Posts Tagged ‘children’

Naomi Drives To Portland

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

Naomi Drives To Portland

Naomi can count on one hand the number of times she’s left the greater Los Angeles area since she was born in North Hollywood sixty-two years ago. When she was twenty, Naomi married Simon Welch, a real estate agent, and expected to have children soon thereafter. When she didn’t get pregnant after two years of trying, she went to three doctors, each of whom declared her plenty fertile, while Simon refused to see a doctor to determine the viability of his half of the bargain.

Having planned her entire life around having kids, Naomi waited another year and then gave Simon an ultimatum. “Consult a doctor about your potency or I’m filing for divorce.”

Simon steadfastly refused to see a doctor, they divorced, and Naomi went to work as the secretary for a small-time movie producer named Sheldon Reznick. While working for Sheldon, Naomi, who reminded more than a few men of Marilyn Monroe if Marilyn had been short and brunette, caught the eye of a young director named Horace Fielding and he wooed Naomi zealously.

They were married when Naomi was twenty-six and Horace was thirty-three. Naomi got pregnant on their honeymoon in Palm Springs, and when she was eight months pregnant, Horace directed the tiny-budget comedy Your Name Again Was? that eventually grossed over fifty million dollars.

Seven years later, when their son David was seven and their daughter Rachel was five, Horace left Naomi for a nineteen-year-old fashion model from Sweden. By then, Horace had directed seven big-budget movies and he and Naomi were extremely wealthy. In the divorce settlement, Naomi got the five-bedroom house on the beach in Malibu, the condo in Century City, sole custody of the children, and twenty million dollars.

Three years later, when Naomi was thirty-six, she married Myron Lowenstein, a venture capitalist seventeen years her senior, with whom she had her third child, Frieda. Naomi and Myron were married for twenty-six years until Myron’s death three years ago when he was eighty-two.

“What’s so good about Portland?” asks Naomi, talking on the phone to her eighty-seven-year-old mother Golda. “First David moved there, then Frieda, and now Rachel. Finally they’re all about to have children and they want me to move there, too. How can I move? I’ve lived here my whole life. You’re here. I know where everything is. All my friends are here. I offered to buy them houses here, but they had to go to Portland. Why? David can work anywhere on his computer, Rachel can write television shows anywhere, and Frieda could have gone to law school at UCLA or USC. Why Lewis & Clark? Whoever they are. David goes on and on about how beautiful it is there, how fabulous the restaurants. What? We don’t have restaurants here?”

“It rains for hours and hours every day in Portland,” says Golda, angrily. “Those people there get so depressed they kill themselves. In droves. What’s wrong with sunshine?”

“Exactly,” says Naomi, despondently. “Frieda says it doesn’t rain so much there anymore and sometimes they have snow. Since when is snow a good thing?”

“Since never,” says Golda, making a spluttering sound. “Twenty-two winters I lived through in Detroit. If I never see snow again, I’ll be happy. We kissed the ground when we got to Los Angeles.”

“I’ll kiss the ground when I get back,” says Naomi, starting to cry. “But Rachel is due in three weeks. I have to be with her. I’m driving to Portland day after tomorrow. I’ll be gone for the rest of September and most of October, maybe longer. I’ll call you every day at the usual time. At least they’re in the same time zone.”

“You’re driving?” says Golda, aghast. “That will take forever. Why not fly?”

“I don’t fly, Mama. Remember? I flew to New York that one time with Horace? It was the worst experience of my life. How I lived to tell the tale I’ll never know.”

“His last movie was a bomb,” says Golda, snorting. “Serves him right, the schmuck.”

“Actually that was three movies ago,” says Naomi, who keeps close tabs on Horace’s career. “His last two films have been huge. Horror movies.”

“He should be ashamed.”

“He makes money,” says Naomi, looking around her immaculate home. “That’s all he ever cared about.” She clears her throat. “Money and young women. So I’m leaving Monday. I’ll spend the night with Lisa in San Mateo and then…”

“Lisa? Lisa who?”

“Lisa Leibowitz. You remember Lisa. We went to high school together.”

“I thought she lived in Glendale.”

“She moved to San Mateo twenty years ago.”

“Who knew?”

“I told you hundreds of times.” Naomi rolls her eyes. “Anyway, from San Mateo I drive eight hours to a place called Gold Beach. In Oregon. I’m staying in a motel there that Rachel and David both love. Right on the beach. As if I’m not already right on the beach. And I’ll get to Portland the next day if I don’t get killed first.”

“Why would you get killed?”

“I’m not planning on it,” says Naomi, sighing heavily, “but you never know.”

Naomi makes the drive in her big new silver Mercedes. From Malibu to San Mateo the trip is a piece of cake, and she has a nice visit with Lisa. The traffic she encounters the next morning between San Mateo and Cloverdale reminds her of driving in Los Angeles, but when she gets twenty miles north of Willits on Highway 101, she begins to feel uneasy about the absence of towns and houses; and the disquieting lack of traffic makes her wonder if something terrible has happened in the greater world, something that has made people afraid to go anywhere.

Now quite abruptly the highway shrinks from four lanes to two, with huge trees crowding the road on either side, and she feels she has entered a cold and alien place of endless forests void of people. So to quell her growing panic, she calls her daughter Rachel in Portland, and to her horror, her brand new phone won’t work.

“Why can’t I use my phone?” she asks the onboard computer. “My phone doesn’t work. Why not?”

“No coverage here,” says the robotic voice.

“How far to coverage?” asks Naomi, breathing hard.

“Garberville,” says the voice.

“How far to Garberville?” asks Naomi, her heart pounding.

“Forty-two miles,” says the voice. “At your current speed you will arrive in fifty-seven minutes.”

“Why no coverage until Garberville?” asks Naomi, her voice trembling.

“No coverage until Garberville,” says the voice.

Naomi’s heart is beating so fast, she thinks she might be about to have a heart attack; and just as she has this thought, a pullout appears on her right, so she eases off the road, and there at the far end of the pullout is a young woman holding a baby—a cardboard sign propped up against her backpack saying EUREKA.

And because Naomi is terribly frightened and desperate for help, she pulls up beside the young woman, lowers the passenger window, and says haltingly, “Can you… can you help me? I’m… I’m having trouble breathing.”

