Posts Tagged ‘Albert Schweitzer’

Her Children (Otra Vez)

Monday, December 25th, 2017

351tires

tires diptych by Max Greenstreet

Earlier this year, 2017, I brought out a collection of eighty-three of my essays and memories entitled Sources of Wonder. I had been meaning to make such a collection for some time in response to requests for such from several of my readers, but I kept not assembling these “greatest hits”, because…well, I’m not sure why I was hesitant, but I was.

Then one day Marcia got a letter from a friend who had been whiling away a little time in her neighbor’s living room and picked up a book that had for a place marker an old newspaper column. Marcia’s friend read that column from a 2011 Anderson Valley Advertiser, loved the story, and then discovered the piece was one of mine: Her Children.

When Marcia told me this story, I was finally convinced that a collection of my essays and memories would be a good thing to offer the world so copies might be stumbled upon years hence and read with pleasure by people I know and people I will never know. I’m happy to report that Sources of Wonder has garnered rave reviews from a handful of prescient souls who purchased copies in support of this author.

As a New Year offering, I present the piece that inspired the collection. Bien Venidos!

 

Her Children

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No. They always said, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.

 

Django

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Django

Django On Todd photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2015)

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” Albert Schweitzer

On this first day of August, 2015, as darkness gives way to daylight and the cobwebs of sleep are swept away by a slowly dawning clarity of mind, I wonder what this deep silence is all about. Our thirteen-year-old cat Django is what I refer to as an alarm cat. Like clockwork, promptly at seven every morning, rain or shine, he begins to yowl for his humans to feed him. Marcia does not hear the morning yowls of our large gray shorthaired kitty, or so she claims, thus I am the human who most often rises to feed Django at the beginning of each day.

But today, when my expectant ears hear no feline cries for sustenance, my brain presents me with two options: the time is not yet seven or Django has gone hunting and will be home soon and start yowling. Upon rising, I find the time is 7:22, no cat in sight. I dole out a modest portion of food into Django’s empty bowl, and step outside into the deep quiet of the fog-enshrouded forest.

“Django. Django,” I call. “Come get your breakfast.”

By ten o’clock, Django has not yet appeared, and my brain reminds me that there have been a few times in the eight years I’ve been with Marcia when Django was gone for as long as twenty-four hours.

At quarter to eleven, fifteen minutes before Marcia is scheduled to leave with our neighbor Marion to attend a wedding in Eureka, Marion phones to say she just came home from visiting a friend and noticed the body of a large gray cat on the side of the road where our lane meets Little Lake Road, and she fears the cat might be Django.

In the next moment, Marcia and Marion and I are running down our quiet lane to Little Lake Road, and just to the east of our street lies the body of Django. Marcia bursts into tears, and I can barely see through mine as I lift the already stiff body into the box I brought to carry him home, one of his back legs badly broken and nearly separated from his body.

Because Marcia and Marion have to leave very soon to make the long trek from Mendocino to Eureka to be in time for the wedding, we hastily choose a place in our flower garden next to the agastache—the cones of purple flowers swarming with bumblebees and honeybees—and I dig a deep hole, bury Django’s body, and Marcia makes a beeline for a large brown stone on the north side of our house, a stone she wants to put atop Django’s grave. We fetch the dolly, load the big stone thereon, wheel the stone to grave, and together place the stone atop the freshly turned earth.

“Makes me feel better knowing he’s in the ground before I go,” says Marcia, giving me a farewell hug.

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” Sigmund Freud

Django had a near death health crisis two years ago due to his extreme obesity, and thereafter I became his strict dietician, doling out small portions of cat food, four times a day. He lost seven pounds, regained his energy, and became much happier and more loving—but he was always hungry and not shy about letting me know. Thus it became my daily habit to feed him when I got up in the morning, and again at noon, five, and ten.

With the advent of his persistent hunger, my regimen of late evening stretching exercises became an exciting event for Django—the unfurling of my yoga mat meaning Meal #4 would be served shortly after the mat was rolled up and put away. Thus whenever I would look up from my routine on the living room rug, there would be our big hungry cat on his footstool, watching my every movement, a cat who prior to the change in his culinary reality would sleep through my stretching because it had nothing to do with him.

After some weeks of observing my nightly stretching, the new slender Django apparently decided that if he stretched, too, his chances of being fed would improve, though I always fed him whether he stretched with me or not. In any case, he developed a series of cute flirtatious poses, our favorite being when he would lie on his back on his footstool, and hang halfway off, upside down, kneading the air with his mighty claws and making a high clucking sound.

