Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

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)