Posts Tagged ‘cats’

Found Stuff

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

168three

168 three diptych by Max Greenstreet

Wandering through town today, mobs of tourists here for the long Fourth of July weekend, a man hailed me and said, “Do you know what time it is?”

I looked at the watch I have affixed to my basket and told him the time: 11:47. He then looked at his smart phone, smiled, turned to his wife and said, “You win the bet.”  And then they walked away.

“Excuse me?” I said, calling after the man and his wife. “What was the bet?”

The man turned to me and said, “She bet you’d have the correct time, I bet you wouldn’t.”

“What a curious bet,” I said, half-frowning and half-smiling at the man and his wife. “I wonder why she…”

But then they walked away, so I said no more.

Now as it happens, the watch on my basket is one I found on the ground while walking to town a few years ago. Perfectly good watch, rather old, but keeps perfect time and is just the thing to have affixed to my basket.

This encounter with the rude man from out of town got me thinking of other things I’ve found, including so many pairs of dark glasses that we have a small basket full of them to lend to visitors who lost or forgot theirs or for us to use when we misplace the current pair we’re using. My favorite sunglasses are ultra-comfortable and highly effective and stylish in a pleasingly understated way and no doubt cost their previous owner, the person who left them on the beach, a pretty penny.

Then there is my big orange and black hammer, a most excellent tool I found on the street in Berkeley. I was riding my bicycle and saw the lovely thing lying in the middle of the road. I often found tools in the road while riding my bicycle around Berkeley and Sacramento. Excellent tools. I have a very good crescent wrench and two screw drivers and an expensive wood chisel I found while riding my bike. People drop things and other people pick them up.

I also have lots of rocks I’ve found. I used to be an avid collector of rocks and driftwood, and I still occasionally bring home a stone or a hunk of sculptured wood, but I am no longer the avid collector I once was. My newest stone is not quite as big as a walnut, perfectly egg-shaped, and pale gray. I found the beauty on the beach at Elk a couple weeks ago, and now this stone egg is one of my two carrying stones—one in each of the front pockets of my pants.

I very much doubt that the man who bet his wife I would have the wrong time is a collector of stones or carries stones in his pockets. I also suspect he would not be much interested in hearing about my relationship to stones, which I find fascinating. As it happens, most people I know do not find my relationship to stones even a little bit interesting. However, other people who collect stones and carry one or more of them in their pockets love hearing about my relationship to stones because my story is kin to their stories about their relationships to stones.

One day I was buying groceries at Corners and I fished in my pocket for dimes and pennies and came up with a handful of coins and one of my carrying stones, a roundish orange brown thing also not quite as big as a walnut. The checker, a woman with curly brown hair wearing a turquoise scarf said, “Nice stone,” and then fished into her pocket and brought forth a similar-sized stone, dark brown.

Lots of people carry or wear small crystals, but non-crystal stone carriers are a different sort and tend to be people I instantly relate to. We share an understanding that can’t really be put into words about non-crystal stones, especially the ones we choose to pick up and carry for a time. We are not opposed to crystals. We probably have crystals, too, at home, but this affinity we have for non-crystals…well, ineffable.

Anyway, I like to tell people who also carry stones (and those who reveal themselves to be interested in that sort of thing) that having been a stone carrier since I was a little boy—though no one else I knew while I was growing up did such a thing—I was thrilled when I read a passage in a book called Wisdom & Power, wherein the Lakota holy man Fool’s Crow said he was a stone carrier (non-crystal) and that there were some people who needed to carry stones in their pockets to be fully healthy and happy. He said these kinds of people understood, perhaps without understanding how or why they understood, that the stones connected them directly to Great Spirit.

When I tell other stone carriers this story, you should see the smiles on their faces. Having their mostly secret habit validated by a genius holy man is some of the best news a stone carrier can ever get.

And then there are cats. Nearly all the cats I’ve ever had, and I’ve had lots of cats, found me, which seems like the flip side of finding something but is really the same thing. Those stones, in truth, found me. They called out in the way stones call out, “Hey, I see you. Here I am.” And you look down, and here is the stone, either alone on the sand or in a big mob of other stones, but something makes it stand out for you, and you reach down and pick the stone up and the energy of Great Spirit flows into you from the stone and you know, without knowing how you know, that this stone is going to travel with you for a while.

Dogs & Cats

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Molly & Dylan sleeping

Molly & Dylan Sleeping photo by Bill Fletcher

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

An Inter-Species Holiday Fable

Myra Eberhardt is a self-avowed cat person—the kind of cat person who finds dogs and most of their people wanting in grace and civility. A stickler for neatness and punctuality, always up-to-date on the latest fashions, and something of a snob, Myra is forty-four, attractive, bright, and successful in all things save marriage. Men are attracted to Myra like bees to maple syrup, but the apparent faults of these fellows inevitably transcend their charms, and Myra despairs of ever finding her match. Thus her three cats, Bingo, Butch, and Groucho are more than pets to Myra, they are her children and Significant Other(s).

As one of the top wedding facilitators in the greater Bay Area, Myra frequently auditions musicians seeking work in that relatively lucrative field, and in mid-November, a slow time for weddings before the usual outburst of Christmas nuptials, Myra has the extreme pleasure of auditioning an accordion player named Michael O’Reilly with whom she falls head over heels in love.

Michael is a loose-limbed easygoing fellow of fifty-four with an uncouth head of wavy brown hair, his parents born in Ireland, he in San Francisco, his brogue slight but charming, and he is an absolute wizard on his squeeze box, his vast repertoire of songs spanning every known genre and then some.

“I used to say I could play anything from Bach to the Beatles,” Michael explains to Myra after wowing her with a medley beginning with Mendelssohn’s wedding march, climaxing with a Piazzolla tango, and finishing with an irresistible hip hop version of The Girl From Ipanema, “but we’ve entered an era when both Bach and the Beatles are considered classical music, so I’ve had to expand my genre base, as it were.”

