Archive for August, 2016

Actual Abstract

Monday, August 29th, 2016

shallwedance

Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.

Strangely Early

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

All that you ask of me tw

All That You Ask Of Me painting by Nolan Winkler

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.”  Mary Roberts Rinehart

One of the great pleasures of living in this rural area is that many of my neighbors and friends are avid observers of the natural world. And so in early August when I began sharing my observations that maple trees and fruit trees and blackberry bushes here on the coast in Mendocino were behaving as if it was late September, many folks concurred with similar observations about the local foliage and fruit.

In reading about climate change, I have come upon a number of reports by credible scientists suggesting that those physical indications of what we used to associate with fall—leaves changing colors, fruit ripening, colder nights—will henceforth become much less predictable in terms of when they manifest. Thus fall may come in summer, spring may come in winter, summer in spring, and…will we have a winter this year in California?

That’s an interesting question. We just had our first relatively wet winter in the last five years courtesy of a huge El Niño. The long-running drought in California and throughout the Southwest was barely dented by the glorious but not excessive precipitation. Here in Mendocino, where our aquifers are not directly dependent on Sierra snow, our water supply was much improved.

Now, however, the National Weather Service is reporting a formidable La Niña taking hold in the Pacific. Given this dramatic cooling of the ocean waters, what do the precipitation maps recently released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association say will be coming California’s way in the months of October, November, December, January, February, March, and April?

Not to be an alarmist, but NOAA’s maps indicate that California’s rainfall for those seven months will be Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

Oh what do they know? Well, actually NOAA has been highly accurate in predicting precipitation in California over the last decade, and if these predictions are even close to being accurate, the state of California will soon be gripped by a disaster of epic proportions. And what about right here in Mendocino? According to those NOAA precipitation maps, we are facing disaster, too.

There is a possibility, of course, that Mendocino may receive more precipitation than those NOAA maps suggest, if, and it is a big if, some of the storms predicted for Oregon and Washington extend far enough south to douse us, too. Then our aquifers might be somewhat replenished and the scope of the local disaster somewhat diminished.

Then again, given that no one expected August to be October this year, maybe several massive storms will unexpectedly dump thirty inches of rain on us in November and December. Stranger things have happened. Yes, this is wishful thinking, but wishful thinking may be the best response to a climate verging on chaos and another year of drought looming

“One has to fear everything—or nothing.” Jean Giraudoux

I recently broke my self-imposed ban on listening to or reading any news of the great big world outside Mendocino County. I turned on the radio and caught the end of National Pentagon Radio’s daily news program Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration.

There were two young women talking to each other about this year’s crop of summer movies. I listened for a moment and decided this must be a special feature of the news program encouraging people of extremely limited intelligence to share their incredibly simplistic ideas with a national audience—some sort of diversity-enhancing show to end the doctored news on a folksy note. In any case, I couldn’t bear to listen and turned off the radio.

Then my curiosity got the better of me, and having remembered the names of the two women, I fired up my computer and did a little research and discovered that one of the women is a regular host of Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration, and the other woman is that esteemed program’s regular movie critic. And because August is now October, I was not surprised.

“There are three things to do in dealing with a crisis—search for the guilty, punish the innocent, promote the incompetent.” Louis Goldman

Once upon a time there were billions of humans on earth and the biosphere began to disintegrate under the pressure of their personal and collective habits. And so there came a time when much of the earth became uninhabitable and nearly all those billions of humans perished along with many other living things. However, some of those humans survived, and here and there on the earth, plants and animals and sea life began to thrive again. After several thousand years of recovery, the biosphere was healed and the earth a verdant paradise once more.

But humans were no longer the dominant species on earth. Something had changed in their nature during the holocaust of biosphere collapse and they never again aspired to anything more than growing vegetables and fruit, catching fish, making and wearing comfortable clothing and footwear, singing, dancing, telling stories, and traveling hither and yon on foot or in canoes. Since there were no roads or sidewalks, skateboards did not make a comeback. No human possessed any more or any less than any other human, and the few times someone invented a weapon deadlier than a bow and arrows or someone built an engine requiring the burning of fossil fuels, such weapons and engines were ceremoniously destroyed and the inventors required to undergo extensive psychotherapy and live naked for seven years surviving on roots, berries, and small mammals caught by singing enticing songs, after which they were re-integrated into society and allowed to resume wearing comfortable clothing and footwear.

