Posts Tagged ‘Kahlil Gibran’

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.

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet.” Will Holt

Lemon trees growing near the kitchen. What a wonderful idea. So we chose the perfect spots on the south side of the house for two goodly Meyers, the warmest and sunniest place on our property, only to discover that one of those perfect spots was home to the root mass, still very much alive, of a gargantuan shrub I removed nine months ago. Thus a Herculean task awaited me, one I would postpone until I brought the lemon trees home and their presence inspired me to extricate the massive tangle.

And so on a sunny Saturday, homeward bound after pruning a gorgeous green-leafed Japanese maple, a crab apple, and a plum, I stopped at the admirable Hare Creek Nursery on the south side of Fort Bragg and bought two little Meyer lemon trees. The friendly folks there cautioned me not to plant the lemon trees in the ground, but to grow them in tubs. However, Marcia and I are not after bonsais; we’re aiming for large trees festooned with hundreds of delectable yellow orbs, and I figure with global warming proceeding apace, the Mendocino climate should henceforth be perfect for growing citrus in the ground.

With the little beauties sitting nearby and crying for release from their plastic pots, I began digging around the root mass and confirmed that my nemesis was gigantic, well connected, tenacious, and uncooperative. To borrow from Bogart, I have met a lot of root masses in my time, but this one was really something special. After an hour of heavy labor using shovel, mattock, pick, trowel, axe and crowbar, the mass remained unmoving, as if I had done nothing. This depressed me, so I took a break, had some water and a handful of almonds and tried not to take the root mass’s indifference personally.

“The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.” Blaise Pascal

When I lived in Berkeley, and before I discovered a secret post office where I never had to wait, I frequently stood in long lines to mail packages and buy stamps. And on many such occasions, people in line with me would take it personally that they had to wait more than a few minutes to do their postal business, and they would say things like, “This is an outrage,” or “No wonder they’re going out of business,” as if the postal clerks were intentionally taking as long as they possibly could with each transaction.

Having made a careful multi-year study of the service in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and El Cerrito post offices, I have no doubt that the real cause of the slowness of service was the alarming number of befuddled and dimwitted customers who would, upon their arrival at the counter, act as if they had no idea how they came to be there or where on their persons they had secreted their wallets or how they wanted to mail whatever it was they wished to mail. The postal clerks would patiently explain the various shipping choices and how much each choice would cost, and the befuddled dimwits would stand in frozen dismay for minutes on end pondering such deep philosophical questions as “Priority or Media?”, “Would you like to insure that?” and “For how much?”

One day at the Albany post office, a man several places behind me in line shouted at the two harried postal clerks, “Has today’s mail been delivered into the boxes yet?”

The clerks had their hands full helping befuddled dimwits, so neither replied to the shouting man.

Their indifference enraged the man and he screamed, “Has today’s mail been put in the boxes? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”

One of the clerks said wearily, “Yes, the mail has been put in the boxes today.”

“Bullshit!” screamed the man. “I know a letter arrived for me today and you are intentionally keeping it from me. I demand that you give me my letter or I’ll call the police!”

The two clerks exchanged glances and one of them said, “Go right ahead, sir. Call the police.”

“Fascists!” screamed the man. “Thieves!”

Then the poor fellow ran out of the post office and the woman behind me murmured, “Thank God he didn’t have a gun.”

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Returning to the root mass, I resumed my digging and picking and chopping and clawing, and soon enough the mass began to move when prodded, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope of eventual success. After another hour of digging and chopping, there remained but one fat root connecting the root mass to the earth. I rose from my knees, took hold of my axe, positioned myself above my target, and was about to swing the axe high, when I felt a pang of empathy for the root mass and decided to wait a moment before severing that last life-giving tendril.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Kahlil Gibran

Speaking of roots, I was thinking about homegrown carrots the other day as I was making pancake batter using eggs we got from our neighbors Elias and Emily, who also provide us with exceptionally yummy goat cheese. Emily and Elias’s eggs come from their herd of happy-go-lucky free-ranging chickens whose eggs are so delicious they make the best organic mass produced eggs seem tasteless and tawdry in comparison. Indeed, these Emily and Elias chicken eggs make my gluten-free pancake batter so rich and tasty I dread the day when I have to resort to store bought eggs again. But why did Emily and Elias’s grandiloquent eggs make me think about homegrown carrots?

Because there are few things in the world as delicious as a well-grown carrot in its prime just pulled from the friable earth of a wholly natural garden. Indeed, so sweet and delicious is a just-pulled homegrown carrot, that the very best organic carrots money can buy are but pale imitations of the homegrown variety. Just-pulled is a large part of the answer to why homegrown carrots are so superior to even the best store or farmers’ market-bought carrots; the delectable sugar in just-pulled carrots has yet to turn to starch. Ergo, Emily and Elias’s eggs are to eggs what just-pulled homegrown carrots are to carrots.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

The roots of our culture nourished by art. Society setting artists free to follow their visions wherever those visions may take them. Can you imagine such a society?  Kennedy spoke those words on October 26, 1963, less than a month before he was assassinated, and I’ve often thought his words were prophetic of what was to come and ever after be called The Sixties, a brief era when more artists freely followed their visions than ever before. And it took the overlords of our society a good decade to get control of the situation and put a stop to most of that status-quo-threatening socialistic vision following.

