Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

Tober Finds His Way Part 3

Monday, March 11th, 2019

four candles

At four-thirty in the afternoon, rain falling, Tober drives slowly through a maze of streets to a quiet neighborhood in southeast Portland where Augie lives in an old house with three other people—the front yard featuring four large Japanese maples, their fall foliage every hue of burgundy and magenta.

One of Augie’s housemates, Allison, shares a pot of nettle tea with Tober in the living room and waits with him for Augie to get home from his weekend job as a clerk at Wet Spot Tropical Fish store.

Allison is thirty-two, Chinese American, with light brown hair and a persistently wrinkled brow, a wearer of frameless pince-nez. She works for a high tech company called Integer Farm, and when Tober asks what her job entails she says, “Oh about half the time I’m filing incoming data composites, and half the time I’m mapping info gaggles looking for nascent renegade trends.”

“You’re analyzing data?” Tober guesses.

“Sort of,” says Allison, frowning. “Our logarithms do most of the macro-analysis, but… yeah, what I do sometimes ends up in analyses, but mostly I’m creating amalgam veins for later mining.”

“To what end?” asks Tober, wondering why the tea tastes so bitter and surmising it must be the water.

“For our clients,” says Allison, nodding. “To facilitate ultra-specific targeting.”

“Sounds very sophisticated,” he says sincerely. “Who are your clients?”

“Oh, you know, any large company trying to sell something,” she says, matter-of-factly. “We specialize in centrifuging data our analysts use to design super-fast modalities for optimal penetration and saturation.”

“Wow,” says Tober, nodding. “What a thing.”

“It’s a job,” she says, shrugging. “Gotta pay off those student loans. We can’t all get full scholarships like Augie.”

“No,” says Tober, the words “full scholarships” making him think of Jasmy and the volleyball scholarships she turned down. “He’s very lucky.”

“He’s brilliant,” she says, morosely. “We can’t all be brilliant.”

“Well,” says Tober, wanting to cheer her up, “I’m sure it’s no small feat to create amalgam veins. I couldn’t do that in a million years.”

“Yes, you could,” says Allison, scrunching up her cheeks. “Once you know the key strokes, they pretty much create themselves.”

“Oh,” says Tober, delighted by the idea of things creating themselves. “Like melodies create themselves.”

“No,” says Allison, shaking her head. “It has nothing to do with music.”

A silence falls and Tober decides not to say anything more unless Allison asks him a question—the silence lasting for several more sips of the bitter tea before Augie comes in the front door and Tober jumps up to give him a hug.

Augie is six-foot-one, his red hair cut quite short. Before moving to Portland three months ago, he outweighed Tober by twenty pounds, but he has lost those twenty pounds and then some, and there is a gray cast to his usually rosy skin—the sparkle in his emerald green eyes much diminished.

After visiting with Allison for a few minutes more, the brothers retire to Augie’s bedroom and Augie closes the door.

“Gads Aug,” says Tober, staring at his brother, “you’ve lost so much weight. Are you okay?”

“I will be,” he says, speaking slowly. “Took me a while to gets things straightened out, but now that I have, I’ll be fine.” He smiles wanly. “I’m so glad you’re here. How was the trip?”

“Great,” says Tober, wondering what things Augie got straightened out. “I met all sorts of fascinating people along the way, the last one being an amazing woman I met in Director’s Park where I did a little busking this afternoon. Her name is Jasmy and she’s a violinist, too. Her band is playing tonight at McSomebody’s Crystal Palace and she wants me to play with them on a tune or two, so she’s putting us on the guest list. Do you want to go?”

“Yeah,” says Augie, sitting down on his queen-sized bed. “Sounds fun.”

“You don’t look well, Aug,” says Tober, sitting beside him. “You’re so pale. I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I’m just tired. Might have a little lie down before we go out.”

“So what did you get straightened out?” asks Tober, putting his arm around Augie.

“Well,” says Augie, taking a deep breath, “I figured out what was killing me, and I put a stop to it.”

“Oh my God, Aug. You didn’t mention anything in your letters about something killing you. What was it?”

“The program,” says Augie, his jaw trembling. “I’m coming home, Tobe, not just for Thanksgiving, but to stay. I went down the wrong path. And as Titus taught us, the sooner we recognize we’re going the wrong way, the sooner we can change direction and avoid big trouble. So that’s what I did. I quit the program yesterday and quit my job at the fish store today.”

“Does Mom know?” asks Tober, trying not to sound too happy about Augie coming home to stay.

“Yeah, I called her last night,” says Augie, starting to cry.

“Oh Aug,” says Tober, holding his brother tight. “You’re the greatest.”

After Augie takes a shower and puts on a lovely gray shirt and brown trousers for going out, he lies down on his bed to rest.

“Talk to me Tobe,” he says, closing his eyes. “Tell me about your trip.”

Dressed all in black save for the red ribbon tied in a bow at the end of his ponytail, Tober stands at the window, rain pattering on the glass, and describes Amelia and Consuela following him from the farmhouse to the truck and back to the farmhouse and back to the truck again as he was getting ready to leave, how Sharon loves being with the girls, what a good mother she is, how both girls are very reserved and fearful of doing anything to upset Sharon, how every day they get a little more comfortable in their new surroundings, a little more trusting that Sharon isn’t just another temporary caretaker, but their mother from now on, a mother who never yells at them and gives them plenty of food and explains things to them over and over again until they understand.

“I guess I wasn’t ready to leave home,” says Augie, opening his eyes. “Although if the program had been what I thought it was going to be, I would have stayed despite the challenges of living in a city. But the program wasn’t even remotely like they told me it would be.”

“You wrote to us about the classes covering information you already knew,” says Tober, coming to sit on the bed. “But you said you liked Weibel, the neuroscience guy, and you were going to focus on that.”

“I wanted to,” says Augie, sighing. “But they wouldn’t let me, and that was when I realized there was a much bigger underlying problem.”

“Which was?”