“I’m sold,” says Myra, struggling to keep her professional persona distinct from that of a deeply smitten woman. “I’m sure I can come up with plenty for you to do. Weddings, I mean.”

“Great,” says Michael, returning his accordion to its case. “To that end, here is my brand new business card.”

With a graceful bow, Michael hands Myra an obviously homemade card featuring the faces of two smiling dogs.

Myra stiffens. “What…why dogs?”

“Oh, that’s Rex and Ziggy,” says Michael, gazing fondly at the likenesses of his beloved pooches. “I have a show for children, too, with Rex and Ziggy as my co-stars.”

“I see,” says Myra, commanding her frontal lobe to terminate infatuation. “I trust that for weddings…”

“I hope you won’t think me impetuous,” says Michael, impetuously interrupting her, “but would you like to go out with me? Food and jazz at Yoshi’s? I’m rather taken with you, and that’s a colossal understatement.”

And the sweet musicality of his voice and the electricity flowing back and forth between them like a sideways Niagara makes Myra blurt, “Yes!”

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Two evenings after their initial meeting, Michael arrives at Myra’s impeccable Berkeley bungalow driving an old station wagon outfitted for canine transport, and Myra invites him in for a drink before they zip off to Yoshi’s.

“I have three cats,” says Myra, sitting not too far from Michael on her brown leather sofa and wondering if he’d be open to suggestions regarding his hopelessly outdated wardrobe. “But you won’t see them. They hide whenever anyone comes over.” She laughs. “Your classic scaredy cats.”

“I love cats,” says Michael, sighing in admiration of Myra. “You are one beautiful woman.”

“Thank you.” She blushes. “Wine? I have an excellent pinot.”

“I’d love a beer,” says Michael, nodding hopefully. “I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I love beer. Dark if you have it.”

“Sorry,” says Myra, her hopes of a wine connoisseur dashed. “No beer.”

“Tea?” suggests Michael, grinning at the approach of three big kitty cats, Bingo appropriating Michael’s lap, Butch and Groucho rubbing and snuffling against Michael’s shoes and pants, the doggy scents irresistible to their inquisitive noses.

“This is unprecedented,” says Myra, dazzled by the sight of her cats fawning over Michael. “They always hide when I have guests.”

“Oh, if I had half the way with women I have with animals,” says Michael, petting the adoring felines, “I’d probably, oh God…”

“Yes?” says Myra, laughing in delight as she forgets again that Michael features dogs on his business card. “You’d probably oh God what?”

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On Christmas day, Myra goes to Michael’s house for the first time. Having fulfilled their separate obligations to friends and relations that morning, and with their romance now well into the kissing phase, Myra braces herself for a front yard akin to certain unfortunate dog parks, rutted and muddy. But as she nears his house, she is stunned to see a Shangri-la of rose bushes and fruit trees with nary a sign of canine trampling.

“Must have sacrificed the backyard,” she murmurs, hurrying through the rain to the front door and wondering why she doesn’t smell anything particularly gross and doggy about the place.

The front door is ajar, the house resounding to Nat King Cole singing Christmas songs, the scents of freshly baked gingerbread and bubbling spaghetti sauce mingling surprisingly well.

“Hello?” says Myra, stepping into the piano-dominated living room with her big box of gifts for Michael, knowing she’s probably gone overboard on the shirts, but what the hell. “Anybody home?”

In response to her question, an enormous hound of complex origins appears on the threshold of the kitchen, wags his colossal tail, gives Myra a goofy smile, and sits. This is Rex, and he knows very well that his great size gives any human pause, but that he is especially frightening to people with an aversion to his kind.

A moment passes, Myra frozen in fear, and now Ziggy, a Lab Collie Whippet Poodle, joins Rex on the threshold, wags his tail, smiles, and sits, too.

This can’t possibly work thinks Myra, admitting to herself for the first time in her life that what she fears most about dogs is they are so much like people, and people have never been her forte, whereas cats…

At which moment, a third being appears on the threshold, this one a feline of many hues, a gorgeous calico named Miro who does not tarry with the dogs but approaches Myra without a whisker of trepidation, swirls about the woman’s legs, and communicates loud and clear (on the psychic plane) Pick me up, honey. I love women.

And as she cradles the sonorously purring Miro against her bosom, Myra’s heart breaks open, as healthy hearts are made to do, and Rex and Ziggy feel Myra’s heart opening as their cue to cross the room and greet their master’s beloved—Michael recording the sweet miracle with his camera.

Django

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Django

Django On Todd photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” James Herriot

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

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

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

Of Cats and Food

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Django Yoga

Django Yoga photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

“The story of cats is a story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from The Tribe of Tiger

We have one cat now, a twelve-year-old shorthaired gray named Django. We almost lost him eighteen months ago to complications arising from his extreme obesity—he weighed over twenty pounds—and in order to save him we became draconian masters feeding him half as much as we used to and splitting that lesser amount into four meals a day to encourage stomach shrinkage. The results have been good. Django has lost nine pounds, is noticeably more energetic and agile, and our veterinarian recently declared him fit as a fiddle.

However, there is a new development with Django. Accustomed to eating much more than he needed for the first eleven years of his life, Django now feels hungry all the time except when he is sleeping. He would, I gather, prefer to feel how he used to feel: fat. To that end, he has become a big talker, if you know what I mean.

Django asks to be fed by persistently reciting in cat language the famous line from Oliver Twist, “Please, sir, I’d like some more.” Telling him to be quiet has no effect whatsoever when those hungry excess fat cells get the best of him. Fortunately, we have found that if we pet Django for a few minutes and explain in soothing tones why he has to wait a little longer for food, he is often mollified. This suggests that he is not so much hungry as insecure about not being fat anymore.