“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” James Herriot

Django sat with us during supper every night. His designated chair was to Marcia’s right, and he often fell asleep while we ate and talked. But the moment, and I mean the very moment, Marcia put her fork down after taking her last bite of supper, Django would wake up, often from a deep snoring slumber, and reach out to Marcia, his paw suspended in the air.

What followed was unquestionably Django’s favorite time of every day, lap time, the lap in question Marcia’s. She would pull Django’s chair close to hers, he would cross to her lap and assume the pose of the famous sphinx of Giza, facing forward, his eyes closed, purring profoundly. And he would stay in that pose on Marcia’s lap for as long as she would let him, his bliss so huge and obvious, it never once occurred to me to ask Marcia to put Django back on his chair and assist me with the dishes. How could I possibly disturb Django’s ecstasy? I could not.

In my experience there are few things as marvelous to see as a big handsome cat meditating splendiferously on a lovely woman’s lap, and that is the memory of Django I will cherish for as long as I live.

Failure

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

redemption song nolan winkler

Redemption Song painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” Paul Cezanne

Last night I attended the Mendocino Music Festival’s third orchestral concert of this year’s festival, my wife a cellist in the most excellent orchestra. The second half of the program was Symphony No. 2 in E minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a massive work that lasted more than an hour. The third movement of the four-movement symphony was especially moving to me—the glorious music swamping my psyche and catalyzing several epiphanies about the novel I’m currently writing.

In the program notes written by Marcia Lotter, a fine local violinist, she wrote that the failure of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was so depressing to Rachmaninoff that he was unable to compose anything for ten years, and it was only after successful hypnosis, during which the hypnotherapist implanted positive thoughts about composing in Rachmaninoff’s subconscious, that the great genius was able to resume composing.

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” Aldous Huxley

When I lived in Berkeley a decade ago, I was, among other things, a babysitter specializing in taking care of children from two in the afternoon until their parents got home from work after five. Favorite babysitting activities included gardening, drawing, taking walks, making fruit smoothies, reading, story telling and playing the piano.

I frequently oversaw two five-year-old boys who were close friends, and one of our favorite things to do was take turns playing my piano for each other and responding with our playing to what we had just heard the other person play. Our music was entirely improvised; atonality and redundancy perfectly okay, with banging the only thing we agreed to keep at a minimum.

These two boys and I enacted our round robin piano concerts fifty times over the course of a year, and one of the boys prefaced every single one of his turns at the piano by saying, “I’m not very good.”

No matter how many times I and the other boy responded to this child’s music with genuine appreciation and applause, he would begin his every turn at the piano with, “I’m not very good.”

One evening I was having supper with this boy and his parents, two smart, funny upbeat people, and after the meal the boy’s mother requested I play a few tunes for them on their piano. I did so, and then the boy’s father said to the boy’s mother, “Play something, honey. How about that Bach you’ve been working on.”

She went to the piano, sat down on the bench, and before playing said, “I’m not very good.”

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Most American artists and writers, even famous successful ones, struggle with feelings of failure and inadequacy. The universality of this struggle speaks volumes about our punitive and hierarchical society and the endemic antipathy to original self-expression, not to mention the lack of understanding of art as a practice that is not inherently about the creation of commercial artifacts.

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Albert Schweitzer

Long ago, before the advent of personal computers and PDFs and Word documents attached to emails, I spent three of my fifteen years in Sacramento writing an epic poem in the form of a novel entitled Two Rivers. When I finished typing the final version, I made a dozen photocopies of the giant thing, gave them to friends and began work on my next novel. Over the course of the next few years, two valiant literary agents tried and nearly succeeded in selling the book, but ultimately Two Rivers was never published.

A decade after completing Two Rivers, having moved to Berkeley, I went to visit old friends in Sacramento and ran into a photographer I admired but did not know very well, and he asked with some urgency if I would accompany him to his studio. We went to a part of town that in former times had been an industrial area but had long been abandoned by the time I moved to Sacramento in 1980 and remained so until I moved away in 1995. Now the area was a thriving enclave of artists and entrepreneurs, with once derelict warehouses refurbished into studios and galleries and cafés and performances spaces. On a huge lot at the heart of the new mecca was the photographer’s spectacular two-story studio and gallery.

