Posts Tagged ‘Anderson Valley Advertiser’

Weekly Offerings

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

signed & numbered

Twelve by Todd

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

I was nearly forty when it first occurred to me to write anything other than fiction and poetry and plays. At thirty-nine, I still thought of myself as a moderately successful novelist and short story writer. Furthermore, I rarely read non-fiction; and so in 1989, when Melinda Welsh, the editor of the brand new Sacramento News & Review invited me to write essays for her paper, I accepted her invitation with little understanding of what such reportage entails. Now, thirty years later, writing essays is my most persistent writing habit.

When my fiction and screenwriting ceased to bring home the bacon, so to speak, writing essays became a source of much-needed income, and I have no doubt that without such financial incentive, I would never have become habituated to writing non-fiction. Which is not to say I ever earned vast sums writing essays. Melinda paid me one hundred and fifty dollars per essay for the Sacramento News & Review; and for the entirety of my eight-year tenure writing a weekly piece for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, I was paid twenty-five dollars per. Nowadays I am paid by the knowledge that at least a handful of people look forward to my weekly offerings.

Melinda Welsh was a wonderful editor. She generally liked my take on things, appreciated my senses of humor and irony, edited my lines with a light hand, and rewarded me for my non-fiction efforts by paying me relatively large sums to write the News & Review’s annual Christmas story (fiction!) for several years running. One of those Christmas stories, The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger, was syndicated after appearing in the News & Review, and appeared in dozens of weeklies and dailies across America. Eureka!

In those pre-internet days, I belonged to a lucky little population of writers in America who made actual money writing original works for actual three-dimensional publications. Then seemingly overnight (but really in a few shocking years) our numbers were reduced to virtually zero by the advent of the worldwide web and the simultaneous and astounding (to me) discovery by magazine and newspaper editors that most people cannot distinguish good writing from bad. Therefore, why should those editors pay good money to good writers when, for little money or no money, they can avail themselves of quasi-readable chunks of verbiage yanked from the internet?

When I moved to Berkeley in 1995, I submitted essays and stories to four different Bay Area weeklies, but found no editorial champions and so ceased writing essays for the next eleven years. Instead, I wrote hundreds of short stories, forty-two of which became my book Buddha In A Teacup (recently issued in a lovely paperback edition by Counterpoint Press), and another hundred of which became my novel of stories Under the Table Books, winner of the 2009 American Indie Award for Best Fiction.

In 2007, the year after I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley, I sent an essay entitled Sister to Bruce Anderson at the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and Bruce published the piece. He then invited me to become a regular contributor to the AVA, a regularity that produced four hundred essays and gave me the ongoing pleasure of hearing from readers who enjoyed my work, as well as the ongoing displeasure of hearing from readers who were adamant my essays were a blight on the AVA.

As of mid-May 2017, my AVA career a memory now, I continue to write a weekly essay and post it with an accompanying photo on my blog at Underthetablebooks.com. Shortly thereafter, Dave Smith does me the honor of presenting my article and photo on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

And today I am pleased to announce the birth of Sources of Wonder, a handsome coil-bound collection of eighty-three of my favorite essays culled from the aforementioned four hundred, available exclusively from Under the Table Books. Among the stories in Sources of Wonder are Sister, Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs, The Double, Three Presidents (and a First Lady), What’s In A Name, Her Children, and My Butt (The Musical)—all the essays in the collection having elicited heartfelt responses from readers.

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

Speaking of heartfelt, as I was putting the finishing touches on Sources of Wonder, I was given a book of essays by the Scottish poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie, and I was thrilled to discover an excellent living writer, writing in English, who is not even close to being old or dead—an experience for me akin to coming upon a living and breathing unicorn who allows me a good long look at her before she winks slyly and saunters away into the mystic. I highly recommend Jamie’s books Sightlines and Findings.

If you have never purchased any of my coil-bound self-published works, I hasten to tell you that each copy of Sources of Wonder is signed and dated and numbered, the whimsical numerals sketched and lavishly colored by the author to make each volume a collector’s item and an ideal gift for friends who love to read and enjoy pondering the divine and mysterious and hilarious and fascinating interconnectedness of everything.

As Mr. Laskin says to Derek at the end of Under the Table Books, “I refer to it as chumming for synergy. There is nothing the universe appreciates more than action. Do you know why that is? Because action is the mother of the whole kit and caboodle.”

Sweet Libby’s

Monday, October 10th, 2016

queen for a day toddq

Queen For A Day painting by Nolan Winkler

“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” Romeo and Juliet

There are days when things juxtapose so exquisitely, one can’t help feeling some sort of transcendent author is writing out the simultaneous arrival of related elements composing a harmonious whole greater than the sum of the parts.

To wit: on the very day Marcia read to me from the Anderson Valley Advertiser that Libby’s restaurant in Philo is closing, we received in the mail our Netflix copy of the Japanese movie Sweet Bean. Libby’s beans—if you have never dined at that incomparable Mexican restaurant—are not sweet, but the experience of eating Libby’s beans comingled on a fork with her delectable rice is a divine culinary experience—sweet in the sense of magnificent.