“Well… when I met with the professors who read my papers, the four who were so eager for me to come here, I assumed I’d be working with them. But when I realized after a couple weeks that the first two years of required classes were only going to cover research and theories and historical stuff I’ve already thoroughly studied, I went to talk to those four professors about testing out of those classes, and they all told me I had to take them. And when I told Dr. Weibel I didn’t want to waste two years of my life before I could start doing what I came here to do, he got very upset with me and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. And that pretty much did it, because I do know what I’m talking about, and working with him was the main reason I wanted to come here. And when I told him that, he said, ‘Get in line, buddy. Lots of people want to work with me, people much more qualified than you.’”

“What a jerk,” says Tober, angrily. “They asked you to come here. They gave you a scholarship. What’s his problem?”

“As you can imagine,” says Augie, smiling wryly, “I’ve given that question a great deal of thought, and what I now know is that Weibel and everyone here is a functionary of an extremely hierarchic system that purports to be cutting edge, but is actually mired in out-of-date dogma and very slow to integrate the newest information and practices.”

“Dogma never keeps up with the new information,” says Tober, going to the window again. “As opposed to wisdom, which is a deciphering tool.”

“Exactly,” says Augie, relieved to finally be talking about this with someone who understands him. “I’ll give you a most telling For Instance of how their dogma lags far behind current knowledge.”

“Oh good,” says Tober, returning to the bed. “I love telling For Instances.”

“So…” says Aguie, sitting up. “Three weeks ago, Weibel gave a public lecture attended by all the Psych grad students, most of the faculty, and anybody else who wanted to come. And the subject of his lecture was a thorough review of the most recent and comprehensive studies proving conclusively that the habitual use of cell phones not only seriously interferes with healthy brain development in children and young adults, but also exacerbates and even creates emotional disorders in people of all ages. And as he spoke, every single person in attendance, about two hundred people, save for one August Quincy, was clutching his or her phone and futzing with it as Weibel enumerated the serious damage their behavior was doing to their brains and nervous systems.”

“Did no one else appreciate the irony of the situation?” asks Tober, remembering Annie staring into her phone, hour after hour, filling her time with whatever she was seeing or doing on the little screen until it was time to go to work or eat or have sex.

“I doubt it,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I hope so, but I doubt it. They are all so deeply enmeshed with their phones.”

Dining at a quiet Thai restaurant, Tober describes to Augie his sojourn in Yachats, his impromptu concert in the Green Salmon café, his delightful breakfast with Ruth and Phil and Sylvia, his frightening encounter with Lauren the psychic leech, his icy dip in the mighty Umqua to exorcise Lauren’s poison, his phone conversation with Titus, and his triumphant performance in Director’s Park that culminated in meeting Jasmy.

“Wow,” says Augie, gazing in wonder at his brother. “What a day.”

“And while you were snoozing,” says Tober, smiling at the approach of their Kang Dang chicken, potatoes in yellow curry, and brown rice, “I counted up the money I made from busking for that one glorious hour today. Guess how much?”

“From the tone of your voice and the self-satisfied look on your face,” says Augie, grinning at his brother, “I will say… fifty dollars.”

“Three hundred and thirty-seven dollars,” says Tober, lowering his voice. “And that’s just the paper money. There are hundreds of quarters and piles of nickels and dimes ye to be counted.”

“Good God,” says Augie, gaping at his brother. “You’ve always had a knack for making money, but this verges on the miraculous.”

“It was miraculous,” says Tober, thinking of Jasmy. “I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

Arriving at 7:20 at the giant old building that houses McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, they find no place to park anywhere near the ballroom—several hundred people in line waiting for the doors to open—so they have to drive around for fifteen minutes before they finally find a parking place seven blocks away.

They hurry through the rain to the ballroom, and not knowing that being on the guest list entitles them to go to the front of the line, they take their places at the end of the long line of people slowly entering the building, and they don’t get inside until ten minutes before show time.

A very large man named Ezra wearing a purple sequin evening gown, his long black hair and black beard wild and frizzy, his skin pale white, his lips painted fire-engine red, leads Tober and Augie backstage where Jasmy and her four band mates are waiting to go on.

Jasmy is wearing red moccasins and a gorgeous burgundy blouse tucked into pleated black slacks, her long black hair in a three-strand braid. She hesitates to hug Tober, but when he opens his arms to her, she steps right in.

“You made it,” she says, thrilled by his strong embrace. “I was starting to worry. I called you and left a message on Augie’s machine.” She turns to Augie. “You must be Augie. I’m Jasmy.”

“Hi,” says Augie, shaking her hand. “I can see why Tobe used the word miraculous when describing you. Thanks so much for putting me on the guest list.”

“Of course,” she says, turning to her four cohorts—two men and two women.

“This is Sandy,” says Jasmy, gesturing to a muscular young woman in her early twenties with short brown hair wearing a sleeveless green T-shirt, shimmering black boxer shorts, green socks, and red running shoes.

Sandy shakes Tober’s hand and says with a beguiling Irish accent, “You didn’t exaggerate, did you Jasmy? Tall, dark, and ravishing with a violin. I’m the drummer in case you couldn’t tell from my biceps.”

“Tober,” says Tober, enjoying her formidable grip. “This is my brother Augie.”

Sandra looks at Augie, Augie looks at Sandra, and they both feel a sharp jolt of recognition followed immediately by a profound attraction to each other.

“Hello,” says Augie, his heart pounding as he shakes Sandy’s hand. “Why do I think I already know you?”

“You got me,” she says, keeping hold of him and looking into his eyes. “What do you play?”

“Guitar,” says Augie, breathlessly. “And I sing.”

“No,” says Sandra, feigning incredulity. “I sing, too.”

“This my father,” says Jasmy, introducing them next to a handsome man in his early forties, two inches taller than Tober and wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and black pants and black shoes, his blond hair cut short. “Julian Beckman. Otherwise known as Beckman. Sweet Papa this is October, otherwise known as Tober.”

“A pleasure,” says Tober, shaking Beckman’s hand.

