Archive for August, 2015

Elgin

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Point of Discovery 3x7

At the Point of Discovery (Zhukov Dance Theatre) © 2012 David Jouris / Motion Pictures

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

“A true friend is someone who thinks you’re a good egg even though he knows you’re slightly cracked.” Bernard Meltzer

I was put in mind of my friend Elgin this morning when I heard the unmistakable sound of an old Volkswagen Beetle going by. Elgin and I met in 1966, my junior year of high school. He was a massive six-three, a formidable football player, grew up in wealthy family, had his own horse, a new VW Beetle, hunted, drank whiskey, and hung out with other football players and their cheerleader girlfriends.

I was not massive, did not play football, did not have a horse or car, grew up in a middle-class family, and hung out with social outcasts who wanted to be artists or poets or actors or musicians.

Elgin and I attended a high school with two thousand students and were never in the same class. Thus our paths rarely crossed. I had watched Elgin play linebacker and offensive lineman on our championship football team and seen him hanging out with a mob of jocks at lunch, so I knew who he was, but he did not know me until our junior year when I landed the role of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

Bye Bye Birdie was inspired by the historical moment when Elvis Presley went into the Army. Conrad is a fictional version of Elvis. The play takes place the week before Conrad enters military service. For a farewell publicity stunt, he and his managers descend upon a small town where Conrad will kiss some lucky high school girl, the event to be televised on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The play is frequently performed by high schools because the chorus can accommodate vast numbers of kids, and the play is largely about teenagers. At our high school in 1966, however, most people considered Drama the domain of girls and homos, as gay males were referred to in those days. I was on the basketball and soccer teams, had a girlfriend, and many people knew I was not a homo, but I was in plays, which made me at least an honorary homo. Because of this endemic homophobia, we had plenty of girls in the chorus, but almost no boys.

However, we had an ambitious choreographer who enlisted a dozen female dancers to give the musical numbers extra pizzazz. As it happened, several of those dancers were also pompom girls and cheerleaders with jock boyfriends. Our ambitious choreographer wanted male dancers who could lift those female dancers—lift them and twirl them and fill out the scenes in which crowds of teenagers cheered for Conrad Birdie.

So she asked those dancers to enlist their jock boyfriends to be the lifters, which meant those jocks would have to be in a play. At first only one football player agreed to venture into homo territory. But eventually ten of the stars of our championship team were in the play, and two of them, Elgin and Eric, were assigned to pick me up and carry me around the stage on their mighty shoulders while dozens of cute girls pretended to be in love with me.

Elgin and Eric were so strong that when they picked me up, all one hundred and fifty pounds of me, I felt both tiny and grateful I was not playing football with the likes of Elgin trying to tackle me. And as it happened, Elgin had a blast being in the play, lifting beautiful girl dancers and tiny actors.

By the time the play was over, Elgin and I were friends, not best friends or even close friends, but friends. Thereafter, he often attended rehearsals of other plays I was in, came to hear me play music, invited me to parties at his house, occasionally gave me rides home when it was raining, and saved me at one party from a huge drunk football player who was about to rearrange my face for gazing too avidly at his girlfriend.

On Grad Night at Mel’s Bowl, Elgin and I were on the same bowling team, came in third, and we all won Parker T-Ball Jotters, after which Elgin got very drunk and told me I was his hero for being brave enough to be in plays despite so many people thinking it meant I was a homo.

Fast forward to the summer after my first year of college. I was hitchhiking to Palo Alto and Elgin stopped for me in his yellow VW Beetle. After gossiping briefly about people from our graduating class, Elgin confided in me that he was considering either fleeing to Canada to avoid going to Vietnam or joining the Army and getting his two years over with so he could get on with his life.

This was in 1968 when American soldiers were dying in large numbers every day in that terrible war. I had a student deferment and would soon get a medical deferment. Elgin had quit college and was smoking lots of pot and experimenting with LSD. His father was pressing him to enlist and several of his friends had been drafted or were enlisting. He said the Army had a new buddy program encouraging pals to enlist together and then…what? Be in the same outfit? Get killed together? I wanted to hook him up with an anti-war Draft counselor I knew, but he said he’d already been to a counselor and it was either exile in Canada or join up.

And then he asked me if I would accompany him to Canada and help him get settled there. He didn’t know anyone else who would help him and he was afraid to go alone. I said I would be glad to help him if that was what he decided to do.

I never heard from him again. Six months later I learned from a mutual friend that Elgin died in Vietnam when he jumped on a live hand grenade to save his buddies. Whether that is how he died or not, I have no doubt Elgin would have done something like that.

