Archive for May, 2018

Morning Coffee

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Blessed Brew Nolan Winkler

Blessed Brew painting by Nolan Winkler

“Get out those coffee beans and grind’em just so, make us both a cuppa real good joe.” from Todd’s song Real Good Joe

I was grinding coffee beans this morning, and as I listened to the beans turning into brewable dust, I realized Oh. I’m drinking coffee again, which made me think about my ever-changing relationship to coffee, starting sixty-two years ago when I was a wee tyke.

My mother and father were both hooked on coffee by the time I was born, and my father drank multiple quarts of coffee every day of his life until he died at eighty-four. My mother ceased to drink coffee in her sixties after undergoing successful treatment for bladder cancer.

One of the first difficult tasks I learned to perform as a little boy was the making of my mother’s morning coffee. My father drank that coffee, too, but my motive for making the first pot of the day was to soothe my mother’s jangled nerves sufficiently so my siblings and I might get through breakfast and leaving for school without suffering our mother’s wrath—so easily ignited in those crucial minutes before she had her coffee.

So six-year-old Todd would get up before anyone else, and with the help of a little kitchen stepladder, I would place a medium-sized pot on the electric range and use a two-cup measuring cup to fill that pot with water from the tap. Then while the water was coming to a boil, I would carefully fold a large round paper coffee filter in half, then in half again, and insert this now-triangular filter into the top of a Chemex coffee maker—a large hour-glass-shaped thing made of glass. I would then scoop seven scoops of Folgers drip grind into that folded filter, and used a ladle to pour the just-boiled water over the grind again and again until the bottom half of the hour glass was full of coffee.

As I grew older and stronger, I was able to lift a full kettle and pour hot water onto the coffee, but when I was six and seven the kettle was too heavy for me to lift and safely pour.

My mother, awakened by an angrily buzzing alarm clock, would stagger into the kitchen, pour herself a cup of the freshly brewed coffee, and metamorphose into a functionally civil human being. I don’t recall her ever thanking me for making her morning coffee, something I did every morning until I started going to high school, though I never drank any coffee, nor did I develop a taste for coffee until I was in my thirties—and then, oh boy, did I develop a taste.

When I was in Third Grade, a mob of us from Las Lomitas Elementary School went on a tour of the Hills Brothers coffee plant in San Francisco courtesy of their marketing director who was the father of one of my classmates.

Three things stand out in my memory from that long ago field trip: the heavenly smell of roasting coffee, the fantastic Rube Goldberg-like structure of metal tracks on which cans and lids zipped around the cavernous factory, and the white bag full of coffee candy and miniature cans of Hills Brothers coffee for my mother.

When I was twenty-nine and having success with my writing, I hired my friend Prairie to be my part-time secretary. This was before the advent of personal computers, so having a fast typist to type up my pages of longhand and then retype those pages after I bloodied them with my editor’s pen was a dream come true. Prairie was a religious coffee drinker, and now and then I would have a cup with her, which cup would turn me into a fast-talking jitterbugging crazy person until the caffeine wore off and I descended into gloom. So I stopped drinking coffee.

Five years later, I married a dedicated coffee drinker, and after a few months of marriage I was a daily coffee drinker, too. But coffee made me hella jittery and then horribly cranky once the high went away, so I quit. And then I started again. And then I quit. And so on without end. My marriage fell apart, but my relationship with coffee endured.

Fast forward to about four years ago. Having gone sans coffee for a couple years, I started drinking coffee in the morning, black coffee, in lieu of breakfast, and I was soon drinking two and three cups a day. At the same time, I was suffering from severe shoulder pain for which I was popping lots of aspirin and ibuprofen, often on a stomach containing only coffee.

Then one day I woke in the morning feeling as bad as I have ever felt and assumed I had powerful flu. But after two days of growing weaker and weaker, I realized I was on the verge of dying. Marcia called an ambulance, the volunteer fire department folks and paramedics arrived, and I was rushed to the hospital where it was determined I had lost nearly all the blood in my body as a result of punching a hole in my stomach by taking way too much ibuprofen and aspirin on a stomach containing only coffee.

I was transfused with a couple units of fresh blood, spent a night in ICU, and took a year to regain a modicum of my former strength. Since that frightening experience four years ago, I have taken a total of two aspirin and two ibuprofens, and for the two years following my near death I drank no coffee.

Yet here I am today having a cup of coffee diluted with almond milk. For some months now I have been having one such cup a day, and I have no intention of increasing my coffee intake any time soon. The truth is, a little bit of coffee goes a long way for the likes of me. I love the smell of just-made coffee, I enjoy the ritual of making a cup, and I prefer the taste of coffee to tea.

