Archive for May, 2019

The Tuner

Monday, May 20th, 2019

the tuner

My daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, recently announced she is launching a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and would like me to work for her. She has already hired her mother Elisha, her brother Conor, and Sylvia Espinosa, her best friend. Pay will be deferred until our movies become popular on YouTube and someone gives us the money to make a big-budget movie. I do not question her visions of the future, but before I make my decision about joining the movie company, I have asked her to clarify what she imagines my role in her movie-making process will be, and she is currently composing my job description.

In the meantime, I continue to arrive at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek—every day circa 10 AM, greet my wife Elisha (she who works at the counter) with a suggestive wink, claim my customary window table, go to the counter and flirt with Elisha, return to my table with muffin and tea, write, socialize, and depart Mona’s for home and walking the dogs circa 1 PM.

Today in Mona’s, while awaiting Alexandra’s elucidation of her vision of my niche in her movie company, I am joined by my good friend Zorro Blackbird, who also happens to be our piano tuner and the accordion player in the jazzy folk trio Romantic Twaddle. I am the guitarist in that trio, Elisha our ukulele player, and we all sing. We play every Friday evening at Mona’s from eight to ten when Zorro is in town. Alexandra says she intends to use Romantic Twaddle’s music in some of her movies and may even make a few movies about Romantic Twaddle.

Zorro, fifty-three, is a burly five-foot-eight with olive skin and long black hair. He has been out of town for the last two months touring with Bailey Jones, and because I’m on a kick these days of interviewing my favorite people, I take this opportunity to interview Zorro and record our conversation in my Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue.

Paul: Were you born with the name Zorro Blackbird?

Zorro: I was. My mother is Wailaki, my father Pomo. My father loved the Zorro television show from the 1950s, so they named me Zorro. My three sisters are named after the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Venus.

Paul: What inspired you to become an accordion player?

Zorro: I started playing ukulele when I was five and took up the guitar when I was seven. When I was ten, I heard a man playing the accordion at the county fair and thought it was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. On the way home from the fair, my mother told me she played the accordion before she had kids and she still had her accordion. When we got home, she got the beautiful old thing out of her closet and said if I promised to practice every day, she would give me lessons.

Paul: Do you play accordion with Bailey when you tour with her?

Zorro: No. She’s a solo act all the way. She doesn’t even have other people play on her albums. My job is to keep her two guitars perfectly tuned throughout her performances.

Paul: Are you onstage with her?

Zorro: I’m on and off. After her first song, I come on and she gives me her guitar and I give her the second one. Then while she’s playing her second tune, I’m offstage tuning the first guitar, and so on. I wear black clothes and come and go like a shadow.

Paul: Why doesn’t she tune her own guitars?

Zorro: She’s not good at tuning when she’s performing and she gets extremely frustrated when she can’t get the tuning exactly right. So rather than drive herself and her audiences crazy, she has me tune for her.

Paul: How did she find you?

Zorro: Her previous tuner is an old friend of mine, Rufus Strunk, the fiddle player, and he recommended me. I went down to Berkeley and met with her, she tried me out at a gig in San Francisco, and I’ve been tuning for her ever since. Five years now. She tours twice a year and each tour lasts two months. I’ve been to England and Europe with her three times and all over America and Canada many times.

Paul: Any end in sight?

Zorro: Well… the guy she’s currently involved with thinks he can do the tuning, so she might give him a try. We’ll see.

Paul: You sound doubtful.

Zorro: I don’t think he can do it. But love is blind and time will tell.

Paul: What will she do if he hands her a guitar that’s not perfectly tuned?

Zorro: She’ll fire him and then call me and beg me to come finish the tour. (laughs) Probably offer me a big raise.

Paul: Will you go?

Zorro: Oh yeah, if she asks me. Her next tour starts in four months, and unless I find a gig I like better, you bet I’ll go. She pays me two thousand dollars per show, and we do about forty-five shows each tour.

Paul: Will it ruin her relationship with this guy if he can’t tune her guitars properly?

