Posts Tagged ‘love’

The Beggar

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Beggar

Buddha Statue photo by Todd

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.

Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.

The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age—forty-nine—and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone’s throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl’s workweek, except Wednesday evenings.

His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.

As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn’t know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o’clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.

When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks further from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.

For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him—that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.

Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.

She takes a week off from work, though she doesn’t tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.

At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.

Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away—a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.

A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.

A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.

A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.

And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o’clock—seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.

A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.

She looks up at him, speechless with love.

To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, “Hello my dear friend.”

Dogs & Cats

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Molly & Dylan sleeping

Molly & Dylan Sleeping photo by Bill Fletcher

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

An Inter-Species Holiday Fable

Myra Eberhardt is a self-avowed cat person—the kind of cat person who finds dogs and most of their people wanting in grace and civility. A stickler for neatness and punctuality, always up-to-date on the latest fashions, and something of a snob, Myra is forty-four, attractive, bright, and successful in all things save marriage. Men are attracted to Myra like bees to maple syrup, but the apparent faults of these fellows inevitably transcend their charms, and Myra despairs of ever finding her match. Thus her three cats, Bingo, Butch, and Groucho are more than pets to Myra, they are her children and Significant Other(s).

As one of the top wedding facilitators in the greater Bay Area, Myra frequently auditions musicians seeking work in that relatively lucrative field, and in mid-November, a slow time for weddings before the usual outburst of Christmas nuptials, Myra has the extreme pleasure of auditioning an accordion player named Michael O’Reilly with whom she falls head over heels in love.

Michael is a loose-limbed easygoing fellow of fifty-four with an uncouth head of wavy brown hair, his parents born in Ireland, he in San Francisco, his brogue slight but charming, and he is an absolute wizard on his squeeze box, his vast repertoire of songs spanning every known genre and then some.

“I used to say I could play anything from Bach to the Beatles,” Michael explains to Myra after wowing her with a medley beginning with Mendelssohn’s wedding march, climaxing with a Piazzolla tango, and finishing with an irresistible hip hop version of The Girl From Ipanema, “but we’ve entered an era when both Bach and the Beatles are considered classical music, so I’ve had to expand my genre base, as it were.”

“I’m sold,” says Myra, struggling to keep her professional persona distinct from that of a deeply smitten woman. “I’m sure I can come up with plenty for you to do. Weddings, I mean.”

“Great,” says Michael, returning his accordion to its case. “To that end, here is my brand new business card.”

With a graceful bow, Michael hands Myra an obviously homemade card featuring the faces of two smiling dogs.

Myra stiffens. “What…why dogs?”

“Oh, that’s Rex and Ziggy,” says Michael, gazing fondly at the likenesses of his beloved pooches. “I have a show for children, too, with Rex and Ziggy as my co-stars.”

“I see,” says Myra, commanding her frontal lobe to terminate infatuation. “I trust that for weddings…”

“I hope you won’t think me impetuous,” says Michael, impetuously interrupting her, “but would you like to go out with me? Food and jazz at Yoshi’s? I’m rather taken with you, and that’s a colossal understatement.”

And the sweet musicality of his voice and the electricity flowing back and forth between them like a sideways Niagara makes Myra blurt, “Yes!”

õ

Two evenings after their initial meeting, Michael arrives at Myra’s impeccable Berkeley bungalow driving an old station wagon outfitted for canine transport, and Myra invites him in for a drink before they zip off to Yoshi’s.

“I have three cats,” says Myra, sitting not too far from Michael on her brown leather sofa and wondering if he’d be open to suggestions regarding his hopelessly outdated wardrobe. “But you won’t see them. They hide whenever anyone comes over.” She laughs. “Your classic scaredy cats.”

“I love cats,” says Michael, sighing in admiration of Myra. “You are one beautiful woman.”

“Thank you.” She blushes. “Wine? I have an excellent pinot.”

“I’d love a beer,” says Michael, nodding hopefully. “I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I love beer. Dark if you have it.”

“Sorry,” says Myra, her hopes of a wine connoisseur dashed. “No beer.”

“Tea?” suggests Michael, grinning at the approach of three big kitty cats, Bingo appropriating Michael’s lap, Butch and Groucho rubbing and snuffling against Michael’s shoes and pants, the doggy scents irresistible to their inquisitive noses.

“This is unprecedented,” says Myra, dazzled by the sight of her cats fawning over Michael. “They always hide when I have guests.”

“Oh, if I had half the way with women I have with animals,” says Michael, petting the adoring felines, “I’d probably, oh God…”

“Yes?” says Myra, laughing in delight as she forgets again that Michael features dogs on his business card. “You’d probably oh God what?”

õ

On Christmas day, Myra goes to Michael’s house for the first time. Having fulfilled their separate obligations to friends and relations that morning, and with their romance now well into the kissing phase, Myra braces herself for a front yard akin to certain unfortunate dog parks, rutted and muddy. But as she nears his house, she is stunned to see a Shangri-la of rose bushes and fruit trees with nary a sign of canine trampling.

