Posts Tagged ‘Jean de La Fontaine’

Walton Predicts

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

WALTON PREDICTS

Walton Predicts graphic by David Jouris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The future will be better tomorrow.” Dan Quayle

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

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

“So what are you saying?”

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

“About the ozone layer? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Close Calls

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Hawk pen and ink drawing by Todd

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

“Fate laughs at probabilities.”  E.G. Bulwer-Lytton

For me to be born, my parents had to meet at Beverly Hills High in 1939, which only happened because in 1932, when my mother Avis was eleven, she went on a long walk in Phoenix, Arizona and learned from the announcement on a hotel marquee that Tommy Dorsey and his band were playing there that very night.

Avis took that fateful walk because she was tired of being cooped up in a motel room with her seven-year-old brother Howard and her thirty-three-year-old mother Goody, and because she was sad and lonely and didn’t know what else to do. Avis and Goody and Howard were living in that Phoenix motel room, having hurriedly left Los Angeles some weeks before, because Goody was fed up with her husband Casey for failing for the umpteenth time to bring home enough bacon, so to speak, to keep the bill collectors at bay and put sufficient food on the table for two growing kids. Casey was a real estate broker and a gambler, and in the depths of the Great Depression things were not going well for him in either field. Goody and Casey were Jewish, their last name Weinstein, and so their struggles were compounded by the fierce anti-Semitism of those times. They would eventually change their last name to Winton so they could pretend not to be Jewish, a tactic they hoped would increase their options for housing and employment.

Why Phoenix? Family lore has it that Phoenix was as far as they got before Goody ran out of money. Goody’s parents were in Michigan where Goody was born, so perhaps Goody’s plan was to get back to the Jewish ghetto of Detroit where her relatives would not let her starve. But I think Goody chose Phoenix because it was just close enough to Los Angeles (an eight-hour drive) for Casey to visit every weekend to give Goody a little money, if he had any, and to beg her to come back to him. Goody was adamant she would not come back to him until he started making good money and giving most of that money to her.

So. Imagine a lazy Saturday in sunny Phoenix, 1932. Casey, a handsome fast-talking rogue with a Cesar Romero mustache, sat at the tiny table in the kitchenette of a little motel room, sipping coffee and speechifying to Goody and Howard about how very close he was to making several big real estate deals that would lift them out of poverty and into a life of luxury. How did my grandparents define a life of luxury? A nice house in Beverly Hills, a new car (Cadillac or Lincoln), music lessons for the kids, membership in a swank country club, servants, dining out at the best joints in town, and owning several apartment buildings providing endless rivers of cash.

“Name one deal you’re about to make,” snarled Goody, sick to death of Casey’s hollow braggadocio. “A real deal, not some pie in the sky.”

At which moment, my mother, Avis Gloria, returned from her walk. She was a slender girl with long black hair and huge brown eyes, and she was very serious, for her life had not been happy; and she strove to be perfect in every way so she might escape the wrath of her fiercely disenchanted mother.

“Well…” said Casey, clearing his throat portentously, “as a matter-of-fact, I had a call from Tommy Dorsey himself last week about a piece of property I own in the San Fernando Valley, and I would have closed the deal, but he was leaving the next day to go on tour, but when he comes back…”

“He’s here,” said my mother, smiling sadly at her father. “I saw his name on the hotel marquee.”

“Dorsey’s here?” said Casey, jumping up. “Fantastic! I’ll go see him right now.”

So Casey did go see Tommy, and the big band leader was so impressed with the charming young man for chasing him all the way to Phoenix (what chutzpah!), Tommy wrote Casey a check for fifteen hundred dollars (which in 1932 was a fortune) and Casey came back to the motel waving the check in victory. Hugs, tears, laughter, reunion, a celebratory return to Los Angeles and eventual matriculation at Beverly Hills High where my mother met the future conveyor of the spermatozoon that fertilized her zygote, etc.

Had my mother not gone on her lonely walk through downtown Phoenix, and had she not seen Tommy Dorsey’s name on that hotel marquee, I would never have been born. Or…one could argue that my mother had to go on that walk because her doing so was an essential ingredient in the unfathomably complex recipe of events designed by faultless Universe to produce…everything.