“My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler

Who are your chosen ancestors? What are the roots of the decisions you make that direct the course of your life? The root mass got me thinking about roots, the ones we spring from and the ones we create for ourselves. Some root masses are inescapable, some allow for the intrusion of new roots, and sometimes we have to excise the present root mass to make room for the new.

I know I was emboldened by the poets Philip Whalen and David Meltzer and Lew Welch, the example of my uncle David, the movies The Horse’s Mouth and Zorba the Greek, and the powerful societal ferment roiling northern California in the 1960’s to drop out of college and follow my visions, much to the chagrin of my parents, speaking of root masses. My father and mother strove mightily to convince me to change my mind and return to the straight and narrow and safe, but I would not change my mind.

After two exciting, challenging and exhausting years of vagabonding, I found myself with a terrible cold, a worse cough, and barely surviving on rice and lentils in a badly insulated room in Ashland, Oregon. I was in the throes of writing my first novel and loving the work, but I was so lonely and sad and tired of being poor that I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel and return to the ease and comfort of college. And then at the absolute nadir of my despair, I received a letter from my father, the gist of which so surprised me I had to read the letter three times before I could even begin to believe what he had written.

My father wrote in black ink on light orange stationery that he was both jealous and proud of me for doing what he had always longed to do but never had the courage to attempt—to leave the straight and narrow and go a’ wandering with pack on his back, following only the whims of his heart and intuition—those words from my greatest critic providing the inspiration I needed to continue my uncharted course.

Some years later, I mentioned this remarkable letter to my father, and he snorted and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never have written such a thing to you because I have never for a minute been jealous of you and I am not proud of you pissing your life away on your delusional infantile fantasies.”

“Oh, but you did write that, Dad,” I said, not at all surprised he didn’t remember writing such words to me. “And you sent the letter, too, along with a twenty-dollar bill that bought me chicken and eggs and almonds and cheese and cookies and a wonderfully warm jacket from the Salvation Army.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and filling his wine glass yet again, “making shit up to fit your fantasies.”

“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Carl Jung

Now the little lemon trees are planted in the good earth and sending forth their new roots—the gargantuan root mass gone. Emily and Elias’s chickens are foraging in the meadow, their just-laid eggs awaiting discovery in the coop. Carrot seedlings are emerging in my carrot patch, and soon I will thin the rows of promising babies, only one in a dozen to be spared to grow beyond the first culling.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Happiness

Friday, December 10th, 2010

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.” Edith Wharton

November thirtieth. The weather report said Mendocino could expect rain tonight and for the next several days, so in anticipation of the deluge I spent an hour giving my three garlic beds their second mulching with some well-aged horse manure. I planted my garlic on October 17, my birthday, and now all but a few of the hundred and forty cloves I inserted into the friable soil have sent up sturdy green shoots.

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

Both garlic and humans gestate in their respective wombs for nine months before arriving at the optimal moment for emerging into the light. The poet in me finds this similarity delightful and significant.

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” Colette

I am sixty-one and have grown garlic every year for the last thirty years. I began growing garlic while living in Sacramento where I had a large vegetable and flower garden in the backyard of the only house I ever owned. I have grown vegetables since I was six-years-old, but waited to sew my first bed of garlic until I was certain I would be living in the same place for more than a year.

Before I planted my first garlic crop, I consulted pertinent chapters in gardening books and interviewed an elderly Italian woman who grew gorgeous garlic plants in a large circular patch in the center of her impressively green lawn a few blocks from my house. I gathered from my research that in the event of an early and persistently wet winter I might not need to water my garlic until spring, but if no rain fell for some weeks at a stretch I would need to give my garlic periodic soakings. This meant I could no longer blithely ignore my garden from December to March as was my habit before I undertook the growing of garlic.

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” A.A. Milne

China produces 77% of the garlic grown in the world: 23 billion pounds a year. Zowee! That comes to more than three pounds of garlic for every person on earth. India grows 4% of the garlic, South Korea 2%, Russia 1.6%, and the United States 1.4%. Which suggests that though Gilroy, California claims to be the garlic capital of the world, it is not.

“The secret of happiness is to find a congenial monotony.” V.S. Pritchett

One of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life was making groovalicious pesto from garlic and basil and almonds I grew in my own Sacramento backyard. My two almond trees, planted adjacent to a tall wooden fence, began to produce nuts in their fifth year; and every single one of those firstborn nuts was devoured by squirrels before those nuts were ripe enough for human consumption.