“Must have sacrificed the backyard,” she murmurs, hurrying through the rain to the front door and wondering why she doesn’t smell anything particularly gross and doggy about the place.

The front door is ajar, the house resounding to Nat King Cole singing Christmas songs, the scents of freshly baked gingerbread and bubbling spaghetti sauce mingling surprisingly well.

“Hello?” says Myra, stepping into the piano-dominated living room with her big box of gifts for Michael, knowing she’s probably gone overboard on the shirts, but what the hell. “Anybody home?”

In response to her question, an enormous hound of complex origins appears on the threshold of the kitchen, wags his colossal tail, gives Myra a goofy smile, and sits. This is Rex, and he knows very well that his great size gives any human pause, but that he is especially frightening to people with an aversion to his kind.

A moment passes, Myra frozen in fear, and now Ziggy, a Lab Collie Whippet Poodle, joins Rex on the threshold, wags his tail, smiles, and sits, too.

This can’t possibly work thinks Myra, admitting to herself for the first time in her life that what she fears most about dogs is they are so much like people, and people have never been her forte, whereas cats…

At which moment, a third being appears on the threshold, this one a feline of many hues, a gorgeous calico named Miro who does not tarry with the dogs but approaches Myra without a whisker of trepidation, swirls about the woman’s legs, and communicates loud and clear (on the psychic plane) Pick me up, honey. I love women.

And as she cradles the sonorously purring Miro against her bosom, Myra’s heart breaks open, as healthy hearts are made to do, and Rex and Ziggy feel Myra’s heart opening as their cue to cross the room and greet their master’s beloved—Michael recording the sweet miracle with his camera.

Obesity & Love

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Autumn Nolan Winkler

Autumn by Nolan Winkler

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

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell

Sitting on the sun-drenched beach on this first day of August, writing in my Strathmore sketchbook, the waves setting up nicely for the surfers yet to arrive, the air chill but warming, the sky void of clouds, I am here this morning to write three little tales abut love and obesity. Coincidentally or ironically or naturally, of the nine adults I encountered on my way to this place on the sand overlooking Mendocino Bay, eight were enormously fat and the ninth was a woman so entirely void of excess weight she appeared to be a member of an entirely different species than her behemoth brethren.

We recently had a visit from a dear old friend of mine, and in the course of catching up on each other’s lives, I inquired about his sister G, now fifty-six, who I have known and loved since she was ten-years-old. I last saw G twelve years ago when she came to visit me in Berkeley with her two rambunctious children. Adjectives I have used in the past to describe G include brilliant, funny, musical, beautiful, sensitive, lithe, athletic and strong. I remember going on walks with G from the time she was ten until she was in her late twenties, and how on every one of those walks, with amazing ease, she would execute a handstand and walk twenty yards on her hands, just for fun and because such limber physicality was as natural to her as breathing.

So imagine my shock when my friend reported that G currently weighs well over two hundred pounds, down from the three hundred pounds she weighed a year ago. My jaw dropped and my mind reeled. Impossible! G? Beautiful, strong, slender, vegetarian, health-conscious G?

I went to G’s wedding twenty-two years ago and thought she was the most beautiful and poised and captivating bride I had ever seen. And, yes, I was jealous of the guy she was marrying and wished I’d had the nerve and foresight to ask her to marry me instead of whoever this lucky guy was. But then, when I had my one and only long conversation with G and her husband at the reception following their wedding ceremony, I thought to myself They really don’t seem to like each other. What’s up with that?

According to G’s brother, G never has and never will like the man she married and is still married to. Yet they stay together, ostensibly for the kids, and G eats and eats and eats. “And their house…” said my friend, his eyes widening. “You cannot imagine the chaos and squalor. Uninhabitable. Yet somehow they live there.”

“But I thought they were well off and successful and…?”

“They are,” said my friend, nodding sadly. “But so deeply unhappy. Off the chart unhappy.”

“There are only two ways to preserve your freedom and individuality: saying no, and living alone.” Nicolas De Chamfort

As it happens, I can imagine the chaos and squalor of G’s house because I know J and L, the lovable, smart and gainfully employed parents of a marvelous teenager. These three seemingly sane people live in a fine house, the interior of which they have rendered so squalid and chaotic it appears that an enormous truckload of random junk was dumped therein and then trampled by marauding elephants. There is no unoccupied surface in the entire house on which to sit, the kitchen is a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and the backyard might easily be mistaken for the city dump.

Having been the confidante of both J and L, I know that theirs was only briefly a sexual relationship, that they love each other but do not particularly like each other, and that they stay together for the sake of their child. When I first met J and L, J was a strikingly beautiful woman, a magnificently fit dancer and martial artist. L, twelve years older than J, was a chubby fellow who loved to take long bike rides and was in training to become a massage therapist.