The 2015 movie Sweet Bean is based on the novel An by Durian Sukegawa, adapted to the screen and directed by Naomi Kawase. An translates as “sweet red bean paste” and is the filling for a favorite Japanese confection know as dorayaki, consisting of sweet red Azuki bean paste sandwiched between two small round sponge-cake patties. The quality of the dorayaki depends entirely on the quality of that red bean paste, and thereby hangs the cinematic parable Sweet Bean.

Yes, we loved the movie. Yes, the movie made me hungry. And yes, the loving care with which the elderly woman Tokue prepares her irresistible bean paste put me in mind of Libby’s beans and rice and flan and carnitas and spicy shrimp. I have long fantasized that Libby would open a Libby’s annex in Mendocino wherein I would happily dine multiple times per month. But now she is closing her restaurant, and those four or five times a year we made the long trek inland to gorge on Libby’s cuisine will be no more. I’m sure Libby has good reasons for closing her eatery, but we are already feeling nostalgic about the absence of her food in our lives.

“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hand work, and a love of creating.” Julia Child

When I lived in Berkeley, I discovered Nakapan, a Thai restaurant just off University Avenue. For my taste, Nakapan was not only the best Thai restaurant in Berkeley, but the best Thai restaurant I had ever been to, and I have been to many good ones. Yet Nakapan was never crowded. Indeed, when I would go there with friends, we often found the place deserted, and we couldn’t understand why. The high-ceilinged room was warm and beautifully appointed, the service fantastic, the prices low, the food incomparable, and the servings so generous I often took home more food than I managed to eat while I was there.

Every time I dined at the more famous Thai restaurants in the Bay Area and found them inferior to Nakapan, I would return to that paradisiacal food palace all the more mystified that almost no one was there: the waitresses lovely and gracious, the chairs comfortable, the ambience perfecto. I eventually surrendered to my good fortune and went to Nakapan whenever I craved Thai food and had a little extra jingle in my pocket. The owner/chef of Nakapan closed her restaurant a couple years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino, which made my decision to relocate much easier.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

My late Uncle David was a successful restaurateur. In the 1980’s he opened the Beau Thai across the street from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the place was instantly successful. Until I stumbled upon Nakapan a decade later, the best Thai food I’d ever eaten was at David’s Beau Thai. The Beau Thai chefs were all recent arrivals from Thailand, having been assembled by David in Thailand to cook in a restaurant he was about to open in Chiangmai. When he was offered the location in Monterey, he couldn’t resist returning to the scene of his earlier and most famous success, the legendary Sancho Panza café. So he loaded those Thai chefs onto a jet and brought them to America.

I wish I could have dined with David at Nakapan. I would have loved to hear his theories about why that magical place was not the Mecca of Thai cuisine, while inferior restaurants won Best Of popularity contests and were filled to bursting with patrons. I also regret never dining with David at Libby’s in Philo. He would have loved everything about that unpretentious place, most especially the food.

In the movie Sweet Bean, the hero, a troubled man running the dorayaki shop as a form of penance, discovers that when the creation of red bean paste becomes a sacred ritual rather than a tedious obligatory process, all of life becomes sacred, too. Schmaltzy? Perhaps. But our hero’s transformation is so subtle, and the movie’s resolution so humble, I never felt my emotions being manipulated, but rather stimulated to respond in the same way we respond to good food.

At one point in the movie, as Tokue is sweetening her beans after they have attained perfection, she cautions our taciturn hero, “Not too sweet.”

He looks at her questioningly for a moment, and though nothing more is said about sweetness ever again, the entire movie is permeated with the subtle power of that moment of communication between them.

Now that Libby’s is closing, I aspire to cook beans that make my taste buds sing a similar tune to the one they sing when I eat Libby’s beans. And as I go about experimenting, I will remember Tokue leaning over her simmering beans and inhaling the scented steam, ecstatic to be part of unfolding miracle.

Near and Far

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

I promise moderation tw

I Promise Moderation painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2016)

“There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” Eugene O’Neill

We’ve had quite a series of storms this past week and the rain is continuing to fall. Several huge branches came down from the giant redwoods near our house, and we are fortunate none of those branches struck home. We’ve had two power outages, one lasting an hour, another five hours. In the absence of electricity to power our kitchen stove, we cooked an evening meal on our woodstove, and with our computers and lights kaput, I wrote a few letters by candlelight and Marcia practiced her cello.

The day before the storms began to arrive, our local chain saw savant dropped by and cut down two smaller redwood trees and many sky-obscuring branches from the aforementioned giants. Thus I now have several days of work ahead of me making kindling and firewood from the fallen goodies.

The very local water news is good as the storms continue to roll in from the Pacific, our home rain gauge telling six inches in a week, the recent downpours swelling the neighborhood aquifers. The Sierra snowpack, however, is still not exceptional and statewide drought conditions are expected to resume at the end of the rainy season.

Further afield, Bernie Sanders, my choice for President of the United States, is doing remarkably well for someone virtually unknown to the general public a year ago, but maybe not well enough to overcome the long-planned ascendancy of Hillary Clinton to that position of power over the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

I am most sad—but not surprised—about Hillary garnering such enormous support from those population sectors—African Americans, seniors, and women—that she and her husband abused for decades with policies intended to serve rich white males at the expense of those people now voting for in large numbers.