“I can help you,” says the young woman, speaking calmly.

“Thank you,” says Naomi, turning off her engine and closing her eyes.

The young woman opens the passenger side door, sets her baby on the passenger seat, hurries around the nose of the car to the driver’s side, opens the door, and places her right hand on Naomi’s shoulder, her left hand on Naomi’s forehead. “You’ll be fine,” she says softly. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

“Thank you,” says Naomi, keeping her eyes closed. “You’re very kind.”

“Had a scare, huh?” says the young woman, smiling at her baby who smiles back at her. “Where you from?”

“LA,” says Naomi, relaxing a little. “I’ve never been anywhere so far away from anything else, and there were no towns or houses and hardly any traffic, so I started to feel anxious and tried to call my daughter but my phone wouldn’t work, and that threw me into a panic and my heart was racing and I couldn’t get a deep breath and…” She starts to cry. “I thought I was gonna have a heart attack, so…”

“You’ll be fine,” says the young woman, her voice warm and tender. “Everybody gets scared sometimes. You’ll be fine.”

Naomi opens her eyes and smiles at the young woman. “What’s your name? Where are you going?”

“Teresa,” says the young woman, taking her hand away from Naomi’s forehead but keeping her other hand on Naomi’s shoulder. “That’s my boy Jacob. We’re on our way to Portland.”

“Why are you here?” asks Naomi, her panic subsiding. “In the middle of nowhere.”

“I guess so I could help you,” says Teresa, nodding. “I wondered why they dropped us off here instead of in a town. Just out of the blue they pulled over and told me to get out.”

“Who?” asks Naomi, grimacing. “Who would leave you here?”

“It was a couple,” says Teresa, shrugging. “Man and a woman. Picked us up at the north end of Willits. I don’t think she wanted to stop for us, but he did. She wouldn’t talk to me and he wouldn’t stop talking to me and she was not happy about that, so I think she gave him an ultimatum.”

“Are you… are you homeless?” asks Naomi, smiling sadly at Teresa.

“Kind of,” says Teresa, nodding. “At least until we get to Portland. Can you hand me my boy? I think he’s about to throw a fit.”

“Oh don’t do that, Jacob,” says Naomi, talking baby talk to the little boy as she picks him up. “Oh you are such a sweetie pie. Here’s your mother. Don’t worry.”

She hands Jacob to Teresa and gazes at the two of them, and they seem incredibly familiar to her, as if she’s known and loved them forever.

“I know you didn’t stop to give us a ride,” says Teresa, smiling hopefully, “but I sure would appreciate a lift to Garberville. Much better chance of getting a ride from there.”

“Garberville Schmarberville,” says Naomi, beaming at the young mother and child. “I’m taking you to Portland.”

They stop for lunch at a food truck selling Mexican food in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store on the southern outskirts of Eureka—a dozen pickups parked around the food truck, the clientele mostly laborers, most of them Latinos.

“Is it safe here?” asks Naomi, gazing out her window at the burly men sitting at tables near the food truck.

“Oh, yeah,” says Teresa, nodding assuredly. “And the food is really good. You said you liked Mexican. There’s a fantastic Mexican place in Gold Beach, too, but we won’t get there until dinnertime, so…”

“Maybe I could wait in the car with Jacob,” says Naomi, panicking. “And you get the food.” She rummages in her purse and comes up with a fifty-dollar bill. “How about that?”

“I think I better take him with me,” says Teresa, opening her door. “He’s kind of needy right now.”

“Okay,” says Naomi, taking a deep breath. “I’ll come with you.”

So they get out of the car and the men at the tables and the men in line at the food truck all turn to watch Naomi and Teresa and Jacob approach—Teresa a beautiful young woman with long brown hair dressed in blue jeans and a black sweatshirt, Naomi an attractive woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair wearing a long gray skirt and an elegant magenta blouse.

The closer they get to the men, the more terrified Naomi becomes, and she is just about to turn around and run back to her car when a big Mexican man at one of the tables smiles at her and says in English with a thick Spanish accent, “That’s a beautiful car you got there. Es un hybrid, sí?”

“Yes, a hybrid,” says Naomi, laughing nervously. “It’s so quiet you can hardly tell when the engine is running.”

“Es big, too,” says the man, nodding. “I don’t like those little Mercedes, you know? Want that leg room.”

“Yes, leg room is good,” says Naomi, grinning at the man. “You can’t ever have enough leg room.”

The man and his three companions nod in agreement, and Naomi’s fear vanishes.

Teresa hands Jacob to Naomi before stepping up to the window of the food truck to place their order, and as Naomi nuzzles Jacob and makes him chuckle, she is startled to hear Teresa speaking rapid-fire Spanish to the woman in the truck. Until this moment, it never occurred to Naomi that Teresa might be Mexican because Teresa speaks English without an accent and, judging by her appearance, she could easily not be Mexican.

They share a table with three Mexican men and an African American man, the conversation mostly about fishing until the African American man asks Teresa how old Jacob is.

“Ten months,” says Teresa, feeding Jacob a spoonful of rice. “Almost eleven.”

“Big boy,” says the African American man, grinning at Jacob. “Daddy big?”

“Tall,” says Teresa, nodding. “But skinny.”

“You never can tell how big they gonna end up,” says the African American man. “I got three kids and the one who was the littlest baby turned out to be the biggest. He bigger than me, and I’m big.”

“I have three kids, too,” says Naomi, eager to join the conversation. “And come to think of it, David was the smallest of the three and the shortest kid in his class until Fourth Grade, and then he shot up like a weed and ended up six-foot-two. His father was only five-seven. I don’t know how David got so tall. There’s no tall people on either side going way back.”

“My wife,” says one of the Mexican men, “in school, you know, she learn if they get lots of sleep then they grow more.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” says Naomi, liking everyone at the table. “And come to think of it, David was always a great sleeper. He could sleep through anything. I think you’re absolutely right. Sleep is so important. If I don’t get enough sleep, you don’t want be around me. Believe me.”

“I believe you,” says the African American man, nodding. “I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not getting up on a roof.”