Every six months for most of their eighteen-year marriage, J has traveled five hundred miles to spend a week with her lover, a married man she has known since childhood. L unhappily approves of J’s twice-yearly rendezvous with her lover, while L does not have a lover and is no longer interested in sex. When J returns from her erotic vacation, she is always full of energy, takes daily dance and yoga classes, eats sensibly, and sheds fifty pounds in three months, transforming herself into a beautiful dancer yet again. She even tries to impose a bit of order on the chaos and squalor of their home, but never with lasting success.

After J has been away from her lover for three months, she takes on way too much extra work, stops exercising, and begins to eat and eat and eat, pizza and ice cream and pastries her primary foods, washed down with oceans of coffee and beer. By the time she zooms off to be with her lover again, she is uncomfortably heavy, her feet and back ache constantly, and she is severely cranky. Her lover, as it happens, is a big fat man.

“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sitting here gazing at the timeless sea and thinking of J and G armoring themselves with so much extra weight in order to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and their painful longing for love and satisfaction, I am reminded of a brief love affair I had long ago and the shocking coda to that short-lived romance.

S was short and rather heavy, a darkly beautiful gal who hid her body in baggy trousers and oversized sweatshirts, and kept her hair extremely short. When I met her, and we were obviously attracted to each other, she told me with disarming candor that her few relationships with men had been hideous disasters, she had sworn off men forever, and she wasn’t sexually interested in women. “I’m a secular nun,” she told me in her tough-talking way. “The only decent men I’ve ever known are gay. Heterosexual males are evolutionary mistakes.”

Nevertheless, we went out for Thai food, traded books, met for coffee, and a few weeks into our friendship became lovers. Surprise, surprise. S turned out to be a zealous and imaginative lover with a large appetite for sex, we had a great time in and around the bed, and she swiftly shed her excess weight. It was as if satisfying sex negated her need for anything in the way of food other than salads and the occasional slab of meat, and ere long her body and face were so dramatically transformed that she began attracting men and women like clover attracts honey bees.

Alas, S was one of the angriest and most cynical people I’ve ever known, and she was so persistently and viciously dismissive of my writing and music and everything else that mattered most to me that I had a hard time being with her except in bed where she was one of the happiest and most uncynical people I’ve ever known. And our marvelous sexual connection sufficed to keep me entangled with S for four months until I couldn’t take another word of her verbal abuse and declared, “Enough. No more. Goodbye.”

S was stunned that I wanted to end things between us. “Oh, honey,” she said, her voice becoming the soft sweet loving voice I knew from making love with her, “I’m sorry. You know I think you’re wonderful.”

“How would I know that when you’re always telling me how shitty my writing is, how crappy my music is, how stupid my friends are?”

“I’m just teasing, sweetheart. I love everything about you. Please. Give me another chance. We’ve got such a good thing going here. How can you throw this away? Come on, sweetie. Let’s go to bed.”

But I was done. Sex, no matter how good the fit, is not love without love, and love cannot survive without trust, so…

Three years later, I arrived at a friend’s house, and my friend greeted me at the door, saying, “S is here. That okay?”

In retrospect, I wish I had said, “I think I’ll come back another time,” but instead I said, “Sure,” and entered the house and there was S, so huge she took up an entire two-person sofa with no room to spare. I would never have known that this gigantic person was once upon a time my sexy beautiful curvaceous lover. Never in a million years would I have known it was she.

“Mother, food, love, and career are the four major guilt groups.” Cathy Guisewite

As I’ve been sitting here on the windswept sand scribbling in my notebook, three women with their eight children have arrived and set up camp a very short stone’s throw away from me. Why do people do that? Twenty acres of sand, hundreds of great places to sit, nobody on the beach but little old me, and they choose to sit right beside me. Perhaps it is because they make an apt ending to this article.

I would guess these women are all thirty-something, their children ranging in age from two to twelve. One of the mothers is trim and muscular and moves with a pleasing grace. The other two mothers are massive and ungainly and clearly uncomfortable in their bodies, while all the children are skinny and wildly active. Some minutes after the mothers have settled down on their beach blankets to watch their children playing, two of their husbands arrive, huge men with gigantic bellies. These enormous fellows plant themselves several feet apart from the women—with them but not with them.

Into the Mystic

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

into mystic

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

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” Chief Seattle

On several occasions during the summer when I was twelve-years-old, I felt certain I was on the verge of understanding how everything fit together, and I do mean everything. I would find myself sitting or standing very still and feeling all the countless separate parts of reality coalescing and clicking together; and with every passing moment I would become more and more excited as the myriad fragments fell into place in relation to each other and in relation to the entirety of everything else. And I felt sure that if I could only hold still a few moments longer without being interrupted, the mystery of life, of the universe, would be solved for me, and ever after I would live in a state of blissful knowing. Yet every time I felt I was only a few seconds away from such a complete understanding, something would interrupt my reverie, and the exquisite construct of the totality of everything would collapse.