“If you want to save a species, simply decide to eat it. Then it will be managed—like chickens, like turkeys, like deer, like Canadian geese.” Ted Nugent

In other food news, in case you hadn’t noticed, the price of eggs has skyrocketed. Why? Food prices should be going down along with the plunging price of gasoline. But they aren’t, just as our utility bills are not going down, though they should be, too, since a large percentage of California’s electricity is generated by power plants burning oil. But I was speaking of eggs.

Egg prices have gone way up because Proposition 2, passed by sixty percent of California voters, mandates that all eggs sold in California must come from chickens that have enough room in their cages to fully extend their wings and turn around. Predictably, the egg barons are suing the state for unusual kindness to hens because such kindness means the egg barons must replace their current commercial henhouses in which egg-laying chickens cannot spread their wings and turn around, especially with ten hens jammed into a single cage—a common practice in the industry.

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw

It was reported today that Max Scherzer, a very good pitcher of baseballs, has signed a seven-year deal with the Washington Nationals for 210 millions dollars. That comes to thirty million a year, a million dollars per game, and approximately ten thousand dollars per pitch. His record-breaking deal is also cleverly structured so Max will pay almost no income tax on the gargantuan fortune.

Also in today’s news was an article stating that by 2016, the wealthiest one per cent of human beings on earth (wealth measured by dollars) will have more wealth than the combined wealth of all the rest of the people on earth. That staggering news was juxtaposed poignantly with news that nearly a third of the people on earth now survive, somehow, on less than a dollar a day.

A good head of lettuce costs $3.49.

A little can of kidney beans costs $2.85.

A large gluten-free blackberry muffin costs $4.25.

A small package of faux crab sushi costs $6.95.

Organic almonds are now seventeen dollars a pound.

Organic brown rice is three dollars a pound.

“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” W.C. Fields

Walking up the hill from downtown Mendocino, a quartet of chicken legs secreted in a little ice chest in my knapsack, I come to a field rife with gophers and stop to admire a gorgeous orange tabby sitting still as a statue as she peers down at an entrance to the gopher kingdom, otherwise known as a gopher hole. The sight of this patient hunter reminds me that Django used to be quite the hunter of rats and mice until a broken tooth and a snaggletooth conspired to make it nearly impossible for him to eviscerate his kills, and so he became even more reliant on his humans for sustenance. In the wilds, Django would not have survived past his prime, and the same can be said for me.

The dry gopher-ridden field also reminds me that the drought is not over, not here or anywhere in California—the vegetable and rice and almond basket of America. I shudder to think how high food prices will go in the coming months should the meteorological consensus prove correct and the effects of the drought worsen. As if to echo my fears, a big shiny water truck rumbles by on its way to deliver water to someone with a dry well in January. Oh the things we take for granted.

I arrive home to Django singing multiple choruses from Oliver, though his next meal will not be served for another two hours. I put away the groceries, give Django a tummy rub and promise to feed him at five. He gives me a doubtful look, hunkers down in a pool of sunlight, and begins to assiduously clean himself with his tongue. I look out the window and watch in dismay as a dozen robins gobble my recently arisen Austrian Field Peas.

“You don’t have to kill and eat those birds,” I say to Django, “but couldn’t you at least chase them away?”

He gives me an ironic smile and resumes his toilette.

How Much Do You Love Him?

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

How Much Do You Love Him?

Django on Marcia’s Lap

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

“The story of cats is the story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our cat Django is a very large and handsome gray cat, or as our veterinarian said politely, “Shall we call him obese?”

“But he hasn’t gained any weight for several years,” we hastened to explain. “He’s holding steady at twenty pounds and a little.”

The good doctor of cats and dogs was not greatly impressed by our feat of maintaining the status quo of Django’s enormity. We had rushed our twelve-year-old kitty to the one and only veterinarian office in the village of Mendocino because he was in severe distress, which turned out to be the result of urinary tract and kidney difficulties that could, sooner than later, lead to his death if we don’t start feeding him special expensive food or unless, as our vet explained, Django undergoes an operation to eliminate the problem entirely by turning him into a female in regard to how he urinates.

“How much do you love him?” said our vet, smiling sympathetically. “Such an operation costs around fifteen hundred dollars. The better diet and shedding some weight should do the trick for some years, though if he is blocked again, then short of surgery we would have to catheterize and hospitalize him for three days, after which he could have another episode, so cost can become an issue for some people.”

“That would be us,” I said, not entirely comfortable with equating the willingness to spend money and love, but I knew our vet was trying to be clear and up front about how much various procedures cost, and we appreciated his candor.

In any case, the vet bill certainly gave us pause, pun intended. For the emergency visit, urine analysis, blood analysis, antibiotic injection, painkiller injection, ten cans of special food, and kitty litter so we could keep the big fatso inside for a couple days while he recovered from his ordeal, our cost was three hundred and forty-two dollars. How much do we love our cat? That much. So far.

Then there is the problem of Django’s broken tooth. “Extractions of this nature,” said our vet, “can run from five hundred to a thousand dollars. If you don’t have the tooth removed, infection may ensue resulting in abscess, in which case dental work would be imperative or…” How much do we love this cat?

“A veterinarian and cat specialist, Dr. Richard Thoma, trying to locate a cat’s purr with a stethoscope, found that the sound was equally loud all over.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was a landscaper forty years ago, I lived in a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house on the outskirts of Medford Oregon. My boss and his wife grew up on farms in Kansas and considered cats semi-wild animals to be tolerated around their two-acre homestead because the cats kept the rodent population in check. Every year or two, when the resident cat population became overly robust, my boss would gather up all but the best hunters and the most elusive cats and drown them.