“I bought this place nine years ago right at the start of the renaissance around here,” he explained, walking me through the gallery space and out onto a brick terrazzo surrounding a large fountain burbling away in the bright sunlight. “I couldn’t afford to buy this place now in a million years, but it cost me next to nothing nine years ago.”

“Fantastic,” I said, dazzled by the sight of two red and green parrots perched on a towering cactus.

“I decided to buy this place after I read Two Rivers.” He turned to me and smiled. “I got the manuscript nine years ago from a friend of a friend of your friend Bob. I read it twice without stopping and I’ve read it two more times since. I keep waiting for it to get published but…”

“Never will,” I said, remembering little about the book. “Too dark, too crazy.”

“Yeah, but that’s what helped me get down to my shit, down to what I’d been afraid of my whole fucking life. There I was. You wrote me, man. When Carlo jumped into the river and was drowning and Madman saved him, I swear to God it felt like he was saving me. And when Carlo crawled out of the river, I was changed. Bought this place the next day, stopped taking pictures of dog food and office products and never looked back.”

Still Moving

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

selfport2

Todd self-portrait

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2013)

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Mark Twain

If you find yourself in the village of Mendocino on Friday August 30 a few minutes before 6:30 PM, and you happen to be walking by Gallery Bookshop on Main Street, I do hope you’ll enter that oasis of three-dimensional books because I will be there talking about and reading from my recently reissued novel Inside Moves. Originally published thirty-five years ago, my first novel has been out-of-print for thirty-two years, and this wholly unexpected revival has inspired in me myriad dreams and memories, some of which I hope to share with whoever shows up to listen.

“Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” Kahil Gibran

I wrote Inside Moves in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended, the novel’s narrator a young veteran wounded and disabled in that war. I was spared from military service by a medical condition, ankylosing spondylitis, and when the book was published in 1978 I wondered if I would be taken to task for daring to write in the voice of someone who had been in combat when I had not. But just the opposite occurred, and I met many veterans who loved the book, in part because they saw themselves in the narrator and felt empowered by his story. Many people with disabilities were also pleased to have one of their own as a narrator, and when the movie based on the novel came out in 1980, though not a box office success, it was quite popular among the disabled and remains so to this day.

The folks who made the movie of Inside Moves, despite my many protests, changed Roary, the teller of the tale, from a man crippled by war to a failed suicide, and I heard from several veterans who were outraged by that change. I remember in particular a man I’d hired to do some hauling for me around the time the movie came out, an immensely strong man who had miraculously survived several harrowing fire fights in Vietnam and had read my book many times. The day after he saw the film, he came to visit me and tearfully asked why they had changed what for him was the most important aspect of the book. I tried to explain as best I could, but he left me saying, “Maybe someday they’ll make it again and get it right.”

 “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

An original work of art is a wild thing, and once that wild thing goes out into the world, it is impossible for the artist to control what that wild thing will do and how that wild thing will interact with other things in this mysterious universe.

The new edition of Inside Moves was published because when Sherman Alexie, the charming and famous author who chose the book to be reissued, was fifteen, his father gave him a paperback edition of the book and, as Sherman wrote in the copy of the new edition he signed for me, “This book was formative in my life.” In a panel discussion in Seattle celebrating the launch of Pharos Editions, of which the new edition of Inside Moves was among their first titles, Alexie said he has read Inside Moves more than twenty times; and in his introduction to the new edition, he calls the book, “the best novel about basketball ever written.”

Having labored in obscurity for all but a few moments of my life, I find such praise from the likes of Sherman Alexie quite surreal. I’ll take it, of course, and rejoice that my work had a positive impact on such a good and renowned writer, but with my literary career reduced to making photocopies of my last several creations so I can share them with a handful of interested readers, and with publishers large and small universally indifferent to me, I cannot help feeling somewhat removed from the writer Alexie is referring to.

His love of the book reminds me that teenagers adore Inside Moves. During the few years when the book was widely available, I received letters from junior high and high school teachers all over the country telling me that Inside Moves was the first book that many of their students had ever eagerly read and written about. One teacher sent me the first two chapters of a novel that two boys, theretofore troublemakers and non-readers, had written together in the voice of Roary—an ambitious attempt at a sequel to Inside Moves. I do hope the new edition will be discovered and utilized by English teachers, for Roary connects exceedingly well with rebels and outcasts and those who feel misunderstood, which most of us at one time or another feel we are.

