Posts Tagged ‘Corners of the Mouth’

Walton Predicts

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

WALTON PREDICTS

Walton Predicts graphic by David Jouris

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

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Niels Bohr

My friend David Jouris, an eccentric mapmaker, photographer and quotation collector, has for several years suggested I create a web site called Walton Predicts. This suggestion stems from David’s amazement at my uncanny ability to make predictions that always come true. I have resisted creating such a site because making predictions is a sacred art, such prescience granted by the gods, which gifts I dare not taint with commercialization or anything smacking of self-aggrandizement. I am but a conduit for these coming attractions, an English channel.

Then, too, I frequently suffer from Prediction Block and would feel tawdry were I to create demand for something I was subsequently unable to deliver. No. Walton Predicts will have to be a sometime thing, that poetic summation of the transient nature of existence courtesy of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de la Fontaine

Walton Predicts: Coffee prices will go way up very soon. Brazil, the world’s leading producer of coffee, is in the midst of the worst drought in three hundred years and this year’s coffee crop is paltry. Brazil also produces vast quantities of sugar, wheat, soy, and infectious dance music, much of which they export and all of which have been adversely impacted by the drought, so prices for those goodies will be going way up, too.

Our neighbor works for Peet’s Coffee and has the job I would have wanted when I was twenty-five had I known there was such a job to want. Now, as I enter my dotage, his job sounds like living hell to me, but if you love to travel, love coffee and love the places where coffee grows, this is the job for you, except my neighbor already has the job. He flies all over the world visiting plantations that grow coffee for Peet’s sake. He makes sure the farmers are growing their coffee sustainably, checks the quality of the beans, sets dates for harvesting and so forth.

He recently stopped by while I was weeding my vegetables and I asked where he was off to next.

“New Guinea,” he said, half-smiling and half-frowning. “Fantastic place. Lousy hotels.”

I mentioned the drought in Brazil and predicted soaring coffee prices.

“You’re right about that,” he said with a knowing nod. “I’ll bring you a bag of New Guinea beans.”

Which he did, and now I’m hooked on those beans that tell of bittersweet naked people with a different word for each of a thousand shades of jungle green.

“The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.” Paul Valery

Walton Predicts: Fresh fruit will soon be a luxury item for most of us in America, not a dietary staple. I was in Corners of the Mouth, my favorite church turned grocery store, and was thrilled to find bowls of fruit samples amidst the plums and apricots. I tasted the flesh of a crimson plum. Ambrosia! The price? $5.99 a pound. I weighed one of those delectable fruits. A third of a pound. Two dollars per plum. Four bites. Fifty cents per bite. No can do. Prices at Harvest Market similarly exorbitant.

“The future will be better tomorrow.” Dan Quayle

A reader recently pointed out that my novels are rife with predictions, and that reminded me of a scene from my novel Under the Table Books wherein Derek, a homeless boy, asks Mr. Laskin, once the wealthiest man on earth and now a homeless savant, what can be done about the vanishing ozone layer. Written in 1992, but not published until 2009, Under the Table Books predicted many things that have since come to pass.

“Always the same basic story structure,” says Mr. Laskin, smiling up at the morning sun. “Somebody gets killed. Always several suspects, each with a powerful motive. The detectives, a man and a woman, always figure out who did it by studying the history of the place. The solution is always there. In history.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying,” says Mr. Laskin, excited by a sudden upsurge in lucidity, “that you must scale the whirlwind to the peaceful sky country and study the history of the world to find out what you need to know.”

“About the ozone layer? How?”

“I’ll make a wild guess,” says Mr. Laskin, feeling moved to oratory. “Pure conjecture, but then what isn’t?”

“Wait. I want to write this down,” says the boy, bringing forth a notebook from his back pocket. “Okay, go.”

“But first,” says Mr. Laskin, holding out his hand, “allow me to introduce myself. I am Alexander Laskin.”

“Derek,” says the boy, the warmth of the old man’s hand bringing tears to his eyes.

“So here’s what I would guess,” says Mr. Laskin, giving Derek a reassuring smile. “People lived under a brutal sun for thousands of years. We’ve all seen pictures of cities made of mud in the desert, and you’ll notice several things in those pictures. First, most everybody stays inside most of the time because there are no trees for shade. And when people do go outside, they cover their bodies from head to toe, except at night when they dance by their tiny fires. Tiny because wood is so scarce. Mostly naked, I’d imagine, night being the only safe time to do so. And they’re all skinny because they’ve learned to survive on very little. So maybe that’s what we’ll have to do when the ozone layer is mostly gone.”

Derek keeps writing. “So do you think the ozone layer will ever come back?”

That you’ll have to ask the universal mind, if you make it up the inside of the whirlwind. No easy feat, I imagine. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must finish my mystery. The cause of the crime is apparently inextricably enmeshed with the manufacture of automobiles.”

 

Underlying Problem

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

For Underlying problem

Globular Warming photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.” Bill Watterson

I walk to town most every day rather than drive my truck for the same reason I decided in 1967 to create a life for myself independent of automobiles, something I’ve managed to do for most of the last forty-seven years. And my reason for eschewing cars as much as possible had and has to do with my awareness of the destructive nature of auto-centric gas-using systems of transportation, housing and economics, and by destructive I mean earth-killing, and by earth-killing I mean the death of the planet.

Many people share my awareness that cars are bad for children and other living things, as those famous posters of the Sixties summed up our collective antipathy to War, but most people I know do not walk to town or live largely independent of automobiles. Why should they? Our systems of transportation, housing and economics were designed to accommodate automobiles first and foremost, so to not use a car is highly inconvenient, and by highly inconvenient I mean impossible if one is in any sort of hurry, which most of us are.

The United Nations just released their first big global climate report since 2007, and one of the maps included in the report shows areas of the world circa 2050 where agriculture will either be out of the question or still possible. According to this map, when I am scheduled to be one-hundred-years-old, only Canada, Scandinavia and parts of Russia might still be habitable and arable, assuming there is air left to breathe, a bold assumption. The rest of the globe, including all but a few acres in the United States of America, will be too hot and too dry to grow anything. Is there a way to reverse the probability of this prediction coming true? Yes. There is one way. Everyone on earth needs to start walking to town most days and living independently of automobiles. Are we ready to do that?

 “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Mark Twain

In related news, I just read a hysterical (and I don’t mean funny) article about the state governments of New York and New Jersey studying the feasibility of constructing artificial islands off their coasts to blunt the destructive force of storm surges similar to those caused by Hurricane Sandy. Climatologists are 100% certain more hurricanes at least as powerful as Sandy are coming soon, so folks in the governments of New Jersey and New York are seriously considering spending many billions of dollars and burning jillions of gallons of fossil fuels to rip up thousands of acres of land to procure the dirt and rocks to create islands off the New Jersey and New York coasts to, you know, blunt the storm surges.