I could not, as far as I knew, intentionally precipitate such reveries, though I tried to do so many times that summer. I would go off into the woods far from other people and sit absolutely still for hours on end, hoping my stillness would incite the myriad separate parts to begin their coalescing, but that never happened. I did have marvelous experiences sitting so still in the woods, but those glorious occasions when I nearly grasped my own grand unified field theory only came unbidden and when there was a high probability of being interrupted.

One evening that summer, standing under an olive tree not far from our house, I was so certain the last piece of the vast puzzle was about to fall into place, I held my breath so as not to disturb the grand finale. But then my mother shouted, “Dinner’s ready!” and the miraculous vision shattered.

I was in a foul mood when I came inside to eat, which prompted my father to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I could think better of speaking about such things to my father, I tried to explain how close I had been to a moment of comprehensive understanding, to which my father replied, “That’s just infantile magical thinking. You might as well say you believe in God, and you know how ridiculous that is.”

I knew it was folly to say anything in response to my father when he got on his atheist soapbox, so I held my peace as he lectured me on the idiocy of my thinking and feeling. Little did I know that my father was a preview of the many people I would encounter in my life, and whom I continue to encounter, who consider my experiences of the mystical nature of life either hackneyed spiritual crap or delusional nonsense.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” E.M. Forster

When I was fifteen, I made the B basketball team at Woodside High School, though I was not a starter. Indeed, on our twelve-man team, I was the twelfth ranked player and rarely got into a game. Every day, following an hour of exercises and drills and practicing plays, our starters would scrimmage against the second five, with I and the other third-string fellow subbing onto the second-string team.

One day our coach sent me into the scrimmage, and for reasons I have no plausible explanation for I was overtaken by a power transcendent of the usual power that animated me. Suddenly the other players, many of them taller and bigger than I, seemed small and weak and slow moving, and I moved among them like a speeding giant. Prior to that scrimmage I had never been able to leap high enough to touch the ten-foot-high rim, but on that day I could reach above the rim. I snatched rebounds away from our tallest players and scored with an ease that was, in today’s vernacular, sick. I shot from near and far, made dozens of shots without a miss, and so thoroughly dominated the game that even those starters who had previously looked down on me were full of praise for my playing.

After practice, our coach called me into his office, and when he was convinced I had not ingested some illegal substance, said he was going to put me into tomorrow’s game against Sequoia as a reward for my extraordinary play that day. I thanked him and spent a restless night anticipating my first chance to shine in a real basketball game.

True to his word, our coach put me into the game midway through the first half, and I immediately grabbed a rebound and took a shot. But when my shot missed the mark, our coach took me out and never played me again. I was disappointed, of course, by the brevity of my playing time, but I was also aware that whatever extraordinary power had possessed me the day before was entirely absent on the day of my debut. Nor did that power return to me again until the very last day of basketball practice that year.

To end the season on a dramatic and competitive note, the coach created six two-man teams and we had a tournament to determine which duo would be crowned champions. I was paired with the other lowest ranked player, and we were expected to lose to all the other teams. But that transcendent power came into me again and we demolished our opponents, including the team composed of our two star players. We won so easily, much to the chagrin of our coach, that the biggest star of our team gave me the ultimate compliment by saying, “What are you on, man? I want some.”

What was I on? Fools Crow, the revered Lakota holy man said (in the inspiring book Wisdom & Power) that there is an inexhaustible source of spiritual power ever present in universe, and that those who consciously or unconsciously empty themselves of ego may invite this spiritual power to work through them. Fools Crow said he used prayer and ritual to make of himself a hollow bone to be filled by this spiritual power with which he accomplished his healing work. And that’s what I think was going on those times when I played basketball so much better than I had ever played before; I was filled with spiritual power and became an instrument of the unfathomable universe.

 “There is nothing in the world that is not mysterious, but the mystery is more evident in certain things than in others: in the sea, in the eyes of the elders, in the color yellow and in music.” Jorge Luis Borges

One of my favorite stories about the Mbuti people of the Ituri rainforest in the Congo is that Christian missionaries found it almost impossible to convince the Mbuti to believe in, let alone worship, a punitive God because the Ituri forest, which the Mbuti believed to be the most important of all gods, provided them with such abundance and so obviously loved them. I think of this story whenever I encounter people who consider my belief in the mystical nature of existence to be hackneyed spiritual crap or self-delusion.

Yesterday, for instance, I began to write an email to a friend I hadn’t heard from in several months, and two sentences into my missive I received an email from that very friend. What made this seeming coincidence even more remarkable to me was that my two sentences were specific questions, and my friend’s email began with detailed answers to those specific questions. Is this proof of the mystical nature of existence or is it merely, as Buckminster Fuller suggested, that most of what goes on in Universe is inexplicable because we lack the technology to see or hear or measure most of what is going on in this and contiguous dimensions? Imagine what a surprise it must have been to discover radio waves? Who knew?

