Archive for March, 2016

Forty Years Ago

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

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Crossroads painting by Nolan winkler

I completed my novel Inside Moves in 1975, the year the war in Vietnam ended. I had a medical deferment that saved me from going to that war. I lost friends to that needless conflagration and had friends who came back from those horrors emotionally disturbed. And long before the Vietnam War, my uncle Bob was severely disabled in a car accident, and spending time with him as a boy and a teenager was a huge influence on how I looked at the world.

Before I wrote Inside Moves, I lived in Santa Cruz and played music in a tavern in which one of the booths was reserved for a group of disabled men. I like them and they liked me, and I wrote a short story about them and then attempted without success to craft the story into a one-act play.

These were all antecedents to my writing Inside Moves, though the largest influence was being disabled as a teenager and spending half a year unable to walk and several years with terrible hip and back pain and a pronounced limp before regaining normal physical functioning in my late twenties.

I would like to share the opening chapter of Inside Moves with you. If I had not succeeded in publishing Inside Moves—a miraculous saga in itself—and if it had not been a modest success and made into a motion picture, I almost surely would not have had a career as a professional writer. The gods, I believe, wanted me to keep writing books and so engineered the unlikely process that brought Inside Moves to the world in 1978.

Reading these opening lines today, forty years after I wrote them, they feel as relevant to me today as they did in my youth when the voice of a man began to tell me this story and I wrote it down.

1.

My name is Roary and I’m the kind of person that scares people just looking like I do. I’m the kind of person people see coming and lots of times they’ll cross the street rather than walk by me, or if they do walk by me it’s quick and nervous, like they’d walk by a dog they weren’t sure of. I don’t blame them at all because I am pretty gross-looking and I walk funny because I’m a cripple.

I got hurt in Vietnam. This land mine blew a hole in my upper back and destroyed some vertebrae and part of my spinal cord and part of my brain. I was paralyzed for about a year. Then one day I was talking to this guy Schulz, who was just an orderly, and I told him I felt okay, that I was pretty sure I could walk and use my arms. Next thing I know, this psychiatrist is there telling me that I’ll just have to accept the fact that I’m gonna be paralyzed for life. He was trying to help me face reality, which I suppose was his job, but since I knew I could walk he just irritated me. Sometimes you just know something, no matter what anybody else tells you.

So I told him, “Really, Doctor, I can walk.” He’s a young guy, luckily, so he still has some energy and curiosity. He goes off to talk to a surgeon to find out if I can be disconnected from the bed and the tubes they had going into me. He wanted to let me try to move so I’d know I couldn’t, which he figured would help me accept my paralysis. So the surgeon comes back with the psychiatrist and a couple orderlies and couple nurses and some patients come in too. It was a big event. I could write a whole book on that hospital, but they’ve already written so many like it, there wouldn’t be much point.

The surgeon says go ahead, unhook him. The nurses pull my tubes and then very dramatically this one nurse throws back the covers and there I am in my crummy, piss-stained bedclothes. Nobody’s changed me in over a week. Like I said, I could write a book about that place, but don’t worry, I’m not going to. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

Anyway, after the surgeon says what a disgraceful situation it is, me not being changed and my tubes not functioning properly, and the nurses and orderlies get done passing the buck to some boy who works the graveyard shift, I swing my legs off the bed, push off with my hands and stand up for a few seconds before my legs, which I haven’t used in a year, give out and I sit back down on the bed.

I’d give a hundred dollars right now to have a picture of all those people staring at me.

But I can’t really blame them for not changing me. What difference does it make when you think somebody’s just a vegetable anyway. I was just a raspy voice coming out of a scarred up face to them. Most of them didn’t even know I had a body.

So that’s why I shuffle when I walk and why my head leans to the side a little. I grew a beard and let my hair get long because that covers the scars front and back, and also my head leaning isn’t so noticeable with all that hair. I guess I’m fat because when I’m lonely I tend to eat to fill in for whatever I’m lonely for. Sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes I just need somebody to talk to So I eat.