Zorro: I’ll be very surprised if she hasn’t dumped him before the next tour. But if not, she’ll dump him the first show he screws up, which will very likely be the first show. I know it seems like tuning guitars should be easy, but to tune those guitars exactly as she wants them, twenty times each concert, you have to have an impeccable ear and a delicate touch and not be intimidated by the magnitude of the situation. 2800 people in Carnegie Hall? That kinda thing. Every night.

Paul: Is she difficult to work with?

Zorro: Not for me. But she’s a perfectionist, and when people don’t give her what she needs, she can be… difficult.

Paul: Does Ellen [Zorro’s wife] go on tour with you?

Zorro: No. She’s happy to stay home making her art and taking care of the grandkids, and… it’s good for us to be apart now and then. We’ve been married for thirty years and we have a tendency to get very ingrown. And we’re always happy to see each other when I get home, so…

Paul: What do you do during all the hours between shows on a tour?

Zorro: We’re travelling, we’re checking into hotels, we’re setting up, we’re doing sound checks, eating, sleeping, and I accompany Bailey when she does television and radio interviews, which she does a lot. There’s not much down time. It’s a very intense two months. She’s not just famous. She’s a cultural icon.

Paul: I hope you won’t be offended, but I’ve never really understood her appeal. What do you think it is about her that makes so many people love her?

Zorro: I’m not offended. Taste is subjective. I’ve actually thought quite a lot about why so many people love her.

Paul: What have you come up with?

Zorro: Well… her voice is not powerful, but it’s warm and appealing and nobody else sounds like her. She’s very down to earth, and I think lots of people prefer singers they can identify with, you know, singers with voices that aren’t spectacular. She doesn’t intimidate anyone, yet she sings beautifully. And when she performs she seems vulnerable and very honest and very funny, too. People laugh their heads off at her shows. She’s a wisp of a woman singing songs full of longing. A sweet voice and a well-played guitar. One reviewer called her the queen of quiet angst, but I don’t think angst is the right word. I think the word is melancholy, the good kind. She makes people cry, and people like to cry.

Paul: So what are you gonna do between now and the next tour?

Zorro: Tune pianos. Play music with you and Elisha. Work in the garden, babysit the grandkids, go on some adventures with Ellen, come here for coffee, talk to you, go to the beach. See what comes my way.

Paul: Have you written any new songs of late?

Zorro: Not for a long time, and that’s an interesting thing about touring with Bailey. My songwriting stops, though I take along notebooks and a guitar and I think I’ll write poems and new songs, but nothing ever comes when I’m on tour with her. And then I get home and after a couple months the melodies start to come again and then I’m on tour again and the flow stops.

Paul: Why do you think that happens?

Zorro: I know why it happens.

Paul: Why?

Zorro: Because being her tuner uses the same creative energy that would otherwise go into my own work. I know that sounds crazy. After all, I’m just tuning her guitars during her concerts. But when I’m on tour with her, my entire focus is on facilitating her creative expression. And to do my job well, I have to give her everything I’ve got or the guitars won’t sound right. They just won’t. I can’t tell you why, but it’s true.

Paul: And you’re okay with all your creative energy going to help her? At the expense of your own creativity?

Zorro: You know, Paul, helping her is creative, and I love helping her. I love hearing her play those guitars for thousands of enraptured people. I love coming and going on the stage like a shadow. I love bringing those strings into perfect tune with each other. I love hearing how well they sound with her voice, and I love knowing she is empowered by what I do for her.

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Alberto Puerto Vallarta

Monday, May 13th, 2019

balancing

My son Conor, who is seventeen, is intrigued by systems. In an earlier draft of this story, I wrote, “My stepson Conor is passionate about the interconnectedness of the myriad parts composing complex processes.” When I showed Conor that draft, he said, “I’d rather be your son who is intrigued by systems.”

A few weeks ago, Conor made an exquisite pen and ink drawing, eighteen-inches-wide and fourteen-inches-tall, of me sitting at my customary table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek. With enviable self-confidence and a knack for making money from his art, Conor framed the drawing, displayed the work on the wall at Mona’s, and sold the blessed thing for three hundred dollars to an art collector from San Francisco.