In the afternoon and evenings I drink nettle or chamomile tea, both of which I find soothing and warming.

Some years ago, a friend wrote to say that her morning ritual was to listen to my piano music while she made and drank her first cup of coffee, so for my album of solo piano tunes Incongroovity, I improvised a piece called Morning Coffee with her in mind. Now every time I listen to this tune, I think of her sipping her coffee and listening to my music.

idas2-cover-sm

Minus Tide

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Dog & Ball

Molly Waiting photo by Todd

Marcia and I met Sally and Molly at Big River Beach for the extraordinary minus tide on Friday morning—Sally our human friend, Molly a Golden Retriever dedicated to fulfilling the imperative of her breed: retrieving.

The beach was vast, the ocean’s withdrawal awe-inspiring, and ere long we were standing on sand where for most hours of most days the water is several feet deep. We were the only people on the vast fantastical beach, and this reminded me of an encounter I had a week ago with a couple of German tourists.

I was sitting on a log on Big River Beach, eating an orange and reveling in the sun after several days of unrelenting fog, when the Germans, a man and woman in their thirties, approached me and asked in excellent English if I lived around here. I said I did, and the woman said excitedly, “Oh, good. Can you tell us why so few people live here? This is the most beautiful place we have ever been. California is so crowded. Why don’t more people move here?”

“Water,” I said, smiling out at the vast Pacific. “There is very little fresh water here and we are far from any large sources of water that might be readily piped here. So the population remains static at about a thousand people. I’ve been here for thirteen years, and only a handful of new houses have been built in that time and the population has remained unchanged.”

“Water,” said the woman, frowning. “But it is so lush here.”

“We’ve had relatively wet winters these last two years,” I explained. “But before that we had four years of drought. However, drought or no, every year in Mendocino we have more cloudy and foggy days than days of sun. The fog is a great moisturizer.”

“Too many foggy days can be depressing,” said the man, nodding.

“Yes,” I said, smiling up at the sun playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, “but oh do we get happy when the sun comes out.”

Which is true. The day I encountered the German tourists was our first sunny day after a week of perpetual grayness, and when I ran my errands before going to the beach, the bank tellers and postal agents and grocery store clerks and bakery patrons and tourists were all positively giddy, as if we had collectively won the lottery, which, in a way, we had—the solar lottery.

Being on Big River Beach for a minus tide feels like a lottery win, too, and every time I get home from that dramatically transformed landscape—the vast expanse of sand, the waves breaking far out in the bay, the river racing by—I feel rejuvenated. My piano playing is more inventive, my writing energized, and I feel physically and emotionally expanded. I also feel more optimistic, having been reminded so eloquently of what we are born knowing but often forget: we are part of an ongoing miracle.

Which reminds me of when I moved to Mendocino thirteen years ago from Berkeley, how for the first year I lived here I went to the beach almost every day, rain or shine, and I could feel my body and mind and senses healing from decades of city living, my spirit imbibing the wildness and spaciousness and purity of this place.

But isn’t it fascinating how one person’s miracle can be another person’s No Big Deal. For several days prior to the minus tide, I told everyone I knew about the coming miracle of the ocean’s larger-than-usual withdrawal, and though a few people expressed mild interest, for the most part my chattering about the minus tide fell on disinterested ears.

A man at the post office overheard me gushing about the minus tide to someone, and called to me gruffly, “You must be new here.”

“I’m sixty-eight,” I said, bewildered by his contemptuous tone. “And I’ve loved minus tides since I was a wee tyke.”

“I mean here,” he said, clearly annoyed by my reply. “You’re new here, not in the world.”

“I’ve lived here for thirteen years,” I said, knowing exactly what he was going to say next.

“Yeah,” he snorted. “A newbie.”

Big River is currently featuring a couple dozen harbor seals, which means there must be a sizeable population of fish and other tasty comestibles in the river, which speaks well of the health of the watershed. On our most recent minus tide visit, we saw some seals doing something we’d never seen them do before—resting on their bellies on the sand in shallow water with their tails raised behind them and their backs arched so their heads were out of the water, too.

In yoga they call this posture Dhanurasana, the bow pose, and humans performing this asana maintain the bow by gripping their ankles or feet with their hands. Seals do not have hands, so they execute the pose without holding onto anything, and they can hold the pose effortlessly for a long time.

Molly, when not chasing her tennis ball, is fascinated by the seals, and the seals seem quite interested in her, too. Sometimes Molly will try to swim out to the seals, and Sally always calls her back before tragedy can ensue. Interestingly, Molly was not the least interested in the seals performing Dhanurasana, perhaps because they were holding so still and she is more interested in things that move.