But I don’t want you to get the idea this book is about me, because it isn’t. It’s about Jerry, but I thought I’d better say something about myself so you’d know what kind of an angle you were getting. In a way, you’re getting a cripple angle, but then again I wasn’t born a cripple. There’s a big difference between a born cripple and somebody who gets crippled. The main difference seems to be how bitter they are. That isn’t always true, but take Jerry, he was born cripple and he’s the sweetest guy in the world. Me, I was born straight, played fullback in high school. Me, I’m bitter. I’m no sweetheart.

Bernie Blackout

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

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Over the Rainbow painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2016)

“I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.” Michael Pollan

Last week, Bernie Sanders gave a major speech in Arizona on the eve of a day of primary elections in which he, by the way, was one of the major candidates. And not a single cable or network channel mentioned the speech or carried even a portion of his stirring address. This is not surprising, but maddening. The corporate media is called the corporate media for a reason: they do the bidding of the rulers of the large corporations currently ruling the world, and that bidding right now is to defeat Bernie Sanders and elect Hillary Clinton who has been their loyal puppet for her entire political career.

What about Donald Trump? In my opinion, Trump is part of the designed strategy to elect Hillary. She would struggle against any moderate Republican candidate, but against Trump she will easily win California, New York, and most of the states outside the South, and she might even win there. Bernie would beat Trump easily, too, so it is incumbent upon the corporate media to make sure the Bernie Blackout continues.

My grandmother Goody, who was what I call an optimistic fatalist, would have responded to my outrage about the Bernie Blackout by saying, “Don’t worry about Bernie. He’ll be fine.”

And I would say, “But Goody, this is not about Bernie being fine, this is about our country and the world being fine. We need Bernie to become President so we can begin the return to a society where more than privileged wealthy people get everything at the expense of everyone else.”

And she would say, “Thus it has always been, but look, things are better now than they were a hundred years ago.”

I have friends who are already angry with me for not voting for Hillary Clinton should she be the Democratic Party nominee for President. If Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, I will vote Green. My friends believe the media nonsense that Trump might win unless we all rally around Hillary. I’m not saying Trump isn’t a disturbing person or that his popularity with a certain sector of our population isn’t frightening. I’m saying he is yet another red herring, another Weapons of Mass Destruction lie to get us to go along with the game plan of the puppeteers.

My grandmother was right to say ‘Thus it has always been.’ Those in power have always done whatever they feel necessary to maintain their power, and that means identifying people who threaten the status quo and either co-opting those people or eliminating them. In Bernie’s case, they are trying to eliminate him by blacking him out. If people can’t hear him or experience the excitement he generates, they will be unlikely to vote for him. We would like to think we have moved beyond such primitive machinations, but by and large we have not.

My friends who are pre-angry with me say, ‘But Todd, Bernie has forced Hillary to the left. She’s starting to sound more like him now.”

Hello? She has changed her campaign rhetoric to obscure who she really is and to steal some of Bernie’s thunder, and we’re supposed to believe she is sincere about being in favor of things she was opposed to last week?

I am put in mind of my time in Hollywood in the 1980’s when a novel of mine was made into a movie and I was hired to write screenplays. I was eager to have more of my books made into movies and to sell my screenplays, and to that end I spent a good deal of time in Los Angeles and New York and had many meetings with producers and directors and agents and movie studio executives.

Time and again, whenever the person or people I met believed my little star was in the ascendancy, or if they thought my book or screenplay might become a hot item, I was treated like royalty, fabulous promises were made, I was wined and dined lavishly, and told with convincing sincerity by men and women, young and old, including several famous and powerful people, that my work was the best thing they had read since (name of a famous movie) and would make an equally great film. And I, little me, was the person they had been waiting to work with since the day they got into the business.