As it happens, I did write a sequel to Inside Moves in 1985 entitled Still Moving that was almost but never published, and I doubt very much I have a copy. I wrote that book hoping to restart my faltering career, and I think it likely I destroyed the manuscript some years later in one of my raging attempts to exorcise my unhappy past. I suppose there might be a copy lurking in one of those boxes filled with heaps of my unpublished work, but I fear I would find the sequel dreadful—a reflection of my life at that time.

“One of the most feared expressions in modern time is ‘The computer is down.’” Norman Augustine

Another of the many things that Inside Moves brings to mind is the writing of books before the advent of personal computers. I wrote three drafts of the novel longhand and three typed drafts, and my redoubtable agent Dorothy Pittman showed the book to thirteen publishers over the course of two years (in a time when simultaneous submissions to multiple publishers was verboten) until Sherry Knox, a rookie editor at Doubleday convinced her powerful editor-in-chief Betty Prashker to take a chance on the book. I then wrote two revised drafts in longhand and two typed drafts before the manuscript was ready to be copyedited.

Say what one will, pro or con, about the quality of literature since the advent of writing and editing on computer screens, but the lack of such groovy technology eliminated a good 99% of would-be writers from the field and selected for seriously dedicated wannabes as opposed to everyone and her uncle. Writing a novel in those pre-computer days was a hugely daunting undertaking, and when the writer was done he could not click a mouse and email a PDF hither and yon or self-kindleize or any such thing, and so most people, even many of those who burned with desire to be writers, did not set forth on that perilous path.

In those days before the advent of personal computers and laser printers, I never met a single person who thought she could write a novel without first learning to write a good short story. Today there are millions of people who think they can write novels without being able to write proper paragraphs. The mind, my mind at least, boggles at such monumental delusion, yet the world is awash in unreadable books born of such delusion, many of which are for sale in your local bookstore. What a woild!

“Even in a perfect world

Where everyone was equal,

I’d still own the film rights

And be working on the sequel.” Elvis Costello

“Still writing?” people are forever asking me, even people who should know better. And then they smile wistfully, their wistfulness suggesting they know of my long running lack of commercial success and the hopelessness, as far as they are concerned, of my situation.

“Yes,” I say, smiling bravely. “Seems to be my habit now, kin to breathing and sleeping and eating. And farting.”

“Good for you,” they say, for they wish to be encouraging and positive, though they really think I ought to give up writing and focus on growing especially fat carrots or something along those more edible lines. After all, how many unpublished works does one need to create before one finally…

But what they don’t realize is that I write with the firm belief that my work is so good, so interesting, so timely, and so important, in some unfathomable way, that I must keep writing, and the world will somehow some day be compelled to take notice. One might argue that I am as delusional as those who think they can write novels without knowing how to write proper paragraphs, but I would argue that since I do know how to write proper paragraphs, I am not entirely delusional.

What I do know is that the trouble begins at Gallery Books on August 30, 6:30 PM. Remember: it is never too early to sock away a few Christmas gifts, signed by the author, and it is always a good time to support your local bookstore, that rare and vanishing species of place we really don’t want to do without.

Inside Moves is also available as a downloadable audio book and in various e-formats.

Mystery Inventions

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Daughter Mystery painting by Todd

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

Deeply moved by a concert of music by Martinû and Mozart, a man gives fifty dollars to a street musician, a Venezuelan bass player whose musical inventions are reminiscent of Eric Satie and Bill Evans. The bass player uses the fifty dollars to buy herself the first nourishing meal she’s had in weeks, after which she catches a train to visit her mother for the first time in several months, and arrives to find her mother dying. With her last breath, the bass player’s mother reveals the identity of the bass player’s real father; and while questing to find her father, the bass player meets a pianist with whom she records ten improvisations, each a musical meditation on the question: what is life all about?

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.” Albert Schweitzer

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas makes an excellent case for the digging stick and the ostrich egg being the two most important inventions in human history—more important than fire or weaponry. I am reading The Old Way again, Thomas’s masterpiece about the Bushmen of the Kalahari; and I find her book the perfect antidote to the information overload and resultant anxiety of this digital age. Here is a tiny taste of The Old Way.