“Sí,” says another of the Mexican men. “Remember when Juan came to work so sleepy. That’s when he fell.”

“Got to have sleep,” says the African American man, winking at Naomi. “Sleep is how we charge up those batteries.”

“What a nice bunch of guys we had lunch with,” says Naomi, walking with Teresa and Jacob down an aisle in a Target store in Eureka, a saleswoman wearing a red vest leading the way. “I’m so glad you took us there.”

“I lived here a couple years ago,” says Teresa, nodding. “That was my favorite place to eat. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for treating us.”

“Here we are,” says the red-vested woman. “These three car seats are all good for infants. You’ll need a bigger one in a couple years when he’s a toddler.”

“Which is the best one?” asks Naomi, gazing at the selection of car seats.

“This one,” says the woman, touching the biggest one. “You don’t want to skimp on your car seat.”

“Never,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “We’ll take that one. Could someone to show us how to hook it up in my car?”

“Um…” says the woman, frowning. “We don’t usually do that sort of thing.”

“I know how they work,” says Teresa, nodding confidently. “Not a problem.”

Jacob fusses a little when he is strapped into the car seat for the first time, so Teresa sits beside him on the backseat, caressing him and singing to him until at last he falls asleep; and the moment his eyes close, Teresa falls asleep, too.

And though Naomi is once again driving through a wild land of endless forests, she is no longer afraid.

Darkness is falling when they get to the Pacific Reef Motel in Gold Beach. Naomi gets a room for Teresa and Jacob adjacent to her room, and while Teresa takes a shower, Naomi plays with Jacob and talks on the phone with her daughter Rachel.

“Everything is going just fine,” says Naomi, sitting on the floor and holding Jacob’s hand as he stands next to her, trying to stay upright. “I had a fabulous lunch in Eureka and I’m looking forward to supper here in Gold Beach.”

“Go to the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, her words a command not a suggestion. “It’s just right next door to you. It’s the only nice restaurant around there.”

“I may try a little Mexican place a few blocks from here,” says Naomi, laughing as Jacob falls on his butt in slow motion. “I’ve heard it’s terrific.”

“Mom, just go the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, sounding annoyed. “It’s clean and the food is good. Okay?”

“I’m kind of craving Mexican food,” says Naomi, helping Jacob stand up again.

The little boy gives Naomi an enormous smile and squeals in delight.

“What was that?” asks Rachel, startled by Jacob’s squeal. “Sounded like a baby.”

“There’s a baby next door,” says Naomi, laughing again as Jacob performs another slow motion sit down. “Warm night. The windows are open.”

“Just go to the Schooner, okay? The last thing I want to do is worry about you. Okay?”

“I’m fine, honey. Don’t worry.”

Sated with delicious Mexican food from a little hole in the wall Naomi would never have gone to on her own, Teresa and Naomi and Jacob return to the motel, Teresa changes Jacob’s diaper, nurses him, and he falls fast asleep in the middle of the bed.

Sitting on the floor with their backs against the bed, Naomi and Teresa drink chamomile tea and Teresa says, “So… guess how old I am?”

“Twenty-two,” says Naomi, exhausted and wide-awake at the same time. “Twenty-three?”

“I’m twenty-seven,” says Teresa, shaking her head as if she disbelieves the number. “I had a whole other life until five years ago.”

“Tell me,” says Naomi, nodding encouragingly. “I’d love to hear.”

“I was born in LA,” says Teresa, closing her eyes. “My mother was from New Jersey, my father from Mexico. They met in a restaurant where they both worked. She was the pastry chef and he was a cook. They fell in love, got married, had my brother and me, and we were pretty happy until they got divorced when I was six. My mom got custody of us, but we saw my father on the weekends. He’d take us to the movies or to the beach and we’d get pizza or Mexican food. He was… he was a sweet guy.” She stops talking and sips her tea.

“Where is he now?” asks Naomi, having seen her own father every day of her life until he died ten years ago.

“I don’t know,” says Teresa, wistfully. “We didn’t see him much after I was eleven. He had some other kids with his second wife, but I never got to know them.” She shrugs. “I lost contact with him when we moved to Phoenix when I was sixteen. That’s where I finished high school and went to college at Arizona State.”

“What did you study?” asks Naomi, who never went to college.

“Drama and music.” Teresa makes a self-deprecating face. “I was gonna be a movie star. Silly me.”

“You could be,” says Naomi, knowingly. “You’re beautiful and you move beautifully, and you have a marvelous voice.”

“Thank you,” says Teresa, blushing.

“So then what happened?” asks Naomi, intrigued by Teresa’s story. “After college.”

“I never finished,” says Teresa, shaking her head. “I got really depressed halfway through my junior year.”

“How come?”

“Oh… my mother had this horrible boyfriend who was always hitting on me, you know, and I was afraid to tell her because she really liked him and…” She winces. “You sure you want to hear this?”

“More than anything,” says Naomi, her eyes full of tears.

“Why?” asks Teresa, her heart aching.

“Because I care about you, and because… it’s good to tell our stories to each other.” She touches Teresa’s hand. “That’s what we’re here for. To listen to each other. Don’t you think so?”

“Yeah,” says Teresa, whispering. “Maybe so.”

“No maybe about it,” says Naomi, tapping Teresa’s hand. “So your mother’s boyfriend was hitting on you and you didn’t tell her and…”

“I got into alcohol,” she says, looking away. “And drugs and… then I dropped out and I’ve been on the road ever since.” She looks into Naomi’s eyes. “But I’ve been off all booze and drugs, even pot, since before I got pregnant with Jacob. A little more than two years now.”

“That’s fantastic,” says Naomi, taking hold of Teresa’s hand. “Good for you, Teresa. That takes a very strong will. I’m proud of you. And who is Jacob’s father?”

“He was a graduate student at the University of Washington,” she says, allowing herself to cry. “I thought I’d finally found a really good guy to be with.  He said he wanted to marry me, but when I got pregnant he told me to get an abortion, and when I wouldn’t, he wouldn’t see me anymore. So… here I am.” She shrugs. “That’s the short version. I’ll spare you the gritty details.”

“So tell me this,” says Naomi, giving Teresa’s hand a tender squeeze. “If you had plenty of money, what would you do?”