In the drawing, I am wearing a gray dress shirt tucked into darker gray pants, my gray hair short and multi-directional, my reading glasses round-framed, and I seem to be smiling ever-so-slightly as I write in one of my five notebooks.

My four other notebooks are stacked beside my old leather briefcase, and next to the stack of notebooks is a half-eaten muffin on a white plate. Adjacent to the muffin is a large white mug, the contents of which are indiscernible. The pen I’m writing with is long and skinny and has an extremely fine point.

In a white space two-inches tall and eighteen-inches-wide at the bottom of the drawing, in Conor’s small-but-easy-to-read print are the following two paragraphs.

May 7, 10:43 AM. Carmeline Creek, California. Paul Windsor sitting at southwest window table in Mona’s bakery. Briefcase: brown leather, handmade in Oaxaca, circa 1976. Pen: Staedtler triplus fineliner, black ink. Five notebooks. Paul is writing in Notebook #1: Poetry (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #2: Prose (Strathmore Sketch, recycled paper, 100 sheets, 5.5 in. x 8.5 in 60 lb.) Notebook #3: Song Lyrics (Aquabee Super Deluxe Sketch, Excellent Tooth, 60 sheets, 6 in. x 6 in. 93 lb.) Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #5: Ideas & Miscellaneous. (National Brand, Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease Paper, 80 sheets, 7.75”. x 5”)

Paul arrives at Mona’s every day circa 10 AM, greets his wife Elisha (counterperson) with jaunty wave, claims customary table, unpacks briefcase, goes to counter, effects British, French, German, or Serbian accent, pretends not to know Elisha, flirts with her. Elisha mimics Paul’s accent and responds to his flirtation with humorous non sequiturs. Paul returns to customary table with muffin and tea, writes, socializes, writes, departs Mona’s circa 1 PM (kisses Elisha goodbye if she’s not too busy.)

couple

Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue also contains snippets of conversations I have with friends, and I thought you might enjoy one of my exchanges with a fellow denizen of Mona’s, Alberto Puerto Vallarta.

Alberto, a renowned performance artist, is seventy-four, his wavy black hair turning gray. He is handsome and fit and reminds older people of the actor Omar Sharif. His performances include poetry, monologues, improvised scenes, dance, and songs. He speaks English with a pleasing Spanish accent, and his voice is so resonant, he often sounds as if he is singing when he is merely speaking.

Paul: Were you born with the last name Puerto Vallarta?

Alberto: No, I was born Alberto Gomez. In El Paso, Texas. My mother and father came across the border from Ciudad Juárez to have me in an American hospital so I would be born an American citizen. My mother was very clever. She waited until just a few minutes before she was about to give birth before entering the emergency room so they couldn’t turn in good conscience her away.

Paul: So…

Alberto: So you’ve heard of the artist Judy Chicago. When I was in my twenties, I was working as a bricklayer in Fresno. We were at the university there for a couple weeks putting in a big brick terrace surrounded by a low brick wall. One day on my lunch break I wandered over to the art department and came to a big studio where Judy Chicago was teaching a painting class. I was mesmerized. She was strong and funny and everything she said interested me. I secretly fancied myself an artist who had yet to make art because I didn’t have the time or the money or some excuse like that. I watched her for twenty minutes and then went back to my bricklaying. A little later one of the art students walked by and I asked her who the teacher was and she said, ‘Judy Chicago. She’s famous.’ And in that very moment, I heard the name Alberto Puerto Vallarta, which is where my mother was born, so I decided that would be my name from then on.

Paul: How did you go from bricklaying to performance art?

Alberto: I went from bricklaying to being a sculptor. A couple years after my encounter with Judy Chicago, I moved to Los Angeles and we were building a brick wall around a big estate in Beverly Hills, me and Diego Ruiz. Great guy. One day these three guys show up with a big metal sculpture in the back of a flatbed truck, a blatant Calder knockoff, and then the artist shows up. Delmore Rexroth. The three guys do something to piss him off, he throws a fit, and the three guys leave. Delmore sees me and Diego and asks us to help him install the piece. When we finish, he asks me if I want to work for him.