A friend who shares my appreciation for Bernie called to ask me what I thought about the success of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I replied, “I avoid listening to or reading about the debates because accounts of jabbering liars make me furious and depressed. I do read articles detailing which sectors of the population support which candidates, and what policies the majority of Americans support. I deduce from these articles that a sizeable majority of the population should be supporting Bernie Sanders, but do not. There seems to be a bizarre disconnect between what people want and the candidates they vote for. Put another way, we seem to be a nation of the confused.”

“I think in terms of the day’s resolution, not the years’.” Henry Moore

Yesterday I spent two pleasurable hours taking care of ten-month-old Vito while his parents bottled their latest batches of homemade wine and beer. Vito is on the verge of walking and talking, and he finds the various noises I can make with my mouth and lips and tongue hilarious.

Part of what made hanging out with Vito so much fun for me is that he does not care even a little bit about who becomes the next President of the Unites States. Nor does he care about the huge branches that thankfully missed our house. He cares about eating crackers, drinking water, wrecking towers of blocks, attempting to pull apart and eat books and magazines, crawling into areas of the house where he is not supposed to go, throwing things and shouting triumphantly as he throws them, trying to rip my glasses off my face, and watching rain drops pelt the window.

Returning home from my two hours with Vito, I strolled around the yard assessing the various tangles of redwood branches that will occupy me for the near future, and it occurred to me that by the time Vito can vote, Hillary and Bernie will be long gone from the spotlight, I will be eighty-three, should I live so long, and the history books will say little about Ms. Clinton except maybe she was the first woman President of the United States, just as they will say little about Barack Obama other than he was the first African American to hold that office. Their policies will be seen as virtually identical continuations of the greedy and violent agenda of the ruling oligarchy, unless Hillary happens to be in office for the Great Collapse, and then she will be remembered for that, too. Only Bernie has the chance to be mentioned as a latter day Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is one of the many strange things about being human in this era of global connectivity, when something of huge import today to hundreds of millions of people is of little or no importance to those same millions tomorrow. History becomes irrelevant in the context of a never-ending media flood.

Things that directly and immediately impact us—the water supply, the plum and apple crop, the almond harvest, Vito trying to break my glasses, whether or not we got a good night’s sleep, a call from a friend, power outages, ocean waves rushing up to tickle our toes—get shuffled into the continuum of flickering images and data bits on our various screens—Hillary lying through her teeth and cackling like a dybbuk, a dog catching a Frisbee, Bernie angrily decrying corporate abuse, bombs exploding in Gaza, a kitten falling off a sofa.

This incessant shuffling makes us schizoid and antsy and neither here nor there; a population of shattered psyches.

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” Casey Stengel

Predictions for 2016: the statewide drought will continue, but in Mendocino most wells will not run dry, the plum and apple and huckleberry and blackberry crops will be stupendous, the earth will continue to respond to the excesses of our species with climatic catastrophes, the Giants will win the World Series, naps will be scientifically proven to be good for you, Bernie Sanders will pass the baton of his socialist agenda to younger politicians, whales will continue their marvelous migrations, and popcorn will make yet another big comeback.

Town Life

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

there is always more life tw

There Is Always More Life painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2016)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

I have now lived in Mendocino for ten years, nine of those partnered with Marcia. Our little town gets flack for being a tourist trap, and there is no question that tourism and cannabis fuel the local economic engine, but so do carpentry, plumbing, school teaching, real estate, dentistry, nursing, doctoring, selling groceries, photocopying, and writing speculative fiction to name a few of the many things humans do hereabouts to make money. Which is to say, having lived in Berkeley for eleven years and Sacramento for fifteen, if Mendocino is a tourist trap, I’ll take it.

This past Saturday night I gave a reading at Mendocino’s Gallery Bookshop to celebrate the new Counterpoint Press edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup. Twenty people came to listen. I knew half the twenty and didn’t know the other half, but everyone got along, enjoyed the complimentary wine, and when I finished reading three stories, the audience requested another story and then another.

After reading, I sat at a little table and signed copies of the book and chatted with some of the people I knew and some of the people I didn’t know. One fellow introduced himself and said, “I enjoyed your stories. Thought I’d say hello because we both live here and…why not?”

I asked him what he did and he said, “Oh, nothing linear.”

“Did you used to do something linear?” I asked, not wanting to be too nosy. “To make a living?”

“Oh, quasi-linear maybe,” he said, shrugging. “Not really.”

I liked him, though I’ve never been great at non-specific small talk.

A woman I didn’t know said she wanted to hear me read all forty-two stories from Buddha In A Teacup and I said she could download my reading of the book from iTunes or Audible or the Audio Bookstore, as well as my readings of three of my novels. She frowned. “How do you do that? Download something?”

I said I didn’t know, but I knew it could be done because I’ve heard of people who do that sort of thing. She said she would ask a friend who knew about computers.