At one point on our minus-tide sojourn, we were crossing an expanse of sand that is usually underwater, when simultaneously the four of us, three humans and a dog, sank into quicksand up to our shins; and it was not easy getting free of the sucking muck. However, we did not retreat, but sloshed through the goopy stretch to reach more solid sand as far out into the bay as we could go, from where we looked back at the land and saw the cliffs and the beach and the river as we rarely get to see them.

arch

 

Opening Words

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Big River Meteor

Big River Meteor photo by Todd

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I like to write letters to friends and to artists and writers and movie directors I admire. Sometimes my friends will send me letters, but the artists and writers and movie directors I write to very rarely answer my letters, though until twenty years ago if the admired person was British, Australian, or from New Zealand, no matter how famous, he or she always wrote back—but not anymore.

For many years, before there was email and texting and tweeting, I sent off several letters every week; and almost every day in those halcyon days of postal abundance, the postal service agent would bring me letters from friends. On my computer I have a file entitled Letter Head Quotes. In this file are pages topped with a quote I especially like, and I will either type a letter to someone on one of those pages, or print out the page and use the empty space below the quote to write a letter by hand.

Here are some of my favorite letterhead quotes and a few thoughts about them.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

Alan Jones is an Episcopal priest who was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 1985 until 2009. When I lived in Berkeley from 1995 to 2006, I would attend Evensong on Thursday evening at Grace Cathedral twice a month. I’d take BART from the North Berkeley station, get off at Montgomery Street, hike up the hill to the cathedral, walk the labyrinth adjacent to the cathedral, enter the cavernous church, listen to the Boy’s and Men’s choirs sing gorgeous unintelligible hymns accompanied by a genius organist, and open my heart and mind to Alan’s spontaneous prayer, which always concluded Evensong.

“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.

This quote from Winnie the Pooh is especially dear to me, literally dear, because when I was creating a book of my writing exercises The Writer’s Path with Mindy Toomay, I really wanted to use this quote in the book, and our publisher, 10-Speed before they were eaten by Random House, informed us that Disney, who now owns all things Pooh, was demanding five hundred dollars for the use of those few lines. 10-Speed was not about to cough up five hundred cents for our book, let alone five hundred dollars, so I coughed up the money, which amounted to ten per cent of my advance for the book; and I have never regretted the expenditure.

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.” Jean D’Arc

I first read this quote in Mark Twain’s novel Joan of Arc. I’ve read everything Twain wrote, and though I consider The Prince and the Pauper his finest novel, Twain considered Joan of Arc his greatest work. He spent two years in France meticulously researching his book, and he studied French for several years so he could read the transcripts of Joan’s trial in the original French with the aid of able translators. Despite Twain’s immense fame, no publisher would publish the book, so Twain published the fascinating work himself.

This quote, which comes from the transcript of Joan’s trial, speaks of a desire to be in a state of grace without needing to know whether one is in such a state. In that sense, the sentiment, when separated from the context of Joan’s trial, echoes the Buddha extolling the virtue of Not Knowing, of Beginner’s Mind—an innocent acceptance and appreciation of whatever we are experiencing.

In the context of Joan’s trial, these words are a testament to her astonishing genius, for this simple reply effectively defeated her brutal prosecutor and proved the most brilliant minds in the Catholic Church incapable of convicting her of heresy. Thus stymied, those hideous men tortured her until they imagined her anguished cries to be an admission of heresy—after which they quickly burned her at the stake.

But before they tortured her and killed her, they laid a pernicious intellectual trap for her. There was an arcane law of the Catholic Church stating that anyone claiming to be in a state of grace, or claiming not to be in a state of grace, was a heretic. So if Joan could be tricked into saying, or even implying, she believed she was or was not in a state of grace, she would be proved a heretic. Having been deprived of sleep and sufficient food for several weeks, having stood through weeks of trial in the face of legions of ghoulish priests intent on killing her, Joan, nineteen, illiterate, and knowing nothing of the complicated laws of the church was asked by the prosecutor, “Do you believe you are in a state of grace?”

As Twain describes the scene, the devious prosecutor asks this question almost as an afterthought at the end of a grueling day of interrogation. Joan gathers herself, awaits guidance from her angelic allies, and replies with quiet eloquence, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it. If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.”

In a more modern context, but in a similarly metaphysical vein, the following quote from Buckminster Fuller is a succinct description of how I believe the universe operates. I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained. 