Paul: What did you do for Delmore?

Alberto: (laughs) I made Calder knockoffs and he put his name on them and sold them to rich people. He was in Europe and New York a lot of the time, you know, schmoozing with rich people who thought he was a great artist, and while he was gone I’d spend a few hours every day working on my own art, smaller pieces, about the size of chairs. Fanciful things. Copper and bronze tubing. Strange creatures and surreal furniture. When I had seven pieces I liked, I showed pictures of them to the curator of a gallery that showed sculptures and she put me in a group show. All seven pieces sold the first night and she offered me a solo show. I quit working for Delmore, used the garage of the house I was renting with two other guys as my studio, and at the opening of my solo show, my friend Ricardo played guitar and I improvised a speech and danced with my sculptures. They were all somewhat kinetic and the people went crazy and Alberto Puerto Vallarta became a star.

Paul: Fast-forward fifty years. Your last show was about parenting. What was the genesis of that?

Alberto: I had three children, one with my first wife, two with Carmen (Alberto’s second and current wife). My first wife felt oppressed by motherhood, whereas Carmen loved being a mother, and our children profoundly reflected their mothers’ attitudes. My kids with Carmen were happy and got along very well with other people, but Lola, you know, she was so dependent on me for approval and love that until she had some good therapy when she was in her forties, she had a difficult time relating to women, and all her close friends were men.

Paul: How did you learn to parent?

Alberto: Oh from my parents. Also from taking care of my younger brother and cousins. My parents were very calm people, so I was calm, too. And once I was walking and talking, they treated me as their emotional and intellectual equal, even if I didn’t yet know everything they wanted me to know. They taught me to love and respect my elders, to do my chores, to do what was necessary for the good of the family, and they were very patient with me. My mother was excellent at explaining things to me, and both my parents celebrated my uniqueness. And they allowed me to try on all sorts of identities so long as I met my obligations to la familia. And that’s how I raised my kids. So, to answer your original question about my show, I wanted to talk about the damage being done to our children and families and communities by the way many children are being raised in America today.

Paul: What would you say is the hardest thing about parenting?

Alberto: I don’t think in terms of hard or easy. I think a parent has to take care of the child with love and consistency so when the child begins to develop the skills and confidence for self-care, love and consistency are ingrained in them. And then comes the transition phase where the child needs to be given more and more responsibility for taking care of herself and taking care of other people. That’s a big thing missing today. Taking care of other people. Taking care of the old ones who need help, the younger ones who need help, the sick and the hurt. Whoever needs care. And at the same time, the child’s uniqueness needs to be celebrated, along with everyone else’s uniqueness. Equality. You know. In this society, the media and the social system ingrain in people the idea that life is a hierarchy. We’re told we’re better than some people, not as good as other people, and we’re told winning is a virtue and losing is a shame, that some people are stupid, some are smart, some good, some bad. My children grew up knowing everyone has value and no one is less than anyone else. It’s not hard to teach that if you start right away, if you build that truth into the learning of language and in the development of social skills, but most parents don’t do that now. Everything is about superficially aggrandizing the individual while actually compressing their individuality into little boxes.

Paul: How did you handle your kids’ teenage years?

Alberto: What do you mean?

Paul: Well… their need to rebel, to break away from you… all that.

Alberto: There’s no need to rebel if you haven’t been enslaved.

Paul: But surely you disciplined them.

Alberto: Discipline, sure. But never punishment. You can’t accomplish very much without discipline, but punishment is never helpful, never productive. You can shower a child with love without spoiling him, and you can deny a kid something, some crap food or a smart phone or staying up too late without it being a punishment.

Paul: How do you do that?

Alberto: You honor their intelligence and present everything in the larger context of family and community and what’s good for them. The worst thing a parent can do is impose rules and limitations without thoroughly discussing the complicated reasons for those rules. Language! Look at Conor and Alexandra. They are far more sophisticated than most adults. Why? Because their mother raised them as her intellectual and emotional peers. She did not infantilize them, which is what is happening now more than ever because our culture, our books and movies and everything is aimed at the infant mind, or at best the adolescent.