Thus the earth continued to spin on her axis and speed around the sun for a hundred million more years until the Cosmic Metamorphosis began and…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Gym Rats

Monday, August 15th, 2016

oasis tw

Oasis painting by Nolan Winkler

Jim Young, coach of the Mendocino High School boys varsity basketball team, also happens to be my chiropractor and friend. I had a chiropractic appointment with him on Thursday at 11:30, and the night before he sent me an email saying: “I’m going to put one of my younger stars through a shooting workout right after our appointment. Want to help? 12:15 in the high school gym.”

Just a few months ago I would have declined Jim’s offer, not having touched a basketball in five years and being in dreadful shape as I close in on sixty-seven. However, for the last few months I have been endeavoring to right the ship and even occasionally going to the elementary school to fling a few balls at the rims, so…

While Jim expertly unknotted the muscles in my upper back and alleviated much of the chronic tightness in my neck, he explained how he and I would work together during the shooting workout of the promising young guard Nakai Baker. Jim would do the rebounding and pass the balls to me, and I, in turn, would pass the balls to Nakai, and Nakai would do nothing but shoot.

Some of Jim’s inspiration for involving me in this fascinating exercise sprang from his recent reading of my novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, the last time I was able to entice a major publisher to take a chance on one of my books. As it happened, Bantam didn’t take much of a chance and declared the book out-of-print on publication day. Thus very few people have ever read Ruby & Spear, the story of a poetical sports writer and his fantastical involvement with a phenomenal playground basketball player.

The book begins: “Once, when I was young—oh, fifteen—I stood on the western edge of my father’s driveway, focused intently on his finest gift to me, a shiny orange rim mated to a whitewashed backboard—a fresh net awaiting my throw, the summer sun warming my bare skin. I was a rosy tan white boy, longing to flee the oppressive confines of suburban dependency. Nearly all my heroes were great black men who could fly. Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Earl the Pearl Monroe.”

Basketball was my refuge from an unhappy home life as a teenager, and for my two years of college I spent more time in the gym playing basketball than I did attending classes. So when I walked into the Mendocino High School gym with Nakai and Jim—my first time in a gymnasium in more than twenty-five years—I was flooded with nostalgia.

I changed from my walking shoes into low-top tennis shoes, Nakai changed from his walking-around shoes to gorgeous red and black high-tops, and we joined Jim at the west end of the court where he awaited us with three basketballs. Nakai is a slender lad, sixteen, five-foot-nine, who shows little emotion when he plays, though some of that may have been due to being sequestered in a gym with his coach and some old guy with funny hair.

After we took a few shots to loosen up, Jim directed Nakai to a spot some eighteen feet from the basket (a couple feet in front of the three-point line) and the first drill began.

Standing at the top of the key, my job was to pass the basketball to Nakai so it arrived in his hands a couple of beats after he released his previous shot, and I was to time my passes so Nakai could maintain a consistent rhythmic flow of catching and releasing the ball without pause.

It took me a few passes to get in synch with Jim and Nakai, and a few more passes to hone my accuracy and speed of delivery, but since my sole focus was to receive basketballs from Jim and feed them to Nakai, I eventually got the hang of things and greatly enjoyed myself.

On occasion I would not pass the next ball quite soon enough and Nakai would give an impatient little clap of his hands to say, “Speed it up, old man,” and I would endeavor to do so. I made one-handed passes, two-handed passes, bounce passes, fast passes, and the occasional lob, all of which Nakai handled with ease and aplomb.

His shooting accuracy was impressive, his stamina superb, and his range remarkable. A few times in the course of forty-five minutes of nearly incessant shooting, Nakai launched shots from several feet beyond the three-point arc and made a surprising number of them. My guesstimate is that Nakai took about thirteen shots per minute during the time we worked with him, or roughly six hundred shots, most of them from eighteen to twenty-three feet from the hoop, and he showed no signs of tiring until the very end.

He also executed a series of dribbling drills I cannot even imagine emulating without at least a decade of rigorous daily practice. Make that two decades. He dribbled two balls at the same time, up and down the court, and each ball departed his left and right hands at different speeds, and these speeds changed in relation to each other with each of his runs up and down the court. He also dribbled the two balls through his legs and behind his back as he ran, and I said, “Oh my God” at least seven times during his dribbling routine.

We concluded the workout with a game of HORSE, and by the time I made my last heave at the basket, I could barely lift my arms, though I had only been shooting for ten minutes, whereas Nakai had been shooting nonstop for the better part of an hour.