Myriad eyes filled with seemingly sincere tears as these charmers professed to a soul connection with me, and a sense of destiny about our meeting and working together. But when the deals didn’t happen, I couldn’t get past their receptionists. What astounds me, in retrospect, was how many times I fell for their baloney. And why did I keep falling for it? Because I wanted so desperately to believe they were speaking the truth.

That’s the secret of manipulating people: saying what they desperately want to believe—and not allowing them to hear anything to the contrary. Which brings me back to the Bernie Blackout. So long as the majority of people are not allowed to hear anything other than the same old corporate baloney as presented by seemingly sincere people with good hair and nice clothes appearing in profusion on our myriad screens, we will believe the stuff that comes closest to what we desperately want to believe.

The last time I took the Hollywood bait was in 1996. I was broke and scrambling to pay the rent. A big time agent called about my novel Ruby & Spear. He said, “This book completely changed how I think about the world. I feel my life finally has a meaning and a purpose. If ever a deal was going to happen, this is that deal. Send me ten copies of the book, signed, to give to the major players lining up to make this film. And send those copies Fed X, Brother, Friend, Savior, and I’ll reimburse you.”

Near and Far

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

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I Promise Moderation painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2016)

“There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” Eugene O’Neill

We’ve had quite a series of storms this past week and the rain is continuing to fall. Several huge branches came down from the giant redwoods near our house, and we are fortunate none of those branches struck home. We’ve had two power outages, one lasting an hour, another five hours. In the absence of electricity to power our kitchen stove, we cooked an evening meal on our woodstove, and with our computers and lights kaput, I wrote a few letters by candlelight and Marcia practiced her cello.

The day before the storms began to arrive, our local chain saw savant dropped by and cut down two smaller redwood trees and many sky-obscuring branches from the aforementioned giants. Thus I now have several days of work ahead of me making kindling and firewood from the fallen goodies.

The very local water news is good as the storms continue to roll in from the Pacific, our home rain gauge telling six inches in a week, the recent downpours swelling the neighborhood aquifers. The Sierra snowpack, however, is still not exceptional and statewide drought conditions are expected to resume at the end of the rainy season.

Further afield, Bernie Sanders, my choice for President of the United States, is doing remarkably well for someone virtually unknown to the general public a year ago, but maybe not well enough to overcome the long-planned ascendancy of Hillary Clinton to that position of power over the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

I am most sad—but not surprised—about Hillary garnering such enormous support from those population sectors—African Americans, seniors, and women—that she and her husband abused for decades with policies intended to serve rich white males at the expense of those people now voting for in large numbers.

A friend who shares my appreciation for Bernie called to ask me what I thought about the success of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I replied, “I avoid listening to or reading about the debates because accounts of jabbering liars make me furious and depressed. I do read articles detailing which sectors of the population support which candidates, and what policies the majority of Americans support. I deduce from these articles that a sizeable majority of the population should be supporting Bernie Sanders, but do not. There seems to be a bizarre disconnect between what people want and the candidates they vote for. Put another way, we seem to be a nation of the confused.”

“I think in terms of the day’s resolution, not the years’.” Henry Moore

Yesterday I spent two pleasurable hours taking care of ten-month-old Vito while his parents bottled their latest batches of homemade wine and beer. Vito is on the verge of walking and talking, and he finds the various noises I can make with my mouth and lips and tongue hilarious.

Part of what made hanging out with Vito so much fun for me is that he does not care even a little bit about who becomes the next President of the Unites States. Nor does he care about the huge branches that thankfully missed our house. He cares about eating crackers, drinking water, wrecking towers of blocks, attempting to pull apart and eat books and magazines, crawling into areas of the house where he is not supposed to go, throwing things and shouting triumphantly as he throws them, trying to rip my glasses off my face, and watching rain drops pelt the window.