“Likewise,” says Beckman, matching Tober’s grip. “Looking forward to hearing you play. Jasmy rarely raves about anyone the way she raved about you.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing you, too,” says Tober, laughing nervously. “This is my brother Augie. He’s as good a guitarist as I am a violinist.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” says Augie, shaking Beckman’s hand. “Not even close. Pleased to meet you.”

“And speaking of guitarists,” says Jasmy, gesturing regally to a handsome burly Mexican fellow with a shaved head wearing a red T-shirt and white pants. “This is Pedro Martinez.”

“Hola,” says Pedro, nodding to Tober and Augie.

“And Marie,” says Jasmy, putting her arm around a striking woman in her thirties with long auburn hair wearing a red sequin blouse, short black skirt, pink tights, and red high heels. “Our bass player.”

Marie gives Augie and Tober a little bow and says with her strong French accent, “I hope you like the show.”

“I’m sure we will,” says Tober, dizzy with excitement.

Now Jasmy presses close to Tober and says, “Come back at the break and we’ll figure things out for the second set. I’m so glad you came.”

“Me, too,” says Tober, kissing her cheek. “Break a leg.”

Ezra escorts Tober and Augie into the huge ballroom where legions of people of all ages and colors are waiting for the show to begin.

The vast area in front of the stage, about half the room, is filled with four hundred cushioned folding chairs, all the chairs taken save for two in the front row where Ezra deposits Tober and Augie—the back half of the room open for milling around and dancing.

“Look at all these people,” says Augie, agog at the colorful assembly. “There must be a thousand people here.”

“That would be five times more than can fit in the Arcata Playhouse,” says Tober, referencing the largest venue he and Augie have ever played in. “The energy in here is beyond anything I’ve ever felt before, yet I don’t feel menaced by it.”

“Nor do I,” says Augie, relaxing. “This is by far the best I’ve felt since coming to Portland.”

“It’s happiness,” says Tober, turning in his seat to look at the expectant audience. “That’s what it is, Aug. They’re all happy. A thousand happy people.”

“Waiting to see the miraculous Jasmy,” says Augie, playfully punching Tober’s arm. “And she’s crazy about you. Your timing is impeccable. Imagine how confused you’d be if you hadn’t broken up with Annie.”

“Jasmy does seem to like me,” says Tober, finding it difficult to get a deep breath. “I hope I don’t disappoint her.”

“Oh you’ll be great,” says Augie, smiling sublimely. “Just close your eyes and pretend you’re at home jamming along with the stereo.”

Tober and Augie grew up without television, and in the absence of that media, they both became excellent guitarists and violinists, both learned to play the piano fairly well, and they spent many thousands of hours listening to music and playing and singing along.

By the time Tober was twelve and Augie was eleven, they could play the entire Beatles repertoire in several keys on violin and guitar, as well as all the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, B.B. King, James Taylor, Fats Waller, Stephen Sondheim, Hank Williams, and hundreds of jazz and folk and rock and pop and soul standards. Tober’s favorite singers are Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Iris DeMent; Augie’s favorites are Eva Cassidy, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, and Leon Bibb.

Having attended hundreds of rehearsals of the Eureka Symphony orchestra, and having played the classical string quartet repertoire with their mother and her musical colleagues for their entire lives, and having been obsessed with Brazilian choros, Argentinian tangos, and Irish fiddle tunes, Tober and Augie’s knowledge and appreciation of music is both deep and wide.

But they have never seen or heard anything quite like Ordering Chaos: the first number a jazzy Latin Afro salsa, the second number incredibly harmonic jazz fusion, the third number a fabulous rendition of a Django Reinhardt tune.

At the end of the Django Reinhardt, Augie says to Tober, “I know the expression lacks specificity and doesn’t really do justice to the full extent of what I’m experiencing, but I’ll use it anyway. This is blowing my mind.”

“Mine, too,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “Blown to smithereens.”

“They’re such good players,” says Augie, transfixed by Sandy and the entrancing way she dances on her seat as she drums. “Can you believe Beckman? He’s impeccable. He’s… I’d give anything to take lessons from him.”

“You can!” says Tober, excitedly. “You’re free now. You can do anything you want.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Drum lessons from Sandy?”

“That would be fun,” says Augie, as the band kicks into rollicking folk rock, Marie singing the verses, Jasmy and Sandy joining Marie on the chorus, and Pedro playing a searing guitar solo that brings the house down.

Backstage during intermission, Joseph, a short bespectacled sound technician wearing a neon-blue jumpsuit, suggests attaching a small microphone to the sound hole of Tober’s violin, and Tober says, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t want to attach anything to my violin. I’m quite good at playing into a microphone, if that’s an option.”

“Yeah, that’ll work,” says Joseph, winking at Tober. “We’ll set you up with a big silver potato. Come on out with me and we’ll get the height right.”

So Tober goes out in front of the audience with Joseph and stands at ease with his violin as Joseph attaches a silver potato-shaped microphone to a mike stand and adjusts the height of the stand so the microphone is about ten inches away from where Tober holds his violin to play.

“I’ll be riding the sound,” says Joseph, looking up at Tober. “But keep in mind roughly ten to fifteen inches away. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” says Tober, following Joseph backstage.

Jasmy takes Tober’s free hand and says, “How about you and my father opening the second act with a duet?”

“Fine,” says Tober, as she leads him to Beckman who is sitting with Marie on a sofa—Beckman drinking water, Marie sipping a glass of red wine.

“Do you know ‘Manhã de Carnaval’?” asks Beckman, giving Tober a hopeful smile.

“I love that song,” says Tober, nodding. “Luiz Bonfá. Black Orpheus.”

“Excellent,” says Beckman, picking up his guitar. “Key of A Minor?”

“Yep,” says Tober, glad to know they’ll be doing a song he’s played hundreds of times. “How about you play first, give me a nod, and off we’ll go.”

“Shall we run through the changes?” asks Beckman, arching an eyebrow. “Make sure we’re on the same page?”

