Archive for October, 2016

Screen Time

Monday, October 31st, 2016

news

News photo by Todd

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.” Mark Twain

Dipping into the national news for the first time in some months, I found several articles about the American Academy of Pediatrics rescinding most of their previous suggestions that parents limit the number of hours their infants, toddlers, older children, and teens interface with media-blasting computer gizmos with screens. The pediatricians decided they were being too alarmist about how damaging computers and other television-like devices can be to the brains and psyches of infants and children and teens. Now, say the pediatricians, basing their new guidelines on no credible science, parents should feel fine about children watching as much media garbage as they want.

Never mind the myriad studies proving conclusively that bombardment by projected imagery and incessant sound severely interferes with healthy brain development. The American Academy of Pediatrics has now declared that parents need not worry about their children developing healthy brains, so long as they, the parents, encourage their zombified children to occasionally roll their shoulders, eat fruit, get some sleep, and possibly interact with other actual human beings. Possibly.

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Mark Twain

Also in the news: AT&T purchased Time-Warner for a measly 86 billion dollars. This makes AT&T the biggest media something-or-other in the world. Whatever happened to our anti-trust laws? Oh, that’s right. We don’t have those anymore because they were beneficial to the majority of Americans. What a silly concept. And if you already thought your media choices were largely controlled by anti-creative mega-corporations, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

“I am greatly misunderstood by politically correct idiots.” Brigitte Bardot

I know many people who used to think compulsive television watching was unhealthy, but now they think constantly looking at mindless junk is fine and dandy. That is, they do not consider computers, cell phones, pads, and pods to be televisions. But they are.

No, Todd, texting and playing video games and being connected to the worldwide web twenty-four hours a day is a vast improvement over life before we could carry computers with us everywhere. Life was empty and meaningless and we were all desperately lonely. Everything is so much better now that people have been rendered eternally infantile by being tethered to their phones and television-like devices from morning until night.

Remember when you didn’t know anything and couldn’t find out about anything? Now we can, you know, check on stuff constantly. Sure, most of what we access is mind-rotting junk, but there are good things, too, like Wikipedia and, um, restaurant reviews written by idiots and, um, the weather, and blogs. You have a blog, Todd. Quit complaining.

And don’t forget news and sports highlights. Plus you can read books and watch movies, and now Netflix and Amazon and YouTube and Apple and AT&T are producing hundreds and thousands of new shows, incredibly great shows, the best shows ever to go along with every show ever made since the very beginning of television.

And don’t forget YouTube has billions of videos about everything and everything that has ever been filmed, and everything.

Which is why everything is getting so much better. The environment is being saved, and we have wonderful mass transit that goes everywhere so we don’t need cars, and solar and wind and wave power is totally replacing the need to burn fossil fuels, and our educational system is better than ever, and our government has stopped spending money on war, and nuclear arsenals are being reduced and more and more people have good and meaningful jobs, and our culture is thriving. And it’s all because we can watch new shows and old shows and videos about catching flounder and group sex on our various screens from the moment we wake up until we take some sort of pill to help us sleep.

Social networks have brought us all together and made us more tolerant. We’re so much better informed, too. Racism has vanished, violence has decreased, and look at the people we elect to represent us now. Gads, talk about an improvement.

But best of all, our children are growing up so knowledgeable, so thoughtful and generous and kind. So incredibly kind. Those video games that hundreds of millions of people play constantly, those games are all about kindness and generosity and solving problems with logic and foresight and a deep understanding of the fabulous information the web provides for us with the touch of a whatever.

Thank goodness the pediatricians stopped believing those silly studies saying screen time was perilous to brain development. Look how good everything is now that our children are growing up with those screens virtually implanted in their bodies. All those great games and movies and videos of cats running into walls and people wrecking things and…

“The two most common elements in the known universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Harlan Ellison

The pediatricians have capitulated to the conquerors. In the past they tried to sound an alarm about the negative impact of screen time on the mental and physical health of children and other living things, but truth interferes with profits and the doctors have been swayed.

When I lived in Berkeley, I helped raise a boy from the day he was born until he was six-years-old. I was his nanny six hours every day. He and I did not watch television when he was with me because I didn’t have a television. He was fine with that arrangement until he turned six and was addicted to watching television for several hours a day while with his parents.

At my house, he and I contented ourselves with reading, drawing, going on walks, cooking, gardening, making music, playing ball, talking, making up games, telling stories, playing with other kids…things like that. But when I went to his house to take care of him, he screamed and cried and broke things if I didn’t let him watch television, so eventually I capitulated to his addiction and then made my escape to Mendocino.