Returning home from my two hours with Vito, I strolled around the yard assessing the various tangles of redwood branches that will occupy me for the near future, and it occurred to me that by the time Vito can vote, Hillary and Bernie will be long gone from the spotlight, I will be eighty-three, should I live so long, and the history books will say little about Ms. Clinton except maybe she was the first woman President of the United States, just as they will say little about Barack Obama other than he was the first African American to hold that office. Their policies will be seen as virtually identical continuations of the greedy and violent agenda of the ruling oligarchy, unless Hillary happens to be in office for the Great Collapse, and then she will be remembered for that, too. Only Bernie has the chance to be mentioned as a latter day Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is one of the many strange things about being human in this era of global connectivity, when something of huge import today to hundreds of millions of people is of little or no importance to those same millions tomorrow. History becomes irrelevant in the context of a never-ending media flood.

Things that directly and immediately impact us—the water supply, the plum and apple crop, the almond harvest, Vito trying to break my glasses, whether or not we got a good night’s sleep, a call from a friend, power outages, ocean waves rushing up to tickle our toes—get shuffled into the continuum of flickering images and data bits on our various screens—Hillary lying through her teeth and cackling like a dybbuk, a dog catching a Frisbee, Bernie angrily decrying corporate abuse, bombs exploding in Gaza, a kitten falling off a sofa.

This incessant shuffling makes us schizoid and antsy and neither here nor there; a population of shattered psyches.

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” Casey Stengel

Predictions for 2016: the statewide drought will continue, but in Mendocino most wells will not run dry, the plum and apple and huckleberry and blackberry crops will be stupendous, the earth will continue to respond to the excesses of our species with climatic catastrophes, the Giants will win the World Series, naps will be scientifically proven to be good for you, Bernie Sanders will pass the baton of his socialist agenda to younger politicians, whales will continue their marvelous migrations, and popcorn will make yet another big comeback.

Two Stories from Buddha In A Teacup

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

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Change

What was her name? She modeled for him twice. The four paintings he made of her sold before the paint was dry. Something about her angularity—a hunger in her bones. Or was it the sorrow in her eyes—the first glimmering of old age?

A gigantic face looms before him, startling him. “Hello Boo Boo,” says a voice coming from enormous lips on their way to press a kiss against his cheek. “You poopy? Need a change?”

Huge hands close around his middle, lifting him from the cushioned chair. He moans softly, a sound his mother hears as the beginning of language.

I’m Walter Casey he tries to say. The artist.

But only the most primitive sounds escape him, his brand new larynx yet untrained.

*

Helpless on the changing table, his mother frees him from his itchy pajamas and lifts away his soiled diapers. He sighs with relief to have his bum free in the open air. She wipes him clean, cooing as she pulls the string on the musical bear—Twinkle Twinkle Little Star playing for the thousandth time.

Mendelssohn he tries to say. Mozart. Anything but this ice cream truck twaddle.

*

She sits with him in dappled shade, chuckling at how ravenously he feeds on her.

Maria. That was her name. She wanted to make love with me. All I had to do was ask. But I was too arrogant. No. Afraid.

His mother pulls him off her nipple. He begins to shriek in despair.

“Hold on, Boo Boo. Switching breasts, that’s all.”

*

He falls asleep and drifts through layers of time to

a snarling dog lunging at him

his father saying You Are No Son Of Mine

forms appearing on his canvas as if by magic

mother clutching his hand as death takes her

his lover kissing his throat

*

The man who comes to visit every day is not the baby’s father. The baby’s father is bearded and stays in the house throughout the night. This other man has no beard. He only stays for an hour or so, speaking out loud to the baby, but conversing silently with Walter Casey.

How are you feeling? asks the man.

I forget more than I remember now.

Yes says the man. Soon you will forget almost everything that came before this life.

But I don’t want to forget.

What do you wish to remember?

Everything.

Choose one thing.

The baby laughs. The man laughs, too.

