Archive for May, 2015

Lost To Time

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Compound India ink on paper by Nolan Winkler

Compound drawing by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

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

We just watched the movie Wild based on a memoir by a woman, played in the movie by Reese Witherspoon, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon to overcome her anger and sorrow about her mother’s death, and to end her addiction to heroin and frequent rough sex with nasty strangers. If ever a movie was made to convince people, especially women, never to go backpacking, this is that movie. From the beginning of her hike until the finish, a terrified Witherspoon runs a gauntlet of small-brained rapist alcoholics, though before she hit the trail she couldn’t get enough of those guys. If you enjoy stilted dialogue, confusing flashbacks, uninspiring views of wilderness, and a cute woman groaning as she hikes and flees from small-brained rapist alcoholics, you’ll love this movie.

“People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties. They are still being passed around—the music and the ideas.” Bob Dylan

In the summer of 1965, when I was fifteen, I went on a backpack trip with my fifteen-year-old pals Pierre and Nathan. Pierre’s parents drove us from Menlo Park to the end of Palo Colorado Canyon Road in Big Sur, we bid them adieu, and spent five glorious days hiking through the rugged wilderness to Pfeiffer Big Sur Sate Park.

Emerging from the wilds at the end of Day Five, we hitchhiked north from Pfeiffer about ten miles to a place named something I can find no reference to on contemporary maps or in descriptions of the Big Sur coast, all traces of the racist moniker lost to time. This rare piece of flat land on a coastline of steep slopes held a farmhouse and outbuildings inhabited by scruffy men and women, dirty children, cats, dogs, and chickens.

Why did we go there? Because Pierre was hot on the trail of Sheila, sixteen, who lived in the farmhouse with her mother Joan, the boss of the place. Joan was six-foot-five, curvaceous, muscular, and drop dead gorgeous. She had two other children on the premises, an eleven-year-old son Brian, already six-feet-tall, and a four-year-old daughter Desiree. She also had two husbands living with her, twin brothers with dreamy smiles and neatly trimmed beards, both a foot shorter than Joan.

Joan told us she was throwing a big party that night and we were welcome to partake. Shortly thereafter Pierre vanished with Sheila, many more scruffy men and women arrived, and wreaths of cannabis smoke graced the air. Sensing my unease, Joan’s very tall eleven-year-old son Brian said he would take us to an ideal camping spot far from the madding crowd.

“But first have some food,” said Brian, wise beyond his years.

So Nathan and I stayed for spaghetti and meatballs and cucumber salad, but eschewed the marijuana-infused desserts, mescaline punch, and LSD. Brian then led us up a steep track to flat ground high above the farm. Fog rolled in, darkness fell, and having hiked twenty miles that day, we crawled into our bags and slept like logs for twelve hours.

Waking to a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the morning sun, we hiked down to the farm to get Pierre and make our way north to Carmel where Nathan’s mother would meet us and take us home.

We found the place a trampled mess and Joan in the kitchen, inspiringly topless, making scrambled eggs. When we asked where Pierre was she said, “He’s with Frank in Carmel.”

She wrote Frank’s address on a scrap of paper and Nathan and I set off hiking north along Highway One where not a single car went by in either direction for what seemed like hours. Finally a badly wheezing Datsun stopped for us and the longhaired driver asked, “You at Joan’s party last night? I can’t believe I missed it.”

He then gave us a vivid secondhand account of the party at which, his source reported, a renowned LSD chemist shared his finest with famous writers and musicians and everyone else, the mescaline was mythic, everyone had sex with everyone, and mass enlightenment ensued.

Our ride ended in Carmel Highlands from where we hitched into Carmel proper and called Nathan’s mother from a pay phone, her estimated arrival time four hours.

We had no trouble finding Frank’s house, but we had trouble with Frank. A sallow fellow with lank hair, he stood defiantly in his doorway proclaiming, “Pierre is ill and going to be living with me from now.” He explained that while tripping together, he and Pierre had discovered a deep cosmic affinity spanning many past and future lives.

Returning to central Carmel sans Pierre, Nathan and I were photographed by dozens of tourists who felt certain we two filthy teenagers with backpacks must be that new kind of human they’d heard so much about: the hippy.

Nathan’s mother arrived, we drove with her to Frank’s house, and when Frank tried to stop Nathan’s usually mild-mannered mom from rescuing Pierre, she shouted, “He’s fifteen! You want to go to prison for a very long time?”

