Posts Tagged ‘Big River Beach’

Summertime

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

summertime

Summertime photo by Todd

Marcia and I walked into town via the beach on Saturday, the most summery day of the 2018 Mendocino summer so far, warm and sunny with only a slight breeze blowing in from the ocean. We live a mile inland, and it was already quite warm by Mendocino standards, mid-seventies, when we set off for the coast at 10:30 in the morning. Halfway to the ocean, the air was much cooler—upper fifties.

Judging by the millions of blossoms we saw along our way, this will be an epic year for blackberries and huckleberries, and we are already seeing irrefutable proof of a super duper apple harvest. This is also the time of year when we avail ourselves of the Fort Bragg Fruit Group and buy lugs of peaches and nectarines trucked in from the warmer climes and sold at 1980s prices.

After a brief sojourn on Big River Beach, otherwise known as Dogs Galore, we climbed the stairs to the headlands trail that carried us through lush stands of wild pink roses to the Presbyterian church and Preston Hall wherein the music festival chorus was rehearsing their part for the festival finale: John Rutter’s Magnificat.

The big music festival tent was standing majestically on the headlands opposite the Mendocino Hotel, the fanciful tent always adding an ineffable classiness to the little town. Marcia and the local cello and viola players have been rehearsing at our house two days a week and will soon join the superb out-of-town players rounding out the festival orchestra.

And, of course, the town was jammed with tourists from all over the world, mobs of people ambling along the few streets of the town, looking for stuff to eat and things to buy. The character of the town changes significantly in the summer, when most locals run their errands in the morning before the place is awash in visitors, and many locals avoid the town entirely on weekends. These are the months when local businesses make their largest profits, and we are grateful for the infusions of cash into the local economy, however bizarre the outsider energy.

What do I mean by outsider energy? Well, first of all, outsiders tend to drive crazy fast in town compared to locals. Considering the town is traversable in every direction in about a minute if you’re going five miles an hour, driving thirty on a two-block street to nowhere strikes me as bizarre. However, if one is accustomed to the madcap traffic of Santa Monica or San Francisco, I suppose speeding becomes one’s habit, so…

Outsiders these days also tend to be hyper phone-centric. By that I mean, they do not, in general, look around so much as they look into their phones to learn where to go and what to do. This may help them find their way in a big city, but in Mendocino phone gazing misses the point of being here, which is to look around at the sky and ocean and old buildings and roses on the headlands and other human beings. There really isn’t much else to do, once you’ve had something to eat and bought a thing or two.

Home again, exhausted from our longish trek, I espied the big healthy young doe and her two fast-growing fawns munching greens on the fringes of the forest. The two other much smaller fawns we’ve been keeping tabs on have not made an appearance lately, though we have seen their elderly mother foraging without them, which makes me think her fawns did not survive.

In other summertime news, I am four hundred pages into my latest novel, and I’m experiencing the necessary delusion that I’m writing another masterwork. I say necessary delusion because, delusion or not, it is necessary to think I’ve written something marvelous or I would not continue slogging away for hours every day for months and years if I thought the opus was poo poo.

The long days of summer are especially good for me when it comes to working on a novel because my writing energy only lasts five or six hours a day, and in the winter, five hours of writing eats up a large fraction of the daylight hours, whereas in June, five hours of writing still leaves hours and hours of daylight for walking around and chopping wood and watering the apple trees and going to town.

Summertime is also good for playing the guitar outside. I like to walk around barefoot and give concerts to the surrounding forest and the curious ravens who sometimes make sounds like castanets to accompany my playing. You think I’m kidding? I have one song I used to perform as a slow ballad, but when the ravens started making their castanet sounds during the song, I was inspired to pick up the pace, which resulted in a peppy “Malagueña”-meets-“Smooth Operator” tune I’m sure will become a viral hit, speaking of delusional. I’ll let you know when the song is available for downloading, streaming, and implanting in your prefrontal cortex.

Speaking of chopping wood, summer is the season for seasoning firewood, and by seasoning I mean drying the wood through and through for fall and winter fires in our woodstove, fires that make the long winters tolerable and even delightful, though not quite as delightful as long summer days when the blackberries are ripening and the apples are swelling and I can walk around barefoot outside singing to the redwoods and inspiring castanet sounds from ravens.

Summertime for me is also about baseball. I listen to my Giants on a little silver Sony transistor radio, Jon Miller my favorite announcer of all time, his sidekicks Dave Flemming and Duane Kuiper excellent play-by-play guys, too. I chop wood and pull weeds when listening to day games, and I do dishes and yoga when listening to night games.

We have just reached the halfway point of the baseball season, and for the first time since we won the World Series in 2014, I think we could win it all this year. We’re that good. However, and it’s a huge however given the predilections of our manager, we must radically recast our end-of-game pitching scenario by getting rid of Strickland, who is currently out with an injury, and we must demote Melancon and Dyson to unimportant situational pitching. Watson should pitch the eighth as often as possible and Will Smith should close.