Reversions

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

Reversions

Bird Mansion photo by Todd

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

“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” Mark Twain

Something marvelous strange happened with our pumpkins this year. That is to say we are hopeful the strange turns out to be marvelous. Here’s what has happened so far. Four years ago, I bought two pumpkin starts at the farmers market in Mendocino and planted those starts in a raised bed rife with redwood roots, three miles inland from the coast. Those plants were supposed to grow small sweet pumpkins, half the size of bowling balls. I got one little pumpkin. Delicious. I saved the seeds.

When we moved to our new house a mile from the coast, I planted the seeds in a new bed, also rife with redwood roots, and got two little pumpkins. Delicious. I saved the seeds. The next year, last year, I planted the seeds in a bed less troubled by redwood roots, took great care of the plants, and we got six little cuties. Wonderful. Marcia made pumpkin pies and pumpkin soup. Yummy. I saved the seeds.

This year I created a deep rich bed, planted the seeds, and lo, the vines have set five pumpkins, four of which are much bigger than bowling balls. Where did these four mighty pumpkins come from? Why are they somewhat cylindrical? Are they reversions to an earlier type of pumpkin used in creating the hybrid little pumpkin I began with? Why did the reversion take four generations?

My research suggests these pumpkins may not be reversions to an earlier progenitor, but rather a new variety. If we like the flavor of these new pumpkins, I will save the seeds of the biggest and best ones, plant them next year and see if they continue to produce these behemoths, relatively speaking, assuming they turn orange or some other pleasing color. Could this be the birth of Coastal Toddkins? We hope so.

In other news of change, we are on the verge of completing the transformation of the smaller of the two bathrooms in our house into an actual room in which one can take a bath. The outer wall of this small room previously featured a skinny horizontal window near the ceiling that gave no view and was, we assume, for ventilation and nothing more. Replacing that narrow strip of glass with a large picture window gave us a view of a circle of majestic redwoods embracing a not beautiful and not majestic red outhouse with a crescent moon in the door.

This outhouse was there when we moved in and had not been used for decades. And though I wanted the outhouse gone because something about it gave me the creeps, we were not sufficiently inspired to get rid of the thing until we cut the hole in the bathroom wall for the picture window and found we had created little more than a frame for a three-dimensional rendering of an outhouse. I’m sure there are those who would find looking out a new bathroom window at an old haunted outhouse amusing, but I prefer looking at trees, so we gave the outhouse to a family of local homesteaders glad to get the luxurious pooper.

With the outhouse gone, we discovered it had been cradled in the lovely remnant of the burned out trunk of an old growth redwood, the mother of the four huge trees now forming a circle around her. I have subsequently cleared out masses of dead branches from the circle, and now when I look out my office window or out the new bathroom window, the scene is inspiring and inviting. Yesterday I looked up from writing and saw a doe and her two fawns exploring the newly liberated space.

We also excised forty shoes surrounding one of the massive trees adjacent to the outhouse. Filled with dirt, these shoes were once home to non-descript succulents, their desiccated remains tangled in the rotting leather and nylon. Tennis shoes, work boots, walking shoes, loafers, cowboy boots, bedroom slippers; these forty rotting pieces of footwear were a small portion of the several hundred such shoes the previous owners of our property deployed around shrubs and trees, and to line walkways. We hope the forty outhouse shoes were the last of the unsightly buggers, but something tells me there are more dirt-filled shoes lurking on the premises.

The previous owners also left behind seventeen large wooden birdhouses sitting atop posts scattered around the property. Some of the houses were a few feet off the ground, and some were as high as seven feet off the ground. No view from anywhere on our land was free of one or more of these birdhouses. These multi-story homes, featuring porches and shingled roofs, bird mansions really, were rotting and falling apart when we arrived, and when I dismantled them, I found they were filled with the nests of rats, not birds. Many of the mansions held spent packages of D-Con, an edible rat poison, and, yes, I found rat carcasses, too.

And there were large wooden archways standing here and there around the property, nine of them, no view of our two acres free of one or more of these freestanding vine holders leading nowhere and festooned with dying honeysuckle or dead potato vine or struggling wisteria. Oh, yes, and blocking the view from every window of our house was dense shrubbery, hundreds of non-descript bushes marching away in close ranks in every direction, filling the space between the house and the surrounding forest.

I’ve gotten rid of the archways and nearly all the useless water-sucking view blockers, and we have attained spaciousness and light and can now see the trunks of the big trees, fruit trees, and lovely Japanese maples. The rat infestation we were warned about by our neighbors has not yet materialized because we have removed most of the ready-made nesting facilities, and when we moved here we brought our cat Django, an excellent ratter, though our great hunting cat recently died and we will not get a new cat or cats until spring.