“If you’d like,” says Tober, nodding. “Or we can surprise each other.”

“You and Jasmy,” says Beckman, laughing. “Peas in a pod.”

As the lights dim to announce the start of the second set, Jasmy strides to center stage and waits for the applause to die down before saying to the expectant audience, “It is my great pleasure now to introduce you to October Quincy, who will join us for the second set and open the proceedings with my father.”

Beckman emerges to loud applause, followed by Tober who seems totally at ease, which he is, having performed for audiences countless times since he was seven, and never having had anything but fun when performing.

Standing comfortably at the potato-shaped microphone, Tober nods to Beckman who is seated and holding an electrified acoustic guitar; and Beckman begins to play the lovely Brazilian tune very slowly, his playing flawless and heartfelt; and when he concludes his tender opening, he strums the chords in a slow samba tempo, nods in time to his strumming, and Tober begins to play.

And though Beckman expected Tober to be an accomplished player, he is so astounded by Tober’s exquisite tone and facility and the eloquence of his variations on that iconic melody, that when they finish, and the audience is cheering wildly, he embraces Tober and says, “That was by far the greatest musical experience of my life.”

After the show, Tober and Augie meet Jasmy and Beckman and Sandy and Pedro and Pedro’s wife Chita at Toro Bravo, a commodious tapas restaurant, an ideal place to eat and drink and unwind.

Tober is exhilarated and exhausted—his vision of returning home with Augie and building a couple of houses on the land and living there for the rest of his life is rapidly dissolving into visions of living in Portland with Jasmy and playing music with great musicians and…

“I just gotta say,” says Pedro, looking across the table at Tober, “I’ve never heard anybody say so much with so few notes as you. You know what I mean? It’s like you don’t have to play lots of notes because the ones you play are so right. Not that you can’t play fast, you can, you’re fantastic, but… sometimes you remind me of like a shakuhachi player, only with a violin. You’re just great, man. You blew my mind.”

“Thank you,” says Tober, touching his heart. “I think you’re an amazing guitar player.” He looks around the table. “I think you’re all amazing, and what’s even more amazing is you found each other.”

“Jasmy found us,” says Sandy, who is sitting beside Augie and holding his hand under the table. “She’s the great bringer together.”

“Was she always that way?” asks Augie, looking at Beckman.

“Always,” he says, smiling at his daughter. “She started a neighborhood club when she was six, and not just for other kids. It was for people of all ages.”

“What was the name of the club?” asks Sandy, who is fervently hoping to pry Augie away from his brother for the night.

“The Interesting Story Club,” says Jasmy, her dimples triumphant. “We met every Wednesday afternoon after I got home from school in our living room, and Alta, my grandmother, served cookies and tea.”

“And some Wednesdays,” says Beckman, looking at Tober, “as many as twenty people would show up to tell their interesting stories.”

“How long did the club last?” asks Augie, smiling in wonder at Jasmy.

“It’s still going,” says Beckman, laughing. “Though of late it’s usually just my mother who is eighty-seven, Louise Arbanas who is ninety, Allan Forsyth who is seventy-nine, sometimes me, sometimes my wife, and the Portman twins come for the cookies, but rarely stay for the stories. They are nine-years-old and not known for sitting still.”

On the way home from Toro Bravo, Tober driving, Augie says, “So I guess we won’t be heading home until Monday now, having said Yes to lunch with Jasmy and Beckman and supper with Jasmy and Sandy.”

“Brilliant deduction, Holmes,” says Tober, yawning.

“Sandy asked me to spend the night with her,” says Augie, who has only had one girlfriend in his life—Helen Morningstar, who broke up with him after two years when they were both seventeen.

“Did you want to?” asks Tober, who wouldn’t have minded having Augie’s bed all to himself.

“Yes and no,” says Augie, gazing at the passing scene, lights blurring in the rain. “Yes because she’s a beautiful woman with a great sense of rhythm and I’m deeply smitten with her, and no because I hardly know her and I’m so tired and I’d rather wake up and talk to you before I talk to anybody else.”

“Ditto,” says Tober, turning onto the quiet street where Augie lives. “Wake up and try to figure out who we are now and what we might do next.”

At eleven o’clock the next morning, a sunny Sunday, with two hours to spare before they meet Jasmy and Beckman for lunch, Tober and Augie go to Director’s Park, place Augie’s open guitar case on the ground in front of them, and begin busking with a medley of Beatles songs, some instrumentals, some they sing together in close harmony—many of the people in their swiftly growing audience singing along.

They follow their half-hour of Beatles tunes with instrumental versions of Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love”, Van Heusen and Burke’s “But Beautiful”, the Gershwin brothers’ “I Loves You, Porgy”, and finish with a zesty version of “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams, their hundreds of listeners applauding wildly at the blazing denouement and showering the guitar case with money.

As they gather up their loot and make ready to leave Director’s Park, several people inquire of them if they have CDs for sale, several people ask to be on their mailing list, and lastly a darling four-year-old boy runs over to them, hands Augie a five-dollar bill and says, “Do you want to come over to our house for lunch?”

“Thank you so much,” says Augie, taking the money from the little boy. “We’d love to have lunch with you, but we already have a lunch date.”

“Oh,” says the boy, frowning sadly. “Okay.”

At which moment, a woman in her early thirties with long brown hair accompanied by a middle-aged woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair, both women elegantly dressed, join the darling little boy, and the younger woman smiles ravishingly and says, “Hi. He loves your music and so do we. We are wedding and special events planners and we’re wondering if you’re available to play at weddings and bar mitzvahs and anniversary parties and events like that.”

“We have done some weddings,” says Tober, taking her proffered card. “But we don’t actually live around here. We’re visiting from California. But we’ve been talking about possibly living here for part of the year, so…”

“Well should you relocate,” says the older woman, her accent inherited from Yiddish-speaking parents, “please give us a call. We’d love to use you. You’re not only fantastic musicians, you’re both very good looking which is a selling point, believe me. And by the way, we pay very well. Do you have a card?”