“I’d get a room in a house in a good school district,” she says, nodding assuredly. “For Jacob. And I’d get a job and go to night school and get a degree in Psychology and become a counselor or a therapist.”

“That sounds wonderful,” says Naomi, excitedly. “That sounds like something I should do.”

 The next morning, after they take a long walk on a vast wild beach, they have breakfast in a café attached to a bookstore, and when their food arrives, Teresa bursts into tears.

“What’s wrong, dear?” asks Naomi, putting a hand on Teresa’s shoulder.

“I’m just… I’m just so grateful,” she says, weeping. “Last night… that was the first really good night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time, and all this good food… my milk is coming good again for Jacob.” She looks at Naomi. “You’re an angel.”

“You’re the angel,” says Naomi, putting her arms around Teresa. “I’m just a rich person who was afraid of the world until now.”

Inching along the freeway ten miles south of Portland, Naomi turns to Teresa and says, “Where am I taking you?”

“Downtown,” says Teresa, smiling brightly. “Anywhere downtown.”

“You have a place to stay?” asks Naomi, frowning.

“There’s a woman who let me sleep on her porch last year,” says Teresa, nodding. “She was real nice. I’m pretty sure she’ll let me stay there again.”

“No,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “You need a place to live. We’ll get you a motel room, and tomorrow we’ll start looking for a house.”

“A house?” says Teresa, staring at Naomi as if she’s insane. “What are you talking about?”

“You need a place to live and I need a house in Portland,” says Naomi, glaring at the stuck traffic. “What’s going on here? This is just like LA. Is this why my kids moved here? Because it reminds them of home?” She smiles at Teresa. “After all these years they’re finally having children and they want me to move here. And though I’m not ready to move here permanently, I will be spending lots of time here. So… I’ll buy a house and you can live there and take care of the place when I’m not here, and help me with the place when I am here. You can go back to school, and you and Jacob will have a home and I’ll be his grandmother.”

Teresa looks out the window at a homeless encampment next to the freeway and sees a man in filthy clothes crawl out of a battered tent, his face etched with lines of worry.

Now she takes a deep breath and closes her eyes and sees a beautiful old house on a tree-lined street, the sidewalk covered with snow, Naomi coming out the front door wearing a fur hat and a long black coat; and she’s holding the hand of a little boy bundled up in a snowsuit—Jacob three years from now.

“Okay,” says Teresa, opening her eyes and looking at Naomi. “I guess that’s what God wants for us.”

“I don’t know about God,” says Naomi, smiling through her tears, “but I know about me and I know about you and I know about Jacob, and if there were ever three people who were meant to be together, we are those people.”

fin

Funny

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

groovity-poster

Incongroovity painting by Todd

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

“While thou livest, keep a good tongue in thy head.” William Shakespeare

We were having supper with friends recently, and somehow the conversation came around to Shakespeare and the news that a number of American universities have dropped the Bard entirely from their lists of required courses for English majors. And the question was asked, “Why should Shakespeare be required reading for English majors in this age of tweeting and texting and unedited garbage topping the bestseller lists and the English language disintegrating faster than the earth is warming?

Then someone mentioned seeing Denzel Washington as Brutus in a horrendous Broadway production of Julius Caesar, a smash hit because Denzel was in the play, though his delivery of Shakespeare’s lines elicited snickers and giggles from his adoring audience throughout the hilarious (not) play—as if there was something kind of cute about a famous movie star butchering Shakespeare. Tee hee.

And that reminded me of a favorite joke about Hollywood: an enormously successful movie star, famed for his roles in bloody senseless car chase thriller detective sci-fi 3-D blockbusters in which he kills and has sex with ruthless efficiency and speaks his few lines with terse tough guy bravado, grows weary of pundits saying he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. So at the height of his wealth and fame, he spends a large part of his fortune and builds a fabulous state-of-the-art theatre in Los Angeles and announces to the world that he is going to play the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a supporting cast of brilliant British actors and actresses.

The much anticipated opening night finally arrives, the audience composed of celebrities and critics and drooling fans, and our handsome hero takes the stage and surprises everyone by speaking more than ten words without shooting someone. But the surprise soon turns to horror as the Bard’s poetic lines are clearly too much for the superstar’s untrained tongue (not to mention his leaden ear) and when he launches into the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the giggles and snickers turn to booing and hissing, and finally the superstar stops mid-monologue, stalks to the front of the stage, and shouts at the belligerent crowd, “Hey, I didn’t write this shit.”

“Experts always know everything but the fine points. When I took my citizenship exams, no one there knew how the White House came to be called the White House.” Hedy Lamarr

One of my great pleasures is pruning fruit trees that have been properly cared for. Alas, that is not the sort of task I am most frequently asked to undertake. No, most homeowners for whom fruit trees are beautiful adornments to their gardens and the occasional providers of fruit, tend to let their trees grow untamed for years or decades before finally realizing something must be done if those trees are ever to be anything more than gigantic wild shrubs; and those are the jobs I enjoy the least and do the most.

For instance, a neighbor called a few days ago and said, “I’m having a guy come to take care of my old apple tree and my old plum tree, and I’m wondering if you could come over and give him some tips. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s a good worker and he has a chain saw.”

“Did you want me to prune…”

“No, I just want you to tell him how to do it.”

As a pruner of trees and an editor of manuscripts for forty-odd years (emphasis on odd) I have come to think of the two disciplines as closely related sciences, and my neighbor wanting to employ my pruning expertise gratis reminded me of myriad acquaintances who have called me over the years and said, “I’ve got this article (or poem or story or novel or memoir) I think you’ll enjoy and I’m wondering if you’d like to give it a quick look and tell me what you think.”

“Did you want to hire me to…”

“No, I just thought you might enjoy giving it a quick once over and telling me what you think. Shouldn’t take long.”

So, yes, I have grown a bit weary of people thinking the things I do for a living are not really forms of work, but rather semi-skillful kinds of goofing around. Imagine calling your plumber and saying, “Hey, Joe, I’ve got a busted pipe I think you’ll find unique in the annals of plumbing and thought you might enjoy fixing it, you know, for free. Just for the fun and novelty of it. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so.”

