Posts Tagged ‘Alexander McCall Smith’

Mutant Ideologies

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

something greather we could be tw

Something Greater We Could Be painting by Nolan Winkler

“Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself.” Alexander McCall Smith

In 1968, when I was nineteen, I read The Population Bomb by Paul and Ann Ehrlich. That book and several others I read over the next few years, along with a life-changing journey through Mexico and Central America as a translator for a marine biologist, turned me into a zealous proponent of zero population growth, mass transit, organic gardening, and material minimalism.

That was fifty years ago. Since 1968, the world’s human population has more than doubled to over seven billion, the world’s automobile population (non-electric) has more than doubled to 1.2 billion, and organically grown food accounts for less than five per cent of the food grown in America. The earth’s fisheries are depleted, carbon emissions are increasing rather than decreasing, and we have an American government dedicated to undoing what little good our government did for the environment over the last forty years.

When I find myself in conversation with people who are just now becoming alarmed about climate change and the unfolding economic and environmental disasters engulfing us, I am reminded of the anger and disinterest and disingenuous lip service that greeted me for most of the last fifty years whenever I wrote about or discussed these issues and suggested ways to avoid much of what has now befallen the world. And though I am sad and disheartened about the unfolding disasters decimating human societies and life on our precious planet, I am not surprised by these disasters or the lack of substantive response to them.

My more cynical friends explain the collapse of our environment as a result of human nature. But even a cursory study of the myriad indigenous societies that existed prior to their annihilation by the forces of capitalism and overpopulation, reveals that human nature created thousands of societal systems that depended on sustaining the optimal health of the environment. And at the heart of those sustainable practices were minimal population growth and zero net pollution of the environment.

Thus I would argue that human nature is not the cause of the various crises threatening us today. I would suggest that the great threat to the continuation of life on earth was caused by mutant ideologies—capitalism and patriarchal monotheism—that destroyed those thousands of indigenous societies forming the fabric of humanity for tens of thousands of years—societies that evolved to harmonize with nature, not in opposition to it.

One of the books I’m currently reading is the beautifully written Wisdom from a Rainforest by Stuart Schlegel, a recollection of his two years of living among the Teduray of Mindanao in the 1960s.

“They had lived for untold generations in the forest—since ‘the beginning of time’ they believed—without its becoming destroyed and replaced by grassland. They carefully protected certain forest trees, which they valued for fruit or other potential gifts. They avoided overcutting bamboo stands that they considered particularly useful. Hunting, fishing, gathering were all carried out with care not to overexploit the natural resources on which human life depended. Their lives were simple, but not poor, and life was a journey, not a battle.”

Yes, Schlegel is describing a pre-industrial society, a system of living that evolved without money or cars or telephones or machines of any kind. And it is possible, I suppose, that money and machines and the changes they bring to society inevitably elicit a self-destructive response from our human natures. Maybe my cynical friends are correct, and human nature, when exposed to all the modern inconveniences, becomes a globally destructive force impossible to curtail.

I met Stuart Schlegel when I was nineteen, the same year I read The Population Bomb. He was my Anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, and I took two courses from him. When I was trying to decide whether to stay in college or drop out, I went to him for advice, and he was the only adult of those I consulted who suggested that a break from academia might be just the thing for me.

Reading Schlegel’s bittersweet memoir, I now understand why he gave me such counsel. He clearly felt that Western Civilization was a plague upon the earth, and he saw American academia as an extension of that same male-dominated hierarchal system that is the antithesis (and ultimately the killer) of the Teduray manifestation of human nature—egalitarian, non-competitive, regenerative, and highly cooperative.

As Schlegel writes in Wisdom from a Rainforest, “Teduray children were taught from an early age to scan their social world for what they could do to encourage and assist all other people, and they were taught most certainly never to inflict physical or spiritual injury on anyone. This commitment to mutual aid, support, and respect gave these people a quality that is almost impossible to describe, a sort of peace combined with a palpable graciousness.”

Ida’s Place—Book One

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

idas-place-cover

Ida’s Place cover drawing by Todd

(This article and these first two chapters of Ida’s Place—Book One: Return appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

About a year ago I began writing a novel entitled Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, the first of what I intend to be at least a trio of connected novels. My other twenty novels, published and unpublished, are single volume works, though I did write a sequel to Under The Table Books entitled The Resurrection of Lord Bellmaster, though that as yet unpublished sequel, was born long after Under The Table Books had stood alone for many years.