I thought about this matter-of-fact drowning of kittens and cats as Marcia handed her credit card to the vey nice receptionist at our excellent village veterinarian clinic, and I thought of a photo essay I saw recently of cat meat vendors in China selling both live and butchered cats to eager shoppers in an open air market. And though I have no desire to drown or eat Django, that’s where my thoughts wandered when I thought of three hundred and forty-two dollars suddenly disappearing from our bank account, with further Django-related expenses looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

“People who have both dogs and cats can verify the statement: when called, the common response of dogs is to come, and of cats is to answer.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

That afternoon in the post office, I fell into conversation with a friend who responded to my emotional account of the Django crisis by telling me the story of her parents’ beloved and also impressively heavyset cat Hercules, who suffered from the identical malady Django suffers from, with costs of dealing with such urinary kidney problems eventually outstripping her parents’ devotion to the cat.

“It was that really cold wet winter a few years ago, and their roof was leaking badly, towels and buckets catching drips everywhere, the roofers supposed to come that afternoon, and there they were standing in the examining room looking down at big old Hercules sitting on the table with the vet petting the sweet old thing and waiting for them to choose between a dry house and the cat.”

“Even being fed by a person must seem like old times to a cat, because of the person’s manner of delivering food. A person characteristically puts down a dish of food and moves away from it, offering plenty of space, which invites the cat to approach and eat. In the same way, a hunting mother cat puts down the dead bird she has brought, backing away from it to show that she will not compete for the carcass and that her kitten can approach.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Save for a few brief stretches in my life—sixty-four years and counting—I’ve always had a cat or two and they’ve had me. Their personalities and propensities have been as varied as those of humans, and their intelligence quotas have been variable, too, ranging from clairvoyant geniuses to barely functional idiots. And until today, I never spent more than a few dollars on veterinary care for any of my cats, largely because I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t partnered with someone willing to spend hundreds of dollars to keep a cat alive. Most of my cats lived long and healthy lives, but one died young from feline leukemia, three were hit by cars, and one was snatched by a coyote. My sister’s beautiful young cat was plucked from her terrace by a hawk.

Thinking back and remembering Chubs and Girly Girl and Suzy Cat and Boy Boy and Bucky and Pele and Juju, I realize that part of their collective appeal was that they were largely independent from me and didn’t need much more than sufficient food and warmth and occasional shows of affection. They did not, in fact, cost hardly anything considering all the pleasure and help they gave me, and if they had cost very much, I would not have so blithely taken them on as one does with cats when one is in the habit of having them and being had by them.

“Long ago, around the southern shores of the Mediterranean, little African wildcats took shelter in people’s dwelling places, probably finding the supply of mice and rats and the escape from heavy rains much to their liking. There they stayed. Perhaps they even liked the warmth of people’s fires. The earliest cat known is from Jericho (now Israel) nine thousand years ago when one of the few amenities that people had that might attract a cat was fire.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our mighty federal government grants me six hundred and eighty-four dollars a month from Social Security, and we just gave exactly half that amount to our veterinarian to save Django’s life. Two weeks ago our healthcare insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross, seeing that I will turn sixty-five in seven months and Marcia will turn sixty-five in a year, decided to jack up our insurance rates nearly three hundred dollars a month to extract as much more money from us as they possibly can before we graduate to Medicare.

So to save a little money, we made the leap to Obamacare, and lo it came to pass that under the new healthcare system we will be covered by, wouldn’t you know it, Anthem Blue Cross and pay them a little more than the usurious sum we were paying them before they jacked up our rates to ever more dizzying heights, except under Obamacare our deductible is so high it would be laughable if it were not obscene.

Meanwhile, Django is lolling by the fire, fully recovered from his painful ordeal and blissfully unaware that if we hadn’t spent a big wad of cash, he would probably be looking for a dark place to curl up and die.

I rub his ample belly and say, “Hang in there, Django. Another seven months and I’ll be getting Medicare, otherwise known as Single Payer, which is what everyone in America would have if not for the crooks running our government. Then we’ll have a bit more money should you need some help and we decide we love you enough.”

Being Gotten

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Cat and jamming

Cat and Jamming photo by Marcia Sloane

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

You remember, I’m sure, that time you went to a party with no great expectation of anything beyond munching and drinking and blah-dee-blah, and you met someone with whom you had phenomenal rapport, so much so that your time with them was an amazing emotional and intellectual pas de dux that made you feel better than you’d felt in a long time. And the next day, when you thought about the connection you had with that person, you realized that what made the experience so special was that this person really ­got you, and you really got them, which is to say, the person truly madly deeply heard you, saw you, grokked you, dug you, liked you, and resonated powerfully with your feelings and perceptions, and vice-versa, which made you feel less alone and more…gotten, which is to say you felt less isolated on your own little island of self and more connected to the great big everything.

I know what some of you are thinking; this is another pile of Todd’s hackneyed psycho-spiritual crap. And I know what some others of you are thinking; that being gotten is exactly what you’ve been thinking about lately and you’re thrilled I’m writing about this. Put another way: you get me or you don’t.

What’s your point, Todd? That’s one of those questions I am frequently asked by people who don’t get me. I’m sure that happens to you, too. You’ve done your best to say what you mean, and you’ve said what you’ve said because you really want to communicate those thoughts and feelings, and someone responds with, “What’s your point?” which always reminds me of those angry, humorless literalists I have known and wasted my time trying to placate, except such people cannot be placated because…psychology.

If you’re over fifty, you know the song Alfie by Hal David and Burt Bacharach that opens with “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Those lines remind me of Joseph Campbell saying, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” Beyond merely surviving, I think the point of our human lives is to find and commune with people we truly deeply get and who truly deeply get us, to engage in mutually supportive emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual exchanges and dances and meals and drinking cups of warm liquids and having conversations and taking walks and experiencing simultaneous epiphanies that make us feel meaningfully connected to each other, which in turn connects us to the great big everything.

Ah, good. Now that you-know-who has stopped reading, I will continue.