Nice Wealthy

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

I met a man the other day I described to a friend as “a nice wealthy person,” and my friend was curious to know why I called the man nice wealthy? To explain, I gave her a sketchy history of Atherton, California.

Atherton is twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco and surrounded by Woodside, Redwood City, and Menlo Park. Nowadays, 2016, only very wealthy people live there, but in the 1950s and 60s, for a brief time, Atherton was home to a few thousand middle-class folk.

In the 1600s and 1700s and early 1800s, the ground that is now Atherton was part of a huge Spanish land grant known as Rancho de las Pulgas. The famous Alameda de las Pulgas (Road of the Fleas) still runs through the heart of Atherton. Then in the mid-1800’s, Stanford and other Robber Barons, the founding rich white people of the state of California, built their mansions in San Francisco, but since summers in the city were foggy and cold, the barons also built estates in the sunnier climes of what are today Atherton, Woodside, and Palo Alto.

Stanford bought his thousands of acres of land that would eventually become Stanford University, and he and his fellow magnates traveled from San Francisco to their sunny estates in opulent private train cars attached to trains running between San Francisco and San Jose.

Then in the 1900s most of those huge estates were carved up into twenty-acre estates, and Atherton became home to several dozen wealthy families living in mansions with extensive servants’ quarters. Then in the 1940s and 50s those 20-acre estates were broken into one-acre lots, and hundreds of smaller homes were built, with some of the mansions remaining on multi-acre parcels of land.

My parents and my three siblings and I moved to Atherton in 1955 from San Mateo, and upon our arrival I entered First Grade at Las Lomitas Elementary in Menlo Park. Our modest three-bedroom house stood on the corner-acre of the 20-acre Erman Estate. The abandoned Erman mansion remained standing until I was ten, so I had the extreme pleasure of growing up near a huge haunted Victorian.

My friends and I had many adventures playing on the deserted Erman Estate. There was a still-intact tennis court, massive old oaks, date palms, olive orchards, fruit trees, a huge crumbling swimming pool that became a frog pond every winter, collapsing stables, ruined greenhouses, and several acres of neglected vineyards.

But the biggest attraction was the haunted mansion. One day a friend and I found the kitchen door ajar and went inside. I remember the wood-fired stove was the size of a car. There was a wide staircase rising from the grand foyer, and a narrow staircase behind the scenes for the servants; and there were several steps missing in that servants’ staircase, below which was a vast basement.

We ran home and got flashlights so we could see down into the abyss, and we discovered the floor of that enormous subterranean room was covered with claw-foot bathtubs. Turns out great quantities of bathtub gin were manufactured in that basement during Prohibition, though my first surmise was that the Ermans raised fish in those tubs. Silly me.

Now nearly all the smaller houses in Atherton have been replaced with huge houses owned by people who made their fortunes in the computer business. The creator of Quicken bought dozens of houses near my parent’s home and tore them down to create a huge estate crowned by a palace resembling the Disney castle. Larry Ellison of Oracle bought several contiguous Atherton properties, removed the houses, and built a hundred-million-dollar mansion on the shores of a three-acre lake.

But in the 1950s and 60s, middle class people abounded along with the newly wealthy and the longtime wealthy, and in the 1970’s many Europeans moved to Atherton to get in on the early Silicon Valley gold rush featuring companies such as Ampex, Hewlett-Packard, and other electronic and pharmaceutical companies. When I came home to visit in those days, my mother liked to introduce me to the new families in the neighborhood—the French and German and British wives staying home while their engineer husbands went off to invent the latest circuitry.

Today there are several East Indians living on the street where I grew up, but in my childhood nearly everyone in Atherton was white. There were all sorts of wealthy people: reclusive wealthy people, ambitious wealthy people, snooty wealthy people, and crazy wealthy people. And there were some nice wealthy people, too.

The nice ones I got to know were inheritors of old wealth, and not having fought to earn their money, they were gentler than those who had to claw and scratch and do bad things to make their fortunes.

Before the 1980s, most wealthy people in Atherton employed Japanese gardeners to care for their extensive gardens, and as a boy I learned to prune fruit trees from our neighbor’s Japanese gardener. He allowed me tag along on his pruning jobs in the neighborhood and very kindly taught me how to care for fruit trees. I got my first gardening job when I was eleven and worked as a gardener after school and on weekends through high school—all my gardening jobs given to me by nice wealthy people.

Which brings me back to the fellow I recently characterized as a nice wealthy person. He and I were speaking about my possibly pruning some fruit trees for him, and he reminded me so much of the nice wealthy people I knew as a boy, I assumed he was wealthy.