Before I read the first fourteen volumes of the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, the only multi-volume fictional works I had ever read and enjoyed were The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. While reading the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency books, I became intrigued by the idea of writing a series of connected novels, and so I began my latest opus with the conscious intention of following the first book with at least two more.

To my amazement, the realization that I need not tie up every important loose end in a single volume was fantastically liberating. More characters than I had ever dared introduce in a single volume began to arrive and take up residency on my pages, with subplots and interconnections growing as profusely as well-watered zucchini in rich soil during a hot summer. And with the stricture of Finality gone the way of the dodo, Ida’s Place—Book One: Return was born.

As it happens, Ida’s Place is set in the mythic California coastal town of Big River, the weekly paper there the Big River Advertiser, otherwise known as the BRA, the editor none other than the jocular Anderson Bruce. In Book One, Anderson only makes a cameo, but there’s no telling what may happen in Book Two. Comb-bound photocopies of Book One: Return, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available exclusively from yours truly via my web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Here for your enjoyment, are the first two chapters of my newborn opus.

1. Little Things

On a cold day in October, a strong ocean breeze rattling the windows, two-year-old Ida Kaminsky, her dark brown hair in pigtails, sat on the living room sofa in her pink pajamas with a hardbound copy of Treasure Island open on her lap. Ida’s mother Alice, a gorgeous brunette with sparkling green eyes, stood on the threshold between the kitchen and the living room watching her tiny daughter turn the pages of the big old book. She assumed Ida was looking for pictures because Ida loved making up stories to go along with the illustrations in her children’s books.

“Sweetheart,” said Alice, approaching her daughter, “I don’t think that book has any pictures. Shall I get you one that does?”

“But I like this story,” said Ida, who had begun to speak in complete sentences when she was nine months old. “About Long John Silver.”

Alice had never read Treasure Island to Ida and wondered how her baby girl had learned the name Long John Silver. Ida’s brother Howard could barely read, though he was eight, and Walter, Alice’s husband, had never read anything to Ida.

“When did you hear this story before?” asked Alice, sitting beside her daughter.

“I hear it now,” said Ida, looking at the page. “Down went Poo with a cry that rang high into the night.” Ida looked at Alice and made a sad face. “Poo is blind.”

Alice gently took the book from her daughter and studied the page and saw that Ida had read the name Pew as Poo, but otherwise had pronounced all the words correctly and in the order they were written.

“When did you learn to read, honey?” asked Alice, handing the book back to Ida. “Who showed you how?”

“I look at those little things,” said Ida, touching one of the words, “and you tell me the story.”

“You hear me say the words?” asked Alice, holding her breath.

“Yes,” said Ida, nodding. “I hear you, Mama.”

“Let’s try some other books,” said Alice, going to the bookshelf and choosing Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Kerouac’s On the Road.

Having determined that Ida could read anything, no matter how strange or difficult, Alice called the University of California in Berkeley and was referred to a professor who was supposedly an expert on such phenomena, and he agreed to do an assessment of Ida. But when the professor, a taciturn fellow, gave Ida a few simple tests, the little girl didn’t seem to be able to read at all.

“I’m afraid, Mrs. Kaminsky,” sneered the professor, “you have fallen prey to delusions of grandeur. Parents often do.”

As they drove home to Big River, Alice asked Ida, “Why wouldn’t you read for the man, my darling?”

“No voice talked,” said Ida, shaking her head. “I looked at the word things, but I couldn’t hear you.”

“Did you like that man?” asked Alice, recalling the professor’s sneer.

“No,” said Ida, shaking her head. “He scared me.”

So Alice, who believed in signs from the universe, interpreted their encounter with the unpleasant academic as a portent of what might happen if she were to make a commotion about her daughter’s remarkable ability, and thereafter kept her discoveries of Ida’s extraordinary talents to herself.

*

Extremely myopic, Ida got her first pair of glasses when she was four-years-old, and though she said she loved her new glasses, she was forever taking them off and putting them on and taking them off and putting them on again.

After a few days of this incessant taking off and putting on, Alice asked Ida, “Sweetheart, is there something wrong with your new glasses?”

“Well,” said Ida, never wanting to disappoint her mother, “they certainly help me see everything much clearer now, but they don’t let me see the colored clouds around people and Sophie and Mike and Elmer and flowers and things.”

Sophie was their big gray cat, Mike and Elmer the family dachshunds.

“Colored clouds?” asked Alice, smiling curiously at her ever-surprising daughter. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” said Ida, taking off her glasses to see her mother’s misty golden outline, “the color floating around you.”