A woman I do know, the force behind the Mendocino Gluten Free Baking Company, bought two copies of Buddha In A Teacup, one for herself and one as a birthday gift for a friend. I couldn’t help calculating that my take from the sale of her two copies, according to my publishing contract, would be two dollars and twenty-two cents, which would not quite pay for one of her delicious gluten-free oatmeal cookies. However, my take of the sales of the book for the night would buy four cookies, which made me feel fat and sassy.

Another woman I didn’t know said, “You mentioned you were a voracious reader of short stories and on the lookout for good ones.” She then rattled off the names of several writers she thought I might like, but I couldn’t hear her clearly because the next person in line was telling me how she wanted me to sign her copy of the book.

I thanked the bookstore folks for hosting me, and then Marcia and I went to Harvest Market and bought chips and salsa and went home and got a fire going and drank beer and played cards, and I had to laugh about how nervous I was prior to the reading. I hadn’t done any sort of public anything in many years and I had nightmares for three nights prior to the reading. Silly me. My imagination helps me write stories but it also turns innocuous things into giant monsters.

On the Monday after my bookstore appearance, I walked to town thinking what a neato friendly place Mendocino is, and then I came to the beautiful field across the street from Friendship Park, the field I have walked across every day for the last four years to avoid walking on the narrow shoulder of the road. Dozens of people have walked across this field every day for decades and possibly centuries, but on Monday, planted in the ground at either end of the narrow footpath traversing the block-long field, were two menacing No Trespassing signs.

Seeing these signs, I felt more than sad, I felt sick at heart. Neato friendly Mendocino was instantly transformed into elitist, anti-homeless, anti-pedestrian, anti-dog, pro-rich people Mendocino. I suppose whoever owns this lovely field had an unpleasant experience with a dog owner not cleaning up pet poop, or a homeless guy taking a dump in the bushes, or something equally horrendous, but I still felt sad about those No Trespassing signs.

Now when I come to the field and see those threatening signs I take a different route to reach the commercial sector of town. We own a house on two acres and if people we didn’t know were walking across our land every day, we would probably feel intruded upon and want them to stop. This field in Mendocino I’m speaking of isn’t adjacent to anybody’s house, but I no longer walk there because I don’t want to get hassled by gendarmes alerted by the owners of the field.

However, as a result of bypassing the lovely field, I now go down streets I rarely used to go down, and I frequently meet people walking their dogs or working in their gardens or pushing their babies in strollers, and nearly everyone I encounter is friendly and open and as sad as I am about those No Trespassing signs on the field everyone used to enjoy walking across.

Thus kindness and generosity and friendliness have transformed Mendocino in my mind from an elitist, anti-homeless, anti-pedestrian, anti-dog, pro-rich people place into a hotbed of super-neato people—every last one of them supporting Bernie Sanders for President of the United States.

What Stood Out

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

Rembering What Spring Can Bring

Remembering What Spring Can Bring painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

Todd. Max here, writing from snowy New Hampshire.

At 7:30 this morning I went out the door of #518 on my way to work. I usually come and go via the stairs, but today, my hands full, and thinking the wood I was carrying might prove awkward in the stairwells, I came down by elevator instead.

I went into the elevator and pressed 2, but the elevator slowed to a stop at 3. When the doors opened, I waited for a fellow passenger to appear, but all that came in was some pleasantly warm air and the scent of perfume. The doors stayed open. Nobody arrived. I wondered: Had a woman on the Third Floor pressed the button and then remembered something she’d meant to bring and walked back to her apartment to get it? Or, while waiting, had she grown impatient and decided to just run down the stairs?

In any case, I rode down to the Second Floor accompanied by her hallway’s warmth and her fading perfume. Then I got off with my wood and walked down the long hall to #202.

In other news, Kate and I went to see the Joseph Cornell show, and after the show, Kate asked what stood out most for me, and I immediately said, “The women waiting for the light to come on in the dark owl box.”

This was my second time seeing the Cornell show, and I especially wanted Kate to see one particular box, one with an owl in it. I loved the quality of darkness this box had, a certain mystery. It was just so black and quiet. I hadn’t understood that most of what made me love this box was that no light illuminated it, unlike the other boxes in the exhibition.

Three women stood a couple yards back from that dark box, gazing intently at the mysterious piece as if it was speaking to them. They stood there unmoving for many minutes. Kate read the printed explanation on the wall next to the box and learned that a light only came on in this box for one minute every half hour.

We moved on to the next display, leaving the women still standing there. Then we heard voices behind us and turned: the box was lit and we went back to look. The women had moved closer, their steadfastness rewarded. A small, candle-shaped bulb inside the box cast a wonderful glow behind the owl and revealed a pattern like raindrops on the box’s old glass.

I wondered why this box required special handling. Did the curators fear too much light would harm the piece? How did the owner of this box find out about this vulnerability? How did the museum decide on the safe amount of light? I thanked one of the women, explaining that only because of their attention had I known there was something else to see.

When I told Kate that the owl box was what stood out most for me about the show, she asked, “Do you picture the box lit?”

I said, “No, I think of it dark. I liked it better dark. And mostly what stays with me is the way those women were willing to wait and wait so patiently for that light to return.”