Unlike most of the other adults I knew, these nice wealthy adults treated me as an adult and spoke to me with respect and kindness. They trusted me with their tools and gardens, and they genuinely liked me and wanted to know what I thought, what I was reading, what I wanted to be, all of which made them remarkable to me.

Camera

Monday, October 17th, 2016

best apples

First Picture by Todd

In the days before digital cameras, I had several bouts of being a serious photographer, serious in the sense of owning good cameras, taking thousands of pictures, and even getting paid to take some of those pictures. I was primarily a black and white photographer, though not a darkroom person, and therefore availed myself of the excellent photo labs in the towns and cities where I lived—Santa Cruz, Sacramento, Berkeley.

When I moved to Mendocino eleven years ago, photography was completing the grand switcheroo to digital everything, while I was still possessed of a three-pound Nikon requiring actual film. Shortly after arriving in these hinterlands, I discovered there was no easy access to an excellent photo lab, so I stopped shooting and eventually gave my camera away.

Marcia brought a little digital camera into our marriage, and over the past decade I have occasionally borrowed her camera to snap pictures she then uploaded to her computer and sent to my computer via email.

A week ago, after several years of yearning to have a camera of my own, I purchased a diminutive Nikon weighing a mere five ounces. I must confess that electronic gizmos, even very simple ones, befuddle me, and that is the main reason I waited so long to buy a digital camera. I do not own a mobile phone, either smart or dumb, nor will I ever. For the likes of me, owning such a device would be akin to carrying around an incessantly yapping dog that can never be appeased.

In any case, my new camera arrived at the post office today and the package was so small and light, I assumed the box couldn’t possibly contain a camera but must be the memory-card-reader thingy I ordered to go with the camera. I left the little box in my truck parked in the Harvest Market parking lot and went to shop in the hardware store and in the market, today being 10%-Off-Wednesday.

And on my way into the grocery store, I saw a photograph I would have taken if I’d had my new camera and knew how to use it. A balding jowly middle-aged man was standing at the back end of his station wagon and gazing across the street at Harvest Market. In the man’s station wagon, with their heads sticking out the open back window, were two dogs gazing avidly in the same direction the man was gazing.

One of the dogs was an enormous basset hound, the other a gray frizzy-haired mutt. I surmised the man was overseeing the dogs while the man’s wife was shopping in the grocery store. The picture was poignant and hilarious; poignant because the dogs and the man were all obviously yearning for a glimpse of the person they were waiting for, and hilarious because the man’s face resembled the basset hound’s face to such an uncanny degree, man and dog might have been twins.

So taken was I with this untaken photo, upon entering the market I asked the first person I met if he had a camera (since nowadays many people carry phones that are also cameras) but he did not have one. He did, however, look out the window at the man and the dogs across the street and say, “Now that’s a great picture.”

Returning to my truck with a shopping cart full of discounted groceries, I came upon another photo I would have taken if I’d had my camera and knew how to use it. The picture was of my old white pickup, which I used to think of as a regular-sized truck, parked beside another white pickup one-and-a-half-times larger than my pickup, and that second pickup was parked beside a third white pickup one-and-a-half-times larger than the second white pickup, and that third white pickup was parked beside a fourth white pickup easily twice as big as the third white pickup—my truck now seeming toy-like.

When I got home and unloaded the groceries, I brought forth my new camera and handled the tiny thing as if it was made of rare Venetian glass. With the utmost care, I inserted the battery and memory card and started charging the battery. Two hours later, when the green light stopped blinking, I took my first pictures.

Alas, the memory-card-reader thingy I bought to go with my new camera did not come in the same box with the camera, and after checking to see why the memory thingy hadn’t arrived, I learned that the package arrived at the Mendocino post office four days ago and must have been misplaced. So I will go there tomorrow and beg Robin or Lara to find the blessed thing for me.

Perhaps by the time I finally get the memory card reader, I will have stopped handling the camera as if it is an uncooked egg. Perhaps not. Since the advent of computers, I have tried and failed to use digital gadgets and apps and keyboards and other electronic things most people have no trouble with. Why have I failed? Because I am not merely a techno doofus, I am techno-phobic.

When I was in my early thirties, I was robbed by incredibly thorough thieves. They left only my piano and a queen-sized mattress. They not only took my stereo and records and books and guitar, they took my dishes, silverware, furniture, electric typewriter, food out of my refrigerator, linens, clothing, shoes, brooms, garden tools, vacuum cleaner, and my most excellent camera.