Now it’s time to take a bath with a view of trees and sky, perchance to dream of pumpkin pie.

Django

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Django

Django On Todd photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” Albert Schweitzer

On this first day of August, 2015, as darkness gives way to daylight and the cobwebs of sleep are swept away by a slowly dawning clarity of mind, I wonder what this deep silence is all about. Our thirteen-year-old cat Django is what I refer to as an alarm cat. Like clockwork, promptly at seven every morning, rain or shine, he begins to yowl for his humans to feed him. Marcia does not hear the morning yowls of our large gray shorthaired kitty, or so she claims, thus I am the human who most often rises to feed Django at the beginning of each day.

But today, when my expectant ears hear no feline cries for sustenance, my brain presents me with two options: the time is not yet seven or Django has gone hunting and will be home soon and start yowling. Upon rising, I find the time is 7:22, no cat in sight. I dole out a modest portion of food into Django’s empty bowl, and step outside into the deep quiet of the fog-enshrouded forest.

“Django. Django,” I call. “Come get your breakfast.”

By ten o’clock, Django has not yet appeared, and my brain reminds me that there have been a few times in the eight years I’ve been with Marcia when Django was gone for as long as twenty-four hours.

At quarter to eleven, fifteen minutes before Marcia is scheduled to leave with our neighbor Marion to attend a wedding in Eureka, Marion phones to say she just came home from visiting a friend and noticed the body of a large gray cat on the side of the road where our lane meets Little Lake Road, and she fears the cat might be Django.

In the next moment, Marcia and Marion and I are running down our quiet lane to Little Lake Road, and just to the east of our street lies the body of Django. Marcia bursts into tears, and I can barely see through mine as I lift the already stiff body into the box I brought to carry him home, one of his back legs badly broken and nearly separated from his body.

Because Marcia and Marion have to leave very soon to make the long trek from Mendocino to Eureka to be in time for the wedding, we hastily choose a place in our flower garden next to the agastache—the cones of purple flowers swarming with bumblebees and honeybees—and I dig a deep hole, bury Django’s body, and Marcia makes a beeline for a large brown stone on the north side of our house, a stone she wants to put atop Django’s grave. We fetch the dolly, load the big stone thereon, wheel the stone to grave, and together place the stone atop the freshly turned earth.

“Makes me feel better knowing he’s in the ground before I go,” says Marcia, giving me a farewell hug.

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” Sigmund Freud

Django had a near death health crisis two years ago due to his extreme obesity, and thereafter I became his strict dietician, doling out small portions of cat food, four times a day. He lost seven pounds, regained his energy, and became much happier and more loving—but he was always hungry and not shy about letting me know. Thus it became my daily habit to feed him when I got up in the morning, and again at noon, five, and ten.

With the advent of his persistent hunger, my regimen of late evening stretching exercises became an exciting event for Django—the unfurling of my yoga mat meaning Meal #4 would be served shortly after the mat was rolled up and put away. Thus whenever I would look up from my routine on the living room rug, there would be our big hungry cat on his footstool, watching my every movement, a cat who prior to the change in his culinary reality would sleep through my stretching because it had nothing to do with him.

After some weeks of observing my nightly stretching, the new slender Django apparently decided that if he stretched, too, his chances of being fed would improve, though I always fed him whether he stretched with me or not. In any case, he developed a series of cute flirtatious poses, our favorite being when he would lie on his back on his footstool, and hang halfway off, upside down, kneading the air with his mighty claws and making a high clucking sound.

“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” James Herriot

Django sat with us during supper every night. His designated chair was to Marcia’s right, and he often fell asleep while we ate and talked. But the moment, and I mean the very moment, Marcia put her fork down after taking her last bite of supper, Django would wake up, often from a deep snoring slumber, and reach out to Marcia, his paw suspended in the air.

What followed was unquestionably Django’s favorite time of every day, lap time, the lap in question Marcia’s. She would pull Django’s chair close to hers, he would cross to her lap and assume the pose of the famous sphinx of Giza, facing forward, his eyes closed, purring profoundly. And he would stay in that pose on Marcia’s lap for as long as she would let him, his bliss so huge and obvious, it never once occurred to me to ask Marcia to put Django back on his chair and assist me with the dishes. How could I possibly disturb Django’s ecstasy? I could not.

In my experience there are few things as marvelous to see as a big handsome cat meditating splendiferously on a lovely woman’s lap, and that is the memory of Django I will cherish for as long as I live.