Do I think management will heed my imperatives? Not likely. But the summer is long and hope springs eternal until we are mathematically eliminated.

Rebirth

Monday, June 25th, 2018

lunch break

Outside My Office Window

A few weeks ago, the large four-year-old doe with a nest in a remote corner of our property sauntered by the house followed by her two fawns—our first glimpse of her babies. Nature makes baby mammals extra cute for some reason, or humans think baby mammals are cute for some reason. In any case, the baby deer struck me as ultra-cute. And small. I marveled at their smallness.

Then at dusk a few days later, I looked up from my desk and saw two fawns running by, only they seemed much smaller and cuter than I remembered them being. These were micro fawns. Or was I mistaken? Were these the same fawns appearing smaller in the last light of day, or different fawns? And were they cuter or just smaller? Is cuteness a function of smallness?

Another day passed, the young doe paraded by, and coming along behind her were two enormous fawns, enormous compared to those micro fawns I thought I’d seen. And then that afternoon, the mystery was solved. The oldest doe hereabouts, a deer at least nine-years-old with a badly deformed mouth, trudged by followed by those two micro fawns, and I realized that their smallness and ultra-cuteness were probably due to the old doe not being as viable a mother as the big healthy young doe, which means these tiny fawns might not make it through the summer for lack of nourishment and being easy prey for predators.

But maybe the micro fawns will survive the summer and winter and mature into small deer who live for ten or twelve years until the natural ends of their lives, just as there are small humans and small banana slugs and small heads of lettuce and small carrots. Sometimes things come out smaller than the same kinds of things that come out larger.

In any case, we currently have four super cute fawns gamboling around the property these days, and every time I see them, I marvel at their cuteness and their obvious delight in being alive.

getting the drop

Speaking of rebirth, we recently had a visit from the piano technician Michael Hagen. He came all the way from Rohnert Park to Mendocino and spent thirteen hours over two days regulating and voicing the fifty-year-old grand piano we bought from our friend Carolyn. I spent most of those thirteen hours watching Michael work on the piano, and I marveled at his mastery of the complex process. The result of his mastery, which I am tempted to call wizardry, is the rebirth of our piano.

When I first sat down to play our newly regulated and expertly voiced beauty, I was wholly unprepared for how easy she was to play and how gorgeous she sounded. The keys no longer impinged on each other, the overly bright jangly tones were gone, and gone was the resistance to my light touch. I stopped playing after just a few minutes because my brain was having a hard time reconciling this mellow nuanced instrument with the obstreperous old cranky thing I’d been trying to get used to.

earth is round

In other rebirth news, to celebrate the Summer Solstice, I walked to town via Big River Beach and found the beach completely different than it was just a few days before the solstice. Well, not completely. The far inland reaches of the sand will remain unchanged until next winter’s storm surfs reach those inland expanses and shift the many massive logs around, carry some logs away, and add new ones to the collection.

But the bulk of the beach was transformed. This is the glorious nature of our beach—a swiftly flowing tidal river conspiring with the high and low tides to reshape millions of tons of sand every twenty-four hours—a creative fun fest for the forces of nature. As of today, the river has carved two distinct routes to the sea, this split of the outflow and inflow causing all sorts of new shifts in the sand mass—a brand new landscape every day.

Speaking of brand new, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I find myself playing several seriously groovy songs I wrote long ago and never recorded, and I’m so curious about why I didn’t record these groovalicious tunes when I was so zealously recording songs ten years ago.

My current theory is that I didn’t record these catchy tunes because the time was not right. Is the time right now? Or has the window of viability closed for my songs composed in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s? Isn’t a great song or book or movie or play timeless? Maybe not. Maybe there is Art of the Moment and Art For A Generation and Art To Last Three Generations and Art To Last A Thousand Years.

What if artists are merely pawns of the unseen creative forces of universe? What if these groovy songs were given to me to record, but only when the universe wants them recorded? What if the universe is waiting for me to be whoever I am at the moment of the recording, if that recording ever happens? Why do we do the things we do when we do them?

Speaking of when we do things, we recently watched the movie Big Night again, one of my all-time favorite movies, and not having seen Big Night since 2006, I worried the opus might have fallen into the Art of the Moment category and would fail to pass the test of time.

But I’m happy to report that for my taste Big Night is better and more pertinent today than it was when it came out in 1996. To say they don’t make movies like Big Night in America anymore is a humongous understatement. This is a classic European film made by Americans in America—the pace, the dialogue, and the unfolding of the story and relationships languid and lovely and astute and complex—a rare dramatic comedy.

When I lived in Berkeley circa 2001, I was introduced to a woman at a party, we liked each other immediately, and when a fellow came by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres—scallops in mint sauce—we each took one. Delighted by the delicious comestible, I couldn’t help referencing a scene from Big Night by saying with my best Italian accent, “That was so good, I have to kill myself.”