“A digging stick is humble, yes. The very name of this item in the English language shows how seriously we underrate it—we assign specific nouns, not vaguely descriptive phrases, to objects that we consider important. Our long stick with a blade at the end is call a spear, for instance, not a stabbing stick. But even if a pointed stick seems insignificant to us in our innocence, as an invention of consequence it ranks with the discovery of the deep roots themselves and has made more difference to our species than virtually all the other inventions we celebrate with more enthusiasm.”

“Then, too, there is the ostrich egg. This useful item is first a meal and then a water bottle. To use these eggs, we had to do only two things—steal a fresh egg without being kicked by the ostrich, and open a hole in the shell. Unless the egg is opened carefully, the contents will spill, so the best way to eat the egg without wasting the contents is to pick up a rock, tap open a small hole in the shell, and stir the contents with a stick. After sucking out the egg, we had an empty eggshell, with obvious implications. An ostrich egg holds from five to five and a half cups of water, more than a day’s supply. No further refinement was needed except a wad of grass for a stopper.”

“On the dry savannah, the need for water limited our foraging. One ostrich eggshell filled with water could expand the foraging range of its owner by fifty to one hundred square miles.”

“Only one kind of primate—our kind—found a way to reach the deep buried foods, carry small amounts of water, and modify tree nests into ground nests so that we could sleep anywhere.”

“There is no greater mystery to me than that of light traveling through darkness.” Alexander Volkov

Writing about inventions, I am reminded of that old joke (and its many variations) about a world conference to determine the most important invention of all time, each nation having an egoistic stake in nominating an invention thought to have originated in their country.

So the Russian representative rises. “We nominate sputnik. After all, first satellite started space race that put people on moon and spawned most important technological breakthroughs thereafter.” Loud applause.

The American representative stands. “Hey, there’s no denying sputnik was a good little kick in the pants, but has anything changed the world more profoundly than the computer? We don’t think so. We nominate the computer, that fundamentally American creation, as the most important invention of all time.” Thunderous applause.

Then the representative of the group or nation the joke teller wants to make fun of stumbles to the podium. “Of course, sputnik was a game changer, and life without computers is almost unimaginable, but there is one invention we think is far more amazing than both of those illustrious inventions, and that is the thermos. Keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold. How does it know?”

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

In 1900, the average life span of an American was forty-seven years, and the average life span for people in many other societies in the world was considerably less. The invention and deployment of penicillin in the 1940’s is credited with increasing that average life span to eighty years for citizens of America and other so-called advanced nations. Prior to the widespread use of antibiotics, millions of people, especially infants, children, and the elderly, died annually of diseases now easily cured. The most troubling result of this vast increase in human longevity is the increase in human population far beyond the regenerative capacity of the planet.

Consider this: paleoanthropologists have found almost no remains of pre-historic humans older than thirty. Lose a step ten thousand years ago and you were tiger food, or possibly vittles for your brethren. Now try to imagine the world today if most people still died shortly after their wisdom teeth emerged to replace those molars lost during the first twenty years of chewing on the tough and the raw.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung

I recently came out with a new CD of piano and bass duets entitled Mystery Inventions on which I play piano and Kijé Izquierda plays bass. Each of our ten tunes explores variations on a basic melodic expression underscored by an intriguing bass pattern. Because my piano playing is spacious (some would say spare), the tunes on my previous piano albums 43 short Piano Improvisations and Ceremonies are melody-driven, whereas the bass drives the Mystery Inventions, even when the tempo is slow. I was tempted to bring in a drummer, but the interplay of bass and piano sounded so groovy, I opted for duet.

The most mysterious thing to me about my piano playing is that my left hand operates with no conscious direction from me, whereas my right hand learns through my conscious intentions. Because I do not read music or play music composed by other people, my compositions and improvisations are the result of hours of daily keyboard explorations during which I discover note patterns and interrelationships that captivate me sufficiently so I will repeat those patterns until my fingers remember them. The more thoroughly my fingers memorize these patterns, the freer I am to improvise on those patterns. I have been practicing this way for forty-five years, my right hand learning through my conscious inquiries, my left hand figuring things out on its own.

 “The final mystery is oneself.” Oscar Wilde

I don’t read music because when I was seven-years-old I took piano lessons from a very unhappy man who did not like me. After a few traumatic lessons wherein he berated me for not sufficiently practicing the assigned pieces, there came a horrific moment when he struck my right hand with a heavy metal pen because I was not, in his estimation, holding my hands correctly. I screamed bloody murder and ran out of the room. I can feel the ache in my knuckles to this day.