I recently came out with a CD of my original piano music called Incongroovity, my fourth piano album (I still call them albums.) If you’re an artist or a musician or a chef or a designer or any sort of creative person and out-of-the-box thinker, which I’ll bet most of you still reading this are, then you know about those moments of doubt and wondering and hope and fear and excitement and dread and exaltation and despair and curiosity and girding your loins for disapproval and dreaming of passionately positive responses when you present a new creation or thought or feeling to the world. Your hope, your desire, your fervent wish, is that someone, and maybe more than one someone, but at least one someone, will really get what you’re trying to communicate, and that they’ll let you know they got you.

Why do we need someone else to validate who we are and what we do? I think we’re hardwired that way. We can learn to need less validation from others and to heed our own counsel and judgment more than we heed the cawing of cynics and emotionally stunted self-righteous know-it-alls who never have anything nice to say, but because being human is about communing with others of our kind, about hooking up with those who get us, we crave being gotten by others. Why? Because being gotten is an elixir, a cure for the blues, the antidote to doubt, the source of inspiration, and possibly what it’s all about, Alfie or Jane or Akbar or Kyle or Myra.

To be an original artist of any kind in America, as Joseph Campbell said, is to travel a path of great danger. What makes the path of original thinking and making original art so dangerous? Aside from little or no financial support for such independent and daring behavior in a society that demands we have money to survive, most original artists run the terrifying risk of never being gotten. By anyone. As Conan Doyle famously said, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself…” and truer words were never spoken. He goes on to say, “…but talent instantly recognizes genius.” Aye there’s the rub. How do we find those with the talent to get us, while they, too, are busy fighting to survive the slings and arrows of outrageously mediocre imitators who rule the cultural roost and brainwash the masses with redundant poo poo?

Joseph Campbell continues (and I paraphrase), “Yes, the path of the artist is one of great danger, but if you stay on your path and trust your intuitive wisdom, doors will open for you.” You will find people who get you, and then, truly, you will know you have not lived and worked in vain. As a wise woman once told me, “There’s no point in waiting for your ship to come in if you haven’t sent out any ships.”

So even though I love Incongroovity more than any of my previous albums, and though I know in my bones the music is good, when I sent out the first batch of albums to friends and the handful of DJs around the country who give my music air time, I was in a state of high anticipatory anxiety waiting to see if anyone would get Incongroovity. I knew my friends would say they liked the album, but would anyone really get the tunes and communicate that getting to me?

Who cares? That’s another of those epithets disguised as a question that bitter, disapproving, closed-minded people like to throw at people they don’t get. However, I much prefer “Who cares?” to the merely dismissive “What’s your point?” because “Who cares?” succinctly elucidates the existential dilemma underpinning anticipatory anxiety. Will anyone care about what you’ve worked so hard to write or play or draw or invent? Who is there among your fellow earth beings, and that includes stones and trees and rivers and dogs and cats and people, who will get you—such getting intrinsically bound to caring about what you’ve done and who you are.

Did I say cats? Yup. I had a cat who totally got my piano playing, and I don’t mean a human cat, but an actual feline. Her name was Girly Girl, and whenever she saw me heading for the piano, no matter what she was doing, she’d skip to the piano bench and wait thereupon for me. I would sit down beside her and begin to play, and after a little while, she would hop from the piano bench to the nearby armchair where she would sit and listen attentively for as long as I played, for hours sometimes. And I felt she was the ears of Universe digging my tunes, and her listening kept me practicing for days and weeks and months when I had no other indication that anyone else was getting me. Blessings on that musical cat!

So now I’ve heard from a few peeps telling me they love Incongroovity, and seven DJs so far on itsy bitsy community radio stations have blasted my tunes into the airwaves of Maine and Indiana and California and Idaho and Oregon and Vermont. And yesterday I heard from my pal Max Greenstreet, a daring musician and artist and delightfully original freelance human being. He downloaded and listened to a few tunes from Incongroovity in anticipation of receiving the entire actual disk from me, and this is what Max had to say about the title cut.

“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to come to that area in the middle of “Incongroovity” where the magical thing happens in my body every time, and then to be carried along in that state to the final notes of the song.”

Which is exactly what happens to me, every time.

 

Salt and Song

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

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

“Things filled men with fear: the more things they had, the more they had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves on to the soul and then telling the soul what to do.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

Marcia and I recently watched the marvelous documentary The Salt Men of Tibet, and if you’ve been feeling jangled by modern life, I think you will find this movie a helpful antidote to that jangling. The pace of the movie reflects the pace of life for these nomadic salt men who leave their womenfolk and children to walk with a great herd of yaks, forty yaks per man, to a remote salt lake from which they harvest salt to trade for barley so they and their people may survive another year. Walking to the lake takes the men and their yaks a month or so, with the return trip—each yak now burdened with two large sacks of salt—taking forty-five days or more. Thus three months of every year in the lives of these men is consumed with going and getting salt, and each minute of those three months is part of an all-encompassing sacred ritual.

The film begins in a hut in a mountainous wilderness in which there are no trees. A woman is singing to the salt men, her song the story of Lord Buddha and the events composing the spiritual basis for the reality these men and their families inhabit. The salt people are devout Buddhists and believe their salt lake to be an intelligent and emotionally sensitive being who is deeply influenced by the actions of those who wish to gain the boon of salt from her.

At the conclusion of the woman’s song, the spiritual stage now set, preparations for the incredible journey begin. What we soon realize is that these people live without electricity and motors, their fires fueled with yak dung, their clothing and rope and blankets made from yak wool, and that every aspect of their lives is consciously spiritual, for they believe that everything—every step they take and every word they speak and every animal and object they possess—is presided over by gods and spirits and Buddha to whom they speak and pray and sing throughout their days.

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki

The day after we watched The Salt Men of Tibet, I went out into the garden to harvest our garlic crop, and when I realized I was rushing to complete the task, I thought of the salt men, took a deep breath, and slowed way down. And as I slowed my actions, many blurry things came into focus. I became keenly aware of the beauty of the roots of the garlic clinging tenaciously to the soil as I pulled the dying plants from the ground, which tenacity and beauty reminded me that I was harvesting the children of the marriage of the garlic plant with the soil, children I would soon be eating so I might go on living.