Max. Your two stories reminded me of the day I went to the Whitney Museum in New York to see the Calder retrospective. My favorite piece in the show was an arrangement of seven orange bowls, two-inches-high and ranging in size from three inches in diameter to ten inches in diameter—the rims of the bowls curving inward slightly. The bowls were arrayed on the floor in a seemingly random way.

Suspended from the ceiling high above the bowls was a one-inch-diameter rod about four-feet long hanging parallel to the ground. Suspended from one end of the rod on a thin string was a round chunk of white clay about the size of a golf ball. This ball hung down to a foot or so above the bowls. Suspended from the other end of the rod and hanging down to about seven feet above the ground was a small leather sack filled with sand.

When a crowd of people had gathered around the bowls, a museum guard gave the leather sack a push, and the swinging of this sack caused the rod high above to both twist and seesaw up and down, which in turn caused the round chunk of clay to fly around above the bowls, rising and falling and occasionally tapping the floor and striking one or another of the bowls, each bowl sounding a different tone when struck.

Sometimes the ball of clay would come very close to striking a bowl but would miss. Sometimes the ball of clay would strike several bowls in succession. And best of all, sometimes the ball of clay would hop into a bowl and spin around for a moment before hopping out. A single push of the weighted sack kept the little ball dancing around the bowls for many minutes.

The emotions aroused in me by watching this ball strike, almost strike, get inside the bowls, and jump out of the bowls, were suspense, joy, disappointment, amazement, elation, admiration, hope, and satisfaction. At one point, the ball landed in the smallest bowl and whirred around for an instant before flying out. The crowd reacted to this fortuitous event with laughter and cheering. I watched the show for half-an-hour and was never bored.

When I emerged from the Whitney, I walked by a newsstand where the headline on the front page of the New York Times announced that Calder had just died.

What stood out for me most about Calder’s bowls and dancing ball of clay were the people watching so intently as the little ball interacted with those bowls—the cries of delight when the ball went into a bowl, the groans of disappointment when the ball would almost but not quite land in a bowl.

Two Good Movies

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

Calliope of Hope

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

calliope-coverD1

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

On Saturday February 20 at 6:30 PM, I will be at Gallery Books in Mendocino reading from the new Counterpoint Press edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup. I self-published the book seven years ago, and now the book will have a life in the larger world, so to speak. The paperback of Buddha In A Teacup from Counterpoint is beautifully designed and fits well in the hand.

Speaking of self-publishing, I just completed my first large work of fiction since finishing the four volumes of the Ida’s Place saga, and the new tome is now available from my web site. As with the Ida’s Place quartet, I present Calliope of Hope tales of the road in a handsome coil-bound photocopy edition, each copy signed and colorfully numbered by yours truly.

Calliope of Hope—tales of the road is both a collection of short stories and a novel. Any of these stories may be read as a stand-alone work, or you may read the book from start to finish and experience the stories as chapters of a novel.

Part of the inspiration for Calliope of Hope came from the late poet and translator Taylor Stoehr who was keen for me to write a companion collection to Buddha In A Teacup with a Sufi bent, which many of the stories in Calliope of Hope have, and many of the stories involve hitchhiking.

Here is the beginning of one of the stories/chapters from Calliope of Hope entitled Henry’s Expotition.

On a sunny morning in April, Henry Abbot, fifty-nine, tall and sturdy, his sandy brown hair cut short, his brown eyes full of mischief, stands on the east side of the coast highway at the north end of Fort Orford, hitchhiking to Portland, Oregon. Henry, who was born and raised in this town of three thousand hearty souls on the far north coast of California, is so well-liked, if he ever ran for mayor—which he will never do—he would win by a landslide, no matter who ran against him.

The last time Henry hitchhiked was forty years ago when he and his pal Gunnar Diggs, who was also born in Fort Orford, made it all the way to northern British Columbia before turning around and heading back to Fort Orford. Shortly after they got home, Henry joined the Army and spent two years in Germany fixing trucks, while Gunnar got a job driving a bulldozer for a local paving contractor, a job he still has today.

A few weeks after coming home from the Army, Henry moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he spent three years working as a truck mechanic and peddling his heartfelt ballads to record companies and recording artists large and small, to no avail. Upon his return to Fort Orford at the age of twenty-five, Henry embarked on a twenty-year career as a lumberjack, and for the last fifteen years he has been the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the one and only hardware store in town.

A widower with two teenaged daughters, Henry has never spent a night away from his girls, and though he only intends to be gone a few nights, this trip to Portland feels to him like the biggest adventure of his life.

Henry is dressed exactly as he does for work: brown work boots, red plaid socks, khaki pants, a black T-shirt, a blue jacket with a zipper, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. His luggage consists of a blue canvas knapsack and a large brown leather briefcase, and per the suggestion of the woman he is going to visit, he is holding a neatly-lettered sign: Portland.

Ten minutes after Henry takes his stand, who should pull up beside him in an old blue pickup but Arnold Collison, Henry’s neighbor.

Arnold leans across the seat and says out the passenger window, “Where you going, Henry? Car break down?”

“No,” says Henry, showing his Portland sign to Arnold. “I’m going to visit Jolene. Remember Jolene? Stayed with us for ten days last November?”

