly unsolvable puzzles and insurmountable obstacles, yet I somehow manage to solve the puzzles and surmount the obstacles and wake up feeling optimistic, if not about the future of humanity and the planet, then about the next few hours and the possibility I may learn something or write something or play something on the piano or have a conversation with someone or plant a seed or have a vibrant thought that sparks a reaction from Universe or at least gives me the feeling I may have sparked a reaction from Universe.

Wishful dreaming? What am I talking about? I’m talking about why I continue to write a weekly article and novels and music in the face of the unsolvable puzzles and insurmountable obstacles that may soon render me and every other breathing and photosynthesizing thing dead. I am not in denial of what is happening to the earth, yet I continue to believe that for however long we are alive, our purpose is to consciously interact with Universe in loving and creative ways. Universe, so say my teachers, loves for us to take creative regenerative actions, because Universe, more than anything, loves to respond to what we do. I know I’m anthropomorphizing Universe by endowing her with the ability to love. So sue me. Happy New Year!