Paul: You mentioned smart phones. What…

Alberto: Listen, there is so much proof that these things are poison for the developing brain, there shouldn’t even be a discussion. Do you let your three-year-old smoke cigarettes? But this is what the parents are doing now. Handing these phones to babies. I see it all the time. The little child in the stroller fusses, the mother or father hands the child the phone. Silence. Brain captured and it can’t form properly. This has been proven in countless rigorous studies. It should be a serious crime to give a child a portable computer before their brain is fully formed. It’s insanity on a massive scale, and it creates people who don’t know how to relate to each other, people detached from reality and separated from the miracle of life. I feel so sad about it.

Paul: Do you have a smart phone?

Alberto: Yes, I do. They took away all the pay phones and the camera on my phone is very good.

Paul: Yet you think these phones are poison.

Alberto: For the developing mind, yes. My mind is well developed and I mostly use my phone as a phone and camera.

Paul: And you make videos that people watch on their phones.

Alberto: Yes, I am entwined with the cultural matrix as it is currently manifesting. Before there was an internet and videos, I was only known to people who saw my shows or read about me in reviews. And now millions of people watch my performances on their phones and pads and computers. I want to connect with other people, and this is one of the ways I connect.

Paul: You don’t feel you’re part of the poison?

Alberto: I feel I am part of everything.

fin

The Sleep Doctor

Monday, May 6th, 2019

pacifico

Elisha and I have been married for two years now and I learn something new about her every day. Yesterday, for instance, I overheard her say to her daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, and her son Conor, who is seventeen, “When my mother was a girl in Barcelona, she and her mother would make bouquets from flowers they stole from other people’s gardens. And the one time I went to Spain with my mother, when I was twelve, she took me to the street corner where she used to stand with her basket of bouquets and call to the men and women going home from work, “Flowers for your wife. Flowers for your husband. Flowers for your sweetheart.”

Today in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, our small town on the far north coast of California, I learned… well, first I’ll set the scene.

Elisha, who is forty-eight, works at Mona’s from six-thirty in the morning until two in the afternoon. She walks to work from our house a few blocks to the west of Mona’s, arriving in time to help Mona and Jose finish emptying the ovens of the first round of baked goods. Then she fills the display-case trays with muffins and pastries and cookies, brews the coffee, opens the front door promptly at seven, and greets the early birds with her cheerful Good Morning.

Elisha was born and raised in Ireland, her father Irish, her mother Spanish, her accent revealing both lineages. Easy in her body, with long reddish brown hair, her work attire consists of a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, a long skirt, tights, colorful socks, and comfortable walking shoes. She is the morning and early afternoon counterperson at Mona’s and would win in a landslide if she ran for mayor, no matter who she ran against.

I am Paul, fifty-seven, a fifth-generation Californian, my father descended from English Irish Scots, my mother from Ashkenazi Jews. I arrive at Mona’s every morning circa ten and spend a few hours at a window table writing letters and poems and short stories, sipping tea and nibbling muffins, and occasionally engaging in conversations with friends.

I sit as far from the counter as one can without going outside, but even so, if I choose to, I can hear Elisha’s exchanges with her customers, though most of the time her conversations with people ordering bread and coffee and pastries blend with other conversations and the clattering of cups and the clinking of silverware and cars driving by and piano jazz playing on the café stereo—a pleasant ambient soundscape to accompany my scribbling.

But this morning I am riveted by the exchanges Elisha has with her customers; and from these exchanges I learn something new and wonderful about my wife.

Allison Hardy, twenty-eight, formidably strong, works at Carmeline Creek Nursery, steps to the counter.

Elisha: Good morning Allison. You look marvelous. Sleeping better?

Allison: (exuberant) I am. I’ve been following your advice and it really works.

Elisha: Oh I’m so happy to hear that. What can I get for you?