The denial of the underlying problem by these wannabe island builders seems laughable to me, and by laughable I mean sad. And, yes, there are days when I want to flag down my friends who drive their cars to and from the village multiple times a day to get their mail and buy potato chips and meet friends for coffee, and I want to say, ‘Please. Don’t build artificial islands. Just stop driving so fucking much!” But my friends wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about, and they would resent my holier-than-thou attitude, so I do not flag them down and shout incomprehensible things. Instead, I wave to them as they zoom back and forth between their houses and the village in our globe-heating mammoths known as cars.

 “We live in a world of denial, and we don’t know what the truth is anymore.” Javier Bardem

I can honestly say that mostly walking and rarely driving doesn’t make me feel holier than anyone. I don’t walk to feel holy, though I do enjoy how life unfolds at the speed of walking. I walk more than drive because the population of Kittiwakes in the Orkney and Shetland Islands has plummeted eighty-seven (87) per cent since 2000 and those once plentiful birds may soon vanish entirely. Imagine all the sea gulls suddenly disappearing from the coast of California. Why are the Kittiwakes vanishing? Well, the sandeel (a kind of small fish, not an eel) is the main food for most of the seabirds of the North Sea, and sandeels are vanishing as plankton thereabouts disappear, plankton being what the sandeels eat so they can proliferate and be eaten by the Kittiwakes. And plankton are disappearing around the Orkneys and the Shetlands because of climate change caused by humans burning fossil fuels.

The bird lovers of England and Scotland are terribly concerned, of course, that Kittiwakes may soon go the way of the dodo, but there’s nothing they can do about the Kittiwake Crisis because the vanishing is caused by billions of people the world over driving cars instead of walking or taking the bus etc. The Orkney and Shetland bird lovers are hoping to create artificial sanctuaries for the vanishing birds, except the birds aren’t disappearing from lack of places to live and breed. They are dying from climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“I have a very highly developed sense of denial.” Gwyneth Paltrow

Looking at that United Nations climate map of how the world is going to be circa 2050, it occurs to me that if I was twenty-five or even thirty-five instead of sixty-five, I might consider moving to Canada (where they really don’t want me) and getting some land way up in the northern regions that are currently next to unlivable, but in another twenty years might be positively Californian. Of course, in another twenty years, if things go as the United Nations is predicting, hoards of desperate people will be heading for those swiftly dwindling cooler climes, so maybe moving to Canada isn’t a better idea than staying here and mostly walking to town.

Speaking of walking to town, I was in Corners of the Mouth a few days ago buying some edible ballast for my knapsack, and when I got to the bulk grains, my jaw dropped because the price for long grain brown rice, a main staple at our house, had jumped in one week from $1.85 per pound to $2.35 per pound. Knowing that 800,000 acres (so far) of California farmland previously under cultivation are being left fallow this year due to the drought, I’ve been expecting increases in food prices, but not thirty per cent in one week. Rice, I should note, is a main ingredient in many food items, including the gluten-free bread I depend on. Which is to say, be prepared to do some gasping at the grocery store in the months ahead.

“Security is when everything is settled, when nothing can happen to you; security is the denial of life.” Germaine Greer

In the 1960’s, when I first got religion about what fossil fuel burning was doing and would do to the earth, I preached with fervor to friends and neighbors and relatives about the virtues of not driving and not traveling in jets, and how we needed to work together (what a concept) to create car-free lifestyles and solar and wind-powered energy systems. My fervor, however, seemed to mostly piss people off, and soon thereafter most of my hippie colleagues bought big cars and drove off into various sunsets. Our short-lived utopian dreams and schemes—based on the principle of Take No More Than We Give—went the way of the dodo.

I continued to live without a car, which was not terribly difficult when I lived in cities with decent public transit in those halcyon days when roomy Greyhound buses made daily stops in towns large and small everywhere in America. But as the bus and train systems disintegrated, I started renting cars to go on the few long trips I took each year and confirmed that absolutely everything in America is designed for the use of automobiles, and nothing else.

Oh I would love to blame evil people and evil corporations and corrupt governments and criminal bankers for the dire situation we find ourselves in today but evil corrupt criminals are not the problem. No, the underlying problem is…

Long ago there was a little band of humans wandering the earth looking for things to eat. Human existence was, at best, a few short years of uninterrupted grubbing for tubers and killing little mammals, with a few fleeting moments of sex to produce more humans. At worst, human existence was being attacked by someone trying to get your scrap of dried rat meat, and then being eaten by a tiger.

One day the little band of humans came upon a pile of grape-sized golden orbs. Not knowing what the orbs were, but hoping they were food, the strongest human in the band made the weakest human eat one of the orbs. Upon swallowing the orb, the weakest human became highly intelligent and could fly like a bird. So everybody else in the band ate an orb, and they all became intelligent and could fly like birds. And every time they felt the need to boost their intelligence and flying abilities, they would eat more of the golden orbs.

Just when it began to dawn on the humans that they might want to use their higher intelligence and flying abilities to create a better future for themselves and their children, they ate the last of the golden orbs. Shortly thereafter, their intelligence and ability to fly went the way of the dodo, and they resumed wandering the earth looking for things to eat and killing each other and being eaten by tigers.

They were human beings and could not overcome the underlying problem—their essential nature.

The Machine Stops

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

theroaroftime

 

The Roar of Time pen and ink by Todd

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

“In this world there are only two ways of getting on—either by one’s own industry or by the stupidity of others.” Jean De La Bruyère

E.M. Forster, best known for his novels Room With A View, Passage To India and Howard’s End, published a great short story in 1909 entitled The Machine Stops, an extremely prescient imagining of a future we may soon inhabit. Forty years before the advent of television, Forster foresaw computers and the worldwide internet, the demolition of the global environment, and the total collapse of technological society.

I thought of Forster’s story this week for three reasons. First, we are in the midst of The Government Stops, second the climate news is more dire than ever with rising global temperatures on pace to make human life on earth untenable within a decade or so, and third, my trusty iMac, a senile seven-year-old, has finally become so obstreperous and the screen so degenerate that I have ordered a new iMac and trust the universe will employ the precessional repercussions of my action to her advantage. Buckminster Fuller described precessional repercussions as those right-angled unintentional effects of an intended action; for instance, the honeybee goes to the flower with the intention of getting nectar, and one of the marvelous unintended repercussions of the bee’s action is pollination. Mazel tov!