Nevertheless…picture a massive apple tree with a trunk three feet in diameter out of which are growing seven massive arms, each arm a foot in diameter and thirty-feet-long, out of which are growing dozens of huge branches out of which are growing hundreds of lesser branches growing so thickly there is almost no space between any of them resulting in many of the branches being dead and dying for lack of sun and air.

Now picture an equally massive plum tree, the central trunk of which stands twenty feet away from the central trunk of the apple tree, and imagine that many branches of both gargantuan trees have grown entangled with each other to such an extent that the two trees appear to be a single organism composed of ten thousand interconnected branches employing every ounce of their energy to strangle each other. And imagine that these two trees are standing in what thirty years ago was a meadow surrounded by fledgling redwoods and fir trees that have grown into towering sun-blocking behemoths causing the plum and apple to send up twenty-foot-long suckers in a desperate attempt to access the ever shrinking supply of sunlight.

My heart went out to those two sorely neglected trees, and though I wasn’t being paid for my labor, I decided to do the job and save the old beauties. So I began directing the good fellow with his dull chain saw to cut here and there as I wielded my razor sharp Japanese pole saw, and after a couple hours of excising masses of mostly dead wood we nearly had the two old giants separated. Then, with but one more massive arm of the apple tree left to remove in order to complete the separating of the trees, my neighbor said to me, “I can see you really are an expert at this.”

As a Buddhist teacher once told me, “Beware how easily the rocket ship of ego may be launched.”

Puffed up by my neighbor’s praise, I signaled for the chain saw man to make that last cut. He did so. And for a moment of brilliant clarity the two trees stood apart, and I saw just how I would sculpt each one into a state of arboreal perfection and…

A loud cracking sound gave us scant warning to Get Out of The Way as the massive apple tree came crashing to earth, the old girl having been held aloft for who knows how many years by the deep-rooted plum. In a state of shock and awe and suppressed hilarity, I went to view the root mass of the apple tree and discovered that this colossus, a tree as big as a house, had virtually no root mass at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to my neighbor.

“Lots of good firewood,” said the guy with the chainsaw. “Most of it already seasoned.”

My neighbor, clearly deranged by the unexpected denouement said, “Let’s just leave things the way they are and see what happens in the spring.”

“The secret to humor is surprise.” Aristotle

Long ago, I was a teacher’s aide at a Palo Alto day care center for children aged two to five. All but three of our thirty children were from single-mother families, thus the three fathers who occasionally came to pick up their kids were looked upon with awe and wonder by the twenty-seven fatherless children, and I was unique among the teachers (pronounced teachoos by most of the kids) for being male.

One of the three children with a father in the familial mix was Damien, an incredibly cute three-year-old who was not yet talking. Our highly analytical director informed us that Damien’s frustration about not being able to speak, and therefore not being understood, might manifest in a tendency to bite other children, and we should be vigilant about averting such outbursts of oral aggression. Damien may have been a child of no words, but he was a fantastic mime, and his imitations of the postures and movements and facial expressions of the teachoos were the source of daily hilarity among the children.

I suspected that Damien could talk but chose not to for whatever advantages he felt that gave him. In any case, he did not speak aloud within earshot of any of the teachers, and so I related to him as a child who, for the time being, did not talk.

Two of the many recurrent tasks of a parent or teacher of wee tykes are the tying of shoes and the connecting and zipping of zippers, skills most children don’t master until they reach their late threes or older. Thus when we would prepare the kids for going outside on cold days, many laces had to be tied and many zippers zipped. One winter morning, as I knelt before the diminutive Damien and struggled to properly engage the recalcitrant zipper of his jacket, Damien looked down at my fumbling fingers, and in pitch perfect imitation of his father said, “Jive ass turkey zippah.”

Children

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

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

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

I was in Corners a few days ago, perusing the bananas, when a little girl, four-years-old, came right up to me and said, “Know what?”

“What?” I replied, never having seen her before.

“I made up a special song.” She nodded to affirm this. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course,” I said, delighted by her. “Who wouldn’t?”

And without a moment’s hesitation she began to sing about how beautiful the day was and how happy she was and how much she loved her mother and having chocolate milk. The melody was something of a hybrid, Mary Had A Little Lamb meets Oh What A Beautiful Morning, and the tune changed key several times throughout her rendition. In short: a masterpiece. Oh, and she danced as she sang, a subtle shimmying hula. Brilliant.

“That was fabulous,” I declared, applauding. “I loved it.”

“Do you want to hear another one?” she asked, frowning quizzically, as if she couldn’t quite believe my reaction.

“Sure,” I said, nodding enthusiastically. “Who wouldn’t?”

So she launched into another song with a melody not unlike the first, this one about her favorite foods: fruit, chocolate, ice cream, pizza, popcorn, and spaghetti, with each verse ending in “minestrone soup.” Another masterwork.

I applauded again and said, “Thank you so much. You made my day.”

“I would sing another one,” she said, shrugging apologetically, “but we have to go.”

“There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.” Bill Evans

“When I was two-years-old,” said my grandmother Goody, her voice ringing with passion, “my mother had another baby, and a few days later the baby died in her crib and my mother screamed at me, ‘Did you touch the baby?’ That’s the very first thing I remember about my life.” She reflected for a moment. “I think that’s why I always feel responsible for anything that ever goes wrong.”

“For anything that goes wrong in your life?” I asked, adjusting the volume on my tape recorder.

“In my life, your life, anybody’s life.” She laughed her musical laugh. “I’m responsible for everything bad that happens to anyone. It’s all my fault.”

Goody was born in 1900 in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit, her father a cantor with a golden voice who made a few pennies preparing boys for bar mitzvah, while Goody’s mother was the primary breadwinner by keeping a little grocery store above which Goody and her two brothers and parents lived. When Goody was six-years-old, her performances at school—singing, dancing, and acting—caught the eye of a wealthy Jewish matron who felt Goody possessed talent worth cultivating, and this matron offered to pay for Goody to have the best singing, dancing, and acting lessons Detroit had to offer. Alas, Goody’s parents, orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, believed the theater world was the Devil’s playground and so they rejected the generous offer.