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

When I first moved to Mendocino, I would go to Big River Beach almost every day to marvel at my good fortune and celebrate having had the courage to make the move. One day I was sitting with my back against a big log and gazing out at the breakers, when into my mind came the face of a woman I hadn’t seen in twelve years, a woman I had been smitten with during my last year of living in Sacramento. Her name was Ida and she worked in a bakery and I had spoken to her a grand total of five times, three of those conversations consisting of Ida asking me, “What can I get you?” and my replying, “Two blackberry muffins, please.” The other conversations were a bit longer because I ordered coffee, too.

Which is to say, I didn’t really know Ida at all. But every time I saw her, I felt a powerful jolt of recognition and love, and I liked to think, whether it was true or not, that she felt a similar jolt.

In any case, I hadn’t had a conscious thought about her in over a decade, yet here I was on Big River Beach seeing her vividly in my mind’s eye and wondering what might have happened if only I’d had the courage to speak to her at greater length and perhaps ask her…

After a delightful little snooze, I packed up my knapsack and headed back to the parking lot, and just as I was about to walk under the Big River bridge, a little girl came running toward me, shrieking with delight as her mother pursued her, her mother being Ida.

The Gift of the Old Guy

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

1

Ray, a slender man of eighty-two, his white hair sparse, gazes out the bus window at the passing fields. He is lost in thought, truly lost, unaware of who he is or where he’s going. Ray’s wife Vera, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and where she’s going. A buxom gal of seventy-nine, her fantastically curly hair tinted pinkish blond, Vera is Flo’s mother and Otto’s grandmother, and she and Ray are on a Greyhound bus going to Ukiah to be with Flo and Otto for Christmas, which is only two days away now. She sits so her shoulder touches Ray’s as she knits an orange and black afghan, her mind crammed with gift lists, recipes, and words of wisdom for her grandson.

“We should have driven,” says Ray, frowning at Vera. “How are we gonna get around without a car?”

“We don’t have a car anymore, dear,” says Vera, smiling at her husband. “Remember? We sold it three months ago. Since I don’t drive and they took your license away, there wasn’t much point in keeping it.”

“Must you remind me?” he says with mock indignation. And then, straining to remember, “Why did they do that?”

“You had another accident. And thank God no one was hurt.”

Ray frowns. “The light was green. The light was not red. I don’t care what anybody says. The light was not green.”

Vera nods. “Yes, dear.”

Ray glares out the window and remembers the light was red and that he had every intention of hitting the brakes. But his foot went to the accelerator pedal instead of to the brake pedal and…he closes his eyes and braces himself for impact.

Vera watches Ray for a long moment before returning to thoughts of turkey and pies and gingerbread and all the stores she wants to go to when they get to Ukiah.

On the edge of sleep, Ray hears a man’s voice, a voice his doctor calls a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes Ray thinks the voice is God, but other times he knows the voice is his memory.

“Hello Ray. Would you like to be Santa Claus again?”

Ray shrugs and says, “Sure. Why not?”

Vera looks at her husband and sighs with relief to see him temporarily content.

Ray is a department store Santa again, sitting on his red throne, a line of children stretching out of the toy department and snaking past Sporting Goods before making a sharp turn at Beds, which is where Ray loses sight of the line, though he knows there are kids lined up throughout the store and out the doors and down every road to the sea.

A little boy climbs onto Ray’s lap and says, “Where’s my candy cane?”

Ray says, “Ho ho ho! Have you been a good little boy?”

The boy grabs Ray’s cotton beard and pulls off a big chunk. “You’re not really Santa Claus!” shouts the boy. “You don’t even know where I live!”

Ray wakes with a start. Vera puts a calming hand on his arm.

“I could kill him,” says Ray, looking at his wife, unsure of her name, wondering if she can be trusted.

“Time for your pills,” explains Vera. “That’s why you’re cranky. I thought we could wait until we got there, but we can’t.”

 2

Otto, verging on seventeen, pushes the old station wagon up over seventy. His mother Flo arches an eyebrow. Otto slows the old wagon to sixty. He wants to stay in good with his mother because he needs the car tonight for his big triple date with Zak and Josh and their respective Awesome Babes.

“Think Gramps will like my blue hair?” asks Otto, making sure to signal when he changes lanes. “Remember when I had it real long and he said I looked Arthurian?”

“Fortunately, your grandfather is color blind,” says Flo, finding it impossible to relax when Otto is driving. “And your grandmother thinks anything you do is fabulous, so…”

“Um…” says Otto, clearing his throat, “about tonight?”

“I said you could have the car,” says Flo, rummaging in her purse for lip balm. “I want to take mom on the bus. That way she’ll be limited to buying what we can carry.”