Skid Marks

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

200dpi

Escape photograph by Todd

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

Monday. July 27, 2015. I’m coming home from Fort Bragg, heading south on Highway One in my little old white Toyota pickup truck, going fifty-miles-per-hour. The time is one o’clock on a warm sunny day. I have just been to the doctor and I’m thinking about the long wait, the hurried examination, and the course of antibiotics I have agreed to embark on. I have just crested the rise at the southern exit to the little town of Caspar and I’m on the downhill slope crossing the bridge over Caspar Creek, when a giant white pickup truck loaded with kayaks sitting at the stop sign on the west side of the highway on Road 409 suddenly pulls out and completely blocks my lane.

Before conscious thought, I slam on my brakes and yank the steering wheel to the left, and now, as I have experienced a few other times in my life, everything happens in slow motion.

My little truck arcs to the left, the steering wheel locked, brakes locked, and I numbly await the terrible collision. The nose of my truck passes so close to the nose of the giant white pickup truck I can see into the cab. There is a young man wearing sunglasses sitting behind the steering wheel and beside him is a little boy, not wearing a seatbelt. They are in bathing suits and they are both horror-stricken.

Somehow my truck does not hit their truck and I become aware of a screeching sound and can feel my little truck tipping precariously as only two of my four tires are in contact with the pavement as my truck continues across the oncoming lane where by chance there are no cars coming, and my arcing transit continues into the opening of Road 409 on the east side of the highway where by another chance there are no cars, and my truck settles onto four tires and completes the arc so I am now pointing north toward Fort Bragg and blocking both lanes of Road 409.

Now my truck rolls backwards toward the downhill side of the road and I yank on my emergency brake before I bump into the guardrail. I am alive, but not entirely here. I would be amazed I am still alive but I have apparently lost the amazement function for the time being and am seriously dazed.

Now someone says, “Shall I push you out of the road?”

I turn to my left and look into the face of a handsome young man, not the young man in the truck I almost crashed into.

I say, “Okay,” and he gets between the guardrail and the back of my truck and I release the emergency brake and he pushes me across the road into the wide parking area to the north side of Road 409 on this east side of the highway, and I notice the young man in the truck I almost crashed into is helping him push.

Clear of the road and safe in the parking area, someone opens my door and I get out. That is, my body gets out. Where most of my consciousness has gone, I couldn’t say.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you. Are you okay?” asks the young man who drove his giant truck out into the highway in front of me as I was going fifty-miles-per-hour. He is shorter than I, or maybe he just seems shorter because I seem to be looking down at him.

“I don’t know,” I say, wanting to ask why his son wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, but the words won’t come out.

“I want to make sure you’re okay,” he says, wincing. “I’m so sorry.”

“May I borrow your phone?” I ask, thinking I’d like to call Marcia and ask her to call a tow truck because the brakes of my little pickup are locked and the engine is dead as far as I know.

“I don’t have service here,” says the man who almost killed me.

Now he vanishes forever.

But the young man who pushed my truck across the road is still here. I ask if he has a phone I can borrow and he hands me a little oval thing I suppose is a phone, but in my current state might as well be an onion.

“I need to call my wife,” I say to him. “Call a tow truck.”

“Won’t your truck run?” he asks, smiling curiously.

“Are you local?” I ask him. “I’m local. I’m Todd.”

“Jalen,” he says, shaking my hand. “Yes, I’m local.”

“Do you know about cars?”

“Yes,” he says, getting into my truck and starting the engine and driving forward and testing the brakes. “Seems fine.”

I thank him profusely and the next thing I know I’m driving south on Highway One toward Mendocino with no memory of anything since I got into my truck after Jalen got out.

Now I am in the post office in Mendocino, mailing some packages. I walk to Corners and purchase a dozen eggs. Walking feels odd to me. How do I know how to do this without falling over? I drive home and find Marcia and Marion working in the living room. They say they were hoping I would bring eggs so we can have egg salad for lunch.

I tell them about the near accident and the intercession of the young man and how I am not fully in my body and can’t remember things.

After lunch, I lie down and fall asleep for two hours. I wake up feeling so tired I can hardly move. But even so, I get in my little truck and drive into Mendocino and get my antibiotics from the pharmacy in Harvest Market.

Two days later, I am still spaced out and now I am afraid to drive anywhere. My friend Bob is helping me haul firewood to the woodshed. When we come inside for a water break, Marion and Marcia are working in the living room and Marion says to me, “I was coming back from Fort Bragg this morning and saw the skid marks.”

“The what?” I say, having no idea what she’s talking about.

“The skid marks you made when you swerved to miss that truck. They arc across the highway. Dark black skid marks.”