So Frank allowed us to collect Pierre and we rode home with our comrade lying comatose in the back of the station wagon. Two days later, Pierre told me he remembered having sex with Sheila, but thereafter everything was a blur, which was probably a good thing.

Seven years later, in 1972, I told this story to a hippy guy from Big Sur. He knew Joan’s place by the name of which there is no record today, and he told me that party was now legend and considered by many people to be the Beginning of Everything.

Nowadays, circa 2015, most of the inhabitants of Carmel and Big Sur are wealthy non-hippies—the politically incorrect place names from olden times erased to expunge the grunge, and oh Kerouac was it ever grungy at Joan’s place in 1965.

Worth

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

1.50

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I have my piano tuned once a year. I used to have the beauty tuned twice a year, but that was when a good tuning cost sixty dollars and I was making much more money than I make now. My last tuning cost one hundred and forty-five dollars, a ten-dollar increase over last year, which was a ten-dollar increase over the previous year. Barring a bank error in my favor, another increase in the tuning fee will force me to go to once every two years. Is my piano tuner being greedy? Not at all. He’s keeping pace with the real rate of inflation, not the fake one our government reports while they funnel trillions of dollars to the Wall Street criminals to keep the global Ponzi scheme going.

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Stephen Stills

Today I went to the nursery to buy a few six-packs of vegetable starts. I bought a six-pack of petunias, a six-pack of basil, two lemon cucumber plants, a purple penstemon, a small pineapple sage plant, and a packet of arugula seeds. Total: 27.69. Are the folks at the nursery being greedy? Nope. They’re keeping pace with the rising cost of everything else.

“There’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Stephen Stills

My credit card bill came today. I like to guess what the total will be before I open the bill and I guessed it would be next to nothing. Oops. I forgot that a few weeks ago I purchased two pairs of shoes from REI, a new pillow (my first new pillow in thirty years) and a Giants sweatshirt, having worn my previous Giants sweatshirt into a frayed remnant. Total: Three hundred and nineteen dollars. And all those items were on sale. Am I being ripped off by the commercial enterprises of America? No. They are simply riding the roller coaster of Ponzi-created inflation until The Big Pop, after which anybody with ready cash will find things cheap, indeed.

“Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away.” Stephen Stills

Having recently completed the writing of Ida’s Place Book Three—Rehearsal, the third and longest volume of my massive fictional opus set in a mythical version of Mendocino, I evaluated my cost of manufacturing the first two volumes at Zo, the one and only and most excellent copy shop in Mendocino, and came to the conclusion that if I hoped to break even on this latest publishing adventure I would have to sell Book Three for twenty-four dollars, and that’s assuming I eventually sell seventy copies of the goodly tome.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to ask that much of my readers, so I set the price at twenty-two, which is the unprofitable price of Book Two. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I join my piano tuner and nurseries and REI and pillow and sweatshirt companies and the post office and shipping companies and mailing envelope manufacturers and oil companies and vegetable growers and muffin makers and pharmaceutical companies and web masters and dentists and lawyers and doctors in raising my prices to keep pace with inflationary reality? The short answer: I’m a doofus. The long answer: I’m a conflicted doofus.

“Three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful: 1: It must have a precise and suspenseful plot, 2: The author must feel a passionate urge to write it, 3: He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Yesterday in the post office, a woman who looked vaguely familiar approached me and said, “The reason I’m not buying your Ida books is we’re spending all our money remodeling our house, so we’re seriously tightening our belts and only spending money on essentials.”

Before I could ask her to tell me her name, she continued, “We went to San Francisco last weekend. We just had to get away. Stayed at the Mark Hopkins. Glorious. God, the restaurants. I gained five pounds. Speaking of which, want to get some lunch? Trillium has a pork loin to die for. I went with Cal yesterday, we skipped salads and got out for under seventy. And that was for both of us.”

“The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and, lastly, the solid cash.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Before I began making a living selling short stories and novels, I felt alone in the world, save for a few fellow artists I consorted with. But then something happened to let me know I was not so alone. A cartoon ran in The New Yorker, and shortly thereafter several dozen people sent me the cartoon. Who were these people? Friends, friends of friends, former friends, and friends of my parents.