At which moment, Howard came rushing in from outside to get a drink of water. A gangly clumsy boy diagnosed as moderately autistic, Howard was digging a hole in the backyard he hoped would one day be a tunnel going all the way to the ocean a quarter-mile away, hence he was filthy.

“Does Howard have color floating around him?” asked Alice, afraid her daughter might be suffering from something more serious than nearsightedness.

“Howie has dark blue,” said Ida, watching her brother lean over the sink to gulp water from the faucet. “Yours is gold, Mama. Elmer has yellow, Mike has green, and Sophie has yellow, too, unless she’s mad at another cat and then she has red.”

“What about Walter?” asked Alice, wincing as Howard slammed the door on his way out to resume digging.

“Papa doesn’t have any color,” said Ida, slowly shaking her head. “I don’t know why, but he doesn’t.”

“And when you put your glasses on, the colored clouds go away?”

“Yes,” said Ida, putting her glasses on. “But I still love them because they make everything so clear.”

2. Golden Buddha

“At first I no want rent Ida,” says Duyi Ling, telling Ralph Canterbury, his brother-in-law, about leasing three-fourths of the Ling building to Ida Kaminsky who intends to open a bakery and coffee house there. “She say have two maybe three big oven for make many muffin and bread. I think maybe too much competition for me. No want competition next door.”

Duyi, sixty-nine, short and chubby and entirely bald, and Ralph, seventy-two, tall and lean with a full head of silver gray hair, are sitting at a table for six in the otherwise empty dining room of Golden Buddha. The late June sun is shining through just-washed windows into the large square room with yellow walls, lime green ceiling, blue linoleum floor and seating for seventy people. Golden Buddha is the only Chinese restaurant in Big River, a coastal town with an official population of 4,789, a hundred and eighty miles north of San Francisco and a hundred miles from the nearest freeway.

Open seven-days-a-week for lunch and dinner, closed from three to five in the afternoon, Golden Buddha has been in operation for thirty-six years, the extensive menu immutable, the food consistently superb. The time is now four in the afternoon and Ralph has come to help string (actually destring) snow peas in preparation for the Friday night dinner rush. Duyi is always at the restaurant save for those few hours late at night when he goes home to sleep, his house two blocks away.

“Why did you change your mind?” asks Ralph, an English teacher at Big River High, the only high school in Big River. Descended from Philadelphia Brahmin, Ralph has been married to Duyi’s sister Far for twenty-five years and very much enjoys being part of a large family that is entirely Chinese save for Ralph.

Duyi sips his lukewarm tea and explains, “Ida say, ‘Please no worry Mr. Ling. We no compete. My people come for muffin and coffee, go you lunch and dinner.’” He chuckles recalling his meeting with Ida. “She thirty-one but look teenager. Have so long brown hair and so pretty face behind so big glasses. You see her?”

“Oh, I know Ida very well,” says Ralph, smiling at memories of the delightful wunderkind. “I was her teacher for two years when she was in high school here before she went off to conquer Harvard. Beyond brilliant. But I haven’t seen her in…gosh…at least ten years.”

“So,” says Duyi, not sure what conquer Harvard and beyond brilliant mean, “I say her, ‘You no open lunch and dinner? How you make money?’ She say, ‘Yes, I open lunch but no open dinner and no compete you. Sell muffin and coffee and bread and kind food you no make. Send people you for best Chinese.’”

“I seem to recall,” says Ralph, tapping his fingertips together, “that Ida and her family ate here all the time, didn’t they?”

“Yes, she come here when little girl many time with so pretty mother and crazy brother and fat father.” Duyi frowns sadly as he recalls Ida and her mother deciding what to order—the crazy brother ripping his napkin into hundreds of tiny pieces, the fat father never once looking at the menu. “And when older she come here with giant boy Donald and drink much tea and talk very excited.”

“The odd couple,” says Ralph, remembering the huge boy with orange red hair and brilliant green eyes holding hands with the little girl with long brown hair and shining brown eyes behind oversized glasses—holding hands as they walked home from school. “She so brilliant, he the rock of Gibraltar.”

“But I think maybe she too much competition for me,” says Duyi, nodding anxiously. “So I make rent very high. First and last and big deposit for maybe damage. I think scare her away, but she say okay. Want pay for whole year. I say, ‘Whole year? What if you big competition for me? Better three month at time.”

“Fear not,” says Ralph, smiling as Duyi’s wife Jiahui approaches with a silver platter heaped high with snow peas. “She’ll bring you loads of business. People will flock to Ida’s for coffee and muffins, they’ll smell your fabulous food and…”

“Wife say same,” says Duyi, glancing furtively at Jiahui before checking his cell phone to see how the stock market closed. “I not so sure.”