“Sure, I remember her. Pretty gal. Played the mandolin and sang like a bird. Why aren’t you driving?”

“Marie Louise is staying with the girls while I’m gone,” says Henry, laughing at Arnold’s stupefied expression. “Her car died and I want her to have my truck while I’m gone in case she needs to take the girls somewhere.”

“Borrow our car,” says Arnold, wondering why Henry didn’t think of that. “We hardly ever drive the damn thing. Practically new. We can get by with the pickup until you get back. How long you going for?”

“A few days.”
“Get in,” says Arnold, authoritatively. “I’ll drive you up to the house and you can take our car.”

“Well, actually, Arnold, I want to hitchhike.” Henry waits a moment for this to sink into Arnold’s famously thick skull. “I want to see how Jolene has been getting around for the last several years, and…I want the adventure.”

Arnold frowns. “Sounds pretty weird, Henry. You never know what kind of nut might pick you up. Better to drive. You’re almost sixty.”

“If I’m still here this afternoon, I’ll borrow your car,” says Henry, holding up his sign as a fancy sports car speeds by. “How does that sound, Arnie?”

“Sounds nuts,” says Arnold, shaking his head. “Seems like visiting Jolene in Portland would be adventure enough. Don’t you think?”

“Apparently not,” says Henry, losing patience with Arnold. “I’ll see you this afternoon or in a few days.”

Arnold drives away and Carlos Gomez pulls up in his ancient brown Malibu. “You hitchhiking, Henry?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, nodding.

“Car break down?” asks Carlos, the longtime chef at Rosa’s, the best Mexican restaurant in Fort Orford.

“No, I’m going on an adventure.”

Carlos nods. “That’s cool. I was in Stuyvesant’s having breakfast and Pablo came in saying you were out here with your sign, so I came to see if you were okay. You okay?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, realizing half the town will soon be parading by to get a look at him standing by the road. “Can I ask a huge favor?”

“Of course,” says Carlos, nodding. “What do you need?”

“I need you drive me to Gecko?”

“Sure. When you want to go?”

“Now.”

Carlos smiles. “I get it, Henry. Get in.”

Suffering Fools

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

We've Traded Places Times Before

We’ve Traded Places Times Before painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

My friend John Grimes, the cartoonist, recently sent me an article from the Washington Post about Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump for President of the United States. The writer of the article suggests that since both Palin and Trump are Reality Television stars, this endorsement furthers the frightening trend of American politics becoming little more than a media circus designed to numb the populous while aggrandizing the stand-ins for the despots.

But I think there is something else going on here with Trump and Palin, something much older and deeper than Reality Television, though directly connected to the televisionization of our culture and society, which has made us, more than ever before, the victims of aggressive extroverts who seem to be developmentally arrested somewhere between the ages of four and ten.

When I was in Sixth Grade, a decade or two before the introduction of Ritalin and other pharmaceuticals into mainstream-education class management, there were two kids in our class, Charlie and Amy, who were both so impulsive, loud, and disruptive, our well-meaning teacher was nearly powerless to control them. And even when Charlie and Amy were not acting out, we expected them to explode at any moment, so our classroom experience was about surviving Charlie and Amy, not about learning. Sadly, these two were not smart or creative or interesting. On the contrary, they were infantile and abusive—Trump and Palin.

When Charlie and Amy’s behavior became seriously dangerous, which it did every few weeks—they often erupted in tandem—they would be removed from the class room for a few days or a week, and renaissance would ensue. Kids rigid with fear would relax, discussions would become sophisticated, and real learning would ensue, along with joy and laughter and emotional growth. And then Charlie and Amy would return and so would the Dark Ages.

“My grandfather believed there are two kinds of people—those who know how the world fits together and those who think they know. The former work in hardware stores, the latter in politics.” Josef Anderson

Alas, adult versions of those two abusive children who wrecked school for many of us are plentiful in our society. I’m sure you have experienced the following: You are at a gathering of intelligent thoughtful people, save for one who is not particularly bright or thoughtful or interesting, but he—it is most often a he—holds forth incessantly about nothing of interest to anyone, interrupts anyone who dares speak for more than a moment, and ruins the gathering—the group powerless to overcome this person’s repulsive neurosis.

Why are there so many of these boorish people in America? Christopher Lasch posits in his fascinating books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, that the breakdown of the extended family within a larger cohesive social fabric, hastened by the invention of auto-centric suburbia combined with the intrusion of television into every home in America, birthed vast numbers of individuals incapable of forming healthy emotional bonds. And those individuals, he suggests, had children who had children who had children, while all the while the social fabric continued to unravel; and we are now several generations along this new evolutionary path to endemic emotional disconnect.

“Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests.” Sir Max Beerbohm

When I taught Creative Writing at a summer school for highly motivated teenagers, I became aware that most of my charges did not know how to have conversations. They could exchange bits of information and make pronouncements, but they didn’t really know how to converse. After lengthy field study, I concluded that my teenagers did not know how to listen, did not know how to ask questions, did not know how to ask follow-up questions, and did not know how to think for a moment before responding to things other people said to them.