Little did I realize how much time I spend using (and being used by) my computer until going mostly without the blessed device for these last two weeks. Yikes. Not only do I several times a day type my longhand output into on-screen documents, but I carry on most of my correspondence by email now, read several articles a day online, watch sports highlights and movie previews, and pursue several lines of research, all as a matter of barely conscious course.

I am happy to report that I don’t feel I have missed much these last two weeks and know I have gained valuable time to do important work to prepare this old (new) house for winter, work I never seemed to have quite enough time for because, well, you know, there were links to click and leads to follow and Truthdig and Bill Moyers and Rhett & Link and and and…

As of this writing, our government has been “shut down” for eleven days, with polls showing a slight majority of people blaming Republicans for the impasse and a frighteningly large minority blaming Obama. That anyone could blame Obama for this blatant sabotage of our system is silly, but that tens of millions of registered voters blame him for the actions of a bunch of cruel racist lunatics is, in the words of Grouch Marx, “A travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham of a mockery.”

The central bank of China owns a large chunk of our national debt and is highly displeased with America’s governmental constipation, as are the various global financial markets. “Please get your money business in order pronto,” they chorus with growing vitriol. “We don’t care if you want to starve your own citizens and deprive them of healthcare and decent education, just don’t jeopardize our investments in your big bubble economy or we’ll stop buying and holding your stinking debt!”

The Japanese are pissed off, too, but they don’t have a leg to stand on with their (our) Fukushima nuclear disaster so close to global endgame catastrophe I wonder how anyone can sleep at night, let alone eat fish.

“There are two worlds: the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.” Leigh Hunt

Today Marcia and I walk to town to buy groceries, run a few errands, and split a salad at Goodlife Café and Bakery, the day cool and windy, a large coalition of vagabonds and their dogs conferencing in front of Harvest Market, their mood upbeat, many cups of coffee in evidence.

While Marcia copies things at Zo and returns a DVD to our miniature library, I go to the post office where marvelous Robin sells me four sheets of the fabuloso new Ray Charles stamps and I send one of my books and two of my piano CDs to a lucky customer in New Zealand, the postage twice what my creations cost her. What a woild!

Marcia catches up to me in the cozy confines of Corners of the Mouth where I note that the sunflower seeds are from North Dakota, the pumpkin seeds are from Oregon, the peanuts are from Georgia, the coconut oil is pressed and jarred in Oregon, and the bananas are definitely not from the Anderson Valley. If the vast petroleum-powered food transportation machine were to suddenly stop, much of what we eat these days would not be here to eat. We grow vegetables and potatoes, and we buy more of the same from local growers, ditto berries and apples and eggs, but rice and beans and avocados and and and…

We trudge up the hill with our laden packs and arrive home to a Fedex note stuck to our door saying the delivery person came two hours in the future with my new computer but needs a signature before he or she can leave the package. The note says, “Go to Fedex.com and enter the Door Tag tracking number to learn what your options are.”

So I dutifully go to Fedex.com on my barely functional computer, enter the tracking number, and there in large print is confirmation that my package was delivered on September 6, five weeks ago and four weeks before I ordered my new computer. Zounds! Talk about efficient.

Feeling miffed and disoriented, I call the Fedex 800 number and get a sexy woman’s voice that turns out to be a voice-recognition system that sounds confident she/it can understand why I’m calling if I will clearly explain my situation using telltale words and expressions such as delivery and wherefore art thou, Romeo.

“Did you say package?” says the sexy voice, her tone endowing the word package with suggestive connotations. “Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number and she responds enthusiastically with, “Okay. Your package was delivered on September 6.”

“No!” I scream. “No! No! No!”

“Okay,” says the robot lady who never needs to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom or see a doctor or complain about low wages and lousy working conditions. “I’ll connect you to a service representative. Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number again and she rewards me with a hideous synthesized instrumental version of Hey Jude. After thirty seconds of this sonic blasphemy, a different sexy sounding female voice announces that my call may be monitored for quality assurance and to determine if I am naughty or nice.

When I make a silent vow to listen to the original version of Hey Jude so I might like the song again, the universe rewards me with a real live person who says his name is Mark, pronouncing his name Mar-ek. “How can I help you today?” he asks, sounding as if he is in a large room with hundreds of other people all talking at the same time.

I recite my name and address and explain my situation and Mark says, “The driver made an error and used an expired tracking number. He attempted to deliver your package at 3:48 today, but no one was there.”

“Mark,” I say, “it is not yet 3:48 here. Is this perhaps another driver error?”

“Yes,” says Mark, giggling. “Yes, it is.”

“Will the driver come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark. “He will.”

“Why did he not just say that on his door tag, Mark?”

“He did say that,” says Mark, “but he used an expired door tag tracking number so the correct information was not available to you online.”

“But he will come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark, sounding a wee bit impatient with me and possibly in need of a coffee break. “I am almost a hundred per cent sure he will bring your package tomorrow.”

“I’ll be waiting with baited breath.”

“Oh, just sign the door tag,” says Mark. “And then you don’t have to be there when it comes.”

“Thank you, Mark. You have been very kind to me.”

“No problem. Have a nice day.”

Walking To Town

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

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

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” Steven Wright

Last night by the fire, our new (old) house enshrouded in dense fog, I said to Marcia that I didn’t feel we were on the land where this house sits but rather on a boat, or possibly a raft, floating somewhere on the ocean of existence. I was not yet anchored anywhere except in my own interiority, except I didn’t use the word interiority because I didn’t think to use it until today when a letter came from my friend Max that said, “While it’s fun for me to say I’m on the Riviera, I notice this: in a certain way I am always in a room and inside my interiority when you and I are talking to each other. Wherever I may go, I’m always coming from that same place.”

Speaking of interiors, yesterday we had one of those spatial breakthroughs that amaze and gladden the spirit. On the east-facing wall of our new living room, two feet above the top of the doorway, sat a massive room-spanning shelf, a single piece of old growth heart redwood sixteen-feet long and a foot wide and two inches thick—an amazing slab of wood. And because the shelf was there and so massive and commanding and impressive, we kept trying to figure out what to put on it. We tried statues, books, driftwood, stones, gongs, drums, and pottery, yet nothing seemed quite right. But we had to find something to go there. Didn’t we?

Well…yesterday morning I woke to the epiphany that the massive shelf was actually a gigantic energy-clogging, dust-collecting, enemy of our psychic and aesthetic freedom, and so I conferred with Marcia and we decided to take the impressively massive thing down, which we and our carpenter-in-residence Jamie Roberts did—no easy feat. Then we scrubbed away the dust and cobwebs on the liberated wall and stood back to take a look. What a fantastic change! Now the room seems much larger and definitely happier, while the wall, I’m sure, is hugely relieved to be free of that burden.