“I do,” says Tober, fishing one out of his wallet.

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer X Violinist X Carpenter X Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner X Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates X Inquiries Welcome

“Oh I love this,” says the woman, looking from the card to Tober. “I collect special stones, too. You must come for lunch next time you’re in town. I’m Naomi. This is my daughter Teresa and my grandson Jacob.”

Awaiting their lunch in a vibrant upscale Mexican restaurant called Nuestra Cocina, Beckman raises his glass of horchata and says, “I’d like to propose a toast.”

Tober raises his glass of not-too-sweet lemonade, Augie his horchata, and Jasmy her root beer.

“To our good fortune in meeting each other,” says Beckman, gazing at Tober and Augie. “May we have many meals together.”

They clink glasses and drink, and Augie says, “And may I one day take guitar lessons from you.”

“Any time,” says Beckman, clinking glasses with Augie again. “All you have to do is come to Mountain Home Idaho, a grueling eight-hour drive from here, or a pleasant two-day trip.”

“That’s about how long it takes to get from here to Fortuna,” says Tober, gazing amorously at Jasmy. “That’s the nearest town to our place. We’re just a few miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River.”

Jasmy pouts adorably. “We all live too far away from each other.”

“That’s one way of thinking of it,” says Beckman, winking at his daughter. “Or you could say we now have three marvelous places where we can meet and play music and go on adventures together.”

     fin

Thinking

Monday, February 5th, 2018

jennysletter

Perception pen and ink by Todd

Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Which is the English translation of the French “Je pense, donc je suis.” Which is Descarte’s translation of the Latin, Cogito ergo sum.

I remember the first time I thought about my existence being a matter of thinking I existed, and feeling a bit confused. I was twelve. What if I stopped thinking I existed, would I stop existing?

Lately I’ve become convinced by reading books about neurobiology and being in therapy again after eons of not being in therapy that: I sometimes feel how I think I feel, and sometimes I feel fine because I’m not thinking; but I’m not sure I exist because I think I exist.

Several times in my life I’ve been rushed to hospital emergency rooms in cars and ambulances, and whilst en route and feeling my life force ebbing, I felt I existed because my body was alive and if my body stopped being alive I wouldn’t exist. I’m alive, therefore I’m alive.

About two years ago, due to a nasty run-in with some incompetent medical doctors, I began to experience panic attacks for the first time in my life. If you’ve never had a full-blown panic attack, trust me, you don’t want to have one, not even just to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had one of those.” I would describe a panic attack to you, but such a thing is beyond the power of words to describe. I might say: Imagine you are hurtling on a plank down a steep hill toward jagged rocks and your body is vibrating so tremendously you feel you may explode before you hit the jagged rocks, and that would not be the half of it.

The idea that: I think I’m having a panic attack, therefore I am having a panic attack, might be true, but doesn’t help much in the midst of a panic attack. Or maybe it does help. Or could help. Maybe if one could convince one’s self that the panic attack is merely a figment of thinking, and one could stop thinking in that way, then the panic would subside. That is how drugs made to quell panic attacks work. They interfere with the brain thinking we’re panicking, so we stop panicking.

Anyway, I’ve been having all sorts of helpful feelings and experiences and shifts in self-perception as a result of therapy, and I’ve actually gone some months without too much anxiety impinging on my life. So when visitations from the old anxiety tendrils began anew recently, I was not thrilled.

I wrote to my therapist: Last night, first time in a long time, my anxiety returned. Dreadful feeling, like the return of someone I really don’t like and hoped never to see again suddenly walking into my house. I was physically exhausted, so I knew that had something to do with my vulnerability to feelings of anxiety. At one point, I felt so angry about my ongoing anxiety, I shouted, “Get out of my life. Let me be happy. Just get out of my life.” And I was greatly relieved, a kind of mini-rage release. I couldn’t bring to mind parents or abusive people from my past. It was more a feeling of being victimized by the idea that for some reason it is not okay for me to have a happy healthy life.

My therapist wrote back, and I paraphrase: “This actually sounds very ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) to me and I want to say, “So, what’s the problem?” Yes, you have a habit or a propensity for anxiety.

“Stop narrating your mood. Feelings come and go like the tide. Let them move through you without judgment. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! Perhaps you want the narrator to get out of your life?

“I understand it is not a pleasant feeling. Stop fighting with it, though, because that just gives it more power over you. Do you check the weather as much as you check your mood and feelings? Do you try to control the weather? Do you judge it? Your feelings are your own atmospheric experience. Let them be what they are and keep on living and Being!

“Who are you? What are you without the narrative? Who is aware of the anxiety? What is the experience of the experiencer? Put your awareness on itself and let everything else take care of itself. Make sense?”

I was reminded by those words from my therapist of a time twenty years ago when I was going through great physical difficulties, and I went to a body worker and she would be working on my shoulder or my hip, and the pain would be tremendous, and I would inform her of my pain, and she would say, “Stay with the pain. Go into it. Really try to experience everything that composes the pain. Really stay focused on that pain.”

And if I put my awareness on the pain, by golly, the pain would either go away or jump to another part of my body, which amazed me and made me wonder: what is pain?

Twenty years later, I regularly go to a superb acupressurist who invariably discovers blockages in my meridians and unblocks them so that for a few days at least I feel vastly improved compared to how I felt before she manipulated those points of interest.

The truth is, I would benefit greatly from a thorough massage every few days, weekly acupressure, weekly psychotherapy, and a sauna every day during the winter and twice weekly during the summer. Who wouldn’t benefit from that regimen of healing help? Who has that kind of money?

I remember during an anti-war demonstration long ago, a speaker reported calculations made by smart people at a renowned university that for the same amount of money the United States spent every year building weapons and waging needless wars, every person in America could afford a full-body massage every few days, weekly acupuncture treatments, weekly psychotherapy, free healthcare, free education from nursery school through graduate school, free food, and so much more. Every American. And if you don’t think creating a system providing such goodies for everyone would cure our social and economic and emotional ills, you and I would not be in agreement.