In the cartoon, a well-dressed man is showing another man his opulent estate, They are drinking champagne served by a butler. A massive Rolls Royce is parked in front of a baronial mansion. A gorgeous woman in a bikini is sunbathing on a chaise longue by a large swimming pool next to a tennis court. The man is saying to his guest, “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the great American novel when it suddenly occurred to me, why not write the great American extortion letter?”

Were all those people who sent me that cartoon trying to tell me something? I think so. But I’d rather write novels. Speaking of which, Ida’s Place Book Four—Renegade is underway.

Signed and numbered copies of Ida’s Place Books One, Two, and Three are available from Todd via his web site UnderTheTableBooks.com

Stripes

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

this song's for you site

This Song’s For You by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” Pema Chödrön

A friend recently sent me a link to a short movie about a high school art teacher in St. Paul Minnesota whose students are recent arrivals from other countries, refugees from military conflicts. Many of the students barely speak English, so this teacher has devised fun and creative ways to explore color theory without needing much language for the learning.

Watching the film reminded me of another short art-related movie made by a friend of mine in 1976 called Stripes, about stripe patterns in paintings and life. Dan Nadaner, now a professor of art and a successful artist, made the three-minute long film in those pre-digital days while doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. For the soundtrack, he wrote a ditty about the stripes that appear in paintings by famous artists, and he asked me to play guitar and sing his lyrics in the way he imagined, a kind of slow-going country song.

I was twenty-six and living in Medford Oregon at the time, working as a landscaper. I had stopped writing and making music entirely for a reason that may sound ridiculous, but which made perfect sense given the accumulation of neuroses characterizing me in those days.

I took up the guitar at the age of twenty when I needed a more mobile instrument than a piano. Three years later I was making a large part of my minimal living playing guitar and singing in pubs and cafés in Santa Cruz, and it was during this time I entered into a relationship with a woman who was studying piano.

My relationship pattern at that time and for much of my life was to choose partners and friends who were openly hostile toward my music and writing. Why would an artist repeatedly get involved with people who despise his art? The short answer is that my parents were contemptuous of my music and writing and violently opposed to my pursuing those art forms as my life’s calling. Thus as a child and teenager I became habituated to abuse and disdain for what I was passionate about, and as I progressed into adulthood I repeatedly and unconsciously chose people reminiscent of my parents to be my mates and friends. This continued into middle age when I finally broke free of that debilitating pattern.

But before breaking free, I spent much of my life enmeshed with people who thrived on disparaging the likes of me, and one of those people was my girlfriend when I was twenty-four and twenty-five and making part of my living as a musician and selling the occasional short story. My girlfriend hated the relative ease with which I made music, and by the end of our relationship she had convinced me that my desire to entertain people with my music and stories was an emotional crutch. She preached at me incessantly that if I ever wanted to become a whole and genuine person, I needed to quit making music and stop writing.

So I gave up writing and music, she and I broke up, I went to work as a landscaper, and I didn’t play a note or write a word for one long year until Dan called me from New York and asked me to play guitar and sing the soundtrack for his movie Stripes.

I clearly remember telling Dan that I no longer played guitar or sang or wrote stories, and I remember Dan calmly suggesting this was a passing phase, that I was a good musician and he was sure I would do a fine job singing his ditty about stripes.

So I borrowed a guitar and played and sang the Stripes song into a cassette recorder and sent the tape to Dan, thinking it would be something he could use to clarify his vision of the soundtrack, but then he called and said, “That’s perfect.”

The next day I woke up with a new song forming and I barely got the words written down and the chords figured out before another song began to emerge. Then the floodgates opened, I purchased the borrowed guitar, wrote dozens of songs, started playing the piano again, and haven’t stopped playing since.

Shortly after I began making music again, I wrote the first short story I’d written in two years and immediately sold it for five hundred dollars. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is entirely true. Dan asking me to play and sing for his movie, and his approval of what I created for him, lifted the curse and turned Toad into a functional writer and musician again.

“How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss

More than thirty years later, Dan sent me a DVD of Stripes, and when I watched the movie again after all these years, my gratitude to him was as big as the moon. The film is somewhat rosy now, having lain in a canister for three decades before being transferred to digital format, but I still find it a most beautiful creation. Our web meister Garth has posted Stripes on my web site so you can take a look. Just go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on Films.