Then yesterday evening—after an incredibly busy day of carpenters and roofers and painters swarming all over the house—two burly men, Spanish-speaking metal scavengers, showed up with their enormous blue pickup truck to take away various metal things we have removed from the house, the largest item being an old cast iron bathtub that weighed well over four hundred pounds. The two fellows mused for a moment over the tub, and then, as easily as I might lift an average-sized cat, they picked the tub up and slid the behemoth into the bed of their truck. And then, confronted by an incredibly heavy old woodstove, they lifted the massive thing as if it were nothing more than a chubby child; and my hernia ached as I looked on in awe at their prodigious strength.

As I was overseeing the various Herculean efforts of these two good men, I communicated with them in my extremely limited Spanish until one of the fellows, tiring of my linguistic deficiencies, said in perfect English, “So…where did you learn to speak Spanish?” I tried to answer in Spanish and he graciously helped me find the proper words. When I said I had gone to Mexico and Central America in 1970 as a Spanish translator for a marine biologist, the fellow translated my claim for his companion, who retorted in rapid fire Spanish something to the effect of, “If this guy was the translator, they must have had some very interesting adventures.”

“


I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” G.M. Trevelyan

One of my favorite things about our new house is that we are only a mile from the village, and in our first week here I have twice walked to town to do my errands. On the way to town, I descend some four hundred feet in elevation, which means that on the way home I ascend those same four hundred feet. Going to town today took me fifteen minutes, the return trip forty. I am in abominable shape, aerobically speaking, and I am hopeful that several walks to and from the village each week will eventually ameliorate my sorry condition. Today in my knapsack I carried home four bananas, two big carrots, a chocolate bar, a bag of ginger powder, a notebook, pen, pocketknife, and a half-pound of mail, the sum total of which nearly killed me. At one point I was walking so slowly I thought I must be kidding, but I was merely trying not to have a heart attack.

 “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Henry David Thoreau




How wonderful I feel strolling into town after my downhill ramble, my little truck left at home while I get my errands done and get some exercise, too. I enter Zo to make a few photocopies and find Jan presiding over his remarkable machines, and I feel I must tell him that I walked to town, which seems to please him, for he knows the steep first mile of Little Lake Road very well, being a bicyclist who climbs that hill with great regularity.

Copying done, I emerge into the fog and do a double take because…no truck! I am once again a vagabond as in my youth, a wanderer possessed of only what I can carry. I traverse the two long blocks to the post office, send a package to Kentucky, a letter to England, fetch the meager mail, and head for Corners of the Mouth in the little red church where the vegetables are always superb and the choices of chocolate as wide as the Mississippi.

But wait! I cannot buy my usual twenty pounds of vittles, for I am on foot and in terrible shape, and the space inside my knapsack is greatly limited. Therefore, I tell myself, I will only buy what we most desperately need, which, thankfully, is nothing. But instead of nothing, I purchase the aforementioned four bananas, two big carrots, a chocolate bar, and a bag of ginger powder (Marcia’s making ginger snaps), and as Garnish rings me up, Sky is nearby replenishing the fruit bins and finds a perfectly edible but less than perfectly gorgeous Golden Delicious apple, which she offers to me as a perk for being such a good customer.

Thus burdened and gifted, I head for home, cross Highway One, and make the mistake of trying to go too fast on the first steep rise, which renders me out of breath and nauseated. So I slow way down to the aforementioned barely walking at all until my heart stops pounding and my vision clears and I am no longer in danger of throwing up, after which my climb goes wonderfully well, however slowly.

Eventually, many minutes later, I trudge past the elementary school and leave the road to climb a steep trail through the woods to avoid the treacherous curves of Little Lake Road, which trail brings me to a little clearing where I come face to face with a magnificent buck and a beautiful doe, neither of whom seems the least bit afraid of me; and when I offer them the apple gifted me by Sky, both deer nod enthusiastically, I kid you not.

Home again at last, the sun finally banishing the fog, I enter our new (old) house feeling absurdly triumphant for having done so little, and as I peek into Marcia’s office she looks up from her work and says, “What? Back already?”

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.


 

Collapse Scenarios

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Our business gets better as the economy gets worse.” Kent Moyer, founder and CEO of World Protection Group Inc.

The business referred to in the opening quote is officially known as Executive Protection, and Kent Moyer is the kingpin of a successful Executive Protection agency providing body guards and small armies and surveillance experts and surveillance equipment and defensive strategies to wealthy individuals and consortiums of wealthy people who are certain they need protection from kidnappers, assassins, disgruntled employees, mobs of poor people, psychotic fans, and the like. Having recently read The Three Musketeers, it occurs to me that the musketeers were a seventeenth century equivalent of one of today’s private armies dedicated to protecting a consortium of wealthy people. In the case of The Three Musketeers, the wealthy people in question were the king of France and his sycophants.

“It isn’t so much that hard times are coming; the change observed is mostly soft times going.” Groucho Marx

Today many thoughtful people are hard at work writing essays and books about the coming (ongoing) collapse of economic, social, and natural systems in North America and around the world. I applaud them for their efforts and salute them for their desire to awaken others to the dangers confronting us. I occasionally go on binges of reading (mostly skimming) these essays and I am variably filled with hope or despair depending on the prognosis presented by the prognosticator. Some of the most popular of these prognosticators are, to my wholly subjective way of thinking, charlatans, some are brilliant visionaries, some are down-to-earth folk with helpful information, and many could use good editors. Dave Smith, by the way, does a great job presenting a constant flow of these kinds of essays and other non-mainstream articles about important environmental, agricultural, and social issues on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

I realize this is probably an unwise generalization (most generalizations are unwise), but most of these collapse scenario essayists strike me as impatient for their predictions to come true. That is, there is a tone in many of these essays of righteous indignation about all the horrible things humans have done to bring us to these points of collapse, and now they (we) will be sorry they (we) did those horrible things and it serves them (us) right for being so horrible and greedy and stupid, and tomorrow, or next week, or at the very latest next year, the various houses of cards will come tumbling down, roving gangs of starving killers will take over the world, internet service will become patchy and then disappear, only obscenely wealthy people will be able to afford gasoline for their armored vehicles driven by executive protection operatives, it will never stop raining in some places on earth, never rain again in other places, and no one with any sense would want to live within a thousand miles of a nuclear power plant because after the economic collapse such power plants will be too expensive to keep cool and they will all melt down and radiate the surrounding territories. Yikes!