*

The creek tumbles down through the wooded gorge—a sensual chill in the air. Yellow leaves drift through slanting rays of sunlight and settle on the forest floor. Walter stands at the water’s edge, the tip of his fishing rod pointing toward the sun, his line disappearing into a deep pool. Tomorrow is his seventeenth birthday.

His mother appears on the ridge above him. She is small in the distance, lovely and strong. She waves to let him know it is time to come home for supper. Walter waves back to her and reels in his line. Now he looks up at the falling leaves, at the branches of the aspens, at the billowy white clouds in the gray blue sky, and he begins to weep.

*

“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says his father, lifting him from his crib. “Here we are. Don’t be afraid.”

I am not afraid. I was remembering the happiest moment of my other life.

“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says the gentle, bearded man. “Mama will feed you. Everything is okay.”

 

Beginning Practice

Joseph, a self-conscious young man with a shaved head, sits at a small table in the darkest corner of the café, writing a poem. The first two lines came easily to him.

broken glass, green and brown—

a necklace round the tree trunk

Beyond that, he has drawn a blank. He wants to say something poignant and meaningful about the trees that grow up through the sidewalks of the concrete city, but every new line he writes sounds trite.

He puts down his pen, rubs his eyes, and decides to have a cup of tea. He prefers coffee to tea, but the three people he admires most—his mentor at the Zen center, his yoga instructor, his favorite poet—all drink tea, so he is trying to develop the habit. His father, from whom he is estranged, drinks quarts of coffee every day.

Stepping to the counter, Joseph smiles at the word BUDDHA printed in large block letters across the pale blue T-shirt worn by Irene, the young woman who works the morning shift at Café Muse. Irene is a voluptuous brunette, each of her carefully plucked eyebrows pierced with seven gold rings, her dark brown eyes enormous. The U in Buddha rides atop her right breast, the H atop her left.

“Green tea, please,” says Joseph, raising his eyes from Irene’s breasts to her eyes. “Are you a Buddhist?”

“Sort of,” she says with a shrug. “Are you?”

“Absolutely,” he replies, his chest swelling with pride. “I’ve been going to the Zen center for years.”

This is not precisely true. Joseph has been going twice a week for three months.

“Is that, like, free?” asks Irene as she prepares his tea. “Can you just…go in?”

“We have regular meditation times.” Joseph’s voice deepens with authority. “I generally go in the evenings. Seven to nine.”

She hands him a white mug and a small black teapot. “I’ll check it out. That’s two dollars.”

“Cool,” says Joseph, eager to prolong the conversation. “So where did you get your T-shirt?”

“They’re my favorite band,” she says, turning around to show him the back. The word GROOVES is written in crimson Italics. Irene turns back around and peers down at her breasts. “Buddha Grooves. They’re kind of world beat reggae with some metal and hip-hop. Very danceable.”

“Are they Buddhists?” asks Joseph, his tone disdainful.

“Is that like a big deal?” she asks, frowning at him. “Knowing if someone is a Buddhist or not? I thought Buddha loved everybody no matter what? Wasn’t that why he stuck around instead of going off to nirvana? So he could spread the light?” She looks deep into Joseph’s eyes. “Isn’t Buddhism about becoming more and more open to what actually is, instead of just following some old dogma?”

Hearing these words from her, the blockade between his mind and his heart—an amalgam of fear and sorrow—begins to crumble.

 

 

Town Life

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

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There Is Always More Life painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2016)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

I have now lived in Mendocino for ten years, nine of those partnered with Marcia. Our little town gets flack for being a tourist trap, and there is no question that tourism and cannabis fuel the local economic engine, but so do carpentry, plumbing, school teaching, real estate, dentistry, nursing, doctoring, selling groceries, photocopying, and writing speculative fiction to name a few of the many things humans do hereabouts to make money. Which is to say, having lived in Berkeley for eleven years and Sacramento for fifteen, if Mendocino is a tourist trap, I’ll take it.