I eventually replaced everything except the records and the camera, and for several years I was content not to take pictures. Eventually, I bought a new camera, found an excellent photo lab, and got back into shooting black and white photographs. In retrospect, that break from taking picture was good for me and my neural pathways—freed me from obsessively looking for pictures to take and allowed me to just be in the world.

Sweet Libby’s

Monday, October 10th, 2016

queen for a day toddq

Queen For A Day painting by Nolan Winkler

“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” Romeo and Juliet

There are days when things juxtapose so exquisitely, one can’t help feeling some sort of transcendent author is writing out the simultaneous arrival of related elements composing a harmonious whole greater than the sum of the parts.

To wit: on the very day Marcia read to me from the Anderson Valley Advertiser that Libby’s restaurant in Philo is closing, we received in the mail our Netflix copy of the Japanese movie Sweet Bean. Libby’s beans—if you have never dined at that incomparable Mexican restaurant—are not sweet, but the experience of eating Libby’s beans comingled on a fork with her delectable rice is a divine culinary experience—sweet in the sense of magnificent.

The 2015 movie Sweet Bean is based on the novel An by Durian Sukegawa, adapted to the screen and directed by Naomi Kawase. An translates as “sweet red bean paste” and is the filling for a favorite Japanese confection know as dorayaki, consisting of sweet red Azuki bean paste sandwiched between two small round sponge-cake patties. The quality of the dorayaki depends entirely on the quality of that red bean paste, and thereby hangs the cinematic parable Sweet Bean.

Yes, we loved the movie. Yes, the movie made me hungry. And yes, the loving care with which the elderly woman Tokue prepares her irresistible bean paste put me in mind of Libby’s beans and rice and flan and carnitas and spicy shrimp. I have long fantasized that Libby would open a Libby’s annex in Mendocino wherein I would happily dine multiple times per month. But now she is closing her restaurant, and those four or five times a year we made the long trek inland to gorge on Libby’s cuisine will be no more. I’m sure Libby has good reasons for closing her eatery, but we are already feeling nostalgic about the absence of her food in our lives.

“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hand work, and a love of creating.” Julia Child

When I lived in Berkeley, I discovered Nakapan, a Thai restaurant just off University Avenue. For my taste, Nakapan was not only the best Thai restaurant in Berkeley, but the best Thai restaurant I had ever been to, and I have been to many good ones. Yet Nakapan was never crowded. Indeed, when I would go there with friends, we often found the place deserted, and we couldn’t understand why. The high-ceilinged room was warm and beautifully appointed, the service fantastic, the prices low, the food incomparable, and the servings so generous I often took home more food than I managed to eat while I was there.

Every time I dined at the more famous Thai restaurants in the Bay Area and found them inferior to Nakapan, I would return to that paradisiacal food palace all the more mystified that almost no one was there: the waitresses lovely and gracious, the chairs comfortable, the ambience perfecto. I eventually surrendered to my good fortune and went to Nakapan whenever I craved Thai food and had a little extra jingle in my pocket. The owner/chef of Nakapan closed her restaurant a couple years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino, which made my decision to relocate much easier.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

My late Uncle David was a successful restaurateur. In the 1980’s he opened the Beau Thai across the street from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the place was instantly successful. Until I stumbled upon Nakapan a decade later, the best Thai food I’d ever eaten was at David’s Beau Thai. The Beau Thai chefs were all recent arrivals from Thailand, having been assembled by David in Thailand to cook in a restaurant he was about to open in Chiangmai. When he was offered the location in Monterey, he couldn’t resist returning to the scene of his earlier and most famous success, the legendary Sancho Panza café. So he loaded those Thai chefs onto a jet and brought them to America.

I wish I could have dined with David at Nakapan. I would have loved to hear his theories about why that magical place was not the Mecca of Thai cuisine, while inferior restaurants won Best Of popularity contests and were filled to bursting with patrons. I also regret never dining with David at Libby’s in Philo. He would have loved everything about that unpretentious place, most especially the food.

In the movie Sweet Bean, the hero, a troubled man running the dorayaki shop as a form of penance, discovers that when the creation of red bean paste becomes a sacred ritual rather than a tedious obligatory process, all of life becomes sacred, too. Schmaltzy? Perhaps. But our hero’s transformation is so subtle, and the movie’s resolution so humble, I never felt my emotions being manipulated, but rather stimulated to respond in the same way we respond to good food.

At one point in the movie, as Tokue is sweetening her beans after they have attained perfection, she cautions our taciturn hero, “Not too sweet.”

He looks at her questioningly for a moment, and though nothing more is said about sweetness ever again, the entire movie is permeated with the subtle power of that moment of communication between them.