“Um, mom?” says Otto, exiting the freeway at the suggested speed and hoping Flo is impressed by his magnificent show of self-restraint. “I was wondering about a slight advance?”

“On your inheritance or your allowance?”

“Very funny,” says Otto, flooring it through an intersection to beat the red.

Flo winces. “Since when is it a sin to stop at a yellow?” She clears her throat, remembering the family therapist’s admonition: Try not to be too hard on Otto. What with his father moving out and the ensuing emotional confusion…“How much do you need?”

“Forty?” he says, forcing a hopeful little smile.

Flo forgets all about the family therapist’s admonition and says, “Who do you think I am? Donald Trump? You think I’m made of money? I gave you forty dollars two days ago.” She sighs. “Long gone, I’m sure.”

“My skateboard was shot,” says Otto. “It’s how I get around. I needed…”

“Nothing,” says Flo, unable to restrain herself. “You get nothing more from me. And I want you to fill this car with gas before you bring it home tonight. Zak and Josh can chip in.”

Otto frowns deeply. “Are you serious? It takes fifty dollars to fill this old hog.”

“That’s right,” says Flo, her eyes narrowing. “And I work forty-eight hours a week. I bring home nineteen hundred and sixty-seven dollars a month, from which I pay the rent, insurance, utilities, food for you, clothes for you, music lessons for you, school supplies for you, an allowance for you.” She’s screaming now.  “…and every time you take the car out, it comes back empty, which means fifty more dollars, doesn’t it? And every time you go out with your stupid friends you want forty dollars on top of the fifty I just spent to fill the fucking car. And I can’t afford it. Okay?”

Otto is confounded by the intensity of his mother’s anger. “So you want me to get a job? Flunk out of school?”

Flo squints furiously at him. “No. I want you to get a job, stay in school, stop watching television and diddling your cell phone every second you aren’t skateboarding, and start being some HELP!”

Otto thinks for a moment and replies, “Okay, then. How about thirty dollars?”

 3

Ray sits up front with Otto, while Vera sits in back with Flo. Quietly, so no one up front will know, Vera hands her daughter a wad of cash—five hundred dollars. Flo kisses her mother’s cheek and whispers, “Thank you, mama.”

Vera holds Flo’s hand, gazes at Otto’s blue mop and says, “I find your coiffure positively daring.”

“You should see my friend Zak,” says Otto, relishing her praise. “He totally shaved half his head and dyed the rest magenta.”

“Daring, indeed,” says Vera, feigning delight. “Will we be meeting your girlfriend tonight?”

“You better believe it,” says Otto, winking at his mother in the rearview mirror.

“And her name is?” asks Vera, already knowing from Flo.

“Natasha,” says Otto, nodding emphatically. “Natasha Svetlana Jones. Her mother is like half-Russian and her dad is like Ukrainian or something, and, uh…I should warn you she’s got a massive gold spike in her right nostril.” He pauses dramatically. “Well…massive is like a relative term.”

“I can’t wait to meet her,” says Vera.  “And I just love how colorful and poetic your speech has become.”

“Is this girl a cannibal?” asks Ray, unsure of what anybody is talking about.

“No way, Gramps” says Otto, grinning. “On the contrary, man, she’s actually a vegetarian.”

“So why the spike?” asks Ray, touching his nose and wincing.

“It’s the fashion these days, dear,” Vera explains. “A fashion statement.”

“Or something,” says Flo, rolling her eyes.

“A statement of what?” asks Ray, frowning at Otto.

“Like her personal statement,” says Otto, nodding thoughtfully. “You know, like her personal belief about being able to like…express yourself.”

Ray surveys the suburban sprawl and he thinks they’re in Los Angeles in 1976. He frowns at Otto and says, “Jesus, Frankie, we’re supposed to meet those guys on Wilshire in ten minutes. Step on it.”

“What’s he talking about?” asks Otto, confused by his grandfather’s confusion.

“Don’t ask her,” says Ray, slapping his grandson’s arm. “Listen to me. This deal is as good as made.”

“His Alzheimer’s,” says Vera, nodding sadly. “He thinks you’re his old business partner, Frank Lazuli.”

Otto looks at his grandfather and says, “Gramps. I’m not Frank. I’m Otto and it’s two thousand and twelve and we’re in Ukiah. Okay?”

Ray blinks a few times as he returns to the present, turns to look at his wife, and says, “Like I was there again, honey. Just like I was there.”

 4

After supper, Otto’s girlfriend, Natasha, petite and pretty, her long hair maroon, her purple belly shirt revealing a big silver ring piercing the rim of her navel, explains the thrill of thrash dancing to Vera.  “It’s like…” she says, staring into Vera’s eyes, “it’s a way to get past societal repression into a state of physical bliss. I mean…after I thrash for like ten minutes I’m just totally free. I’m like totally…uninhibited.”