Alas, my resumption of writing and making music way back when did not go hand in hand with an end to relationships with abusive people who hated my music and writing. That blessed day would not come until I was in my mid-fifties and I finally ended the last of those debilitating connections. What took me so long? I guess these kinds of transformations take time.

Ant Cows

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

todd and pup

Todd and Pup photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, and exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” Lewis Thomas

You got that right, Lewis. This year, with five yearling apples trees and five apple trees we revived from near death when we bought this place three years ago, the biggest challenge to our trees is ants and the aphids those ants raise on the clover, so to speak, of the tender apple leaves just now emerging along with the onset of blossoms.

Large apple trees can tolerate mild infestations of aphids and the ants that milk them, but small trees, and especially babies with only a few limbs, can be killed by voracious aphid hordes. There are solutions, organic and non-organic, some less temporary than others, but ants are supremely creative about circumventing efforts to stop them from getting the aphid milk they so highly prize. Thus eternal vigilance is necessary in the fight against their insatiable addiction to sustenance.

Yes, I am anthropomorphizing ants, but that’s because I take their assault on my trees personally, which I should not, but I can’t help it.

“Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans.” E.O. Wilson

Our neighbors just had a baby, a human baby, and for the next several years they will have to guard their child a thousand times more vigilantly against the exigencies of life than I must guard our apple trees against ants and aphids. A few generations ago this young couple would have had a multi-generational network of family members and neighbors and friends to help them raise their child, what used to be known as human society, but today they will be largely on their own. I intend to make myself available for baby care duty, and I will be happily surprised if they take me up on my offer.

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.” Abbie Hoffman

Speaking of cows and aphids and ants and society, I want to be excited about Bernie Sanders running for President of the United States, but excitement eludes me. Would it make a difference if I thought Bernie had even the slightest chance of winning? Maybe. Or should it be exciting enough that he will possibly force the debate with Madame Hillary a few notches to the left of right of center? Not really. I’m too old. I’ve seen too many smart people expose the sordid underbelly of the ruling elite only to find that almost no one watching the contest knew they were looking at an underbelly and the thing was sordid.

Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. That’s kind of exciting, someone running for President of the United States and daring to use the word socialist as a self-descriptor in 2015. On the other hand, by declaring he is a socialist, and given the IQ and emotional development of the average American voter, Bernie might as well have said, “I am a communist and if elected President everyone will live in dire poverty.” Words are tricky, especially in a society of semi-literate people with severely impaired vocabularies.

“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” Winston Churchill

Ants are socialists. Their incredible success as a species springs from their super socialism. I, too, ideologically speaking, am a socialist, but I am not running for office. However, I have some advice for anyone who is a socialist and thinking about running for elected office: use a different word. Use the word sharer. I am a sharer and believe that sharing our wealth, social responsibilities, and economic opportunities will always provide the most benefits for most of the people all of the time. Or something quotable and broadly unspecific like that.

I was thinking about why socialism, and for that matter sharing and equality, get such a bad rap in America? And while I was pondering this large issue, I read an article about Alexander Guerrero, a young man who defected from Cuba in 2013 and shortly thereafter signed a contract to play baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the enemies of our San Francisco Giants.

The Dodgers signed Guerrero, who arrived from Cuba without a job, to a four-year contract worth twenty-eight million dollars, including a signing bonus of ten million dollars. He has never played Major League Baseball. He is apparently quite the hitter and has already hit two home runs against the Giants, but is seriously iffy in the outfield. And that is when I understood why socialism and sharing and equality get such bad raps in America.

Sharing and equality are not the American Way. All or Nothing is the American way. Rags to riches is the American way. Socialism is complicated and requires work and commitment and diligence and integrity and believing every person in our society is as worthy as anyone else, that we really are equal and should have equal opportunities and be treated equally under the laws of the land.

Most Americans, hearing of a penniless guy showing up from Cuba and being given ten million dollars, do not frown and say, “Wow, that seems crazy. Think how many people could be raised from poverty into a minimally decent life for twenty-eight million dollars.” Most Americans will say, “Damn, why not me?” or “Good for him!”

“One for all, and all for one!” Alexandre Dumas

Back here in the land of non-millionaires, the socialist ants are threatening my apple trees and I am trying not to take it personally. The ants are not doing this out of malice, but from a wise assessment of how to get the most out of a ready source of nourishment. And the better I understand them, the easier it will be to kill them.