“I listen from kitchen when he talk to her,” says Jiahui, fifty-two, lovely and slender, dressed for work in black slacks, black shoes, white dress shirt and gold bow tie, her black hair stylishly short. “So I come here and say to Ida, ‘What kind muffin you make?’ She say, ‘All kind. Blueberry, banana, chocolate chip, pumpkin. Also kind for people allergic wheat. Also many kind bread and cookie. Also best coffee in whole world.’” Jiahui laughs in delight. “She so confident. And all kind coffee drink, too.”

“Sounds marvelous,” says Ralph, thrilled by the prospect of an excellent coffee house and bakery right here in Big River.

“I bring you fresh hot tea,” says Jiahui, winking at Ralph and hurrying away.

Duyi begins to swiftly string the snow peas. “So…wife say Ida, ‘We can put Golden Buddha menu in your place?’ Ida say, ‘Oh, yes. Right next cash register. We send many people you.’ Wife say, ‘Okay. We rent you. Only not so high as husband say. Half so much.’”

“You have a shrewd wife,” says Ralph, picking up his first snow pea. “You won’t regret this, Duyi. Ida has always been a powerful people magnet.”

“I think Ida happy now,” says Duyi, with a humble shrug. “She so pretty smile. Jiahui happy, too. I think she want Ida muffin and best coffee.”

“But are you happy, my friend?” asks Ralph, smiling wistfully at his dour brother-in-law.

Duyi shakes his head. “I want happy, but afraid Ida bad competition for me.”

*

Learn more about Ida’s Place and read the first three chapters.

Dancing With Destiny

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

Fred & Ginger

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

“Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself.” Alexander McCall Smith

Do we, indeed, bring things upon ourselves? Are we the masters of our own destinies or are we pawns of forces we have no control over? These are questions I entertain myself with while walking to town today.

Having learned from my trusty tide chart that there is a negative tide attaining negative zenith at 9:30 in the AM today, and being a lover of negative tides, I decide to begin my daily trek to the village by walking down to Big River Beach, communing with the oceanic sprits, and then accessing the village by climbing the seventy stairs from the beach up to the headlands and from there meandering along the little trail through blackberry bushes and wild roses to the Presbyterian church.

“But is this what I really want to do?” I wonder as I amble down the steepest stretch of Little Lake Road. “Or have forces I have no control over made me think this is what I want to do when, in fact, it is what they (whoever they are) want me to do?”

I make a left onto Clark Street and head south toward Big River Beach. I am excited about the prospect of exploring the mouth of Big River with the tide so low and…or is my excitement merely a trick of those forces that want me on that beach at that particular time because…

Two bearded men approach me, one holding a leash connected to a large brown dog. As they draw near I instinctively give them a wide berth, and I’m glad I do because the large dog lunges at me as they pass, and the man is barely able to keep the dog from getting to me.

“Sorry about that,” says the man. “He’s never done that before.”

“Well, I’m glad you have him on a leash,” I say, having heard that same He’s never done that before line from dozens of unconvincing dog owners.

The lunging dog behind me, I wonder what brought me to that place on Clark Street just in time to encounter a lunging dog? A few minutes earlier or a few minutes later, no lunging dog. Coincidence? Or are the unseen ones trying to tell me something? I dunno.

A hundred yards further along, I get a panoramic view of Big River Beach in the distance—not a human being in sight on the vast expanse of sand. I wonder why. Gorgeous day. Extremely low tide. Summer upon us. Where are all the people? Or where are some people?

And now for the most obviously dangerous part of my journey, a quarter-mile stretch of walking against traffic on Highway One down to Big River Road, which is the main entrance to Big River State Park. There is a wide shoulder here, but not wide enough as far as I’m concerned, as cars and trucks come hurtling toward the walker at sixty miles an hour, cars and trucks driven by people who are often oblivious to pedestrians. Having nearly been killed at least three times by people talking on cell phones while driving, I am extremely wary of putting myself in situations where such thoughtless people might kill me, but this is the most convenient way to get to the beach on foot, so I hug the inside edge of the shoulder and prepare to jump into the bushes should an oncoming vehicle appear to be making a beeline for me.

Arriving at Big River Road, I find the park entrance closed to vehicular traffic by several big white saw horses, three of which bear giant traffic signs reading EXAM UNDERWAY. I kid you not. The signs don’t say ROAD CLOSED or PARK CLOSED, but EXAM UNDERWAY. Seeing no sign saying DO NOT ENTER, I saunter down the steep drive to the beach parking lot and espy three uniformed park employees standing beside two white dump trucks. One of the employees, a muscular man wearing reflective dark glasses says to me, “Yes, sir. What can I do for you?”