“My favorite movie,” said the woman, gasping in delight. “I’ve watched Big Night dozens of times with my kids. We know every line by heart. We act out the scenes when we cook dinner and breakfast. And next year we’re going to Italy on our Big Night tour.”

“A Big Night tour? What’s the itinerary?”

“Bologna, of course,” she said, her eyes aglow. “Where the food is so good you have to kill yourself, Rome, and…”

I don’t remember what else she said, but I will never forget her wild joy.

Minus Tide

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Dog & Ball

Molly Waiting photo by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he snorted. “A newbie.”

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

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

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

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

arch

 

Hey Baby

Monday, March 26th, 2018

th_nighttrain-768

Petit point for Night Train cover by D.R. Wagner

“Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her and listen to me, listen to your heart and listen to your brain, listen to the sweet song of the rain. Oh my darling, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” from Todd’s song You Are the One.

My recent article about singing to the seals at Big River Beach and remembering my first paying gigs as a musician elicited several fascinating comments, so I thought I’d write a little more about my music. By the way, we’ve disarmed the Comments feature on my blog, so if you’d like to communicate with me about my articles, please send me an email.

So…having supported myself in minimal style for a couple years as a singer/songwriter in my early twenties in Santa Cruz circa 1973, I moved to Menlo Park and got a job as a janitor and teacher’s aid at a day care center in Palo Alto for children of single working mothers. My girlfriend G and I had broken up in Santa Cruz, but G rejoined me in Menlo Park, and after a year of saving our pennies, we moved to Eugene, Oregon where we lived in a converted garage while G attended the university as a music major studying piano and composition. Shortly after we arrived in Eugene, I sold my first short story for what was a fortune to me in those days, nine hundred dollars, and that allowed me to focus entirely for some months on writing short stories and a novel.

My relationship with my girlfriend was not mutually supportive. Which is to say, until I had some effective psychotherapy when I was forty, I routinely partnered with women who disapproved of me and my life choices, yet depended on me to encourage and support them. Why did I do this? To summarize volumes of emotional history, I was programmed by my disapproving and punitive parents to partner with disapproving others, and I didn’t know how else to go about life.

Lest you think I exaggerate my malady, check this out. For the entirety of our three-year relationship, G was adamant, and frequently shouted adamantly at me, that I was using my singing and songwriting and the adulation they brought me as emotional crutches to feel okay about myself and if I really wanted to face the truth about who I was, I would get rid of my guitar. So after we’d been in Eugene a month, I sold my guitar.

Now as it happened, we also had a piano in that garage because G was studying music theory and composition and wanted a piano handy for theorizing and composing. Because I make music as reflexively as ducks swim, I frequently played her piano. I don’t read music, but I had been improvising on pianos since I was sixteen, so in the absence of a guitar, I played her piano several times a day. This drove G bonkers because she struggled to compose anything she liked, while I reeled off hours of groovy-sounding music with no conscious knowledge of music theory.

Nine months into our Eugene sojourn, G and I broke up for good and I moved to Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper for two years. While living in Medford, I was contacted by my old high school chum Dan Nadaner who was a fan of my guitar playing and singing. He had written some rhyming verses for the soundtrack to a little film he made called Stripes and asked me to sing his verses in the manner of a country tune while accompanying myself on guitar. (Watch Stripes on my web site.)

To make that recording for Dan, I borrowed a small steel-string guitar and a little cassette recorder from my friend David Adee. Dan was pleased with how I sang his verses, and after making the recording I bought that guitar from David. Having gone two years without a guitar, songs began pouring out of me and I wrote several new tunes in the next few months. A year later, in 1977, I moved from Medford to Seattle, and while living a lonely life there, I wrote a nostalgic bluesy love song called Hey Baby.

In 1980, having had a large success with my first novel Inside Moves, I was attending a party in Sacramento, songs were being shared, and when the guitar came to me, I sang Hey Baby. When I finished the song there was much hooting and applause and a woman asked, “Who wrote that? Wasn’t that in a movie?”

I said, “No. It’s one of my songs.”

“Sounds famous,” she went on. “That’s like a song you hear in grocery stores, you know, the instrumental version of a classic.”

As of this writing, Hey Baby is not famous, but I never forgot what that woman said about the song, and her praise emboldened me to play Hey Baby when I gave readings at bookstores and cafés, and the song eventually became a mainstay of the one-man shows I performed for some years.

Fast forward to the first year of my first marriage, 1984. My wife introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, which I enjoyed, but there was one song on that album I absolutely with every cell in my corpus loved—Night Train (not the blues standard, but Rickie’s song with that title.) After listening to her Night Train countless times, I wrote a novel entitled Night Train that sprang from dreams inspired by Rickie’s song.