How’s this for a variation on the basic Descartes? I receive vast amounts of physical and emotional tenderness and approval and love, therefore I am happy and not at all anxious, and I want the same for everyone else.

Weekly Offerings

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

signed & numbered

Twelve by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assignments

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

GRACE UPON THE VISIT

Grace Upon The Visit painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley          

Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.

I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.

Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”

Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?

To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.” George Bernard Shaw

The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.

Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.

“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”

Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.

“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.

“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”

“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.

“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”

“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.

“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Spear takes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”

“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James

As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.

I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.

All At Once

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

All At Once

Spring Display photo by Todd

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

“Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned.” Sharon Salzberg

Last year, handguns killed forty-eight people in Japan, eight in Great Britain, fifty-two in Canada, twenty-one in Sweden, and 10,728 in the United States. I was listening to the Giants sweep the Dodgers and feeling euphoric and glad when I received the email with those handgun death statistics, and I was reminded of a dharma talk I attended many years ago in Berkeley.

After her prepared talk, the Buddhist teacher took questions from the audience. A woman asked, “How can we be happy when there is so much suffering in the world, so much violence and cruelty and inequity, and so much of it unnecessary?”

The teacher replied, “If we immerse ourselves in news of suffering and violence, it is very difficult to be happy. Life is full of sorrow and joy. Sometimes we feel great and have wonderful experiences, sometimes we are sick and miserable. That’s the nature of life. Buddha said nothing about striving to be happy. He did suggest we make a conscious effort to be kind to each other and to ourselves. Kindness is now the heart of my practice.”

Speaking of sick and miserable, I recently suffered through a bad case of food poisoning that rendered two days entirely void of happiness for me. And yet, during those same two days, the lettuce doubled in size, the apple trees burst forth with hundreds of lovely blossoms, and Marcia was full of her usual vim and vigor and love of life.

“There are good and bad tastes, good and bad feelings, agreeable and disagreeable ideas. It is our attachment to them that creates suffering.” Shunryu Suzuki

This morning we discovered our thirteen-year-old cat Django has not yet retired from hunting, though we thought he had. A decapitated, eviscerated little rabbit greeted us as we opened the door to the laundry room where Django has his bed. I scooped the carcass up with my shovel and flung the body into the forest where all the atoms of that formerly cute furry animal will soon be scattered around the cosmos.

Speaking of the cosmos, the news lately is full of reports of planets just a hop skip and jump away, if only we could travel faster than the speed of light, that might be loaded with water, might be conducive to life as we know it, and might already have life fermenting thereon. I read these reports and can’t help wondering if they are another ploy to distract us from our collective annihilation of the planet we currently occupy.

Yet another collection of eminent climate scientists have come out with a declaration that unless humans reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, there is little chance the biosphere will remain habitable for children and other living things. Meanwhile, carbon emissions are increasing every year and the powers that be spend trillions of dollars on weaponry that might be spent switching us from fossil fuels to renewables.

Speaking of renewables, did you know the state of Washington is experiencing a historic drought? We knew California was dry as a bone with a snow pack less than ten per cent of normal, but Washington’s snow pack is not much better. This is bad news for salmon and kayakers, but really bad news for apple lovers because Washington grows seventy per cent of all the apples in America and commercial apple farming uses lots of water.

“When you are walking, there is no foot ahead or behind.” Shunryu Suzuki

Everything is happening all at once. My brother’s good friend was just struck and killed by a bicyclist. A young couple we know is about to have a baby. Our government is about to pass so-called Free Trade Agreements that will give corporations supremacy over state and national laws. Rain is drumming on the roof and I have the hiccoughs.

Meanwhile, the Giants are up two to nothing against the Colorado Rockies behind our good young pitcher Chris Heston who comes to us courtesy of injuries to several of our other pitchers not half as good as he. Who knew? Playing at mile-high stadium in Denver where the thinner air favors the hitters will be a big test for the young hurler.

Then there are the resurgent redwood roots. I’ve been gardening in redwood root country now for nine years and am fast approaching the point of surrender. Now the Rockies have tied the game. And now we’ve gone ahead of the Rockies, but now they’re threatening again. Life is threatening and lovely and I just cancelled the manure run for tomorrow because it’s raining hard and Kathy’s corral will be a quagmire. Now the Rockies have tied the game. Nothing is certain.

A recent exhaustive study of the most recent American election, referenced by Noam Chomsky, reveals the level of voter participation today is equivalent what it was in the early nineteenth century when only landed white men were allowed to vote. No wonder our government is so entirely out of synch with the wishes of the American populace. To make matters worse, the Rockies have now gone ahead of the Giants five to four.

Should I live so long, I will be a hundred-and-one-years-old in 2050, though given my tendency to eat questionable foods and hurt myself, the chances of that are not good. Besides if we don’t reduce carbon emissions to zero long before then, nobody will be alive in 2050. But we never know what might happen. This is not wishful thinking but an acknowledgment that life is unpredictable. There may come a moment when everything happening all at once precipitates a sudden cessation of carbon emissions.

In the meantime, the Rockies are now up six to four as we head into the seventh inning. The rain has abated, the lettuce seems delighted by this April shower and as my Uncle Howard was fond of saying, “We’ll see what develops.”

Still Moving

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

selfport2

Todd self-portrait

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

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

If you find yourself in the village of Mendocino on Friday August 30 a few minutes before 6:30 PM, and you happen to be walking by Gallery Bookshop on Main Street, I do hope you’ll enter that oasis of three-dimensional books because I will be there talking about and reading from my recently reissued novel Inside Moves. Originally published thirty-five years ago, my first novel has been out-of-print for thirty-two years, and this wholly unexpected revival has inspired in me myriad dreams and memories, some of which I hope to share with whoever shows up to listen.