Indeed, until my almond trees were eight-years-old I despaired of ever harvesting more than a few pathetic almonds from my trees. Then one day I noticed that those ravenous arboreal rodents had left untouched a concentration of almonds growing low in the tree and near the fence on which my cats liked to perch. Thus enlightened, I thereafter pruned my almond trees to encourage the growth of several more low down branches so that these branches and their bounty could be easily patrolled by my cats, while the yummy prizes adorning the upper branches were sacrificed to the incorrigible squirrels.

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” Eric Hoffer

Since fleeing Sacramento in 1995, I have never again grown such rampant and mammoth and exceedingly juicy basil, and may never again harvest such delicious almonds from trees I nurtured from bare roots into towering prolificacy; but here in Mendocino I grow garlic that surpasses the best I ever grew in those inland lowlands where the summers were cruel to the likes of me, and the winters were not much kinder, for I was bred and born in San Francisco where Hot is anything over seventy-eight and Cold is anything below fifty.

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Thomas Merton

After fifteen years of growing garlic in Sacramento, I moved to Berkeley and rented a house that afforded me only a tiny garden plot, fifteen feet by fifteen feet, a quarter of which I devoted to the cultivation of garlic. I had honed my garlic chops, as it were, in a climate very unlike Berkeley’s, and so it took me a year to adjust my gardening techniques to fit that cooler coastal clime where lettuce and kale and chard grow year round, Aloe Vera can spread like Bermuda Grass, and hedges of Jade plants are not uncommon.

“On the whole, the happiest people seem to be those who have no particular cause for being happy except that they are so.” William Inge

I usually harvest my garlic bulbs at the end of June or in early July, and from that happy pile I set aside a few dozen of the largest bulbs with the biggest cloves for the next fall planting. I grow two strains of hard neck garlic, one strain descended from spicy white garlic sold to me by a Chinese garlic grower I met at a farmer’s market in Sacramento, the other a pinkish garlic given to me by a woman who said the garlic had been passed down for generations in the family of an Italian man she was dating. And when a fresh shipment of garlic appears on the shelf at Corners of the Mouth in Mendocino, I will go through the lot looking for outstanding bulbs with large firm cloves to add to my arsenal.

“Happiness is a how, not a what. A talent, not an object.” Hermann Hesse

One day an elderly man with a thick German accent stood in the middle of my Berkeley plot and proclaimed, “I zee by your garlic zat you are real gardener.”

I know several gardeners who don’t grow garlic and are far more zealous and prolific than I in the ways of growing vegetables and flowers and herbs, so I certainly don’t consider the growing of garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener. I suppose this German fellow may have labeled me a real gardener because of the beauty and enormity of my garlic plants and my fastidious care of their beds, but in remembering the tone of his voice and the twinkle in his eye, I think, actually, he did consider growing garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener, and though I may not intellectually agree with him, in some ineffable way I do agree.

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

The aged manure I use to mulch my garlic comes to me courtesy of my good friend Kathy Mooney, her horse Paloma the manufacturer of the blessed poop. Paloma is a gorgeous, white, blue-eyed Tennessee Walker, friendly and intelligent and possibly clairvoyant, for she always seems to be expecting me when I arrive with a bag of apples for her.

Prior to my coming to collect her manure, my interactions with Paloma were conducted over a fence between us, I feeding her apples and petting her, she allowing me to do so. Thus my entrance into her corral with my wheelbarrow ushered in a new phase of our relationship and gave me a firsthand appreciation of how strong a 1200-pound horse in her prime can be.

Having followed me to the area where she generally deposits her fertilizer, Paloma gingerly fitted her large and beautiful snout under the front rim of my big blue wheelbarrow, and with a flick of her mighty neck flung the wheelbarrow fifteen feet through the air (thankfully not in my direction), as if to say, “Thank you so much for bringing me a new toy. Fetch it, please, and I will toss it again.”

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

As I was mulching the many green spikes with Paloma’s manure, I realized that this fabulously rich organic matter was in part composed of apples I’d brought to Paloma, and those apples came from Joanne’s trees, Joanne being our gracious neighbor and landlord. One of the perks of renting from Joanne is a profusion of apples every fall from her well-tended trees, apples we share with several other households in the watershed.

“The man who has planted a garden feels that he has done something for the good of the world.” Vita Sackville-West

Earlier this year, a consortium of scientists decoded the complete genome of the Golden Delicious apple, which turns out to have 57,000 genes, the highest number of any plant genome studied to date and more genes than the human genome, which only has 30,000 genes. Think about that the next time you eat an apple.

“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half. Examine the centers of the halves. You will find that the seed cavities form five-pointed stars. Now take a large rose hip and cut it in half in the same way you cut the apple. Voila. You will find similar five-pointed stars, for apples and roses are close kin.

“What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Marcia’s Fresh Garlic Dressing (for salad for two)

In a glass jar or ceramic bowl mix together 2-3 large cloves of grated fresh garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar, and a healthy splash of tamari. Now dress the lettuce—a generous handful per person—and for an extra treat throw in half an avocado.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.