Archive for January, 2018

I Will Play Chico

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Moments that we save TW

Moments That We Save painting by Nolan Winkler

I Will Play Chico

        a cinematic poem

I want to make a movie, a modern variant of the Marx Brothers.

My brother will play Groucho, you will play Harpo, and I will

play Chico. The movie is a classic comedy mystery chase love

story. We race around being ourselves in myriad situations—

basketball games, delicatessens, hardware stores, museums,

pizza parlors, schools, post offices, gas stations, taquerias,

coffee houses, traffic jams, ice cream parlors, prisons,

art galleries, trains, psychotherapists’ offices, hotels,

noodle joints, laundromats, sporting goods stores,

bistros, police stations, zoos, churches, houses,

hotels, corporate headquarters, jungles—

and everywhere we go we encounter men

who are enraged at us for daring to be

ourselves and they will stop at

nothing to try to kill us.

 

Several times during the movie we take breaks from being

pursued by the men who want to kill us, and we perform

for audiences of women and children and unusual men

who are not enraged by us being ourselves. I play

piano, you play harp, my brother strums a

ukulele, and we sing songs in three-part

harmony. We read poems of mystery,

tell funny stories about unlikely

tender-hearted heroes, and

paint intriguing pictures of

a society free of cruelty

and jealousy.

 

In the end we are captured and jailed and charged with

the crime of being ourselves. The trial takes place in a

spooky courtroom presided over by a judge wearing

a mask and a hood. We are sentenced to death and

are about to be executed when all the women and

children and unusual men we’ve met along our

way rise up to save us. And in the fabulous

song and dance finale, the men who

wanted to kill us for being

ourselves wake from their

trances and see that

they are us.

 

Todd Walton

Of Birds and Irony

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

tracks02

tracks photo by Max Greenstreet

“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

We’ve had several hummingbird sightings in the garden these last few cold winter days, and these first visitations after two months of not seeing the brilliant little hovering blurs always remind me that spring will soon come creeping over the windowsill, to cop a phrase from a song from My Fair Lady.

Did you know that an adult hummingbird visits an average of 1500 flowers per day, and that same adult hummingbird will eat six to seven hundred bugs a day in order to survive? Most people don’t realize that hummers are such voracious insectivores, but they are, for which we should be immensely grateful and not spray our gardens with bug poison.

Decades ago on an early summer backpack trip on the Lost Coast, my five pals and I reached the beach at Little Jackass Creek at dusk after a long day of hiking up and down the coast range through heavy brush. We found a fine camping spot a couple hundred yards up the creek from the beach, and also found multitudes of mosquitoes—this concentration of mosquito bait, six humans where no other humans were, attracting thousands of hungry blood suckers to our camp.

We lathered up with repellant, but we needn’t have. As we sat by our nascent fire, recovering from our strenuous trek, a vast array of diminutive super heroes materialized around us to gobble the swarms of mosquitoes. There were swallows, dragonflies, tiny sparrow-like birds, bats, and hummingbirds harvesting the air with such thoroughness and efficiency that within twenty minutes there were virtually no mosquitoes left in our vicinity. If I hadn’t been in the midst of this blessed annihilation, I wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible.

Along with the hummingbird sightings, I recently had a communication from a hawk, though I didn’t see her. Walking to town through the woods west of our house, I heard her shrill cry and looked up into a thick tangle of pine boughs to determine where the sound was coming from, imagining a hungry Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the tangle, as eager for spring as I am.

You probably know that raptors have incredibly keen eyesight, but did you know that an eagle flying a thousand feet high can spot a rabbit on the ground three miles away, and that the eyes of birds of prey weigh more than their brains?

As I was reading and writing about birds, I got an email containing the text of a speech given by a famous actress at one of the women’s marches that took place on the anniversary of the current President of the United States being in office for one year, a march protesting all things anti-women, most especially the current president. This super-famous actress was decrying the male-sexual-power-over-women ethos of Hollywood and America and the entire world, and admitting, while decrying, that her success was the result of acquiescing sexually to powerful men who then gave her the chance to play sadistic murderous sex sirens in many movies for which she became incredibly rich and famous.