“I might have been a star,” said Goody, aiming her words at the tape recorder. “I could sing like a bird and dance like Isadora what’s-her-name, but what I loved most was acting, turning myself into people who did all the things I was forbidden to do.”

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung 

When I lived in Berkeley, I earned a small portion of my income as a babysitter. My favorite babysitting job was a three-hour stint, two afternoons a week, overseeing three little boys playing in my neighbor’s backyard. The boys were five-years-old and they had a fort, a small wooden platform four-feet off the ground accessible by a wooden ladder. The railing around the platform was tall and sturdy enough to keep the boys from accidentally falling off, though the boys sometimes climbed over the railing and jumped to the ground.

Because these boys had a fort and were possessed of fine imaginations, I had very little work to do except watch from a distance, intervene on rare occasions when their sword play became too emphatic, and serve them snacks around four o’clock to tide them over until supper. Sometimes they would tire of their games and come ask me to tell them a story, but usually they played happily without me for the entire three hours. Their fort was variously a spaceship, submarine, tree house, castle, armored attack vehicle, clubhouse, and pirate ship. Their bamboo sticks were variously swords, spears, guns, lasers, propulsion devices, magic wands, and fishing poles. The boys were usually united in combat against some imagined foe, though now and then they would war against each other. And what struck me as most interesting was that in all their games they imagined themselves to be men, not boys, but men they hoped to become—strong and daring and resourceful.

Watching those little boys play, I would often recall the large wooden platform in the far corner of my childhood backyard, a makeshift deck ten-feet long and six-feet wide piled with old hand-hewn redwood grape stakes. This platform served as the stage for much of my play with one particular friend, Colin, when we were six and seven and eight-years old, Colin being much more inclined to partake of character-driven dramas than those carnage-driven dramas preferred by my other friends.

Colin and I pretended our platform was a raft floating down a mighty river, and we imagined ourselves to be fugitives, heroic outlaws, with much of our discourse the recounting of harrowing tales of how we came to be fugitives. In this way, we spent many summer hours inventing plots and autobiographies, excellent practice for what would become the main literary focus of my life: writing fiction.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

Here is a very short story, a chapter from my novel of stories Under the Table Books, about children and memory and imagination.

The Big Green

People have always told me I’m weird. But who isn’t a little weird? You know what I mean?

In First Grade, I would stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and I could feel stories coming into my feet and traveling up my legs and through my heart and out my mouth into the air. At first, the other kids laughed at me, but I had to do it. Every recess I would run to the tree and pull off my shoes and start babbling.

I didn’t have a single friend when I started telling the stories, but one day this boy sat down nearby and listened for a few minutes. Then he got up and ran away and came back with four other kids, and pretty soon they got up and ran away and came back with more kids, and I just kept telling about the children lost in a mysterious forest called the Big Green. Pretty soon there were dozens of kids sitting around me and when the bell rang none of them would budge until I said The End.

Well, from then on I had lots of friends and my teacher invited me to tell stories to the class while she took little naps and pretty soon I was going to other classes and telling them stories, too, until finally I was named the official story teller of the school and I was interviewed and photographed for the school paper. And then there was an article about me in the local newspaper, which is when my mother and father found out about what I was doing.

I’ll never forget that night—the day before my seventh birthday. My father came home from his office and my mother showed him the article in the paper about me and he became furious. “What are all these stories about?” he wanted to know.

I told him they were mostly about lost children and he said, “You’ve never been lost. That’s lying.”

“They’re just stories,” I said, trying to defend myself. “They like us to make up stories.”

Who likes you to?”

“The teachers.”

“Why didn’t you tell us about this?” He glared at my mother. “Did you know about this?”

“Heavens no,” she said, cringing. “He doesn’t tell me anything.”

“So now all our friends are gonna see this and…”

“We’ve had five calls already.”

“Sonofabitch,” said my father, clenching his fists. “That does it. No more story telling. You hear me? No more.”

“But…”

“But nothing. You quit telling stories or you’ll be in big trouble.”

So I stopped. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I lost most of my friends and I got beat up by some older kids who tried to force me to tell them stories, but I’d been in big trouble with my father before and it wasn’t something I would risk again until I was seventeen and left home for good.

Now here’s the amazing part. I didn’t remember any of this until last year when I went to a psychic astrologer to celebrate turning forty-seven. The first thing she said to me was, “Your great gift emerged when you were six, but something happened and you were forced to squelch it.”

“Gift?” I said, remembering only my profound loneliness. “What kind of gift?”

“You were psychic. And judging from your chart, such a gift would have been unacceptable in your family. Even dangerous for you.”

“I don’t remember,” I said, straining for any sort of memory from my early years.

“Then you turned to the physical. Sports?”

“All I did,” I said, remembering the endless baseball—the safe simplicity of bat meeting ball, a boy drifting back in left field to catch another towering drive, never wanting the day to end.

“And now?”

“I work at a preschool. I’m a teacher’s aide.”

Then it hit me, the way I keep the kids entertained between four and six waiting for their mommies to pick them up. I stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and tell them stories about the children lost in the Big Green. And though the children in my stories are definitely lost, they are not alone. They have each other, and so never lose hope of finding their way home.


 

He Touched Me

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

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

“If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.” Pearl S. Buck

Reading Bruce McEwen’s tragic Hug A Kid, Go To Jail, I thought, “My God, there but for the grace of luck and chance and (in my system of belief) the intervention of angels, I, too, might have been arrested for child molestation and been sent to prison and labeled a sex offender for the rest of my life—on several different occasions. What? How?

When I was in my late thirties and living in Sacramento, I played basketball every morning at a neighborhood park. Three days a week I met my friend Bob there for rousing games of one-on-one, and two days a week I shot around by myself. Along with the basketball court, the park featured a big lawn and a swing set and a public bathroom. So one morning I was shooting hoops and these two moms showed up, each with a cute kid in tow, and they wandered to the far end of the park and spread out a big blanket for playtime and snacking and reading and whatnot.

As I continued shooting hoops, one of the kids, a girl, skipped across the lawn to the restroom adjacent to the basketball court and entered the little cinderblock building on the side marked WOMEN. A moment later she let out a blood-curdling scream, and in the next moment I was on my way into the restroom to rescue her. But some unseen power grabbed hold of me, and a loud inner voice said, “Don’t go in there. Whatever you do, don’t go in there!”