“When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” Chuck Palahniuk

I am not saying these collapse scenario essayist aren’t right. Many of them are probably very right. Time is telling. What I’m trying to say is that the gestalt, if you will, of the sum total of these collapse scenario essays is that we, you and I, are doomed to suffer horribly, and soon. Put another way, these presentations strike fear in the reader’s heart, which I assume is the prognosticators’ intention, to strike fear. And my problem with striking fear in people is that fear, in my opinion, is our single largest obstacle to making the myriad substantive changes we need to make in order to avoid or at least soften the impact of the coming collapses we are destined to experience.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
 T.S. Eliot

Tremendous fear, in my experience, may inspire short-term fight or flight, but fear per se tends to paralyze. Indeed, it seems clear that our current overlords employ fear-striking tactics, overt and subliminal, to keep the population acquiescent and afraid to act out against even the most horrific unfair amoral misuses of authority, such as our government handing over trillions of dollars to the very thieves who stole trillions of dollars from us and brought about the current economic collapse scenario we now inhabit. I’m not advocating soft-pedaling the facts and figures underpinning various collapse scenarios; I’m saying that I, selfishly, would appreciate it if collapse scenario essayists would make more of an effort to balance their terrifying scenarios with plausible scenarios of renaissance.

“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” Goethe

I realize that many collapse scenario essayists are making the point that there are no plausible scenarios of renaissance. Our window of opportunity, they explicate, has closed. We’re doomed. The end. Discussion over. Humans blew their chances. But how interesting is that, especially after the third or fourth or fiftieth proclamation of the irreversible nature of our catastrophic situation? Does it ever occur to these doomsters (I’m sure it does to some of them) that our thoughts have an enormous impact on what manifests as reality?

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Gertrude Stein

Yesterday, as I was parking in front of the bulletin board fence on Ukiah Street in Mendocino, I counted seven people arrayed along the sidewalk, their backs to the bulletin board, gazing into flat little cell phones. These people were not engaged in phone conversations but were staring silently at their tiny screens. Something about the solemn eerie scene held me in my truck until one of the seven moved, and this movement did not occur for a short infinity. These seven were transfixed, each lost in a different scenario being presented to them on a tiny screen. When one of the seven finally lowered her phone, she did not put it away in her purse or pocket. She simply held onto the thing as if it were the hand of an invisible friend—something to cling to on her walk through life. Then another of the seven lowered his phone and moved away, and he, too, did not put his phone away, but held onto it as one might clutch a gold coin too precious to entrust to a pocket.

The other five remained unmoving, their eyes glued to their little screens; and so I got out of my truck as quietly as I could, not wishing to disturb the funereal atmosphere of the silent watchers in the fog of Mendocino. And for the rest of my round of errands in the village, I encountered more and more of these people who never put their phones away, but hold onto them constantly, as if fearing to separate for even a moment from the flow of information and the illusion of connection their little gizmos provide. I hasten to add that these were not exclusively young people, but people of all ages.

Having completed my errands, the last of which was to fill my basket with tasty comestibles at Corners of the Mouth, I was hoisting said basket into the bed of my old pickup, when a young couple came by pushing their cherubic two-year-old in a state-of-the-art ergonomically-boffo royal purple baby buggy. The young mother paused in front of the former church that is Corners and asked her husband, “What is this place?”

“That,” he said, gazing into the phone he carried in his hand, “is a grocery store specializing in organic produce and run by hippies.”

“Want to go in?” she asked, smiling hopefully.

“I don’t think there’s anything in there for us,” he replied, continuing to stare at his tiny screen. “Want to get some lunch?”

“What is there?” she asked, gazing longingly at the little red church.

And I was about to call out, “Looking for a good place to eat?” when the husband, reading from his tiny screen, said, “Well there’s nothing in the direction we’re going, but back the way we came there is a three-and-a-half-star hamburger joint based on twenty-eight reviews, an almost-four-star café based on seventy-eight reviews, somewhat pricey, and…”

So I did not call out to them. We did not converse. They did not get to meet me, nor I to meet them. The natural, fascinating, enriching, expansive proclivities of human beings were circumvented by the latest greatest tool of isolation and alienation.

Young Pot Moms

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

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

“Youth is wasted on the young.” George Bernard Shaw

When I and my middle-aged and elderly Mendocino Elk Albion Fort Bragg peers convene, talk often turns to the paucity of younger people coming along to fill the local ranks of actors and musicians and writers and artists and activists. The excellent Symphony of the Redwoods plays to audiences of mostly white-haired elders and is itself fast becoming an ensemble of elders, ditto the local theater companies, ditto the legions of Mendocino artists and social activists. People under fifty in audiences and at art openings hereabouts stand out as rare youngsters; and the question is frequently asked with touching plaintiveness, “Will it all end with us?”

“The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them.” Robert Graves

A few days ago I was waiting my turn at the one and only cash dispensing machine in the picturesque and economically distressed village of Mendocino, my home town, and I couldn’t help noticing that the woman using the machine was young (under forty), expensively dressed, and pushing the appropriate buttons with an ambitious energy that made me tired.

When it was my turn to stand before the cash dispensary, I noticed that the young woman had declined to take her receipt, which hung like a punch line from the slot of the robot. Being a hopeless snoop, I took possession of the little piece of paper, affixed my reading glasses, and imbibed the data. Did my eyes deceive me? No. This young woman had a cash balance in her Savings Bank of Mendocino checking account of…are you sitting down?…377,789 dollars.

In a panic—dollar amounts over four figures terrify me—I turned to see if her highness was still in sight, and there she was climbing into a brand new midnight blue six-wheel pickup truck the size of a small house, her seven-year-old companion, a movie-star pretty girl, strapped into the passenger seat.

“Did you want this?” I cried, wildly waving the receipt.

She of great wealth slowly shook her head and smiled slyly as if to say, “That’s nothing. You should see the diamonds in my safety deposit box.”

Staggered by my encounter with this local femme Croesus, I wandered toward Corners of the Mouth hoping to find my eensy teensy rusty old pickup parked there, and further hoping a little overpriced chocolate would calm me down. My truck was not there, but I didn’t panic. I only park in one of four places when I drive into the village, so I was confident I would eventually find my truck: somewhere near the Presbyterian church or adjacent to the vacant lot with the towering eucalypti where I gather kindling or in front of Zo, the greatest little copy shop in town (the only one, actually, and not open on weekends.)

In Corners, the cozy former church, I came upon three young (under forty) women, each in jeans and sweatshirt, each possessed of one to three exuberant latter day hippie children. These lovely gals were gathered near the shelves of fabulous fruit comparing notes on diet, marriage, motherhood, and who knows what. Beyond this trio of young moms, and partially blocking my access to the chocolate bars, were two of the aforementioned latter day hippie children, a very cute snot-nosed four-year-old redheaded girl wearing a bright blue dress, and an equally cute roly-poly snot-nosed five-year-old blond boy wearing black coveralls and red running shoes.