Perhaps because I was reading and thinking and writing about birds and the fantastic complexity of nature, this woman’s speech struck me as an account of a natural process rather than a description of something terrible and wrong. Male mountain lions, for instance, do battle for control of large territories within which female mountain lions have smaller territories they protect from other female mountain lions. When a new male mountain lion takes control of a large territory from another male mountain lion, his first order of business is to find the litters of kittens fathered by the previous male mountain lion, kill the kittens, and then impregnate the mothers of those now dead kittens with his own offspring.

Which is not to say I don’t deplore the sexual-power-over ethos of Hollywood and America and the entire world, but to say I think it behooves us to examine this long-standing reality in the context of the evolution of humans and human society, and not merely as something we find abhorrent today. How did this ethos get established? How did sexual power-over serve the evolution of the species? Does this seemingly unfair and yucky ethos still have an evolutionary purpose? Is this power-over way of relating to one another inherent to our species?

Meanwhile, my friend Max recently sent me some photos he took of tire tracks in the snow. I found these photos stupendous and wrote the following to Max.

“I love those tire-track snow pictures. If you were a famous artist, you could blow those up to six-foot by four-foot prints, or twelve-foot by nine-foot, and frame them in huge black frames and they would go nuts over them in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The New York Times would say they reveal the “genius of accidental movement of mass-with-treaded-tires colluding with the crystallization of nature’s communication modalities.” And The New Yorker would call them “brilliant calligraphic collaborations of mindless humanity and ironic natural positing.”

Think of a rabbit enjoying a tasty patch of freshly sprung grass on a sunny day in spring, little suspecting that three miles away and a thousand feet above the earth, an eagle has spotted the rabbit and is about to descend at a hundred-and-fifty-miles-per-hour to kill and eat the rabbit; neither the raptor nor the rabbit knowing that female humans are frequently the victims of predatory male humans or that Max’s photographs are not huge and hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art—ironic positing of no consequence to eagles and rabbits doing what they were born to do.

351tires

tires diptych by Max Greenstreet

 

One Thing Leads To Another

Monday, January 15th, 2018

white winter permain

White Winter Permain photo by Todd

For several years in my childhood, there was a sentence I repeated to myself when I was riding my bike or walking home from school or climbing a tree; and I realize now, sixty years later, that I repeated this phrase as a way of countering my mother’s basic life philosophy, which was something along the lines of, “No matter what you do, it isn’t good enough.”

The sentence I repeated to myself was: “One thing leads to another.”

I was reminded of that favorite sentence yesterday when Susan Waterfall, the pianist and musical historian, and her orchestra conductor hubby Allan Pollack, came over for Marcia’s scrumptious cornbread and coffee, and brought with them the beautiful White Winter Permain apple tree, bare root, that Susan purchased for me from an heirloom apple tree nursery.

Susan gifted me with the apple tree, and got one for her orchard, too, after reading about the White Winter Permain in an article I posted seven months ago entitled Of Apples and Accordions. In that article, I copied a paragraph from the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory that read: “PEARMAIN, WHITE WINTER (Winter Pearmain) — Oldest known English apple; dates back to 1200 A.D. Medium to nearly large, round to oval, light greenish fruit turning pale yellow with numerous dots. Fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy flesh. Pleasantly rich, aromatic flavor. Fine quality, all-purpose apple. Excellent keeper. Tree is a healthy, vigorous grower; bears regularly and heavily. Splendid vitality; widely adaptable. Excellent pollinator. Old favorite dessert apple of the Middle West in early 1800s. Today is grown primarily in warm winter areas where its low chilling requirement renders it one of the few possible apples there. Ripens in late October.”

I have now planted the White Winter Permain in the center of our little orchard, and a few Octobers hence I hope to be eating apples from this tree. Thank you, Susan!

One thing really does lead to another.

A couple months ago, Marcia and I were visiting Carolyn Steinbuck, the pianist, and her husband Francis Rutherford, the cellist and fixer of just about anything needing repair, and Carolyn mentioned she was going to be selling her six-foot grand piano. Having wanted a grand piano for most of my adult life, but never imagining I would own one, I inquired of the price. Carolyn named a reasonable amount, and I replied without conscious forethought, “I might be interested.”