In the novel, the down-and-nearly-out narrator Charlie is haunted by the one success he ever had, a hit song he wrote called Hey Baby upon which hinges everything that happens in that wild crazy chase love story.

I eventually published Night Train with Mercury House, a San Francisco publisher, and they took the book out-of-print shortly after publication. Thus few people ever heard of my Night Train, though the following review by Tom Nolan ran in the LA Times in 1986.

“In his fourth novel, Todd Walton, author of the critically praised Inside Moves and Louie & Women, delivers an unusual and gripping tale that begins like a hard-boiled crime story and becomes something resembling science fiction. Walton evokes a paranoid romanticism reminiscent of Craig Nova, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon as he tracks the fate of Lily and Charlie, two down-and-out musicians on the run from an army of ‘very well-connected’ thugs out not just for blood but for spirit. Fleeing by car, foot, air, bicycle, train, covered wagon and dirigible, the two make their way with Lily’s baby from Sunset Boulevard to a mountain retreat in Oregon. Eluding all manner of physical and mental danger, Lily and Charlie take their final stand with a commune of utopian artists.

“Their odyssey is seedily realistic, wildly surrealistic, often erotic and only occasionally a bit precious. What seemed like a simple pursuit story has become an engaging parable of the responsibilities of creativity, the nature of self-worth, the redemptive power of love—perhaps the Meaning of Life itself. And the message, as Charlie reads it? ‘No matter how far down you get, you got to get up.’”

And now, thirty-three years gone by since Night Train was briefly available in a handful of bookstores, I love recalling the myriad threads that came together to make that book—Hey Baby a tune I wrote for my favorite singer in those days: Bonnie Raitt. And though I never got the tune to Bonnie, in my imaginings, her version of Hey Baby makes the song an instant classic, thereby fulfilling the long-ago prophecy of Hey Baby becoming a soundtrack for grocery shopping.

Night Train is available as a Kindle and iBook, and used copies of the hardback abound online.

Carrying On

Monday, January 16th, 2017

And the dog walked, walked… site

And the dog walked, walked… painting by Nolan Winkler

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

We are feeling pampered and special because the power went back on after a two-day outage. We know there will probably be another outage when the next storm hits, but for now we’re on Easy Street. No more cooking on the woodstove. No more boiling water in the old kettle to wash dishes. No more writing by candlelight. Our computers work again. We can take showers. Luxury!

The first article to pop up on my computer when I ignited the machine after the outage was about Professor Guy McPherson who says, “There’s no point trying to fight climate change. We’ll all be dead in the next decade and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

The second article was entitled “Why getting farmers to switch from tobacco crops is a struggle.”

Email brought an announcement from my niece, a yoga teacher, informing us that her Yoga and Art and Cooking retreat in Italy is sold out ten months in advance.

My sister called and told me of her summer plans to go camping in the environs of Mount Rainier. She is a biologist and knows well of the forces threatening the biosphere, but she carries on with her life as if we will all not be dead in the next decade. She catches her rainwater for watering her drought-resistant garden, walks to work most days, and looks forward to her children eventually producing a grandchild or two.

Speaking of grandchildren, since Marcia and I do not have children and grandchildren of our own, we enjoy availing ourselves of the offspring of our friends. For this holiday season we had several fun visits with Nick and Clare Bokulich and their nineteen-month-old son Vito. I was especially pleased to introduce Vito to the music of Ray Charles, Vito and I played some stirring blues on the piano, Vito ate many bananas and apples, and we had nothing but fun.

During the storm and accompanying power outage, a few large branches fell from our surrounding redwoods and narrowly missed the house. Then the pump in our well gave up the ghost, and despite the torrential downpour, the savants at Mendocino Coast Water Works rushed to our aid, removed the old pump and pipes, and installed a new and improved super duper pump and water transport system that will last for many years longer than Professor MacPherson says we have to live.

Marcia and I took advantage of not being connected to the outer world via computers to clean our offices and get a start on this year’s income tax. And I discovered the domain name of my web site Under the Table Books was about to expire. So I called the domain site people and spent a pleasant ten minutes talking to a nice young man who convinced me to re-up for another three years. He was pleased to find my piano tunes available for listening on YouTube and my novels downloadable to his Kindle.

Yes, our phones worked throughout the storm, though we had no electricity. We do not have smart phones or cell phones, and even if we did, there is no service for such here in the redwoods, but we do have good old land lines that for some reason almost never go down in these storms that routinely take out our electricity.

Hearing from friends about the latest sculpting of Big River Beach by high tides and a fantastic outflow of rainwater in the river, we trekked down to Big River to walk along the banks of the huge muddy torrent. Several dogs and their owners were out on the pristine sands, enjoying the sun and all that room to run. The formerly No Dogs Off Leash beach is now a prime destination for dog owners wishing to let their dogs off leash.