“We had Elvis,” says Vera, taking Natasha’s hand. “And then going wild at the Fillmore with Quicksilver and the Airplane.”

Flo shows her father how to operate the automatic channel changer. She points the device at the big screen television and the images jump from starving Africans to the Marx Brothers to somebody selling used cars to a woman taking off her clothes to a Canadian weather report to Australian soccer and back to the Africans.

“Can’t I just get up when I want to change channels?” asks Ray, sneering at the little plastic thing.  “It’ll be the only exercise I’ll get today. We missed our walk.”

“But dad, there are over two hundred channels to choose from. Part of the fun is channel surfing.”

“Fun for you maybe,” says Ray, reluctantly accepting the changer.

Otto, wearing his razor blade earring, ripped combat jacket and purple combat boots, gets the car keys from Flo and proclaims, “Hey everybody, be happy. I’ll be back by midnight for sure. Or so.”

When the young ones are gone, Vera says, “I like Natasha. She has a wonderful energy. Says she wants to be a veterinarian acupuncturist. Do you think they’re having sex?”

“What?” says Ray, glaring at the television. “Who?”

“Sex,” says Vera.

“Not now,” says Ray, winking at her. “I’m busy pushing little buttons.”

5

Vera and Flo catch a bus downtown, and when they are settled in their seats, Vera brings forth her list of things she wants to buy. Flo leans her head against her mother’s shoulder and says sadly, “He’s much worse, isn’t he?”

“Day by day,” says Vera, nodding. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to handle him by myself.” She shrugs. “Two weeks ago, he got up in the middle of the night, went outside without his pants on and tried to flag a cab. He thought it was 1973, the year he lost a fortune on all that desert land.”

“What will you do?”

“What can I do? I’ll have to put him in a home.”

“Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.”

“Let’s not think about it now. It’s Christmas. Let’s spend some money.”

6

Back at the television, comfortable in a recliner, Ray is stuck on MTV, dazzled by beautiful young women with long legs and perfect bodies. He forgets he’s watching television and thinks it’s 1972, the Starlight Lounge in Vegas. He and Frank Lazuli and Murray Cornish are celebrating closing a big deal—a new shopping center. They’ve got money to burn. Vera and Tammy and Twyla have gone to bed and left the boys to blow off steam and chase girls.

The phone rings and rings and rings until finally Ray emerges from the past to answer it, a voice saying, “Gramps? It’s Otto. Is Flo there?”

“Flo lives in Ukiah now,” says Ray, feeling rather proud to have remembered this new information.

You’re in Ukiah,” says Otto. “Remember? You came up for Christmas. We picked you up at the bus station today.”

“But of course,” says Ray, remembering nothing. “Hold on a minute.”

He wanders through the house, but finds no one. He vaguely remembers that Flo and Vera went somewhere, but by the time he gets back to the phone he thinks Vera has left him for another man.

“Hello, Frankie?” says Ray. “You still there?”

“This is Otto.”

“Where’s Frank?”

“I don’t know. This is Otto. Your grandson. Is Flo there? My mother?”

“No!” says Ray, glowering at the television—someone dunking a basketball in slow motion. “And if you don’t stop harassing my daughter, I’ll have the police on you so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

And with that, he slams the phone down and goes back to the Starlight Lounge.

 7

Otto, Zak and Josh come up with a plan for getting money so they can fill the station wagon with gas and take their girlfriends to a dance club in Santa Rosa. The plan centers on Ray. Otto parks the station wagon in Zak’s garage and jogs the seven blocks home. He finds his grandfather transfixed by The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda, a little green person with pointed ears, is speaking to Ray.

“Hey Gramps,” says Otto, full of false joviality, “you figured out how to use the DVD player. Cool.”

Ray says nothing.

Yoda says, “You will only find what you take with you.”

Ray replies, “Your color is bad. You should see a doctor.”

“So…Ray,” says Otto, “I’ve got a little business proposition for you.  Interested?”

Ray clicks off the set, turns to his grandson and says, “Frankie, I’ve had it.  Vera’s left me. I can’t do this anymore. The Wilshire deal wiped me out. Took me months to find a steady job. It’s not much, but it’s steady, and I want her back.”

“Okay,” says Otto, taking a deep breath, “but if you can front me a hundred dollars, I’ll turn it into ten thousand by Christmas morning and wrap it up in a little blue box and put it under the tree. Promise. It’s an absolute sure thing.”

“I’ve heard that line a thousand times,” says Ray, shaking his head. “Hell, I’ve said it a thousand times.” He grins at Otto and winks. “But okay.”

He fishes his wallet out of his back pocket and gives Otto all he has—five twenties. Otto tries to thank Ray with a kiss, but Ray shoves him away and says, “Don’t get queer on me, Frankie. Just make the deal, okay?”

“Okay, Ray. Okay.”