Hearing those words coming out of my mouth was startling to me, as was Carolyn’s response, “If anybody should have a grand piano, you should.”

What did she mean? Why should I, the past president of the Society of Undeserving People, have a lovely grand piano? A few days later, I returned to Carolyn’s house, gave the grand a good tryout, thought to myself I am unworthy of this piano and shouted, “I want it!”

With Marcia’s enthusiastic support, we bought Carolyn’s grand and had the six-foot beauty carefully moved from Carolyn’s house in Elk to our digs in Mendocino, a crew of three formidable and good-natured men accomplishing the daunting task.

the movers

The Marvelous Movers photo by Todd

But before that formidable trio brought the behemoth to our house, we had to do some serious rearranging of furniture and stuff in our living room, resulting in ridding ourselves of a gigantic old armchair, taking things down from walls, one thing leading to another, so when the grand piano was in place, our living room felt more spacious than ever before, and I still had my beloved upright piano.

When the marvelous movers were gone, I sat down at the grand, played a run of notes, and was immediately besieged by buyer’s remorse. I hurried across the room to the upright I’ve had for forty years, played a run of notes, wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake, and…

Weeks went by. The grand and I became better acquainted, but there were things about the sound and action I was unhappy with. I needed the expert advice of my tuner, Richard Kane, to determine whether those unhappy things could be made happy, which is why I so eagerly anticipated his January visit.

A few days ago, Richard came to tune the grand for the first time, gave her a test drive, and assured me that everything I felt was problematic could be rectified with proper regulation. We then discussed the subtle buzzing and somewhat metallic sound of the otherwise grandiloquent bass notes, and he said there was something he could do on the spot to solve those problems.

So rather than tune the piano, he loosened the bass strings, detached them one-at-a-time from their anchor posts (pegs?) and gave each string a bit of tightening twisting and self-Rolfing (my term) to remove accumulated stuckness before reattaching them. Then he tuned the bass strings and promised to return two weeks hence to tune the whole piano.

bass string fix

Bass String Fix photo by Todd

Alas, Richard no longer does the regulating my piano needs, but he will endeavor to find a technician willing to make the long trek to these hinterlands to make the grand right.

Now here is a deeper thing that led to those other things. I am absolutely certain I never would have even considered buying Carolyn’s piano had I not recently been through some hugely transformative experiences via psychotherapy. A fundamental rule of my former psychological operating system was to never allow myself to be my whole big self. To survive the slings and arrows of my unhappy parents, I learned to make myself small and to severely restrict my bigness and wholeness to avoid, as much as possible, verbal and physical abuse.

However, emerging as I am from the old constricting carapace of my former operating system, I am replacing many of the fundamental rules composing my operating system with new rules. And though I am still in a major reconstruction phase, the day I played the grand at Carolyn’s, Todd who shouted, “I want it!” was more than big enough to have a grand piano.

the player

 

 

 

Parts

Monday, January 8th, 2018

bred in the bone 72

Bred in the Bone painting by Nolan Winkler

 

The picture

is imperfect,

partial.

 

As when it’s said:

“I am partial

to”

             Kate Greenstreet

 

I recently came upon a short film on Vimeo entitled Nix+Gerber made by a collective of filmmakers calling themselves The Drawing Room. I have now watched their marvelous little movie three times and sent the link to several people I know. Nix+Gerber not only captures the remarkable creative process of Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, but eloquently illuminates the steps every artist must take in order to bring his or her vision to fruition.

The word artist is a loaded one in our society and has countless meanings and implications, so for the sake of clarity, I will give you my current definition of an artist. An artist is a person who is committed to making art as an essential part of her life.

The first step illustrated by Nix+Gerber is clarifying to yourself what kind of art you make. Nix tells us she considers herself a photographer more than a sculptor, and says, “I’m not the kind of photographer who is going to go out and find things to photograph. I’m gonna create things to photograph.”