The boy, I couldn’t help but overhear, was trying to convince the girl to secure some candy for him because his mother wouldn’t buy candy for him, but the girl’s mother would buy the candy because, according to the boy, “Your mom let’s you have anything you want, and my mom won’t,” which, the boy indignantly pointed out, was not fair.

“But my mom will know it’s for you,” said the girl so loudly that everyone in the store could hear her, “because I don’t like that kind.”

I reached over their innocent little heads and secured a chunk of 85% pure chocolate bliss flown around the globe from England, and feeling only slightly immoral to be supporting the highly unecological international trafficking of a gateway drug (chocolate is definitely a gateway drug, don’t you think?) I headed for the checkout counter where two of the aforementioned young moms were purchasing great mounds of nutritious goodies.

Remember, I was still reeling from my encounter with she of the massive blue truck who had enough money in her checking account for my wife and I to live luxuriously (by our Spartan standards) for the rest of our lives, should we live so long, when Young Mom #1 took from the front pocket of her form-fitting fashionably faded blue jeans a wad of hundred-dollar bills that would have made a mafia chieftain proud, and peeled off three bills to pay for six bulging bags of vittles.

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, ceremoniously held each bill up to some sort of validating light, and made small change.

Meanwhile, Young Mom #2 had stepped up to the other checkout counter and proceeded to pay for her several sacks of groceries from a vast collection of fifty-dollar bills which she pulled from her pockets like a comedic magician pulling so many handkerchiefs from her coat that it seemed impossible she could have crammed so much stuff into such a small space.

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

Further frazzled by the sight of so much filthy lucre, I stumbled to the post office to buy stamps and see if Sheila wanted to talk a little Giants baseball. Ahead of me at the counter stood a beautiful young (under forty) mom with one of her cute little kids sitting on the counter picking his nose, her other slightly larger cute little kid standing on the floor, embracing his mother’s leg while sucking his thumb. The beautiful young mom placed a pile of brand new hundred-dollar bills on the counter, a pile as thick as a five-hundred-page novel, and proceeded to buy a dozen money orders, each order (I couldn’t help but overhear) for many thousands of dollars, and each order duly noted in a leather-bound notebook.

The thumb-sucking lad clinging to his mother’s leg looked up at me and I made a funny face at him. He removed his thumb and half-imitated my funny face. So I made another funny face. He laughed and patted his mother’s leg. “Mama,” he gurgled. “He funny.”

“Not now Jacarandaji,” she said, keeping her focus on money matters. “We’ll go to Frankie’s in just a little while.”

Jacarandaji smiled at me, daring me to make another funny face, which I did. Jacarandaji laughed uproariously, which caused his nose-picking brother to stop picking and ask, “Why you laughing?”

“He funny,” said Jacarandaji, pointing at me.

At which moment, the beautiful young mom turned to me, smiled sweetly (ironically?) and said, “You want’em? You can have’em.” And then she gave each of her boys a hug, saying, “Just kidding. Mama’s only kidding.”

“Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.” Norman Cousins

Who are these young (under forty) moms? They are pot moms, their wealth accrued from the quasi-legal and/or illegal growing of marijuana and the almost surely illegal sale of their crop to feed the insatiable appetite for dope that defines a robust sector of the collective American psyche. Many of these moms have husbands. Many of these moms have college degrees. And all of these moms have decided that it makes much more emotional and economic sense to grow and sell pot than to work at some meaningless low-paying job.

And let them grow pot, say I, so long as they don’t carry guns and shoot at people, and so long as they don’t have dangerous crop-guarding dogs that might escape and attack me or my friends as we’re riding by on our bicycles or walking by minding our own business. What I care about is this: will their children grow up to fill the ranks of the aging musicians and actors and artists and writers and activists who define the culture of our far-flung enclave? Or will those snot-nosed cuties grow up spoiled and arrogant and not much good for anything except growing dope, which will almost surely be legal by the time they’re old enough to join those aforementioned ranks, so then what will they do to make easy money?

Hear me, ye young pot moms. The lives you are leading and this place where you are leading those lives are rare and precious beyond measure. Thus it is your sacred duty to strictly limit the garbage your children watch on television and on computers. It is your sacred duty to give your children plenty of Mendelssohn and Stevie Wonder and Mozart and Joni Mitchell and Brahms and Cole Porter and Eva Cassidy and Richard Rogers and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and Nina Simone and Gershwin, to name a few. And beyond Harry Potter and the corporate guck that passes for children’s literature, at least give them Twain and Steinbeck and Kipling. Beyond today’s execrable animated movie propaganda, give them O’Keefe and Chagall and Picasso and Ver Meer and Monet and Van Gogh. Use your pot money to give your children not what the corporate monsters want to force them to want, but great art that will engender in them the feeling and the knowing that they were born into this life and into their bodies to do something wonderful and special and good.

Yay verily, I say unto you young pot moms, every last one of you beautiful and smart and good women, your children, and you, too, have come unto this bucolic place far from the madding crowd so they and you will have the chance to fully blossom. Feed your family well. Yes. Excellent organic food is good for their bodies, but do not neglect their precious minds and their generous hearts, for we oldsters desperately need them to fill our ranks when we are gone.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Slow Going

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin

Five years ago, a few weeks before I made my move from Berkeley to Mendocino, I came within a few inches of being killed by a young man who was driving his pickup truck very fast while simultaneously using his mobile phone. I had just stepped into the crosswalk at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Avenue, having been given the go ahead to cross by the illuminated symbol of a human being taking a walk. The young man who was driving his pickup very fast apparently did not see the red light or me or possibly anything as he sped through the intersection with his phone pressed to his ear. I don’t know if he was talking to someone or listening to someone else talking, or perhaps he was listening to music; I am only certain he was pressing his phone to his ear as his two-ton missile shot by within inches of my puny little flesh and blood body. And whether there is such a thing as fate or whether life is a muddle of meaningless happenstance, had I been one step further along at that moment, I would have been smashed to smithereens.

So today I’m driving our old truck into our soggy hamlet to get the mail and groceries, a cold rain falling, and because I am the unelected president of Mendocino Drivers Not In A Hurry To Get Anywhere, I’ve only gotten a few hundred yards down the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway before my rearview mirror is filled with the sight of a pickup closing fast upon me. As is my custom in these situations, I move to the outer edge of the road and slow to a crawl, timing my move so that whoever is driving that oncoming pickup will have an easy time passing me—the road ahead empty, the broken yellow line entirely on our side. But this particular pickup (going at least seventy miles per hour) zooms to within a few feet of my bumper before swerving around me and becoming a dot in the distance; and I, frightened and angry, unleash an obscenity-filled and punctuation-free description of this person’s intelligence, sexual predilection, and everything I wish to befall him in the near future.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Mohandas Gandhi

Seriously, folks, the village of Mendocino is not, I repeat, not a city. I’m not even sure we qualify as a town given we only have one criminally usurious gas station and nary a Mexican restaurant. Yet on most Fridays, some Mondays, every summer weekend, and unpredictably throughout the year, people drive around the village as if they are in Santa Monica at lunch hour late for I don’t know what, surgery? and in mortal fear of not finding a parking place and therefore doomed to die in their cars.