Having shared this quote with many people, I can report that artists and poets and people who have lived unusual lives universally agree that this is how the universe operates, while everybody else says Bucky’s idea is hokum.

Here is one of my favorite Philip Whalen poems.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

 

Meaningful Life

Monday, May 7th, 2018

sans hat

Arno photo by Todd

There is the wisdom of all-accomplishing action, in which speed does not have to be included in one’s working situation, but things fall into your pattern.” Chögyam Trungpa

In the midst of cleaning up her office a few days ago, Marcia found a Mendocino Beacon dated February 1, 2018, in which there was an obituary for Martin Knott, a fellow I got to know a couple years ago after seeing him walking around town with his dog for the last decade or so. Martin’s dog was medium-sized with the gorgeous complex coloring of an Appaloosa horse. Martin and his dog would saunter around town, the unleashed dog in the lead and Martin following way behind.

I got to know Martin because two years ago Marcia came home from shopping at Harvest Market in Mendocino and said, “Marty wanted me to tell you how much he enjoys your articles.” That was when my weekly pieces were still appearing in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Being a devoted patron of Corners of the Mouth, I rarely shopped at Harvest and didn’t know the names of any of the Harvest checkers, so I could only imagine who Marty was, and for some reason I envisioned him as a slender young man with brown hair and glasses.

Some weeks after Marcia mentioned Marty enjoying my articles, she and I were in Harvest together and she fell into conversation with a beefy, bearded, gray-haired fellow.

“Todd,” she said, “this is Marty. Marty, this is Todd.”

Marty did a double take and said, “You’re Todd Walton?” He had seen me around town many times, but it had never occurred to him that the guy with the free-range hair and the Giants sweatshirt was the writer of articles he enjoyed, just as it never occurred to me that the bearded guy huffing and puffing as he followed his dog around town was Marty who worked at Harvest and liked my articles.

Thereafter when we met on our walks, Marty and I would exchange hellos, celebrate the sun or philosophize about the fog, and go our separate ways. His obituary says he was into woodcarving, horticulture, writing, travel, sailing, and building uniquely designed sailing boats, but we never spoke of those things.

On several occasions, I saw ravens following Marty as he trudged along behind his dog, and it was not until the last time I encountered him, a few months before he died, that I discovered what made him so attractive to those big black birds.

I said to Marty, “Those ravens really love you,” and he explained he occasionally got old sausage from the butchers at Harvest Market, and as he walked around town he would fling bits of sausage to the ravens.

Another time I said to Marty, “Your dog always seems so determined to make his rounds.”

“He is determined,” said Marty, nodding. “And as you can see, he walks me.”

Since I was accustomed to not seeing Marty for long stretches of time, news of his death came as a surprise to me. I didn’t really know him, but I liked him, and I liked his dog, and I liked how their presence added to the lovely feeling of living here. So though I didn’t miss him before I knew he was gone, I miss him now and I wish we’d had a chance to talk about writing and gardening and uniquely designed sailing boats.

The obituary informed us that Marty was seventy-three when he died, a fact that prompted Marcia to say, “That’s not very old.”

So I looked up death in America and found that in 2017 the average age of death for men was seventy-seven, for women eighty. In that context Marty was not so young when he died. However, Marcia’s mother died last year on the verge of ninety-nine, and Marcia expects to live well into her nineties, too, so in that context seventy-three is, indeed, not very old. Marcia and I are both sixty-eight and many of our friends are in their seventies—and because we don’t want any of them to die, yes, seventy-three is not very old.

Then there is our neighbor Defer (pronounced Deefer), who is nearing eighty and still works as a tree feller for a redwood logging company. Every once in a while Defer will come over after he gets home from work to do some chain-sawing for us before he changes out of his work clothes. Watching Defer work is both humbling and inspiring. He is currently bucking up some big logs for us, and he gets so much accomplished in so little time, I am in awe of his skill and strength.

A few days ago, in virtually no time at all, he bucked up three big lengths of a pine trunk and made thirty-six big rounds for me to split into firewood. When he was finished, I walked with him back to his place and learned he was working full time these days dropping redwoods.

“I hope you aren’t working too hard,” I said, finding it incomprehensible that I could have ever felled giant trees fulltime, even in my muscular youth, let alone ten years from now when I’m seventy-eight.

“You know,” said Defer, smiling wryly, “I’ve never worked too hard. I work at a steady pace I can maintain with a few breaks for water and a longer break for lunch. That’s how I get it done.”

My grandmother Goody was fond of saying, “The goal is not to live as long as you can, but to live a meaningful life.”

Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. But as long as you think, ‘I am doing this,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity that appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.”

Ganapati

Ganapati photo by Todd