Blessings on the soil and rabbit poop and compost and horse manure and rain and microbes and time and sunlight and darkness and gravity and air and all else constituting the fabric of life wherein our holy garlic flourishes.

“Before the whites came, no one in Australia was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor’s song and the stretch of country over which the song passed. A man’s verses were his title deeds to territory. He could lend them to others. He could borrow other verses in return. The one thing he couldn’t do was sell or get rid of them.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

I am currently reading The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s classic about the aboriginals of central Australia in the late twentieth century. The book was first published in America in 1987 and is by far my favorite of Chatwin’s works. This is my third reading of The Songlines, my first in a decade, and I’m finding the text wholly new, which is both pleasurable and perplexing. How could I have forgotten so much of this fascinating information? If you have not read The Songlines or if it has been some years since your last reading, I highly recommend the book as another good antidote to the frantic pace of modern life that so grievously obscures our perceptions of the infinite nuances of Nature—the aboriginals of Australia believing that for anything to exist, it must first be sung into existence.

 “A ‘stop’, he said, was the ‘handover point’ where the song passed out of your ownership; where it was no longer yours to look after and no longer yours to lend. You’d sing to the end of your verses, and there lay the boundary.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

In 1964, when I was fifteen, my family and I went on a Sierra Club trip to a high Sierra base camp on the North Fork of the San Joaquin, a seventeen-mile hike from the last trace of what might be called a road. Joining us at this remote base camp were thirty other people, and one of these intrepid souls was an elderly Italian man who had played the clarinet in a famous symphony orchestra for most of his life.

Every morning he would rise at dawn and climb to the top of a rocky knoll overlooking our camp and sound the breakfast bell, so to speak, by playing on his clarinet a gorgeous rendition of Oh What A Beautiful Morning; and rain or shine his music ushered in the light of day as I lay in my sleeping bag listening to those voluptuous tones giving form to the formless void and filling me with desire to get up and live.

“Richard Lee calculated that a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

One of the many things I appreciate about The Songlines is that Chatwin resists the impulse to portray the aboriginals as heroic and the Europeans as villains. Each person in the book, regardless of skin color, is presented as an individual with flaws and virtues, beauty and ugliness, so that my own tendency to lionize the indigenous and villainize the colonists is constantly derailed by Chatwin’s fairness, which allows me to surrender to the unspoken message of the story that each of us is the creation of the culture in which we are born and raised; and the most remarkable people are those who practice generosity rather than selfishness, regardless of their particular cultural programming. Indeed, the book is full of little acts of kindness and generosity without which life would be no fun at all.

“All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world: those that stay at home and those that do not.” Rudyard Kipling

Another thing I love about The Songlines is that the book is a jumble of ideas and anecdotes and theories about human behavior set against the backdrop of a rough and tumble journey through the outback in search of places sacred to the aboriginals, which turns out to be almost every place. At one point in his outback odyssey, incessant rain traps Chatwin in a remote outpost for several days, a time he uses to read through his many notebooks filled with stories about various nomadic societies and remembrances of his fascinating discussions with Konrad Lorenz (author of On Aggression) and Elizabeth Vrba, as well as several mind-bending theories about the evolution of human society in that long ago time when our ancestors were the favorite food of gigantic cats.

“A leopard at the kill is no more violent or angry than an antelope is angry with the grass it eats.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

There is one scene in The Salt Men of Tibet I’ve thought about several times since watching the movie, and every time I think about this scene I feel grateful for the wisdom it imparts. For the purpose of saddling the yaks, one of the salt men is gathering the big animals and tying them to a long assemblage of rope laid out on the ground. As the man goes to get one of the yaks, the big animal moves away, not wanting to be caught. The man follows the yak, but does not hurry. The yak eludes the man three or four times, yet the man never quickens his pace as he follows the yak and eventually catches him.

As I watched the scene, I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the man following the yak, and I nearly shouted, “Just move a little quicker and grab him!” But that is not the way of the salt people. Hurrying and grabbing might frighten or anger the yaks with whom the salt people have a profoundly symbiotic and respectful relationship. The salt people could not survive without the yaks, for these sacred beings provide the salt people with milk, butter, fat, fire, fabric, transportation, and warmth—life!

Laughing

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

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

“Humor is just another defense against the universe.” Mel Brooks

Once upon a time, so many years ago it might have been another lifetime, I got two kittens, a boy and girl, and after much thought and research named them Boy and Girl. Boy was an orange tabby, Girl was a gray tabby, and in the hallowed tradition of kittens, they played and slept and mewed and ate and clawed things and were wonderfully cute.

When they were about four months old, Boy and Girl played a particular game that made me laugh until I cried. No matter how many times I watched them play this game, I laughed until I cried. Sometimes other people would watch with me as the kittens played this particular game, and some of these people laughed, too, and a few of them even laughed until they cried; but there were other people who watched the game and did not laugh at all, which was amazing to me, and troubling. Here is the game the kittens played.

A heavy brown ceramic vase about fourteen-inches high, round at the bottom and narrowing somewhat at the top, stood on a brick terrace. Girl would chase Boy onto the terrace and Boy would jump into the vase. Girl would sit next to the vase, listening to Boy inside, and when Boy would pop his head up out of the vase, Girl would leap up and try to catch him, and Boy would drop back down into the vase. Then Girl would stand on her hind legs and reach into the vase with her forepaws and Boy would shoot his paws up to fight Girl’s paws, or Boy might leap out of the vase and the chase would resume. Or Girl would be inside the vase with Boy outside and the vase would tip over in the midst of their roughhousing and out would spill Girl.

Why were their antics so hilarious to me? Was it because their play was an enactment of the essential mammalian drama of fright and flight and fight—the thrill and danger of the hunt mixed with the suspense and terror of hiding in order to survive? Yes, I think so. But what’s so funny about that?

“Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end.” Sid Caesar

I don’t have many memories of my mother laughing. My brother and I were forever telling jokes, honing our techniques, and our mother usually responded with a droll, “Very funny,” even if everyone else was howling with laughter.

But there was a time, one glorious time, when my mother and I laughed together so hard and for so long that we literally fell out of our seats and went temporarily blind with laughter. I was fourteen when my mother procured tickets for just the two of us to attend the musical Little Me at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, with the Broadway cast starring Sid Caesar in a dizzying number of roles opposite the ravishingly sexy Virginia Martin, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, a script by Neil Simon, and choreography by Bob Fosse.

As far as I can remember this was the only time in my life my mother took just the two of us to anything. Even more impressive, she splurged on fantastic seats, tenth row, center, which was also highly uncharacteristic of her. What I realize now after almost fifty years was that my mother was giving me the message that though she officially agreed with my father’s opposition to my pursuing a career in music and theater and writing, she unofficially supported my passion for these things.

The success of Little Me depended entirely on the genius of Sid Caesar and his ability to play myriad comedic roles convincingly, not to mention sing well, too. The same play performed with several different actors essaying Sid’s half-dozen parts wouldn’t have worked at all because the point of the play, in a way, is that all these extremely different men are essentially the same guy falling in love with the same woman over and over again. Try as I may, I cannot imagine anyone other than Sid Caesar successfully playing all those parts without becoming tiresome or silly. I knew that was Sid again and again—stumbling off the stage as one character and racing back on as someone else—yet I always believed he was an entirely new character—an astonishing feat. The songs were great, the dancing was fabulous, Virginia Martin was luscious, the chorus girls were gorgeous, the dialogue was snappy and funny, and young Todd was in heaven.

I can still recite whole scenes from the play and sing several of the songs, though I only saw and heard the musical once all those decades ago; but I cannot remember which scene it was that made my mother and I laugh so hard that we fell out of our seats, laughing along with hundreds of other people laughing so uproariously that Sid and his fellow actors froze for a time to let us get through our delirium before they came back to life and carried on with the show. That play and Sid Caesar and Virginia Martin and laughing so stupendously with my mother are burned into my memory more indelibly than almost anything else I have ever experienced.

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” Kurt Vonnegut


When I saw Little Me with my mother, I was a freshman at Woodside High School attempting to fulfill my father’s wish that I become a medical doctor. To that end, I was slaving away in an accelerated program for scientifically ambitious students, something I most definitely was not. Nevertheless, I had yet to work up the courage to defy my father and so was following the prescribed steps on the path he wanted me to follow. As a consequence, I was one of only four ninth graders in a biology class for upper classmen, and we four sat huddled together in a far corner of the big classroom, though we otherwise had little in common.

There came the day of the big mid-term exam, the results to account for half our grade. Everyone in the class was on edge, we youngsters especially so. Our teacher was not a good one, I was badly prepared, poorly motivated, and certain I would botch the test. As we waited for our teacher to arrive with the tests, the four of us began to free associate, someone saying osmosis, someone replying mitochondria, another adding messenger RNA, and so on until we left science behind and were reeling off the names of pretty girls and sports heroes and anything and everything until one of us said something—the ultimate non sequitur?—that proved to be the verbal straw that broke our collective camel’s back, so that just as our teacher entered the room we four began to laugh hysterically.

Our laughter spread to others in the room, but eventually everyone, save for the four freshmen, regained control and prepared to take the test. But we had gone beyond some line none of us had ever gone beyond before, and we could not stop laughing. Our teacher sent us out into the hallway where we fell to the concrete and laughed until our bellies ached. And finally, one by one, we stopped laughing, caught our breaths, and returned to the classroom. But the moment we entered that place of the test, hysteria caught us again and sent us hurtling back outside, our teacher following us out to threaten and cajole, to no avail.

Because we were thought of as good boys, our temporary insanity was forgiven and we took the test the following day, though we were never allowed to sit en masse again. One of us became a professor of Biology, one a conservative federal judge, one a professor of Art, the fourth a writer and musician and the author of this essay. We were as different as four people could be, yet in that moment of youthful hysterics, the pressures of the world too much for us to bear, we escaped into laughter—together.

Ball Bear Cat Piano

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Humphrey Bogart

Jon Miller, my favorite bard of baseball, recently used the words egregious, preposterous, cerulean, prodigious, and greensward whilst painting verbal pictures of our San Francisco Giants sweeping the Rockies and the Snakes, and making history as they did so. Jon revealed today during a lopsided loss to the Cubs, that no team in the long history of baseball had ever won six home games in a row in which they scored less than four runs in any of those six games. I agree that isn’t nearly as important as the ongoing meltdowns of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, but it does prove we have some mighty impressive pitching.

Sometimes Jon will quote the Bard (Shakespeare) himself. Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
 Hover through the fog…” might have been written expressly for baseball in San Francisco in July, except those prescient lines were written in England five hundred years ago. Yes, a baseball game announced by a gifted raconteur is an entirely different game than the same game seen on television. How can this be? Because television leaves nothing to the imagination, whereas visualizing a game while listening to an artfully improvised run of words is a prodigious imaginative feat; and every listener’s imagining of the game is unique.

Another wonderful thing about listening to intelligent, witty, insightful people (with great swaths of time to fill when nothing much is actually going on) is that they often say amazing and thought provoking things. Case in point: did you know that though the average major league baseball game takes roughly three hours to play, the action of the game—everything that actually happens other than the pitcher pitching and batters swinging or not swinging—takes only about six minutes of those three hours?