Thereafter I not only refused to play the piano, I could not look at our piano without feeling sick. Singing became my main mode of musical expression, and at sixteen I was a singer in a very loud rock band. The leader of the band was my close friend, and a talented guitarist. He used to come to my house and noodle around on his guitar while I accompanied him on bongos. One evening he pointed at our old upright piano and said, “Can you play that?”

“No,” I said, reluctant to even look at the piano.

“Oh, go on,” he said, reaching over and plunking a few notes. “Just play anything and I’ll play along.”

“No,” I said, furiously. “I don’t play the fucking piano, okay?”

“Please?” he insisted. “Just a few notes so I can play some harmonies.”

And because I wanted to please my friend, I went to the piano and played a simple pattern of notes; and six weeks later we opened for a rock band at a teen nightclub in the basement of a church in Woodside, California. I played simple patterns of notes and chords while my friend improvised on his electric twelve-string guitar. Two beautiful hippie chicks wearing dresses made of diaphanous scarves danced to our pubescent ragas, and afterwards a big black guy with a shaved head came up to me and said, “Busted hip, kid. You know Monk? Miles? Hubbard? Hancock? Evans? Cannonball? Check’em out.” So I did; and I was a goner.

And now, listening to Mystery Inventions, I bless that very sad man who smacked my knuckles fifty-five years ago, because if not for his striking me so cruelly, I might never have left the well-trod path and gotten lost in the wild jungle of possibilities.

Her Children

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Photo by Ginger Malisos

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No, but rather, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.

Happiness

Friday, December 10th, 2010

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.” Edith Wharton

November thirtieth. The weather report said Mendocino could expect rain tonight and for the next several days, so in anticipation of the deluge I spent an hour giving my three garlic beds their second mulching with some well-aged horse manure. I planted my garlic on October 17, my birthday, and now all but a few of the hundred and forty cloves I inserted into the friable soil have sent up sturdy green shoots.

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Mark Twain

Both garlic and humans gestate in their respective wombs for nine months before arriving at the optimal moment for emerging into the light. The poet in me finds this similarity delightful and significant.

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” Colette

I am sixty-one and have grown garlic every year for the last thirty years. I began growing garlic while living in Sacramento where I had a large vegetable and flower garden in the backyard of the only house I ever owned. I have grown vegetables since I was six-years-old, but waited to sew my first bed of garlic until I was certain I would be living in the same place for more than a year.

Before I planted my first garlic crop, I consulted pertinent chapters in gardening books and interviewed an elderly Italian woman who grew gorgeous garlic plants in a large circular patch in the center of her impressively green lawn a few blocks from my house. I gathered from my research that in the event of an early and persistently wet winter I might not need to water my garlic until spring, but if no rain fell for some weeks at a stretch I would need to give my garlic periodic soakings. This meant I could no longer blithely ignore my garden from December to March as was my habit before I undertook the growing of garlic.

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” A.A. Milne

China produces 77% of the garlic grown in the world: 23 billion pounds a year. Zowee! That comes to more than three pounds of garlic for every person on earth. India grows 4% of the garlic, South Korea 2%, Russia 1.6%, and the United States 1.4%. Which suggests that though Gilroy, California claims to be the garlic capital of the world, it is not.

“The secret of happiness is to find a congenial monotony.” V.S. Pritchett

One of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life was making groovalicious pesto from garlic and basil and almonds I grew in my own Sacramento backyard. My two almond trees, planted adjacent to a tall wooden fence, began to produce nuts in their fifth year; and every single one of those firstborn nuts was devoured by squirrels before those nuts were ripe enough for human consumption.

Indeed, until my almond trees were eight-years-old I despaired of ever harvesting more than a few pathetic almonds from my trees. Then one day I noticed that those ravenous arboreal rodents had left untouched a concentration of almonds growing low in the tree and near the fence on which my cats liked to perch. Thus enlightened, I thereafter pruned my almond trees to encourage the growth of several more low down branches so that these branches and their bounty could be easily patrolled by my cats, while the yummy prizes adorning the upper branches were sacrificed to the incorrigible squirrels.

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” Eric Hoffer

Since fleeing Sacramento in 1995, I have never again grown such rampant and mammoth and exceedingly juicy basil, and may never again harvest such delicious almonds from trees I nurtured from bare roots into towering prolificacy; but here in Mendocino I grow garlic that surpasses the best I ever grew in those inland lowlands where the summers were cruel to the likes of me, and the winters were not much kinder, for I was bred and born in San Francisco where Hot is anything over seventy-eight and Cold is anything below fifty.