Allison: Well, per your suggestion, I’ll have a small decaf and two bran muffins. To go.

Elisha hands Allison a white paper cup for the self-serve coffee, a white bag containing two muffins, rings up the sale, and as Allison moves away, Thomas Enders, fifty-seven, owner of Enders Hardware, burly, avuncular, steps to the counter.

Elisha: Morning Thomas. The usual?

Thomas: Well I was going to say the usual, but I couldn’t help overhearing Allison say you helped her sleep better. I’ve been having a terrible time getting to sleep and staying asleep for the last… I don’t know… years and years, and I wonder if what you told her might help me, too.

Elisha: It might, but I have the feeling your sleep issues are not quite the same as Allison’s. May I ask you a question or two?

Thomas: (reddens) Sure.

Elisha: Do you stay up late? Past ten?

Thomas: Yes. We watch television every night until eleven and then I let the dog out for a few minutes, and when the dog comes back in, we go to bed.

Elisha: What do you watch on television after supper?

Thomas: Oh we usually watch a murder mystery and then the news.

Elisha: Does your wife have difficulty sleeping?

Thomas: She falls right asleep, but then she wakes up. Bad dreams. And if I’ve managed to fall asleep, I wake up when she wakes up, and then I have a terrible time getting back to sleep and we’re both wrecks in the morning, though she’s usually less wrecked than I am.

Elisha: (after musing or a moment) Well I would suggest that instead of watching the news after your murder mystery, you take a walk in the night air, have a cup of chamomile tea, and listen to some music before you go to bed.

Thomas: Oh but we’re addicted to the news. It’s the grand finale of our day.

As Thomas and Elisha converse, Margaret Johannsen, sixty-three, graphic artist, deep-voiced, gets in line and listens avidly to Elisha and Thomas’s conversation.

Elisha: But Thomas, that’s the pattern you need to break. The murder mystery and the news engage your intellect and ignite a subtle fear response, so when you go to bed you’re in a state of mental agitation.

Thomas: Hmm. So do you think I should switch to decaf?

Elisha: (laughs) I don’t think caffeine is your problem. I think it is your inquiring mind being too excited to sleep. Our left brain, the analytical brain, is meant to run the show during our waking hours, but the right brain is what we want overseeing our sleep.

Thomas: Well, I’ll give it a try. Sure would love to have a good night’s sleep. So… no news, walk outside, chamomile tea, music. What kind of music?

Elisha: Piano.

Thomas: Piano. Okay. And… yes, I’ll have the usual.

Margaret Johannsen: Forgive me for barging in, Thomas, but I urge you to do whatever she tells you. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a decade, and three nights after I started following her prescription, I slept for nine hours and felt reborn, and now I sleep like a baby every night.

Thomas: What did she tell you to do?

Margaret: Before bed, I do twenty minutes of gentle yoga, then I take a warm bath, and while I’m in the bath, I sing. Then I eat a banana, brush my teeth, get in bed, and envision in real time preparing the ground for planting carrot seeds, planting the seeds, watering the bed, and… I rarely get past planting the seeds before I’m asleep.

Thomas: Were you watching the news, too?

Margaret: No, I was surfing the internet and dreading another night without good sleep.

Thomas: A banana? (turns to Elisha) Should I try eating a banana?

Elisha: If you’re hungry. Most people don’t realize it takes energy, calories, to sleep. So if you wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, try eating a banana or a piece of bread with almond butter on it, and when you get back in bed, imagine your body being ready now to do the slow and gentle and steady work of sleep.

When Elisha gets home from work mid-afternoon, we take our four dogs for a walk to the beach, and while I’m flinging tennis balls for the dogs, I say to Elisha, “I had no idea you knew so much about sleep.”

She smiles and says, “I wouldn’t say I know much about sleep. But for some reason when I look at a person who is not sleeping well, a solution occurs to me, and sometimes that solution works. But I think the most important thing, no matter what I suggest, is that the person breaks the old pattern with an intention to sleep better, and this intention combined with the new way of getting ready for bed is what does the trick.”

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