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

A fundamental precept of Buddhist philosophy is that our internal emotional processes create our outer experiences. Thus we may run away from unpleasant situations and miserable relationships, but until we change our psycho-spiritual landscape, it doesn’t really matter where we go, for new unpleasant situations and miserable relationships will inevitably manifest as reflections of our interior patterns.

In my former life as CEO of Avoidance Strategies Ink, a highly unprofitable one-person for-profit organization dedicated to running day and night just a few inches ahead of a murderous threshing machine of self-generated karma, the idea that I was responsible for my own troubles was extremely annoying to me. Indeed, I was absolutely convinced that other people were responsible for my unhappiness; that my sorrowful history was writ by scoundrels taking unfair advantage of my intrinsic kindness and generosity. True, some of these men and women had not, at first, seemed to be scoundrels or to be taking advantage of me, but eventually I was able to fit them all squarely into the scoundrel category. And then I turned thirty and stopped fleeing every year from one town to another.

“What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” Charles Dickens

When we first become aware of a lifelong pattern of behavior that has caused us recurrent misery, we tend to think, “Well, now that I’m aware of the pattern I certainly won’t make that mistake again.” Ha! Conscious awareness of part of a deeply entrenched pattern of behavior does not mean we will be able to recognize subtle variations of that pattern, especially since we are almost certainly addicted to the emotional sustenance such patterns provide.

For instance, I am the child of two verbally abusive and highly intrusive alcoholics. Therefore, from an early age I was predisposed to form friendships and relationships with variations on that parental prototype. In textbook terms, I became a Grade AA co-dependent enabler who craved the company of people who constantly undermined my feelings of self-worth and required me to do my best to keep them in booze while maintaining the pseudo functionality of our dyad/family. When, at the age of forty-two, I finally became fully aware of my lifelong relational pattern, I was able to terminate a number of deleterious connections and avoid forming new liaisons with obvious alcoholics and obviously abusive people; but life, as I’m sure you know, has much more up her sleeve than the obvious. And so I embarked on a curious series of relationships with people who had developed passive aggression to a high art, and who were essentially unavailable to me, no matter how mightily I strove to please them.

“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky

In 1970, hitchhiking across Canada from east to west, I got a ride from a middle-aged guy driving a turquoise 1966 Ford Fairlane. I had been camped for three days beside the Trans-Canadian highway in the middle of nowhere on the plains of Saskatchewan, and I was so desperate for a ride, I disregarded the stench of cigarettes and cheap wine and got in the car, though my every instinct said No Thanks.

Lon was a badly bruised bull from a small town in Arkansas, “a hunnert miles from Little Rock,” and had been on the run for three years, having thrown a policeman out a two-story window back home. “I don’t know if he died or not,” said Lon, rummaging in his glove compartment. “Didn’t stick around to find out. You see a baggy in there with some whites? I’m fading out. Need some speed.”

“I’ll drive,” I said, thinking I’d quit the ride if he refused my offer.

“Good deal,” he said, showing me his shortage of teeth with a weary grin. “I need sleep bad, but can’t stop until I get to Calgary.”

So I drove and Lon slept, Calgary eight hundred miles away, and I marveled at the exigencies of fate. Why this guy? Why not a pretty woman looking for love? Why not a groovy band looking for a guitar player? Why not a Lakota holy man looking for an apprentice? Why a smelly old drunk on the lam?

In the course of our journey together, Lon told me over and over again how he caught the cop in bed with his wife, threw the sombitch out the window, slugged his wife—“Purty sure I broke her jaw from the sound of it”—and figured he, Lon, was a dead man one way or another if he didn’t get out of Arkansas pronto. “Went to Florida first,” he said, lighting another of his endless cigarettes, “cuz I heard my brother Floyd was workin’ the carny circuit in the panhandle over there, but that sombitch always stays a few days ahead of me, not that he knows I’m lookin’ for him. Sombitch in Winnipeg said he heard Floyd was runnin’ a Ferris wheel at Calgary Stampede, and that party lasts ten days, so…”

We stopped for gas in another part of the middle of nowhere and Lon bought a fistful of candy bars for supper. He said he made his money working in garages doing oil changes and lube jobs and changing tires. Said he could change a tire in a couple minutes, “but I’m shit for a mechanic.” He said he also made money as a bouncer in bars where “fast women, pissed off men, too much booze, and terrible loud music spell trouble.”