Thinking about my recent novels in this regard, I would say, “I’m a fiction writer writing about humans striving to overcome self-doubt while seeking love and friendship in an imagined present-day American society.”

Regarding my music, “I’m a pianist creating melodic rhythmic patterns on which to improvise.”

The second step of the artist’s process shown in Nix+Gerber is having a vision of what you wish to create. For Nix and Gerber they have visions of things to make so they can then photograph those things.

Their vision for their series of incredibly real-seeming miniature interiors entitled The City, is of a world “post-mankind…where buildings have aged and crumbled and nature has taken back some of the spaces.”

The third and fourth steps of the artist’s process are: choosing your medium(s) and undertaking the creation. To bring their vision of this post-mankind world into being, Nix and Gerber spent many years building a series of hyper-realistic miniature three-dimensional interiors, including a medical school lecture hall, a power plant control room, the shop of a violin maker, a church, a Laundromat, and a subway car.

Each interior took them approximately seven months to create, working long hours every day, meticulously sculpting and fabricating every imaginable detail of that interior—including dust and cobwebs and rust stains—until the scene was complete and ready to photograph. And then, when they were satisfied with their photographs of these interiors, they dismantled the interiors, saved any of the thousands of tiny objects they might use again, and threw the rest away—the lasting artifacts being photographs.

I am reminded by Nix+Gerber of the work of Andy Goldsworthy, the British sculptor famed for his site-specific sculpture and land art, the fame of those works resulting from the excellent photographs he took of those sculptures and presented in big beautiful books, as well as in the documentary film Rivers and Tides.

My latest novel is about a woman nearing the end of her ten-year quest to find and interview and photograph a man who was a very famous chef until he disappeared and was presumed dead. I have spent a year word-sculpting the details of this novel and have recently completed the entire form, which I am now in the process of refining. I will eventually produce copies of the novel to share, and use the original pages for fire starter.

Thus my process is similar to Nix and Gerber’s process. We commit ourselves to making works of art, we have our visions, we decide on our mediums, we create the many parts composing our final creations, and we choose ways to present our creations to the world.

“A writer should immediately tell the reader four things:

1. Who the story is about.

2. What he is doing.

3. Where he is doing it.

4. When he is doing it.” Madeleine L’Engle

The final interior for Nix and Gerber’s The City, is a painstakingly accurate replica of Nix & Gerber’s incredibly cluttered home studio. In the movie Nix+Gerber, as we see in close-ups several of the hundreds of tiny parts composing the amazing replica of their home studio, Nix says, “It’s the little details that really make the scene come alive.”

This is true in a novel, too. For instance, if two people are talking, a description of where they are having their conversation, mention of a cat on a lap, steam rising from a mug of coffee, wisps of fog drifting in from the sea at day’s end, all contribute to the scene coming alive by resonating with the reader’s personal associations to these details of life.

Near the end of Nix+Gerber, speaking of the finished work, Nix says, “I’m too close to see the illusion. I have to rely on friends to tell me if it works or not.”

And this is why when I complete a draft of a novel, I don’t immediately begin working on the next draft. I need time to individuate, so when I begin the next draft I am somewhat distinct from those characters who have become so real to me they inhabit my dreams.

The little movie Nix+Gerber has stayed with me for several days now, not only because the movie is a delight to watch, but because Nix and Gerber’s astounding artistic odyssey inspires me to continue my own journey through the unknown, guided by a vision I wish to share with others.

Going Around Again

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Korte

Hymn To The Gentle Sun

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.” Lewis Carroll

If I had a dollar for every person who said to me in the last few weeks, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I could buy three excellent tacos at the new taqueria in Mendocino.

When people say, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I am tempted to reply, “Do you really think the first day of January will be a vast improvement over the last day of December?”

But I don’t say that because I know what they really mean is they hope things for them and the planet and everyone they know will improve in the future, so why not use the beginning of a so-called new year as a way to imagine the end of unpleasantness and the beginning of less unpleasantness and maybe even some really fun things happening?