Fortunately, the dogs we encountered were all friendly or disinterested in humans, and one dog in particular, a magnificent roseate Malamute, ignited my dog-owning fantasies. But then I recalled the enormous dog I used to take care of in Berkeley when his owners were out of town, and how that delightful mutt ate more in a day than I did in a week, so I let my doggy fantasies go.

Home again, I got the fire going and found myself thinking about life in the context of everyone being dead within ten years—virtually all living things on earth extinguished by super heat and lack of oxygen; and I became immobile with grief.

When I was in my twenties and thirties and forties, I persistently lobbied my friends and politicians and the Sierra Club and local, state, and national government to take action to address the problems of overpopulation and our earth-destroying dependency on cars and gasoline. My proposals were received by nearly everyone in those days as the ravings of a nutcase, and I eventually stopped trying to convince anyone of anything. I came to realize that people, for the most part, believe what they want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary.

Now that my ravings, which were based on the work of many farseeing scientists, are shared by millions of people, and there is still little being done to address the processes that have brought us to this frightening phase of human and planetary life, I realize that whether Guy MacPherson is correct or not in saying we will all be dead in ten years, what is true is that Nature, not humans, will take the lead in saving the biosphere.

Perhaps some humans will survive the coming environmental crises, perhaps not. In the meantime, the sun is shining, the first plum blossoms have appeared in Mendocino, the ebullient teenagers swarm down from the high school to buy lunch at Harvest Market where gigantic pickup trucks crowd the parking lot and a hardworking fellow assiduously cleans the market windows.

American Exceptionalism

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Shakespeare PC Map (todd)

A Shakespearean Map of the U.S.A. courtesy of David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2014)

“There are no exceptions to the rule that everybody likes to be an exception to the rule.” Charles Osgood

Recently listening to fascinating interviews with Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange, I was struck by their repeated use of the expression American Exceptionalism. The expression as they used it had geo-political connotations, but I think American Exceptionalism also captures the essence of the most popular operating system of the individual American psyche.

In geo-political terms, American Exceptionalism refers to the belief of those currently ruling America, that America can and should do things militarily, politically and economically on the world stage that America will not tolerate any other country doing. In terms of the individual American psyche, American Exceptionalism manifests in countless ways. For example:

Arriving at Big River Beach a few days ago, hoping to enjoy a stroll on the sand, I was confronted by a large growling unleashed dog. When the dog’s owner—a woman in her thirties wearing a Sierra Club sweatshirt—came to my rescue, I informed her that dogs are supposed to be leashed on Big River Beach. She bristled and said, “My dog won’t hurt anyone.”

A young man we know who recently received a Master’s degree in Environmental Science because he “wants to educate people about the dire need for humans, en masse, to shift our energy consumption habits,” recently flew to Paris from San Francisco “just for fun” and has trips planned for next year to Chile, Thailand and Australia because, “I have so many frequent flier miles.”

This same wannabe world saver turned down a lovely apartment an easy walk from the private high school where he teaches classes in Environmental Awareness and chose to live “in a hipper part of the Bay Area,” necessitating a ninety-minute car commute to his job. That’s ninety minutes both ways.

Is this intelligent young man unaware of the hypocrisy of his behavior in light of his professed beliefs? I think so. I think he is a quintessential American Exceptionalist. In his mind, everyone else needs to stop driving so much and flying everywhere, but not he. Why not he? He’s an American.

“There are two reasons why a man does anything. There’s a good reason and there’s the real reason.” J.P. Morgan

A few months ago, Marcia and I watched the very good and creepy (to me) movie Her about a bright personable man with intimacy issues—played by Joaquin Phoenix—who falls in love with an incredibly sophisticated computer operating system possessed of clairvoyant artificial intelligence. At a crucial moment in the movie, the operating system, voiced with sweetly sexy allure by Scarlett Johansson, informs our hero that she is simultaneously carrying on “intimate” relationships with hundreds of other users. Crushed to the core by this news, Joaquin nonetheless soldiers on with his relationship with the operating system, though things can never be as wonderful as they once were because She was supposed to be his and his alone. It would have been fine for him to have another relationship while maintaining his relationship with Her, but that was unacceptable for Her.

When Her was made (a couple years ago) the movie was intended to be futuristic. By the time we saw the film, we could discern almost no difference between the reality depicted on the screen and the lives of millions of urban computer peeps of today. Indeed, we just saw an excellent French movie, shot in Manhattan a year ago, Chinese Puzzle, and the constant use of computers and mobile phones as key factors in the lives of the characters in Chinese Puzzle made Her seem like a period piece set in the recent past.