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

I wrote Inside Moves in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended, the novel’s narrator a young veteran wounded and disabled in that war. I was spared from military service by a medical condition, ankylosing spondylitis, and when the book was published in 1978 I wondered if I would be taken to task for daring to write in the voice of someone who had been in combat when I had not. But just the opposite occurred, and I met many veterans who loved the book, in part because they saw themselves in the narrator and felt empowered by his story. Many people with disabilities were also pleased to have one of their own as a narrator, and when the movie based on the novel came out in 1980, though not a box office success, it was quite popular among the disabled and remains so to this day.

The folks who made the movie of Inside Moves, despite my many protests, changed Roary, the teller of the tale, from a man crippled by war to a failed suicide, and I heard from several veterans who were outraged by that change. I remember in particular a man I’d hired to do some hauling for me around the time the movie came out, an immensely strong man who had miraculously survived several harrowing fire fights in Vietnam and had read my book many times. The day after he saw the film, he came to visit me and tearfully asked why they had changed what for him was the most important aspect of the book. I tried to explain as best I could, but he left me saying, “Maybe someday they’ll make it again and get it right.”

 “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

An original work of art is a wild thing, and once that wild thing goes out into the world, it is impossible for the artist to control what that wild thing will do and how that wild thing will interact with other things in this mysterious universe.

The new edition of Inside Moves was published because when Sherman Alexie, the charming and famous author who chose the book to be reissued, was fifteen, his father gave him a paperback edition of the book and, as Sherman wrote in the copy of the new edition he signed for me, “This book was formative in my life.” In a panel discussion in Seattle celebrating the launch of Pharos Editions, of which the new edition of Inside Moves was among their first titles, Alexie said he has read Inside Moves more than twenty times; and in his introduction to the new edition, he calls the book, “the best novel about basketball ever written.”

Having labored in obscurity for all but a few moments of my life, I find such praise from the likes of Sherman Alexie quite surreal. I’ll take it, of course, and rejoice that my work had a positive impact on such a good and renowned writer, but with my literary career reduced to making photocopies of my last several creations so I can share them with a handful of interested readers, and with publishers large and small universally indifferent to me, I cannot help feeling somewhat removed from the writer Alexie is referring to.

His love of the book reminds me that teenagers adore Inside Moves. During the few years when the book was widely available, I received letters from junior high and high school teachers all over the country telling me that Inside Moves was the first book that many of their students had ever eagerly read and written about. One teacher sent me the first two chapters of a novel that two boys, theretofore troublemakers and non-readers, had written together in the voice of Roary—an ambitious attempt at a sequel to Inside Moves. I do hope the new edition will be discovered and utilized by English teachers, for Roary connects exceedingly well with rebels and outcasts and those who feel misunderstood, which most of us at one time or another feel we are.

As it happens, I did write a sequel to Inside Moves in 1985 entitled Still Moving that was almost but never published, and I doubt very much I have a copy. I wrote that book hoping to restart my faltering career, and I think it likely I destroyed the manuscript some years later in one of my raging attempts to exorcise my unhappy past. I suppose there might be a copy lurking in one of those boxes filled with heaps of my unpublished work, but I fear I would find the sequel dreadful—a reflection of my life at that time.

“One of the most feared expressions in modern time is ‘The computer is down.’” Norman Augustine

Another of the many things that Inside Moves brings to mind is the writing of books before the advent of personal computers. I wrote three drafts of the novel longhand and three typed drafts, and my redoubtable agent Dorothy Pittman showed the book to thirteen publishers over the course of two years (in a time when simultaneous submissions to multiple publishers was verboten) until Sherry Knox, a rookie editor at Doubleday convinced her powerful editor-in-chief Betty Prashker to take a chance on the book. I then wrote two revised drafts in longhand and two typed drafts before the manuscript was ready to be copyedited.

Say what one will, pro or con, about the quality of literature since the advent of writing and editing on computer screens, but the lack of such groovy technology eliminated a good 99% of would-be writers from the field and selected for seriously dedicated wannabes as opposed to everyone and her uncle. Writing a novel in those pre-computer days was a hugely daunting undertaking, and when the writer was done he could not click a mouse and email a PDF hither and yon or self-kindleize or any such thing, and so most people, even many of those who burned with desire to be writers, did not set forth on that perilous path.

In those days before the advent of personal computers and laser printers, I never met a single person who thought she could write a novel without first learning to write a good short story. Today there are millions of people who think they can write novels without being able to write proper paragraphs. The mind, my mind at least, boggles at such monumental delusion, yet the world is awash in unreadable books born of such delusion, many of which are for sale in your local bookstore. What a woild!

“Even in a perfect world

Where everyone was equal,

I’d still own the film rights

And be working on the sequel.” Elvis Costello

“Still writing?” people are forever asking me, even people who should know better. And then they smile wistfully, their wistfulness suggesting they know of my long running lack of commercial success and the hopelessness, as far as they are concerned, of my situation.

“Yes,” I say, smiling bravely. “Seems to be my habit now, kin to breathing and sleeping and eating. And farting.”

“Good for you,” they say, for they wish to be encouraging and positive, though they really think I ought to give up writing and focus on growing especially fat carrots or something along those more edible lines. After all, how many unpublished works does one need to create before one finally…

But what they don’t realize is that I write with the firm belief that my work is so good, so interesting, so timely, and so important, in some unfathomable way, that I must keep writing, and the world will somehow some day be compelled to take notice. One might argue that I am as delusional as those who think they can write novels without knowing how to write proper paragraphs, but I would argue that since I do know how to write proper paragraphs, I am not entirely delusional.

What I do know is that the trouble begins at Gallery Books on August 30, 6:30 PM. Remember: it is never too early to sock away a few Christmas gifts, signed by the author, and it is always a good time to support your local bookstore, that rare and vanishing species of place we really don’t want to do without.

Inside Moves is also available as a downloadable audio book and in various e-formats.

Apes

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

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

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Sometimes it helps me to remember we are apes. Before the advent of clothing and tools and weapons and religion and cars and nuclear power and nations and money and vast social and economic inequities, we were naked apes looking for sustenance, shelter, safety, and love. We foraged for food, made nests for sleeping, and hung out in groups large enough to dissuade leopards. We had mates and children, we changed locations when our favorite foods grew scarce, and we socialized with family and friends every day. We did not, I think, have long terms goals. We lived wholly in the moment because we didn’t have anything other than the moment to live in. We had nothing to carry, nothing to hide, nothing besides each other.