A year, it turns out, for those who believe the earth revolves around the sun, is the time it takes the earth to go once around the sun. The first day of January is the day many people have agreed is the first day of that revolution, but we might agree that the Winter Solstice is the first day, or the Summer Solstice is the first day. Or, as I like to agree with myself, the day I was born is the first day of my current trip around the sun.

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” Mark Twain

About six months ago, as part of my attempt to lessen the severe anxiety I was experiencing in my every day life, I stopped following the news. I stopped reading news stories on my computer, stopped listening to news on the radio, stopped reading newspapers, and excused myself when the people began talking about the latest mass murder or war atrocity or something terrible our government was doing or not doing.

At first, I felt ashamed and guilty about not keeping up with the daily horror show, but within a few days of giving up mass media, my anxiety was so vastly reduced, I hardly minded feeling ashamed; and pretty soon the shame and guilt vanished, too.

This experience confirmed for me that at least part of my anxiety was related to consuming ideas and images that frighten or anger or depress me. Given a choice, why would anyone choose to consume frightening, angering, and depressing ideas and images as a regular part of his or her daily life? My answer to that is that most people don’t choose to follow the news, but are entrained to do so, habituated to doing so, which means they are habituated to thinking of the world and human society as relentlessly terrible. Which would explain why so many people are eager for this year to be over.

However, if we continue to absorb the emanations of mass media, we will soon be eager for next year to be over, too.

Am I suggesting you stop following the news in the ways you follow the news? No.

“For years I was tuned a few notes too high—I don’t see how I could stand it.” William Stafford

In a recent letter to my friend Max, I wrote:

We change. Our tastes change. I hadn’t read any prose other than my own work for a couple years and thought I might never again read any prose by other authors (except Kim by Rudyard Kipling every few years), and then I was given two volumes of essays by Kathleen Jamie and gobbled them like a starving person. What a surprise. But reading Jamie didn’t get me reading other prose stuff again. Most contemporary prose is dreadful to my senses. But I was happy to know I might still occasionally find things that feed me.

I have become so sensitive to giant imagery and loud sounds that I will never go see a movie in a theatre again because it might kill me, literally. Even attending symphony concerts is getting harder for me because the music is often too loud for my circuits to handle comfortably, and I have to plug my ears during the loud parts.

Thirty years ago, one of my favorite poets was Mary Norbert Körte. She was a nun for several years when she was a young woman, then left the convent and moved to Mendocino County and became a hippy wild woman poet. For a time she worked on the Skunk Train, the tourist train that runs between Willits and Fort Bragg going through the redwood forests, up and down over the coast range.

I read with her once in Sacramento long ago, and listening to her read, I felt I was sharing the bill with a great genius. The first time I heard her read was many years before that in Santa Cruz, and I thought she was one of the most insightful humans I’d ever heard; and I never imagined I would one day read with her. I have a volume of her poems she wrote when she was a nun, Hymn To the Gentle Sun, and I used to love those poems. Now I don’t connect with them. I wonder what Mary thinks of those poems after all these years?

I am forever disappointing people because I won’t/can’t read books they tell me are wonderful and great. I give these books a try by using the Look Inside feature at Amazon, and if any of them ever pass the two-page test I will buy that book and give it a try, but so far none of these recommended books have passed the two-paragraph test. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful books, it just means they aren’t for me as I am currently configured.

Maybe you and I are dealing with huge self-defining issues that have shaped our lives up to now. Maybe we had roles in our families, relational roles that continue to play out in our lives. In therapy, I’ve uncovered some of those early defining issues in my life (what Gabor Maté calls coping mechanisms that become traits—things we did to survive that became habits) such as feeling responsible for everyone else’s happiness or unhappiness. Turns out I’m not. Can’t be. But my system was habituated to trying to make other people happy or feeling I was a failure and despicable if someone I knew was unhappy. A kind of less-obvious narcissism. I am responsible for other people’s happiness or unhappiness? That’s plain silly, not to mention tiring.

So follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously said. Follow what you know in this moment to be right for you, knowing you can’t make a mistake. You’re just hiking along the trail and reacting with an open heart and an open mind to what comes your way.

Love,

Todd