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Thomas Merton

After fifteen years of growing garlic in Sacramento, I moved to Berkeley and rented a house that afforded me only a tiny garden plot, fifteen feet by fifteen feet, a quarter of which I devoted to the cultivation of garlic. I had honed my garlic chops, as it were, in a climate very unlike Berkeley’s, and so it took me a year to adjust my gardening techniques to fit that cooler coastal clime where lettuce and kale and chard grow year round, Aloe Vera can spread like Bermuda Grass, and hedges of Jade plants are not uncommon.

“On the whole, the happiest people seem to be those who have no particular cause for being happy except that they are so.” William Inge

I usually harvest my garlic bulbs at the end of June or in early July, and from that happy pile I set aside a few dozen of the largest bulbs with the biggest cloves for the next fall planting. I grow two strains of hard neck garlic, one strain descended from spicy white garlic sold to me by a Chinese garlic grower I met at a farmer’s market in Sacramento, the other a pinkish garlic given to me by a woman who said the garlic had been passed down for generations in the family of an Italian man she was dating. And when a fresh shipment of garlic appears on the shelf at Corners of the Mouth in Mendocino, I will go through the lot looking for outstanding bulbs with large firm cloves to add to my arsenal.

“Happiness is a how, not a what. A talent, not an object.” Hermann Hesse

One day an elderly man with a thick German accent stood in the middle of my Berkeley plot and proclaimed, “I zee by your garlic zat you are real gardener.”

I know several gardeners who don’t grow garlic and are far more zealous and prolific than I in the ways of growing vegetables and flowers and herbs, so I certainly don’t consider the growing of garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener. I suppose this German fellow may have labeled me a real gardener because of the beauty and enormity of my garlic plants and my fastidious care of their beds, but in remembering the tone of his voice and the twinkle in his eye, I think, actually, he did consider growing garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener, and though I may not intellectually agree with him, in some ineffable way I do agree.

“Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” Kahil Gibran

The aged manure I use to mulch my garlic comes to me courtesy of my good friend Kathy Mooney, her horse Paloma the manufacturer of the blessed poop. Paloma is a gorgeous, white, blue-eyed Tennessee Walker, friendly and intelligent and possibly clairvoyant, for she always seems to be expecting me when I arrive with a bag of apples for her.

Prior to my coming to collect her manure, my interactions with Paloma were conducted over a fence between us, I feeding her apples and petting her, she allowing me to do so. Thus my entrance into her corral with my wheelbarrow ushered in a new phase of our relationship and gave me a firsthand appreciation of how strong a 1200-pound horse in her prime can be.

Having followed me to the area where she generally deposits her fertilizer, Paloma gingerly fitted her large and beautiful snout under the front rim of my big blue wheelbarrow, and with a flick of her mighty neck flung the wheelbarrow fifteen feet through the air (thankfully not in my direction), as if to say, “Thank you so much for bringing me a new toy. Fetch it, please, and I will toss it again.”

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

As I was mulching the many green spikes with Paloma’s manure, I realized that this fabulously rich organic matter was in part composed of apples I’d brought to Paloma, and those apples came from Joanne’s trees, Joanne being our gracious neighbor and landlord. One of the perks of renting from Joanne is a profusion of apples every fall from her well-tended trees, apples we share with several other households in the watershed.

“The man who has planted a garden feels that he has done something for the good of the world.” Vita Sackville-West

Earlier this year, a consortium of scientists decoded the complete genome of the Golden Delicious apple, which turns out to have 57,000 genes, the highest number of any plant genome studied to date and more genes than the human genome, which only has 30,000 genes. Think about that the next time you eat an apple.

“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half. Examine the centers of the halves. You will find that the seed cavities form five-pointed stars. Now take a large rose hip and cut it in half in the same way you cut the apple. Voila. You will find similar five-pointed stars, for apples and roses are close kin.

“What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Marcia’s Fresh Garlic Dressing (for salad for two)

In a glass jar or ceramic bowl mix together 2-3 large cloves of grated fresh garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar, and a healthy splash of tamari. Now dress the lettuce—a generous handful per person—and for an extra treat throw in half an avocado.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)