The girl screamed again—bloody murder!—and I turned on my heels and sprinted across the lawn toward the moms, waving my arms and shouting, “Your little girl is screaming in the bathroom.”

One of the mothers jumped up and raced to the restroom and found her daughter bruised and bleeding from a head wound sustained when she slipped on the wet floor and smacked into the ceramic sink. The mom carried her daughter out into the sun and said to me, “Thanks so much. We couldn’t hear a thing over the leaf blowers. We’ve got ice. She’ll be fine. You know kids. Always falling down.”

Then the mom and I exchanged long looks, her look saying, “I understand why you didn’t go in there,” and my look saying, “I didn’t go in there because I was afraid I might be accused of trying to harm her.”

But what if I had gone in there and picked up that little girl and…well, I didn’t, though she might have been bleeding to death. Or she might have been in the clutches of a child molester. I was furious for days after, thinking about how if I had tried to help a hurt child I might have…I mean, what if she had said to her mother, “He touched me.”

“I am fond of children—except boys.” Lewis Carroll

In 1969, twenty years before that Sacramento restroom incident, I was traveling around America in an old GMC panel truck with my friend Dick Mead. On a blistering hot August day we pulled into Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, got a camping spot, and went exploring. That was when I saw fireflies for the first time. There was a huge old swing set overlooking a beautiful meadow, and I was swinging on a swing, marveling at the hundreds of little blobs of light floating and flitting over the meadow in the waning light of day, when suddenly a cute little pigtailed girl took the swing next to mine.

“I can go higher than you can,” she said, kicking off and swinging hard.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, being twenty. “We’ll see about that.”

So we swung together, going higher and higher, and she laughed and I laughed, and then we stopped pumping and allowed our swings to go lower and lower until we were barely swinging, and then she started pumping again and going higher, and I pumped, too, and caught up to her. Then we let ourselves swing to a stop and she said, “Hey, you want to do the spider? Me and my dad do it all the time. It’s so fun.”

“What’s the spider?” I asked.

And before I could blink, that cute little pigtailed girl was straddling my legs, facing me, gripping my wrists and shouting, “Okay, go!”

And I was instantaneously consumed with terror. “Uh, no,” I said, standing up and shaking free of her. “I have to go now. Nice meeting you.”

“But it’s so fun,” she said plaintively. “You’ll love it.”

What if I’d gone ahead and done the spider with her and her father had come looking for her and caught us in the act? What if a park ranger had seen the longhaired stranger from California spidering with that little girl? Or what if that little girl had gone back to her family and when her mother asked, “Where were you, honey?” the little girl had replied, “Oh, I was playing with a nice man on the swings.”

And during further questioning the little girl had admitted, “Yes, we were touching there because we were doing the spider.”

“What is a home without children? Quiet.” Henny Youngman

I worked in a Day Care Center when I was in my twenties and again when I was in my fifties. There are many truths about little kids, but one of the largest truths about them is that they are keenly interested in genitals, their own and those of others. They, the children, are particularly interested in the genitals of adult males, which are the most obvious of adult human genitals. Little boys are particularly interested in these larger versions because little boys possess smaller versions and are fascinated by the size discrepancy and the possibility that they, too, might one day have larger equipment.

I remember during my initial indoctrination as an employee of the day care center, how we were told that when a child touched us “there”, it was imperative to instantly put an end to such touching, and to make sure the children knew that such touching was absolutely verboten. Never mind that a large part of my job was helping kids pull their pants down so I could wipe their butts and then help them pull their pants up. Never mind that when the kiddies wet their pants or spilled paint or juice over themselves, it was my job to strip off their sodden poopy pissy clothes, to render them naked and wash them clean and clothe them anew. Never mind that any one of those delightful creatures at any time might have reported to a parent, “He touched me,” which report might have led to my arrest.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Helen Keller

For five years in the 1990’s I ran the Creative Writing department for a summer school for the arts. Ambitious and talented teenagers fifteen to nineteen-years-old were my charges, and among these teens were many sexy young women. I had never taught at any level before then and so had not previously been on the receiving end of the romantic crushes of students.

I will never forget one particular summer evening on the campus of Mills College where our school was being held, a one-month intensive wherein the students lived and breathed their art and the influence of mentor artists. I was walking across the greensward on my way to the music building to find a piano to play, when someone called, “Todd,” and I recognized the voice of Dawn, one of my students.

I stopped, and a moment later Dawn was beside me. I thought her the most beautiful and alluring of my students, and I knew of her crush on me because when I worked with her group of writers she responded to nearly everything I said as if she might at any moment have an orgasm. Then, too, she would linger after class and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me as I tried to concentrate objectively on the excellent erotica she’d written and about which she very much wanted my feedback.

“Hey,” she whispered on that memorable evening, her honeyed breath warm on my cheek. “You and me alone in the dark. Finally.”

“Hey, Dawn,” I said, trying to be cool. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is I want you,” she said, pressing close. “And you want me. And you know it. And I know it. And I’m way over eighteen and I’m on the pill so we’ve got nothing to worry about. Please? Please take me somewhere and make love to me? Please? Or we can do it right here and I’ll make you feel so good you won’t believe it.”

“Nope,” I said, breaking away and running for my life.

And had she been crazy or vindictive, she might easily have gone to the school administrators and said, “He followed me last night and touched me.”

Thankfully she was not crazy or vindictive, though she did show up the next morning for our short story section wearing practically nothing, and brazenly handed me a note—crimson ink on lilac-scented stationery—that said, “Any time, any place. I am so ready for you.”

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.

Occupy Yourself

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Photo of Todd by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Quentin Crisp

In 1972, when I was in my early twenties, I founded a commune in Santa Cruz, California, a collective of eight people (with numerous and frequent overnight guests). We were disenchanted with American society, with America’s wars of aggression, with America’s pyramidal scheme of things, and with America’s environmentally disastrous use of the land, so we decided to explore new (to us) and regenerative ways to interface with the world rather than follow in the destructive footsteps of our parents and forefathers.