Now that Libby’s is closing, I aspire to cook beans that make my taste buds sing a similar tune to the one they sing when I eat Libby’s beans. And as I go about experimenting, I will remember Tokue leaning over her simmering beans and inhaling the scented steam, ecstatic to be part of unfolding miracle.

Home Court

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Home court

Old Ball photo by Todd

“There are only two reasons why people fail. One is irresponsibility. The second is fear.” Wally Amos

I have been enjoying the occasional stint in the Mendocino High School gym assisting coach Jim Young with training his most promising basketball players. The ambience of the indoor court takes me back to my two years as a gym rat at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s when that university was only a few years old. I was not much interested in academia, and when I wasn’t writing my fledgling fiction or throwing a Frisbee or hunting for pianos to play, I could be found in the field house playing basketball.

A towering five-foot-ten, I was a good shooter, a better passer, a reluctant rebounder, and a fair defender when the spirit moved me. My freshman year, in those days when basketball was still largely a non-contact sport, I was perhaps the thirtieth best player on a campus with a few thousand students, not many of them basketball players. Having honed my shooting skills on a bumpy sloping driveway with an out-of-round hoop, playing in a gym with a springy wood floor and glass backboards and perfectly round hoops was profoundly pleasurable for me.

A month or so into my second year of college, my game took a quantum leap and I began to dominate players who had previously dominated me. Faculty members who frequented the gym began to address me by my first name, and older guys who had previously ignored me, now wanted me on their teams.

One afternoon I was playing one-on-one with Alex, a fellow gym rat a few inches shorter than I, having a silly good time, when into our gym strolled two young men we had never seen before. One was a muscular six-foot-five, the other a rangy six-foot-two. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

To my ears, the tone of their challenge was condescending, and to my eyes they swaggered arrogantly as they came onto the court; and the game was no longer a game for me, but a battle, a defense of the one place in the world where I felt strong and competent and respected.

These two young giants—Clark and Zack—warmed up a bit before we played, while Alex and I rebounded and fed them the ball to expedite their warming up. This courtesy seemed to puzzle them, for they came from much less polite basketball traditions than those established in our gym. Clark and Zack were not only taller and stronger than we were, they were both excellent shooters and good ball handlers, and I could tell by the sag of Alex’s shoulders that he had already conceded defeat.

But I was determined to give these supercilious invaders a better game than they expected, and we did just that. I caught fire, we rebounded with uncharacteristic ferocity, Alex made shots I had never seen him make before, and we won handily. Clark, the taller of our two opponents, was enraged in defeat, Zack disgusted, and they demanded a rematch. We agreed, and we beat them again, though it would be truer to say they beat themselves in their furious haste to atone for their first loss.

Following their second loss to us, Clark raged around the gym, his hysterical cursing punctuated by terrible threats, while Zack sneeringly referred to us as “lucky little wimps.” When we wouldn’t grant them a third game, they vociferously suggested our testicles were either very small or non-existent. And so, wishing to avoid physical harm, we bid the sore losers adieu.

The next day, I arrived at the gym to find both ends of the court clogged with games underway. I set about assembling a team to play the winners of the game at the end of the court where the better players usually played, and espying Clark, I invited him to join my team.

“I already have a team,” he said, looking down at me. “And I got winners.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “I will continue my hunt for teammates.”

“Hey,” he said, snarling at me. “You know you just got lucky yesterday. Pure luck.”

“You think so?” I said, enjoying my recollections of our glorious victory. “I think it was more home court advantage. We know the terrain.”

“Bullshit,” he said, still seething in defeat. “I’ll kick your ass next time.”

And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Clark’s team get trounced by a team led by an Economics professor who had played on the Duke team that won the national championship a few years before. I always guarded that professor when we were on opposing teams, and I always set screens for him when we were on the same team because he never missed from anywhere unless someone was draped all over him.

Time passed and Clark eventually calmed down and became a fellow gym rat known for being a good guy prone to temper tantrums when his team lost, which was not often. Turns out he had been a high school superstar, set state scoring records, and had garnered a basketball scholarship to Stanford where his anger issues got him booted off the team midway through his freshman year. When Clark was at his best, he was stupendous, but like many great athletes, his impatience and lack of self-discipline were his greatest obstacles to success.

One day Clark and I were playing one-on-one, having a silly good time, when into the gym strolled two young men we had never seen in our gym before. One of them was six-seven, the other six-foot-three. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

They were good. Really good. But we beat them. Twice.

Afterwards, Clark said, “They had no idea who they were up against.”

“Home court advantage,” I added. “We know the terrain.”