So we held conversation workshops in which my faculty demonstrated how to ask questions, how to listen to answers without interrupting, how to ask follow-up questions, and how to keep listening. Then we had our students practice writing out responses to the answers they received to their questions, which gave them practice in thinking about what they heard other people say before responding. And then we had them practice these techniques in groups of two and three and four people on a stage in front of an audience, after which people in the audience gave the performers feedback about which parts of the conversations they especially resonated with.

And though we worked on many aspects of the writing process during those month-long intensives, nothing we did for our students impacted them as profoundly as learning how to have meaningful conversations. For several years after I ceased teaching, I received letters from former students recounting the huge impacts those conversation workshops had on myriad aspects of their lives.

I often think of those workshops when I encounter these emotional black holes who will not allow anyone else to speak. You will notice that such people never ask questions of anyone, for to do so would be to enter into conversation. What, I wonder, do these incessant blabbers fear about other people speaking?

Could it be that the television itself is the primary role model these people have when it comes to relating to others? How does a television behave? It talks incessantly about the same things over and over again, never asks questions of those listening, and continues talking if anyone else tries to speak. Why wouldn’t people entrained by watching television for hours and hours every day from early childhood and throughout their formative years, imitate that “person”? Of course they would.

I don’t watch television, and it is only through what my friend Max Greenstreet informs me is called social osmosis that I know anything about Reality Television. But I would wager that most Reality Television shows feature people who would benefit greatly from conversation workshops.

Monsieur Russell

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Mark & Todd  Yosemite c 1961

Todd and Mark circa 1961 photo courtesy of Mark Russell

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

My friend Mark Russell recently sent me a photograph taken fifty-four years ago at a pullout on the Tioga Road halfway between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows—a spectacular shot of the Sierras, the deep blue sky awash in billowy white and gray clouds, Lake Tenaya shining in the distance.

Mark is thirteen in the picture, I am twelve, and we are on our way with our fathers to backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake, there to fish for trout and commune with the nature spirits. In this picture, I am a few inches taller than Mark and we are both skinny boys on the cusp of becoming young men.

Two years later, Mark and his family moved away and I would not see him again for twelve years. I had gone to New York to meet my first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman in-person for the first time, and to lunch with the three magazine editors—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Gallery—Dorothy had convinced to buy one or more of my short stories. I was funding my excursion with money earned from landscaping a freeway overpass in Medford, Oregon, and on a whim, I called Mark’s parents in Connecticut, they gave me Mark’s phone number in South Carolina, and I called him to see if I might come for a visit.

I had no idea what Mark had been up to since I last saw him, but I remembered him as funny, friendly, extremely creative, and adventurous, and I wanted to see him again. In junior high school, we played baseball and football and basketball together, and he helped me live through the tedious classroom hours by passing me brief little stories he’d written about naughty children doing silly and gross things, and I would nearly bust a gut trying to contain my laughter until class ended. Thus I thought of him as a fellow writer, which was what I aspired to be.

A woman with a strong southern accent answered the phone, I told her I was an old friend of Mark’s, Todd Walton, and she went to fetch him. A moment later, Mark came on the line, his voice an octave lower than when I had last heard him speak. “Todd Walton. I was just thinking about you.”

A couple weeks later, I detrained in Camden, South Carolina late at night and was met at the station by Mark and his beautiful wife Carrie, Mark sporting a dark brown beard and towering over me. He had married into a family of folks who raised horses, and he and his wife lived with his wife’s sister and mother on two thousand acres of woods and meadows and swamps. Mark had become a maker of fine wood furniture, and I ended up staying with him and his wonderful family for a few glorious weeks in November before I headed back to California.

The climax of my visit was attending The Colonial Cup, a famous steeplechase, where I ended up betting on the winner, a spectacular horse named Grand Canyon, and I won a couple hundred dollars. I might have stayed with Mark and his family longer, but my mother called on Thanksgiving and asked me to fly to Palm Springs to take care of my grandparents who were reeling from the suicide of their son, my Uncle Howard.

Thereafter, I heard little from Mark for several years, though I did get a letter from him saying he and his wife were now members of a Buddhist community in which the renowned teacher Pema Chödrön was a leading light. When the Canadian government granted permission for Pema and members of her community to immigrate to Nova Scotia, Mark and his wife moved there.

I’m not sure if Mark and Carrie had their two daughters before they moved to Canada or shortly thereafter, but two daughters they had, and now Mark is a grandfather. He also has a successful garlic and squash and kale farm called Garlic Mountain, lives in the second home he built since moving to Nova Scotia, raises fine horses with his wife, plays the banjo, and has built a number of spectacular wooden boats.

I know these things about Mark from a handful of letters and emails and photographs he has sent me over the years, and when Mark recently sent the picture of us when we were boys becoming men in the California Sierras in 1962, I fell into musing about why he was so important to me and why I have endeavored to stay in touch with him over all these many years despite the great distance between us.

Mark liked me and I liked him. He would come over for supper and to spend the night, and we would camp out under the old olive trees behind my parent’s house, build a fire, and talk about life and the myriad unsolvable mysteries. We went on long bicycle rides together, pushing the boundaries of our known worlds. Mark got me started collecting coins: pennies, nickels, and dimes, and I became fascinated with the history of money, which led me to reading about the history of everything else.