“From the naturalistic point of view, all men are equal. There are only two exceptions to this rule of naturalistic equality: geniuses and idiots.” Mikhail Bakunin

The Ebola epidemic, verging on a pandemic, has clarified (for anyone willing to face the truth) the extreme interconnectedness of the global community. Powerful idiots, led by Ted Cruz and other mega-morons, are urging travel bans to and from afflicted areas, thereby impeding the crucial flow of medical personnel and medical aid to those countries where the epidemic must be fought if there is any hope of containing the disease. Ted Cruz and other People Of Little Brains seem to personify American Exceptionalism to an insane degree. What do they imagine will happen if the airline industry suddenly and dramatically contracts? The major airlines would quickly go bankrupt, the stock market would collapse, and the ensuing global economic disaster would then make the spread of Ebola into all nations a sure thing instead of highly probable.

The Ebola epidemic reveals American Exceptionalism to be what it actually is—a cancerous blood clot in the main artery of what might otherwise be an effective, functional, egalitarian global community. All the nations of the world will have to become highly cooperative with each other in order to defeat Ebola, and the sooner everyone realizes this the better our chances of not only defeating Ebola, but of establishing new modalities for dealing with the many other threats to the biosphere.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” George Bernard Shaw

I came out of the post office yesterday just as a man in a humongous pickup truck pulled into two and a half parking spots—his truck effectively blocking one of the two lanes of the little street—and left his gargantuan engine running as he climbed down from his cab and sauntered into the post office. The sticker on his front bumper said SEVEN FUCKING MILES PER GALLON. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

The sticker on his back bumper said I EAT STEAK EVERY FUCKING MEAL. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

I walked home imagining scenes in which I engaged this fellow in discussions about global warming and fossil fuels and gigantic trucks and American Exceptionalism, and in every scene he got out his gun and mowed me down.

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.

Sources of Wonder

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

Marcia and I watched the movie Source Code last night and I loved it. I very rarely watch American movies and almost never watch films containing more than a suggestion of violence, and this movie was made by Americans and is full of violence; yet I did not feel I was watching a violent movie, nor did the film seem remotely American. I will not spoil the show by telling you the plot, but I will say that for me Source Code beautifully and skillfully explicates the Buddhist notion of karma and how through our actions and intentions we create our future.

I was thinking about Source Code this morning while walking on Big River Beach, amazed by how vivid everything looked and felt to me, as if the movie had somehow altered my perceptions. And then I realized I was in a state of wonder, that my personal cares and woes were no longer holding sway as they so often do these days, and I was inseparable from the wind and the roaring of the waves and the ravens gliding through the air and the sand underfoot. I was only there, it seemed, because all these other things were enlivening me, and in their absence I would disappear.

When I got home from the beach, I sat down at the piano and played with such ease and fluidity I was in heaven, and I knew the movie was working in me, though I couldn’t say how. I played and played, riding the waves of sound and marveling at the multitudes of harmonies—the entire escapade improvised yet sounding entirely composed—my hands and fingers guided by muscle memory and forty years of learning to be open to what wants to come through.

 “One never knows how one’s gifts to the world may brighten it for others and contribute to the ever-changing mystery.” Taylor Stoehr

I correspond regularly with three men, and each is a source of wonder to me. Max is about ten years younger than I, Bob is exactly my age, and Taylor is eighteen years my senior. Max is an artist and musician, Bob a former video producer turned Special Ed teacher, and Taylor is a retired English professor, poet, and translator. I am very interested in these guys and what they think and do, and they are interested in me. I have never met Taylor in-person, only met Max in-person a couple times thirty years ago, and only see Bob once a year, though for fifteen years we lived a few blocks apart and we saw each other every day.

These three men are my best friends, other than Marcia, and when I think about the truth of that I am both amazed and grateful—amazed that we have such rich connections through the words we write, and grateful that these sweet souls care enough about me to stay in touch over so much time and space. Their letters always induce in me a state of wonder in which I become for a time inseparable from their thoughts and feelings—a holiday from inhabiting this separate solitary self.

“‘I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit, sometimes, or sometimes an evil imp,’” said the lama, smiling slowly.” Rudyard Kipling

When I was in my early forties, I met a British fellow at a party and we got talking about our favorite authors, and he was wildly effusive about Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the novels of Russell Hoban. I had never heard of Hoban and had only read a short story or two of Kipling’s in my childhood. Because I was ever in search of great writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore in Sacramento, Time Tested Books, and got Hoban’s first three novels, The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz, Turtle Diary, and Kleinzeit, along with a beat up paperback of Kim.

You may have heard of Turtle Diary, which was made into a charming movie in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Each of Hoban’s first three novels is quite short, with chapters only a page or two in length. I gobbled those books and liked them pretty well, though the greatest gift I got from them was to be on the lookout for Hoban’s next novel, Riddley Walker, which is Hoban’s masterpiece, though not an easy read. Written in the imagined vernacular of a twelve-year old boy two thousand years after nuclear war has laid waste to the earth and the English language, I needed three determined tries at the book before my brain was able to translate Hoban’s disintegrated English into something I could understand—but I was glad I made the effort.