Okay, so that is a gross oversimplification of ape reality, which is not without violence and danger and sorrow and death; but thinking of myself as an ape in a group of excellent and sympathetic apes living in a jungle full of tasty leafs and fruit helps me grok why so many people are unhappy today and why our so-called advanced society is so incredibly stressful and dysfunctional and stupid and wrong. We have not only lost our collective connection to the earth, we have lost touch with what really made us happy when we were apes—each other.

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” James Thurber

I remember a moment in July of 1976 when I suddenly thought, “This is the happiest day of my life.” I was not thinking about happiness at the time, nor was I aware, until that moment, of being particularly happy. I looked around, wondering what could possibly have inspired such a thought, and what I saw unseated all my previous notions of what great happiness would look like: a dozen males and females and children (in Medford, Oregon on a very hot afternoon) sitting and standing around a picnic table on a scraggly lawn in the dappled shade of a towering elm, eating watermelon and spitting seeds.

I was a landscaper and had given up writing for a time. I didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have much money, and I was living in a funky bunkhouse next to the house of my boss and his wife and their kids. Oh, yes, now I remember it was the birthday of one of my boss’s kids, and we were drinking beer along with eating watermelon and spitting seeds, I and a couple other landscapers and their wives and my boss and his wife and a couple of their kids, including the birthday boy who was turning fourteen.

Why was I so happy? Looking back on that unexpectedly magical moment on that very hot day, I think my happiness came from our just being apes, eating fruit and spitting seeds and hanging out and talking and laughing and enjoying the moment without much thought or care for what might happen next.

I’ve had other happy days since that hot day in July in Medford in 1976, but I’ve never again been struck so forcefully by the thought, “This is the happiest day of my life,” which brings me to that unanswerable question: what is happiness?

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Kurt Vonnegut

Long ago I read the transcript of a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut about the happiest day of his life. In the tradition of apes, I will relate to you what I remember Kurt told us in his speech rather than locate the transcript on the interweb and copy his words verbatim. What I remember is that Kurt began speaking about the happiest day of his life by first telling us about the happiest day of his grandfather’s life and then about the happiest day of his father’s life.

The happiest day of Kurt’s grandfather’s life was when Kurt’s grandfather was a young man. He and his best friend were walking through an Indiana cornfield on a hot summer day when a freight train came chugging along and stopped in the middle of the cornfield for no apparent reason. Seeing the train idling there, Kurt’s grandfather and his friend were filled with desire to climb onto the cowcatcher and have a ride, the cowcatcher being a big V-shaped steel bumper mounted on the front of the train’s engine. So Kurt’s grandfather and his friend ran through the corn and hopped onto the cowcatcher, the train started moving and picked up speed, and for many miles Kurt’s grandfather and his best friend sailed along through the corn, happier than they had ever been.

The happiest day of Kurt’s father’s life, if I’m remembering correctly, was his wedding day when he was in his early twenties. Kurt’s father had a friend who worked at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the gigantic track where they hold the famous Indianapolis 500) and as a wedding gift to Kurt’s father and mother, this friend let them onto the speedway in their regular car to zoom around and around the track, which zooming filled the newlyweds with joy.

And the happiest day of Kurt’s life was the day he was discharged from the Army.

“If you want to be happy, be.” Leo Tolstoy


Happiness (a short story from Buddha In A Teacup)

Gerald is turning the soil in the narrow bed of earth that runs the length of the south-facing side of the old house he rents—October more than half over. He intends to plant snow peas where the sun and white walls conspire to keep the ground relatively warm throughout the winter months.

He is not conscious that it has been seven years to the day since he learned of his wife’s unfaithfulness to him for all of their eighteen years of marriage. He is divorced now and has grown accustomed to living alone. The discovery of his wife’s secret life shattered his confidence in himself and in his closest friends—two of them being his wife’s lovers. He sold his law practice after finalizing the divorce and has been unemployed ever since.

His days are spent reading, taking long walks, listening to music, writing letters to friends, and sitting still. His money is nearly gone. He has no intention of practicing law again, though he has yet to decide how he will earn his living.

His shovel sinks into the dry ground, and as he turns the soil it crumbles into tiny fragments, leaving only the smallest of clods. Six years ago the soil here was dense clay, but hundred of buckets of kitchen compost and the labor of ten thousand worms have made the soil rich and pliable.

Recalling how difficult this task was a few years ago, Gerald smiles at the ease with which he now readies the bed. He rakes the ground until it is essentially level, and creates a little dam at the slightly downhill end of the bed. Now he kneels, and using his index finger, draws an inch-deep channel in the dirt some ten inches out from the wall of the house.

He reaches into his pocket and brings forth a packet of snow pea seeds. The planting instructions promise bushes thirty inches tall—self-supporting. But Gerald knows the vines will be much taller than thirty inches and will require support to keep from sprawling. He wonders why the seed sellers boast that the bushes will stand on their own when they never do, and he smiles again, happy to know the gangly plants will need his bamboo poles and string.

He drops the pale green pearls into the rough channel—one pearl every three or four inches along the way—and covers them with the rich soil. Now he stands and treads on the row, pressing the dirt down upon the seeds.

The bright blue hose is nearby, the water running noiselessly onto rust red chrysanthemums—wild children of a housewarming gift from a thoughtful friend.

As he takes up the hose from the mums—survivors of a dry summer and his occasional neglect—he remembers his wife and the sorrow of their parting. Now he presses his thumb into the mouth of the hose and sprays the water onto the new bed of peas—the grayish soil turning black—and he remembers his wife’s ecstatic face as they mated on sun-dappled sheets.

The bed becomes a pool with spray dappling the surface—a rainbow appearing in the mist near Gerald’s hand.

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)