Here’s something else amazing that Jon recently imparted to us in his mellifluous voice. (Yes, I’ve heard Jon use the word mellifluous, too.) “From the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, it only takes the ball a quarter of a second to reach home plate. A quarter of a second. That’s how much time a batter has to decide whether to swing at the pitch or not.” Heck, I can’t snap my fingers in a quarter of a second, let alone swing a big old bat accurately enough to strike a nearly invisible little orb hurtling toward me at ninety-five miles an hour. Hence the famous quotation from Ted Williams, the last player to hit over .400 in a season (1941): “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

So a few days ago I was listening to the Giants battle the Arizona Diamondbacks (the Snakes) when my phone rang and it was my neighbor Cindy calling to say there was a bear in their front yard finishing up some leftovers in the garbage can they hadn’t gotten back inside the bear-proof shed quite soon enough. This news interested me more than the game (that particular game at that particular moment) because I’ve lived in this house on this land adjoining a remote part of Big River State Park for six years and had yet to encounter one of our local bears. I had frequently seen the aftermaths of their visits—bear scat, flattened deer fences, broken boughs in apple trees where bruins had climbed in pursuit of apples—but I had yet to actually see a bear.

“How big is he, or she?” I asked, thinking I might tip toe through the huckleberries to get a peek at the bear.

“He’s sitting down,” said Cindy, “and his head and shoulders are visible over the front end of the overturned garbage can. One of those very big cans. What’s that? About three feet?”

Three feet to the shoulders while sitting down? Hmm. I decided not to go have a look, recalling a frightening documentary about bears in which it was said they can outrun humans, no problem. Or what if this was a sow with cubs lurking in the huckleberries? So I turned the game back on just as Cody Ross smacked a double—nice to have Cody getting his stroke back—and the phone rang again, Cindy telling me the bear was now heading my way on the footpath through the rhododendrons.

I went to the window at the west end of our living room and looked down the gravel driveway toward our woodpile, but my pickup truck was blocking the view of where the aforementioned footpath meets our driveway. I was certainly hoping to see a bear, but I wasn’t expecting to see such a big bear. This guy (I have good reason to believe the bear was male) was huge. And when he came around the nose of the pickup truck and went up onto his hind legs and looked in the passenger window of the truck, I gasped, because this bear was much taller than my truck. Indeed, this bear seemed to be roughly the same size as the truck. Of course he wasn’t really as big as the truck, but let us say that had he been human, he would have needed a bigger truck.

Seeing or smelling nothing worth eating in the diminutive vehicle, the bear dropped back down on all fours and continued into our front yard—a small meadow ringed by rhododendrons in glorious bloom and huckleberry bushes laden with blossoms presaging another abundant late summer harvest. I expected see the bear traverse the meadow and disappear into…

The bear came directly to the bottom of our front stairs. I know this because I was standing at the front door, the sliding glass variety, looking out at the bear looking up at me from six stairs down. That’s how many stairs there are: six. Then the bear rose up onto his hind legs again, perhaps to show me how big he was, or to reveal his gender, or to get a better look at me. In any case, he stayed upright for a long moment and then went back down on all fours and started up the stairs.

Two things struck me in that moment. Well, more than two things struck me, but two things struck me harder than the other things that were striking me. 1. For some reason I was not particularly frightened, though I thought I should be. 2. The bear looked goofy. He did not look anything like the bears I saw eons ago in Yosemite, nor did he look like the bears I’ve seen in National Geographics, the magazine or the documentary films. This bear looked goofy. He had lopsided floppy ears, and one rheumy eye noticeably larger than the other rheumy eye, and flies buzzing around his goofy face, which made me think he might be a very old bear with failing eyesight, which would explain why he was wandering around during the day instead of being appropriately nocturnal.

In any case, when he placed his enormous paw on the second step from the bottom, I banged on the glass, made what I hoped was a frightening face, and I growled. Roared, actually. To which that huge goofy bear responded by turning tail, so to speak, and hurrying away.

“Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.” Bob Veale

Relieved to have so easily vanquished the bear, I turned the radio back on just as Andres Torres smacked a double down the right field line—so nice to have Torres back in the leadoff spot—and I noticed our cats Hootie (slender and black) and Django (fat and gray) were nonchalantly sprawled on the sofa as if nothing untoward had just happened. Important factoid: Hootie and Django are cats who run and hide when I, the person who feeds them and pets them and calls them silly names, makes too sudden a movement or raises my voice much past a whisper. Hootie and Django will catch a whiff of something (a passing mountain lion?) and thereafter refuse to leave the house for days on end. These are cats who scurry under the bathtub when people they’ve met seventy times come to visit. Yet these scaredy cats seemed utterly clueless that a gigantic bear had just been moments away from breaking down the front door, ransacking the house, and eating them! Why were the cats so unmoved by the bear?

Because maybe the bear wasn’t a bear. Maybe the bear was a spirit being disguised as a bear. Wouldn’t that explain the goofy face and floppy ears? Maybe the bear was the embodiment of some old terror of mine, some old unfinished business that was now finished because I banged on the glass and made a terrible face and growled. I had become the bear. I had become my fear and thereby released the fear to be carried away into another dimension by the spirit bear being. Or maybe the cats knew this bear, knew he was goofy and harmless, and so were not afraid.

“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” Earl Wilson

So…after the Giants won a nail biter on Cody Ross’s walk off single in the bottom of the ninth, I sat down at the piano and played for a while. And as I played, one of my favorite things happened. Hootie hopped up beside me on the piano bench and listened to me play. Or maybe he wasn’t listening, maybe he was just hanging out and enjoying the vibe of the person who feeds him enjoying playing the piano.

I don’t play written down music. I improvise on themes and patterns and inventions I’ve found over forty years of playing every day for an hour or two or three. And on that day the bear came to visit, I played with the bear in mind, the music changing from somber to funny to nostalgic to grandiloquent to sweet—our little black cat sitting beside me the whole time.

Todd’s new CD of piano improvisations Ceremonies is available from underthetablebooks.com and downloadable from iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby.

Happiness

Friday, December 10th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Thomas Merton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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