Reading Kim, on the other hand, was a complete life changer for me. I have now read Kim ten times in the last twenty years, having consumed it most recently a year ago. When I read Kim, I lose myself entirely in the language and the story, and always emerge from the experience deeply inspired to continue my creative pursuits, to amplify my spiritual investigations, and to relish every moment of life I am given.

For some years I urged everyone I knew (and even people I barely knew) to read Kim, but few of those who read the book on my recommendation found it to be the holy book it is to me. And more than a few women said the book was a male fantasy and not for them, and more than a few people said they thought the story dated and the writing florid, and some said Kipling was a racist and a sexist; and so I have ceased to recommend the book to anyone without massive disclaimers. Still, I read Kim every two years and the grand saga never fails to be a fabulous source of wonder and rejuvenation for me.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

In 1979 I was living in Santa Cruz and frequently attended concerts at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a small joint in those days where jazz people with weekend gigs in the Bay Area would come down to give Monday night performances. One Monday evening I got to the venue early so I could sit close and watch Roland Hanna play. I had seen Roland when he was the pianist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I loved his playing on Jim Hall’s Concierto album, but I had never heard him play solo.

Roland Hanna was sometimes called Sir Elf because he was short and because he’d been given an honorary knighthood by the king of Liberia. But he became a giant to me that night, playing so melodically, so thoughtfully, so spontaneously, and with such groovy swing, that I walked out of Kuumbwa feeling blessed and more determined than ever to keep pursuing my own piano explorations.

My favorite Roland Hanna album was Swing Me No Waltzes, solo piano recorded in Sweden in 1979 on a Bösendorfer grand piano. I wore that record out; my favorite tune Roses Not Mums. Fast-forward several years to a jazz joint in San Francisco, Roland Hanna to play solo piano. Once again, I was there early so I could sit close, except there was some snafu with the club manager who didn’t know anything about anything and was insisting Hanna get a trio together because that’s what had been advertised. So Hanna’s manager got on the phone, and while the maestro sat in a booth sipping wine and waiting for a bass player and drummer to show up, I got up my nerve and went over to tell him how much I loved his music.

To my amazement, Hanna gestured for me to sit opposite him in the booth, which I did, and after I blurted something about seeing him at Kuumbwa and loving Swing Me No Waltzes, he smiled and said, “You play?”

“Um…well…yeah, though…”

He shook his head. “No though, man. You play. Own it.”

“Okay,” I said, sudden tears in my eyes. “Okay. Yes, I play.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.” He sipped his wine. “I like to play for players. You know? Because you guys get what I’m doing in a deeper way, you know?”

He was talking to me as a fellow musician, miracle of miracles, though he knew nothing about me. And then I realized he did know something about me. He knew I loved his music, especially Swing Me No Waltzes, which was an esoteric and wholly original creation, and my naming that album must have told him many things about me, about my taste and my personality. Or so I decided to believe.

“What’s your favorite tune on that record?” he asked, reaching up to shake the hand of one of three bass players who’d showed up in hopes of gigging with him.

Roses Not Mums,” I said, nodding. “Such a great tune, such an amazing journey.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said, nodding in time with me, “but I don’t play that tune anymore. Wrote it for my favorite bass player, and since he died I don’t play it now. But I will play something you’ll dig, I promise.”

I dug everything he played that night, and when he died ten years ago at the age of seventy, I played his music day and night for three days, thinking of him, loving him, hearing him say again and again, “No though, man. You play. Own it.”                        

Practice(ing)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.

Revenooers

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

“What at first was plunder assumed the softer name of revenue.” Thomas Paine

A mile inland from Highway One, the Comptche-Ukiah Road becomes a two-mile straightaway traversing rolling hills of pine and huckleberry and manzanita. There are no speed limit signs on this straightaway, no reminders of the legal maximum, and this absence of warnings combined with the sudden end to constrictive curves at either end of the straightaway tempts many a driver to go really fast.

The house we rent is set back a hundred yards from the straightaway, the sounds of passing cars and motorcycles muffled by intervening trees, with traffic after midnight rare. Of late, the California Highway Patrol has been a daily presence on the straightaway, the rise and fall of the road over hill and dale creating a perfect spot mid-straightaway for a CHP vehicle to sit by the side of the road and snag the unwary zoomster. This turnout is invisible from either direction until just before you come upon the gravel outlay, and by then there is simply no denying how fast you’re going.

I have lived on the straightaway for five years now, and this is the first time in my residency that the state gendarmes have roosted here so frequently. Whatever for? “The primary mission of the California Highway Patrol is the management and regulation of traffic to achieve safe, lawful, and efficient use of the highway transportation system.” Oh, really? Then why post one and sometimes two officers and their expensive chariots day after day on this lightly traveled country road far from the madding crowd? Surely these centurions are needed more desperately elsewhere? Isn’t the state bankrupt? Aren’t services being cut and curtailed everywhere? What’s all the fuss about a road that carries almost no one anywhere? I’ll tell you what’s the fuss: revenue.