Jim and I bid the plucky lad adieu and walked down from the high school into town, Jim to have a swim in the ocean, brave man, I to stumble to my truck (formerly Jim’s truck) and drive home, there to lie down for an hour to recover from the rigors of feeding the ball to Nakai.

An audio version of Ruby & Spear narrated by the author is available from iTunes and Audible, while used copies of the novel may be had for pennies online.

Hungry Deer

Monday, August 8th, 2016

birdbath and friends tw

Birdbath & Friends charcoal and acrylic by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

With that in mind this morning, I go out to water our apple trees.

When we bought our house and surrounding two acres four years ago, the place was a deer park, the seven dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees badly mangled by the deer and dying from lack of water. Our first large expenditure was to have a sturdy deer fence installed around the southern three-quarters of an acre with the house as part of that barrier.

We pruned and watered and fed the apple trees, and today four of the original seven are now robust and productive, one gave up the ghost, and the remaining two are still quite distressed and would like new basins free of redwood roots, more food, and more water.

This year the crop on four of the trees is spectacular and we attribute some of this to our monthly deep watering throughout the dry summer months. To that end, we installed a second water tank two years ago so we would be assured of a goodly supply for the orchard and our vegetable garden. The deer are as plentiful as ever hereabouts, and groups of them can often be found standing at the fence gazing longingly at the bounty they once had access to.

This morning, I open one of the sturdy gates leading into the orchard and leave it ajar a mere three feet. I set a hose at the base of one of the apple trees, head back to the gate, and here is a doe twenty feet on the wrong side of the fence making a beeline for the dwarf Red Delicious.

Fortunately, I opened the big gate outward, so the doe is easily cajoled into going out the way she came in. She must have entered mere seconds after I did—the entire incident lasting less than two minutes. I check to make sure no other deer have entered the protected zone, close the gate, and return to the house to set a timer lest I forget the hose is running.

Sitting at the piano, improvising on the theme of apples and deer, I look out the window with a view of the land we’ve left unfenced and see two does and two adorable fawns nibbling on anything digestible they can get their mouths on. Anything. They seem scrawny to me, the fawns especially so, and I recall our neighbor who feeds the local deer and goes to Idaho to hunt elk, telling me the forage hereabouts is not so good this year and the deer are not just hungry but stupid hungry and therefore more likely to get hit by cars.

The timer rings and I return to the orchard and decide to leave the hose running on that first tree for another half-hour. While I’m here I do yet another thinning of the apples lest various boughs break under the weight of the abundant fruit. I fill a big bucket of half-sized apples—reds, greens, goldens, yellows—and dump them on the north side of our house where the deer visit daily.

In my office, working on a poem, it occurs to me that I gave those apples to the deer today, rather than saving them for our neighbor’s horse who produces manure for our garden, because the doe that entered the orchard this morning communicated her hunger to me. Seeing the scrawny fawns was further impetus to feed the deer, not that a few apples will make much of a difference to their longevity, but I’m a sucker for fawns, so…

An email from Max in New Hampshire arrives, a missive jiving splendidly with my musings about deer and apples and music and poetry and Alan Watts writing about the universe being indistinguishable from how we act upon it.

“This evening I made an unexpected store run to pick up a couple of items, the prolonged dusk thrillingly muggy (unusually heavy humidity for our spot in New Hampshire) and inviting in the big thunderstorm I’d seen predicted for tonight. I had a most pleasant time zipping to the store and back, accumulating little moments—like in the grocery store produce section when I asked the young man wearing a white hairnet who was putting out produce if they had any ears of corn, and he looked at me with such gentle wonder and asked, “Ears?” and I made an ear-of-corn shape with each of my hands and he smiled and said, “Do you mean corn-on-the-cob?” And I said yes! He led me to the ears of corn and I thought maybe nobody calls them ears of corn anymore. But somehow this was delightful. Just the intrigued way he asked the question, “Ears?” like this was a whole new idea about corn, foreign to him, yet charming somehow. Anyway, the quick shopping done, I drove home with the windows down, feeling the excitement of the storm about to break, listening all the way home to the inspiring piano stylings of Mr. Todd Walton and boy did you sound fantastic! Everything seemed so right. And just as I was about to walk in the front door of our building, huge drops of rain started plunking down. By the time I arrived on the 5th floor, the rain was drumming down on the skylights above the hallway to our apartment, a great percussion accompaniment to my approach to the door. Perfect timing.”