His parents were always kind to me and honored me for being who I was, and they laughed at the funny stories I told, whereas my own parents were routinely disapproving of me and disappointed I wasn’t more studious and academically ambitious.

Mark was an avid Dodgers fan, I a diehard Giants fan, yet our passion for baseball, our interest in the details of the game, was a bond. Mark loved Sandy Koufax, I loved Juan Marichal.

But transcendent of everything, I think, was that we found each other interesting and funny and thoughtful, and when one is eleven and twelve and thirteen, such a bond is golden. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years, but I have no doubt should we ever meet in the flesh again, we will have no end of things to talk and laugh about.

Not Stupid

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Todd and Squash

Todd and Hubbard photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Harper Lee

What most frightens me about the millions of people who want Donald Trump or someone equally fascistic and misogynist and woefully ignorant of international affairs to be President of the United States, and also what frightens me about those who feel Hillary Clinton would be a better choice for President than Bernie Sanders, is that many of these people are not stupid.

When I was in my twenties and roaming around the Midwest working as a farm laborer, I spent several days working for a farmer in eastern Kansas who was unquestionably a genius. He had quit high school at fifteen to take over the family farm when his father died, and had managed through hard work and intelligent planning to become a very successful wheat, corn, and alfalfa grower.

He was in his early fifties when I met him, his three children grown, graduated from college, and disinterested in being farmers. Thus he, as most of the Midwestern farmers I worked for in the early 1970s before it became common practice there to hire immigrants from Mexico and Central America, was glad to hire me at three dollars an hour plus meals and a barn to sleep in, to do the heavy lifting and drudge work his sons and grandsons might have done prior to the corporatization of agriculture and the demise of family farms.

Over our long dinners—dinner the name of the mid-day meal on the farms in the Midwest—and suppers and breakfasts, this farmer shared with me his many ideas about society, capitalism, psychology, and many other subjects, and when I would say, “Well, you’re reiterating what Marx said about…” or “Freud said a similar thing regarding…” he would invariably and honestly say, “Who?”

He read the local newspaper but did not read magazines or books, and he was chagrined to admit he found The Bible largely incomprehensible. Yet his ideas about culture and society and economics, born of his phenomenal intelligence and curiosity, were as sophisticated and plausible as anything I had read before, during, and after college.

He was also a devout Christian, a staunch Republican, and a racist, though he had abandoned his belief that men were inherently superior to women—his two exceedingly bright daughters and highly intelligent wife having cured him of that. On my last day with him, I told him I was baffled that someone of his vast intelligence and possessed of what I considered formidable wisdom, could be a racist Republican, and he said humbly, “Intelligence has a hard fight against deeply ingrained beliefs.”

“Learning learns but one lesson: doubt!” George Bernard Shaw

My father was a vitriolic atheist and a psychoanalyst. In his old age, he was certain he had stumbled on the reason why so many people, even seemingly intelligent people, believed in God. He posited that the tendency to believe in God, what he called magical thinking, was genetic: that most people were genetically hardwired to be magical thinkers.

Any argument to the contrary infuriated him, so I would remain silent when he began his lecture about Type A People and Type B People, and how all of human history could be explained by understanding that Type A People, those who were not predisposed to believe in God, cleverly manipulated and controlled the much greater number of Type B People who had no choice but to believe in God. In other words, all the religious leaders in the world since the dawn of civilization were atheists who pretended to believe in God in order to control the genetically inferior masses.

My father believed it was the genetic mutation for atheism that began civilization, which was a direct consequence of one sector of humanity gaining power over another through this genetic intellectual superiority.

Science and history have shown my father’s theory to be nonsense, and modern history, current history, is replete with examples of masses of fanatically religious people being quite uncontrollable by people not predisposed to believe in God. And that, as I said at the outset, is what scares me most about the governors and legislatures of the majority of American states, and the current majority of representatives in the United States Congress, and the millions of people who favor Trump and Bush and Clinton over Bernie Sanders: these people are not stupid, they are insane.

Of course, they would say I am insane for thinking egalitarian socialism is a good way to go. They would say I am insane for thinking we ought to take half the military budget every year and spend it on solarizing every viable house in America and building fast electric trains to give hundreds of millions of people exciting and comfortable alternatives to automobiles, and making education free from kindergarten through graduate school. And they would say I am insane for thinking we should have Single Payer Healthcare.

“From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.” Denis Diderot

Walking to town today, I crossed the coast highway at the only stoplight in Mendocino, and exchanged smiles with a large man hitchhiking south, his backpack lying on its back on the ground. I continued into town, did my errands, and on my way home found the big man still there, waiting for someone to give him a ride.

As I waited for the light to change in my favor, I said to him, “In my hitchhiking days, albeit a long time ago, I found having a sign naming my destination was helpful.”

He nodded affably and said, “I find that’s still true.”

“Where are you headed?” I asked, curious why he didn’t have a sign.

He shrugged. “Don’t really have a destination. Just looking for a place to camp for a few days and stay dry.”

The light changed, and as I started across the highway I said, “Good luck to you.”

“Not luck,” he replied, shaking his head. “Everything is predestined.”