This past Saturday night I gave a reading at Mendocino’s Gallery Bookshop to celebrate the new Counterpoint Press edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup. Twenty people came to listen. I knew half the twenty and didn’t know the other half, but everyone got along, enjoyed the complimentary wine, and when I finished reading three stories, the audience requested another story and then another.

After reading, I sat at a little table and signed copies of the book and chatted with some of the people I knew and some of the people I didn’t know. One fellow introduced himself and said, “I enjoyed your stories. Thought I’d say hello because we both live here and…why not?”

I asked him what he did and he said, “Oh, nothing linear.”

“Did you used to do something linear?” I asked, not wanting to be too nosy. “To make a living?”

“Oh, quasi-linear maybe,” he said, shrugging. “Not really.”

I liked him, though I’ve never been great at non-specific small talk.

A woman I didn’t know said she wanted to hear me read all forty-two stories from Buddha In A Teacup and I said she could download my reading of the book from iTunes or Audible or the Audio Bookstore, as well as my readings of three of my novels. She frowned. “How do you do that? Download something?”

I said I didn’t know, but I knew it could be done because I’ve heard of people who do that sort of thing. She said she would ask a friend who knew about computers.

A woman I do know, the force behind the Mendocino Gluten Free Baking Company, bought two copies of Buddha In A Teacup, one for herself and one as a birthday gift for a friend. I couldn’t help calculating that my take from the sale of her two copies, according to my publishing contract, would be two dollars and twenty-two cents, which would not quite pay for one of her delicious gluten-free oatmeal cookies. However, my take of the sales of the book for the night would buy four cookies, which made me feel fat and sassy.

Another woman I didn’t know said, “You mentioned you were a voracious reader of short stories and on the lookout for good ones.” She then rattled off the names of several writers she thought I might like, but I couldn’t hear her clearly because the next person in line was telling me how she wanted me to sign her copy of the book.

I thanked the bookstore folks for hosting me, and then Marcia and I went to Harvest Market and bought chips and salsa and went home and got a fire going and drank beer and played cards, and I had to laugh about how nervous I was prior to the reading. I hadn’t done any sort of public anything in many years and I had nightmares for three nights prior to the reading. Silly me. My imagination helps me write stories but it also turns innocuous things into giant monsters.

On the Monday after my bookstore appearance, I walked to town thinking what a neato friendly place Mendocino is, and then I came to the beautiful field across the street from Friendship Park, the field I have walked across every day for the last four years to avoid walking on the narrow shoulder of the road. Dozens of people have walked across this field every day for decades and possibly centuries, but on Monday, planted in the ground at either end of the narrow footpath traversing the block-long field, were two menacing No Trespassing signs.

Seeing these signs, I felt more than sad, I felt sick at heart. Neato friendly Mendocino was instantly transformed into elitist, anti-homeless, anti-pedestrian, anti-dog, pro-rich people Mendocino. I suppose whoever owns this lovely field had an unpleasant experience with a dog owner not cleaning up pet poop, or a homeless guy taking a dump in the bushes, or something equally horrendous, but I still felt sad about those No Trespassing signs.

Now when I come to the field and see those threatening signs I take a different route to reach the commercial sector of town. We own a house on two acres and if people we didn’t know were walking across our land every day, we would probably feel intruded upon and want them to stop. This field in Mendocino I’m speaking of isn’t adjacent to anybody’s house, but I no longer walk there because I don’t want to get hassled by gendarmes alerted by the owners of the field.

However, as a result of bypassing the lovely field, I now go down streets I rarely used to go down, and I frequently meet people walking their dogs or working in their gardens or pushing their babies in strollers, and nearly everyone I encounter is friendly and open and as sad as I am about those No Trespassing signs on the field everyone used to enjoy walking across.

Thus kindness and generosity and friendliness have transformed Mendocino in my mind from an elitist, anti-homeless, anti-pedestrian, anti-dog, pro-rich people place into a hotbed of super-neato people—every last one of them supporting Bernie Sanders for President of the United States.