 

Heart Bern

Monday, August 1st, 2016

moving over life tw

Moving Over Life painting by Nolan Winkler

Dear Todd,

Max here. I’m wondering how you feel about Bernie Sanders supporters at the Convention who just don’t want to let go of Bernie and join the others in backing Hillary Clinton. I feel empathy for them—they’ve wholeheartedly believed in someone and felt represented by him, and now they’re told to drop that and get behind this other candidate who doesn’t embody what they loved. Bernie was an alternative to everyone else, including Clinton. Are they supposed to act like there is no great difference now? Even using the Anything-but-Trump scare tactic seems to ignore something basic: the fact that they genuinely loved their candidate, believed his message, and still feel he’s the best person for the job. But it’s as if they’re being asked to “grow up.” Does it strike you that way too?

How are you feeling about Bernie and everything?

Dear Max,

Pursuant to wresting control of my brain from the negative forces, I have been avoiding news of the larger world for the last few weeks with good results, though I have heard some news about the angry Bernie supporters at the convention. I also got an e-letter from Bernie (I think it went to fourteen million of his closest friends) inviting me to join him in the ongoing political revolution he says his campaign was just the start of; and I picked up a leaflet from the local arm of Bernie Ongoingness in Mendocino.

The gist of Bernie’s message is: now we must work hard for several years to deepen and expand the grassroots movement to get socialist Bernie-type people elected to local and state offices and Congress so we can be ready for the next few tries at the Presidency four years and eight years and twelve years hence. In this way, some day maybe we’ll have Single Payer Healthcare and throw off the yoke of the Wall Street gangsters and corporate overlords who control our government and are swiftly destroying the earth—Hillary and Bill and Barack their current functionaries. This, I think, is Bernie’s way of asking his followers to grow up.

I went on my first march protesting the Vietnam War in 1963 when I was fourteen, and went on my last of hundreds of marches eleven years later in 1974, a year before the United States military finally pulled out of Vietnam. Did all our protesting and organizing actually help end that terrible war? Maybe not. Credible histories suggest the United States was simply defeated and going broke pursuing that war, our troops mutinying.

I mention Vietnam because that anti-war movement was the only time in my life that millions of young Americans persisted for several years in a political effort to change a major policy of our federal government. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of Bernie’s older supporters are former anti-war protestors who joined today’s young people who feel disenfranchised by the current economic system and crushed by debt they accrued going to college.

One problem: Bernie’s support of Hillary, which he promised from the very beginning of his campaign if he didn’t win the nomination, now feels to me like something he was always planning to give her. So I think it probably feels that way to many of those angry Bernie supporters, too. Feels different than being asked to grow up and more like being asked to give up. Also feels like a betrayal because Bernie did such an excellent job exposing Hillary as a lying shill of the oligarchy. That he would then endorse her, and do so lavishly, is plain sickening.

Another problem: we are now three generations into the Culture of Instant Gratification and I would wager that a vast majority of Bernie supporters are not going to work hard for several years to deepen and expand the Bernie revolution. The Green Party has existed for twenty years promoting the identical platform Bernie ran on and they haven’t exactly lit the world on fire, politically speaking. Bernie was never tempted to run as a Green because he has always been something of a political loner and didn’t want to insure the election of Trump.

However, if the election were held tomorrow, Trump would win. Was that the oligarchy’s plan all along? I don’t think so. I think their plan was to elect Hillary to insure the continuation of the transfer of wealth upward and endless war. The overlords knew very well that almost any slightly moderate and not too repulsive Republican would trounce Hillary. So they directed the mass media to trumpet Trump into Republican supremacy because Hillary, they felt certain, could beat him because he’s such a buffoon. Right?

Well…it turns out that she is so hated and mistrusted by so many people, and is so blatantly criminal and such a horrid abrasive vindictive person that she probably can’t even beat Trump. Unless…

And that is why I have been avoiding news of the larger world. I would rather fill my brain with the ongoing mysteries of my garden, walking to town, watching the waves roll into Mendocino Bay, helping my friends and neighbors, listening to Giants games, communicating with you, cooking supper, writing, playing the piano, and creating new and improved neural pathways.

I feel sad about Bernie. I think he illustrates that the super individual is what resonates most powerfully with the American people. Bernie proves again that if there is ever to be a political revolution bringing us those things we desperately need, a charismatic such as FDR will have to lead the charge. Remember, FDR was president for thirteen years and would have gone on being our president for another twenty years had he lived so long.

But there’s a problem with charismatics who gain massive support while pushing for serious social and political reform. They tend to get killed when they pose a serious threat to the ruling elite.