“Dangerous,” I offered, stating the obvious.

“I like to hit people,” he said, nodding. “And I don’t mind gettin’ hit. Actually kinda like it. Wakes me up. Helps me focus. You know?”

Just as we were about to drive off with our candy bars, two raggedy longhaired goons came out of nowhere and asked if they could ride with us. One of them was a large blond goon with a big Bowie knife in a black sheath on his belt, and the other was a lesser brunette goon with a lesser knife on his belt; and their vibe, their gestalt, if you will, was bad, and I don’t mean good. They stunk of violence. Lon saw my fear, snorted contemptuously, and said to the goons, “Sure, why the fuck not?”

Every cell in my body screamed Don’t get in that car with those sombitches, Todd. Please. We, your every cell, would rather stand by the side of the road for a month than travel with those monsters.

But I did get in with those sombitches because I was desperate to get out of nowhere and because…well, because. Lon drove, I rode shotgun, and the goons rode in back. And I could feel those monsters trying to decide whether to force Lon at knifepoint to pull over so they could take the car, or whether to just kill us and take the car, or whether to get to Calgary before they killed anybody. I suppose I might have been imagining their violent intentions, but I don’t think so.

For a short infinity the goons seemed cowed by Lon’s bouncer stories featuring the breaking of many noses, arms, and heads, but then the stories began to ring with false bravado and the larger goon said, “Hey, man, pull over. I gotta pee.”

He made this demand as dusk was settling over the plains and we were in the deepest depths of the middle of nowhere; not another car in sight for as far as the eye could see in any direction.

“Yeah,” said the lesser goon. “Pull the fuck over, man.”

To which Lon replied tersely, “In a minute.”

“Hey, man, I can’t wait,” said the big goon. “Just pull the fuck over.”

“You heard him,” said the lesser goon. “He can’t wait.”

“In a minute,” Lon repeated. “Place right up the way here with a john. I gotta go, too. Number two.” And then he laughed a dry, brittle laugh, which ignited in him a horrid fit of coughing that lasted several minutes, which at eighty-five miles an hour carried us up and over a long rise and down into a valley at the heart of which was a blessed roadside burger stand where we parked amidst a bevy of trucks.

I was determined not to travel another minute with the goons, even if it meant homesteading in western Saskatchewan, so while the goons went to pee in the sagebrush and Lon used the modern facilities, I got my pack and guitar out of the Fairlane.

The goons came back to the car and the large goon said to me, “You gettin’ out here?”

“Maybe,” I said, looking him in the eye to see if I still thought he was a killer, which I did.

And then a most peculiar thing happened, something I am tempted to call a miracle, except I know the word miracle bugs the crap out of some people, so I’ll stick with peculiar. I became someone I hadn’t known was part of who I am—a kind of warrior actor.

“I get violent sometimes,” I said, looking at the ground and nodding. “Crazy. You know? Like I have so much fucking strength I’m gonna explode if I don’t do something with it. And I don’t like to be around other people when I’m feeling like this because I’m afraid I might hurt somebody even if I don’t want to hurt anybody, which I never do unless I think they want to hurt me.”

The goons listened intently—watching me.

“I can do impossible things with my strength,” I said, continuing to look at the ground and nod. “Like…”

I looked up and scanned the parking area, and about fifty yards away from us stood a big gray metal garbage can.

“You see that can over there?” I said, glaring at the big goon.

“Yeah,” said the big goon, glancing anxiously at the lesser goon.

“Watch,” I said, reaching down and picking up a black stone the size of a baseball. “Watch this.”

Then, with the briefest of forethought, I threw that stone at the garbage can, and the stone arced high through the purple dusk, reached the apex of its flight, and fell down into the can—a collision sounding like a gunshot.

“Fuck,” said the big goon, backing away from me.

“Yeah,” said the lesser goon. “Fuck.”

And those two, who were just people, did not travel on with us, but waved goodbye as Lon and I drove off into the sunset, the Fairlane purring like a huge contented cat.

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

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

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.