At first I thought these lunatics had to be tourists or weekend residents bringing their urban neuroses to our hinterlands, but over time I have come to realize that such irrational behavior is contagious, that locals participate, too, and that even I, determined to honor my inner slow poke, do at times react to this transplanted insanity by momentarily joining in the madness.

“Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place.” Mark Twain

A good friend recently visited from San Francisco and accompanied me on my errands in the village. He was envious there was no line at the post office, and he was impressed that the postal employees knew me by my first name, but my gabbing with Jeff and Patty at the Mendocino Market as I lollygagged in front of their delectable fish and fowl drove my friend mad with impatience. And as Garnish struck up a conversation about opera with me as he rang up my purchases in Corners, and I having already complimented Sky on the fabulous cauliflower and blabbed at length with Deborah about the benefits of cocoanut oil, my friend began whirling like a dervish and I had to send him outside to wait for me, though he is sixty-one and should know better.

“Teach us to care and not to care.” T.S. Eliot

I first delved into Buddhism in the late 1960’s when I ran into Buddhist references in the poetry of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, my favorite San Francisco Beat poets. For many years thereafter I read essays and books by American, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, and Korean Buddhist teachers discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of Buddhist dharma.

Nowadays I’ll go a year or two at a stretch without reading any dharma, and then a book will befall me or I’ll be hunting for something in my bookshelf and pull out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki or White Sail by Thinley Norbu, and the next thing I know I’ll be deep into a refresher course in mindfulness and the wisdom of no escape.

Most recently I couldn’t resist buying a brand new hardback copy of Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, his four-hundred-page treatise on Buddhist psychology for only a few dollars from the Daedalus Books catalogue. Such a deal! One of my all-time favorite Buddhist texts is Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker, a brilliant illumination of both Buddhist psychology and western (derived from Freud) psychology in which Epstein compares and contrasts these two very different yet complimentary views of human emotionality and behavior. So far, I have only read sixty pages of Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, but the text has already proven to be a good kick in my mental ass, so to speak, to slow down and smell the moments.

So this morning I decided to walk very slowly on my way to pick up the morning paper at the mouth of our driveway. As I took my slow and mindful steps, I focused on what I was stepping on. Lost in fascination with the conglomerations of pebbles and soil and dead leaves and tiny green shoots of new life composing my path to the highway, I arrived at my destination in no time at all. The newspaper in its plastic sheath seemed enormous and prophetic, and my hand as it entered the frame of my vision to pick up the paper seemed incredibly complex and beautiful—everything shaped by the quality of my focus.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

I have been practicing the piano every day for forty-five years. Of late, I have been playing tunes as slowly as I can without entirely abandoning their rhythmic forms, and in so doing I have discovered tunes within tunes I would otherwise have never guessed were there.

“People ought to listen more slowly.” Jean Sparks Ducey

In 1972 I attended a single meeting of a group practicing Therapeutic Conversation. Had I been a bit more emotionally evolved, I probably would have attended several more of their meetings, but one of the members so repulsed me I never went back. However, I learned such valuable lessons from that one meeting, I was changed forever as a conversationalist.

The first process of the evening was Circle Talk, in which we took our turn speaking after the person to our right had finished saying whatever he or she wanted to say. However, we couldn’t just jump right in the moment the person finished speaking. We had to wait a full minute before we spoke, the time being kept by the leader. And I discovered, in the silence of that incredibly long minute, that what I initially thought I wanted to say was almost never a real response to what the previous speaker had said, but something only tangentially related. Yet if I could be patient, a true response would rise from the depths of that short infinity.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

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)

Le Village

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

“I always felt that the great high privilege, relief, and comfort of friendship was that one had to explain nothing.” Katherine Mansfield

A soggy afternoon, the last Friday in October of 2010, Halloween two days away. I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley on Halloween five years ago and I have yet to tire of going to the beach. I mention the beach because almost everyone I met during my first two years here assured me that I would soon tire of going to the beach. These same people also told me that after I lived here for a year or two, I would grow stir crazy and hunger for the cultural excitement of the outer world. They were adamant I would want to travel to Mexico or Hawaii or Europe or Manhattan, or at least to San Francisco, but after five years here I have yet to experience the slightest urge to go anywhere but the village, the forest, and the beach.

Today was the last farmers’ market of the year in Mendocino. I love our little mercado. I hope one day to be one of the people selling things in our market. I will vend vegetables and fruit and books and CDs and greeting cards and Giants T-shirts and Giants baseball hats and Cliff Glover and Marion Miller ceramics, and each week zany and eccentric friends will make guest appearances at my booth. I will also have a weekly poetry contest (one entry per person), and a guess-how-many-beans-are-in-the-jar contest, with valuable prizes.

Today I would have bought a farmers’ market pie from the wonderful Garden Bakery people, but I am gluten free now and the Garden Bakery people only sell pies full of gluten. I’m predicting big things for gluten-free foodstuffs in the near future. Whomsoever comes up with decent gluten-free sour dough French bread and a credible gluten-free pizza crust will make out like big dogs.

Standing at the uphill end the farmers’ market, a light rain falling, the vendors few and stoic, shoppers scarce, the atmosphere bracingly local and groovy in the absence of tourists, I watch a local woman carrying a big basket turn away from a vegetable stand and bump into another local woman carrying an even bigger basket.

Big Basket: Hey, how are you?

Bigger Basket: I think I’m okay. I’m just so…overwhelmed.

Big: I know. I know. It’s just crazy.

Bigger: I know. I just…one thing after another.

Big: I know. I keep thinking, ‘Are things ever gonna slow down?’

Bigger: I know. It’s…overwhelming.

Big: Are you okay?

Bigger: Yeah. Yeah. I think so.

Big: Good. You look good. You’ve lost weight.

Bigger: Have I? Wow. I don’t know. Maybe.

Big: But you’re okay.

Bigger: Yeah. I think so.

Big: Good. Great to see you.

Bigger: Great to see you, too.