When I lived in Sacramento, I had a neighbor who worked for the California Highway Patrol. He did not drive a patrol car, but toiled in the hive of the vast bureaucracy supporting the army of thousands of road warriors employed in managing the aftermaths of collisions, assisting folks lost and stranded on our highways, and bringing in boatloads of revenue to feed the ravenous coffers of the state.

My neighbor, a forklift operator in a CHP warehouse, arrived home from his job every day at 5:19, save for Fridays when he would stop for drinks at a local bar favored by patrolmen and their ilk. I know this because I was often in my garden when my neighbor emerged from his battered Volkswagen, gazed fondly at his faux Rolex, and Monday through Thursday proclaimed, “5:19 on the nose.” We would exchange pleasantries, and he would sometimes say, “Watch your speed this weekend. Big quota increase came down this morning.” Translation: patrolmen have been ordered to greatly increase the number of speeding tickets they issue.

Thus I imagine the current generals of the CHP receiving the orders from their desperate higher ups to command their buccaneers to go forth and bag whatever galleons come their way, and make no mistake about it, bagging speeders is the only reason the CHP is lurking on the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway. Drivers beware.

“The only difference between a taxman and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.” Mark Twain

These daily sightings of black and white pursuit vehicles put me in mind of those other government revenooers, the valiant auditors of the Internal Revenue Service. I have been audited twice in the course of my long and genteel pauperdom, both audits triggered by dramatic (a relative term) spikes in my income resulting from movie options of now ancient novels, spikes that lifted me for shimmering moments into a realm where my government gleefully claimed half my earnings, as opposed to this more familiar realm I occupy where I barely make enough to tax at any rate.

I suffered through my first audit in 1981, a series of meetings with people in frightening little cubicles, people who honestly didn’t know what they were doing. Having for the first time in my life earned more than a few thousand dollars in a year, I knew perfectly well I had done nothing wrong, yet I was made to feel suspect for achieving a modest success. Never mind the clearly documented reasons for the sudden influx of dollars, the revenooers smelled a rat, and they deduced I was that rat. Happily, the audit resulted in the startling discovery that the government owed me money, plus a little interest, but I still felt mistreated.

The second audit took place seventeen years after the first and involved an investigator coming to my house to go through every scrap of paper I had relating to my income for the year in question, 1995, and the years immediately before and after that questionable year. I was on crutches at the time, having blown out my knee. I had long since spent the money earned in that halcyon year subject to audit, I was lonely and pissed off and approaching the muddy bottom of a veritable Grand Canyon of a depression, and so was not at all in a good mood.

The poor Internal Revenue Service agent had just come in the door when I barked, “Look, I’m afraid of you, though I haven’t done anything wrong. So tell me in plain English why I’m being audited.”

A stout lad of twenty-five with a full black beard, the agent set his portable computer (pre-laptop) on my kitchen table, opened his briefcase, withdrew a manila folder, opened the folder, scowled at the top page, and said, “Abnormal income spike and you issued seventeen 1099’s.”

“I sold a novel and somebody optioned the movie rights to another novel. The multiple 1099’s were issued to people I was long overdue rewarding for helping me with my work through thick and thin, mostly thin.”

“I have no problem with that,” he said sincerely. “Please don’t be afraid of me.”

Seven hours later he said, “Well, my boss is not going to be happy. A whole day spent for nothing.” He shrugged. “He was guessing drug dealer.”

“Oh, right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “A drug dealer is going to report a big upswing in his income and issue 1099’s to his cronies? Puh-leez.”

“Good point,” said the young man. “Even so, ninety-nine days out of a hundred I bring in considerably more than my salary.”

“So why not go after the real crooks? The corporations. The rich people with phony shelters and Ponzi scheme hedge scams? Why waste your time going after self-employed artists making peanuts?”

He smiled a knowing smile. “The corporations and rich people have the best accountants and tax attorneys money can buy. Their tax returns are hermetic masterpieces. You artists fill out your own ledgers. By hand. Do it yourselfers. You’re…vulnerable.”

“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” Celia Thaxter

In the company of poor people and rich people and everybody in between, I have heard it said a thousand times, “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes if the money was spent on something I believed in. But most of our tax dollars go for bombs and guns and corporate tax breaks and paying interest on the national debt to people who already have all the money and seem hell bent on ruining the world as fast as they possibly can.” Or words to that effect.

Well, I’ve got good news about where some of our tax dollars are being spent. On my way home from the village yesterday, the sun broke through the fog at Big River beach for the first time in weeks, so I drove down there to stroll the sand and count the unleashed dogs and get my feet wet. And lo, the big portable handicapped accessible lavatory was back where it never should have not been, full to the brim with public piss and poo, the powers that be seeing fit to give a little something back to the huddled masses. I’m guessing at least through Labor Day. Amen.

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2010)

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com