“I’m heading for the beach,” I say. “Is that okay, or will I be disturbing the exam?”

“No, that’s fine,” he says. “We’re keeping vehicles out because we’ve got some folks undergoing heavy equipment operation tests, but we’re not using the beach.”

“Thank you,” I say, having solved the mystery of why there was nobody on the beach.

“No worries,” says the man. “Enjoy.”

Big River’s flow of fresh water is so little right now and the tide is so greatly withdrawn that I can, for the first time in my eight years of living here, wade all the way across Big River and back, which I do before wandering out onto the greater beach. A few folks have come down the stairs from the headlands, so I am not entirely alone on the vast expanse of sand, but nearly so.

As I follow the widening river to where the stream of fresh water meets the salty sea, an osprey plummets into the river and quickly rises into the air with a little fish in her talons—a breathtaking sight and reason enough to have made this trek to the beach.

I roll up my pants’ legs and wade out into the ocean up to my knees, the breakers perfectly formed for surfing, though there are no surfers in the water yet, no doubt kept at bay by the heavy equipment exam. The water is relatively warm compared to how I remember it being a week ago, and I smile at thoughts of going swimming in the ocean, one day soon if not today.

Finding a likely spot on a sandy slope some fifty yards from the water’s edge, I eat a breakfast of nuts and seeds and a juicy navel orange, and get out my notebook to write. A story grabs me and I have the feeling the hidden heart of the tale is the question of whether we are masters of our own destinies or merely pawns of forces we have no control over. And as I write, I think of Buckminster Fuller and his notion that wisdom is knowing how, after much experimentation and experience, to harmonize our efforts and actions and designs with Nature’s principles for our own good and the good of all people and things.

I fill several pages of my notebook, and when the words cease to flow I look up and see five surfers out in the water, one of them just catching a wave and having a lovely little ride. I also see several people walking on the beach, including a few who are both elderly and obese, which suggests the heavy equipment exam has ended and the parking lot is now open for business. There are mothers with children, a woman looking for rocks and shells, a man with a dog on a leash, and a woman with a dog not on a leash. Everyone is taking pictures with their phones. A woman strides by talking on her cell phone and I hear her say, “…yeah, it may go up some more, but let’s not get greedy and lose…”

Feeling nicely energized by the oceanic fumes, I traverse the warming beach and sit on a log at the bottom of the stairs to wipe the sand off my feet and put on my shoes. A ten-year-old boy wearing a Giants baseball cap comes skipping down the stairs ahead of his parents and shouts, “See? I told you! It’s perfect!”

I count the stairs as I climb, but right before I reach the top I lose count because I’m distracted by a homeless guy sitting on a log overlooking the beach saying to another homeless guy, “Seriously, man, I watched the game on my phone and LeBron was not to be denied.”

As I arrive at the Presbyterian parking lot, a dusty expanse the church generously allows the general public to use, I am met by a muscular young man with curly brown hair, his sternum adorned with a lifelike tattoo of a pink rose. “How you doin’, man?” he asks, frowning at me.

“Great,” I say. “Beautiful day.”

“Would you be interested in buying some hash?” he asks, nodding.

“No, thank you,” I reply, wondering what made him think the likes of me would want to buy hashish from him. Or maybe he asks everyone he meets if they want to buy hashish. Or maybe…I dunno.

I get a little cash from the ATM machine at my bank, Mendocino’s one and only bank, stroll to the post office and pick up the mail featuring this week’s Anderson Valley Advertiser, and transect the village to reach the hardware store where I buy three bolts to attach a vice to a table in our workshop. As I’m searching the bolt bins, two men down the aisle from me are having an animated discussion about a construction project. One of the men says, “You know, I think it might look better if we do that, but I’m afraid we’d be tempting fate. You know what I mean? I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Home again. Gardening. Writing. Snacking. Practice the piano. Writing. Hours pass and evening approaches. Marcia has been away for two days concertizing in Santa Rosa and is due home for supper. What shall I make? I sit at my desk awaiting inspiration. I could heat up some rice and sauté some garden vegetables. That sounds good, yet I remain at my desk. I feel pleasantly ensnared, held in my chair by unseen powers. The phone rings. It’s Marcia calling from Boonville and suggesting she stop at Libby’s restaurant in Philo and pick up some superlative Mexican food. What do I think about that? I think Yes! and surrender to the beneficent spirits.