To that end, the eight of us shared a house built for a family of four, created a large organic garden (some of us having worked with Alan Chadwick in the university gardens), and pooled our minimal resources for the good of the group. Our experimental community lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of selfishness, immaturity, and a profound lack of preparation for such an undertaking. Our intentions were flawless; our skills and execution abysmal.

Nevertheless, I learned many valuable lessons from that adventure, and my next communal experience was vastly more successful, though it, too, died a sorry death for lack of skills, experience, and commitment by the majority of the participants. We were children, after all, though we had attained the age of adults in other societies; and children, with rare exceptions, eventually need guidance from elders to make the transition from play into self-sustaining living.

A few nights ago, after watching a raft of Occupy Wall Street videos sent to me by fascinated friends, I was reminded of a night in that first commune, when several of us were gathered by the fire in the living room, rain pounding the roof of the house owned by an opportunistic university professor with a penchant for young hippy chicks, the owner of several houses he rented to gangs of youthful experimenters, many of whom I have no doubt would have flocked to the Occupy happenings of today—for the fun and adventure if nothing else.

So there we were discussing Marx and Sartre and Steinem and the tyranny of patriarchal theocratic monogamy mingled with visions of interconnected communes and solar organic farms and grassy walkways instead of cement sidewalks; and mass transit and bicycles instead of poisonous factories and cars and freeways—utopia manifesting in clouds of cannabis—when Pam appeared on the threshold connecting the kitchen and living room and said, “Hey, I totally dig where you guys are coming from and where you’re going, too, but who’s on dishes tonight? The kitchen is totally gross.”

“To heal from the inside out is the key.” Wynonna Judd

A psychotherapist once said to me, “The problem with blaming others for our unhappiness is not that those others aren’t important in the history of our sorrow, but that blaming them for everything interferes with our taking responsibility for what we have done and are doing now.” And one of my problems with blaming Wall Street and Washington and the wealthiest people for the woes of the nation (and the world) is that though many Wall Street operators and politicians and excessively wealthy people are unscrupulous jerks and thieves, blaming them for all our social and economic problems seriously interferes with taking responsibility for what we of the so-called 99 per cent have done and are doing now.

I find it maddeningly simplistic to suggest that we of the 99 per cent are not profoundly involved in the socio-economic systems of our towns, counties, states, and nation. As I read history, until the most recent collapse of the gigantic Ponzi schemes that kept our false economy bubbling along at least since Clinton took office in 1992, many of the people (or their parents) now bemoaning the economic imbalance of our society were perfectly happy to reap the rewards of that fakery, including the promises of fat retirements based on their 401 Wall Street retirement plans, and to hell with the rest of the world and those less fortunate than they. And I am certain the so-called one per cent know this about the 99 per cent, which is why they, the one per cent, do not take the 99 as seriously as they should.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” Carl Jung

Shortly before Obama became President of the United States, I wrote that unless Obama moved quickly to institute Single Payer Healthcare and nationalize the banking system, within two years we would see massive social unrest. I was wrong. When the Occupy happenings began I thought they might be the start of that massive unrest, but now I doubt anything immediately massive will be sparked. I hope I’m wrong. But when someone sent me a link to an Occupy Kauai YouTube, and thirty seconds into the silly thing I was guffawing, I had the feeling the Occupy phenomenon might be well on its way to self-parody. Can the Occupy clothing line and Occupy Café chain and Occupy app be far behind?

“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez successfully employed non-violent protest, resistance, and boycott to further their political, social, and economic aims, and we are all beneficiaries of their courage and strategies. I assume some of the Occupy folks have studied the methods of Gandhi and King and Chavez, and I remain hopeful they will eventually decide to emulate those visionaries. Discussing my hope with an avid fan of the Occupy Wall Street folks, I asked, “So would you say the strategy of the occupiers is to not have a strategy?”

“Absolutely,” said my friend, “because to have a strategy is to commit to an ideology, which could quickly become vertical and therefore inherently divisive. This is a horizontal movement so no one is excluded.”

“Excluded from what?”

“From protesting how unfair the system is. That’s the beauty of saying we are the 99 per cent, because that’s totally inclusive except for the few people who have everything.”

“But a few people don’t have everything and the situation is much more complicated than some infantile delusion that one per cent of the population is determining everyone else’s fate. Among many other things, we do elect the charlatans passing the laws favoring the fat cats, don’t we?”

“Of course, but we don’t want to make this too complicated. By keeping things simple no one feels excluded.”

“I feel excluded.”

“That’s because you like things complicated. You want everyone to push for taxing corporations and socialized medicine and free education and shrinking the military. Talk about divisive.”

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” Aldous Huxley

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I wrote the end of this article. In the dream I was madly in love with the Occupy Wall Street people and compared them to the disenchanted rebels and counter culturists of my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I compared Occupy Wall Street to the Be Ins of those mythic times, and I wrote eloquently (as one does in dreams) about how the only agenda anyone had at those Be Ins was to “be there now” for whatever might go down, so to speak. Then, still in my dream, I thought of the television show Laugh In starring the young Goldie Hawn and Lili Tomlin; and in that marvelous way of dreams, Laugh In and Occupy Wall Street merged, and the protests became funny and sexy and good.

I think my dream was partly inspired by a slide show I watched before going to bed. Marcia sent me a link to a Huffington Post slide show of the Wall Street Occupation, a montage of compelling images that might have been shot in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the mythic Summer of Love in 1968, though I’m not saying the Occupy folks are a bunch of latter day hippies, but rather that they are as disenchanted (yet hopeful) as we were forty years ago, and they are passionately seeking alternatives to the earth-killing system that currently holds sway over our country and the world.

The article in my dream ended with lyrics to a beautiful song that made me cry. I wish I could remember the words, but they did not survive the transition to my waking state. What did survive was the feeling that just as we didn’t have an agenda forty years ago when we waved goodbye to the old ways and set out to figure out new ways that made more sense to us, neither do the Occupy people have an agenda other than to take things one day at a time, to be there now, to be good to each other, and to see what might evolve. So hurray for them, and by association, hurray for us.

Her Children

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Photo by Ginger Malisos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

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

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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