“Our modern society is engaged in polishing and decorating the cage in which man is kept imprisoned.” Swami Nirmalananda

When I come to the village I like to park my truck at the Presbyterian Church and walk what I’ve come to think of as a holy circuit, a labyrinth of invigorating twists and turns around town. I begin by transecting the eternally For Sale eucalyptus-dominated vacant lot, assess the state of the economy by the size of the crowd of caffeine addicts in front of Moody’s java bar, jaywalk diagonally across Lansing, and hang a left onto Ukiah, my first stop invariably the post office (home to a marvelous crew of die hard Giants fans) followed by protein confiscation at the always warm and friendly Mendocino Market (a fabulous deli with a fine wine selection and a growing number of gluten-free items on their menu). Next I visit Corners (zaftig organic groceries in a cozy former church), the bank (our one and only), Zo (fabuloso copy shop), Garth Hagerman’s (gorgeous nature photography and web meistering), Harvest at Mendosa’s (beer and olive oil and notebooks), the bookstores (used and new), the new hardware store (they should sell transistor radios), and I used to frequent our deliciously aromatic bakeries and Frankie’s pizza, but now that I am gluten-free I spare myself the glorious sights and divine scents of their verboten goodies.

So you see, though Mendocino lacks a good Mexican restaurant, decent public bathrooms, a good Chinese restaurant, a town square with comfortable benches and a virile fountain, a good Thai restaurant, a spacious pool hall, a good Indian restaurant, a movie theatre showing foreign films, public tennis courts, and a commodious tea house, we have almost everything else a reasonable human could desire.

There is the excellent Mendocino Café featuring pricey and not-so-pricey entrees, and just across Big River Bridge we have a fine bike shop where one can also rent a canoe. We have three bars (counting the hotel), a liquor store, dentists, a veterinarian, massage therapists, a hamburger joint, and several restaurants, inns, galleries, and shops for rich people and tourists. And perhaps best of all, there are no overhead wires in the village, which makes everyone who comes here feel inseparable from the sky, which uplifts us even if we are unconscious of why we feel uplifted.

I wish everyone (save for the handicapped) would park his or her vehicle in just one place when he or she comes to town, and walk from this one place to all the places he or she needs to go, instead of driving from one place to another to another and another in our very small village; but what are you going to do? Yes, the village depends on tourism and the illegal sale of quasi-legally grown marijuana for the larger part of its economic existence; and, yes, many of the houses in the area are the second and third and fourth homes of people who can truthfully be called filthy rich and only use these tertiary properties as tax write offs and weekend getaways; and I cannot deny there are days when the village reeks of decadence and disregard for the earth and a hatred of whales and trees and poor people, but how is that any different from anywhere else? I don’t know.

On weekdays around noon, dozens and dozens of teenagers come down from the high school and invade the retail sector of the village to buy crap for lunch. Many of these cuties and louts talk at the top of their lungs (don’t ask me why) and are easy to overhear. To wit: three not-quite-old-enough-to-legally-drive (thank goodness) boys stand on a corner across from Harvest Market, gorging on slices of Frankie’s gluten-rich pizza as they watch the girls go by.

Teenaged Boy #1: She is so easy.

Teenaged Boy #2: How do you know?

Teenaged Boy #3: He doesn’t.

#1: Do.

#3: Don’t.

#1: Do.

#3: Lie.

#2: She on the pill?

#1: Oh, yeah.

#3: You don’t know.

#1: Do.

#3: Don’t.

#1: Do.

#3: Lie.

#2: I think she is. Kevin dumped her purse.

#3: So?

#1: I did more than dump her purse.

#3: Lie.

#1: What the fuck, man? You in love with her?

#3: Fuck you, man.

#2: Why would she be on the pill if she wasn’t doing it?

#1: Oh, she’s doing it.

#3: You don’t know.

#1: Do.

#3: Lie

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Krishnamurti

In the post office, I witness two local men greet each other.

Man One: Hey, long time no see. Where you been?

Man Two: Here. You?

One: Mostly here. We went away a couple times. See the boys.

Two: How they?

One: Good. Yours?

Two: Fine. I guess. Who knows? You know?

One: Right. Right. Who knows?

Silence.

One: So…things okay?

Two: Same. You?

One: Good. Same. You still…?

Two: Yeah, yeah. Same old. You?

One: Just, you know…working away.

Two: Right. Business good?

One: Can’t complain.

Two: No. No. Can’t complain.

“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Samuel Beckett

As I’m loading my groceries and mail into my truck at the Presbyterian, a little boy rushes up to me.

“Sir! Sir!” he cries. “May I ask you a question?”

“Certainly.”

“Where is the ocean?” He asks with such unmitigated passion he might have asked What is the meaning of life?

“There,” I say, gesturing toward the quite obvious sea.

The boy frowns at the distant breakers. “I mean, how do we get there?”

“Take the trail to the left and you’ll come to a stairway leading down to the beach.” Now a man who might be the boy’s father arrives, a tall fellow, forty-something. “Take the trail to the right and you’ll wend your way along the headlands.”

“Will there be gulls on the beach?” asks the boy, nodding eagerly. “And a tall dark tree on the edge of a cliff?”

“Yes,” I say, knowing the tree of which he speaks. “And there will be ravens and ospreys circling in the air above the confluence of the river and the sea.”

“Yes!” shouts the boy, turning to the man who might be his father. “Let’s go!”

“He’s got some kind of imagination,” says the man, winking at me. “Thanks for the directions.”

“An actor is totally vulnerable. His total personality is exposed to critical judgment—his intellect, his bearing, his diction, his whole appearance. In short, his ego.” Alec Guinness

I take a seat on my preferred bench on the ocean-viewing terrace of the Presbyterian and jot down my conversation with the boy. A young woman commandeers the bench next to mine and carries on her phone conversation without the slightest regard for privacy, hers or mine.

She glares up at the sky and shouts into her little red phone, “I’m like, ‘No way,’ and he’s all, ‘Yes, you will,’ like I owe him? Can you believe it? I know. And I’m like, ‘If you think dinner and wine and a little coca-doodle-doo is the total ticket, you can forget it, buster,’ and he’s like totally furious, and I’m thinking, ‘Who told this dude I was cheap? You know? I mean, like, Jesus.”

She listens for a moment, nodding enthusiastically.

“I know. I know. I couldn’t believe it. Totally.”

She laughs unconvincingly.

“I know, I know. Totally. So I go, ‘No way,’ and he like totally clamps his teeth and gives me this look like he’s gonna kill me. Insane. I know. I so totally know. And I’m like, ‘Excuse me? I don’t think so?’ and he’s like fried out of his mind, and I’m like, ‘How the fuck do I get home because no way I get in a car with this psycho.’”

She laughs dryly, and my throat aches in sympathy.

“I know. I know. He did seem nice. Totally. I know. I know. I mean…I was like having fantasies about him. Totally.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2010.)