8

On Christmas morning, Vera is in ecstasy and Ray has become addicted to watching Otto play a video game in which he attempts to conquer an alien civilization. Flo is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“We have some big news,” says Flo, smiling wanly at Otto as they gather in the living room to open presents. “Vera and Ray are moving to Ukiah, and so for a few weeks…until we get them settled nearby, they’ll be living here.  Won’t that be great?”

“Here?” says Otto, shocked at the prospect. “We only have two bedrooms.”

“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” says Ray, winking at his grandson. “And now we can turn that ten thousand into a million. Right?”

Otto blushes, stunned that the old man remembered that two-day-old con job. “Whatever, Gramps,” he says softly. “Whatever you say.”

Flo hands the first present to Vera. She unwraps it carefully to preserve the wrapping paper.

Ray peers at the presents under the tree and sees no little blue box. He frowns at Otto and says, “So…things didn’t work out so well, huh?”

Otto stiffens. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Vera shrugs. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just his Alzheimer’s.”

“No, it’s not,” says Ray, feeling remarkably lucid. “I may forget a lot of things, but I don’t forget a business deal.” His eyes fill with tears. “You promised me, Otto.  You promised me.”

“This is too weird,” says Otto, standing up. “I didn’t promise him anything.”

“I’m sorry,” says Vera, bowing her head. “Maybe our staying here isn’t such a good idea.”

9

Otto sits on his bed feeling guilty and cruel. He talks quietly to a large smoky quartz crystal, a Christmas gift from Natasha. She says the crystal has the power to convert negative reality into positive reality.

“I never should have lied to him. I hurt him. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think it would matter to him. I always loved him when I was a kid. I really did. So please, please make this all okay.”

Having said this, Otto has a vivid memory. He is seven years old, walking with Ray along a beach at Lake Tahoe. Suddenly a huge dog rushes toward them, murder in his eyes. Otto wants to run away, but Ray holds onto him and says, “It’s okay.”

Now the old man squats down, holds out his hand to the dog, and makes kissing sounds. The dog becomes docile and friendly. Otto is astonished by the transformation of the beast. Ray explains, “They get aggressive like that because they’re afraid, not because they really want to hurt you.”

Someone knocks at Otto’s door and he expects his mother to come in, angry with him for robbing his grandfather, but it’s not Flo, it’s Vera.

She sits beside Otto, runs a hand through his blue hair and says, “We’ll only stay if you want us, honey. We certainly don’t want to intrude on your life.”

And Otto is about to confess his crime and ask for forgiveness when Vera adds, “Oh, and by they way, did Ray give you the money I gave him to give you? The hundred dollars? Or did he forget?”

fin

Going Postal

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Saroyan Envelope by Jenifer Angel

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

“I claim there ain’t


Another Saint


As great as Valentine.” Ogden Nash

The notices currently taped to both sides of the glass doors of the Mendocino Post Office proclaim that starting February 14, 2012, our post office will henceforth be closed on Saturdays, and postal business shall only be conducted Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 4 PM. That our government, otherwise known as the Council of Evil Morons, would choose Valentine’s Day to kick off this latest contraction of our terrific postal system strikes me as ironic and cruel, as well as evil and moronic.

I and most Americans over fifty first learned how the postal system worked when we were in First and Second Grade and our teachers helped us create and operate our very own in-classroom post offices for the purpose of sending and receiving Valentines to and from our classmates. At Las Lomitas Elementary School we had actual post offices (built by handy parents) that took up big chunks of classroom real estate. These one-room offices featured windows behind which stood postal workers from whom we could buy stamp facsimiles (fresh from the mimeograph machine) to affix with edible white paste to our properly addressed envelopes. These envelopes contained store bought or handmade Valentines, and we would drop these childish love missives into cardboard mailboxes located across the rooms from the post offices. Then every hour or so postal workers would open these mailboxes, empty the contents into transport bags, and carry the mail to the post offices wherein the letters would be sorted into cubbyholes bearing the names of the recipients. And we, the children, got to be the postal workers and do all these fun jobs. How cool is that? For a six-year-old, way cool.

These Valentines postal operations stimulated many other sectors of our classroom ecology. Making art took on new and urgent meaning, as did writing. Anyone could send a regular valentine, but only artists and poets could make valentines covered with glitter (affixed to that same edible paste) bearing heartfelt original (or accidentally plagiarized) rhymes. Roses are red, violets are blue, please be my Valentine, shoo bop doo wah.

Valentines were the gateway drugs that turned me into the snail mail addict I am today, which is why I am so sad and angry about the decline and impending fall of our beloved postal system. Yes, I appreciate a good email missive, one without typos or grammatical errors; but the best email pales next to a mediocre piece of real mail found in my post office box, a one-of-a-kind Easter egg of love waiting to be discovered amidst the bills and junk mail, something made just for me that took someone more than a few seconds to compose and send, something steeped in what psychologists call “quality time”—loving attention undivided.

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

Get over it, Todd. No. I take Marshall McLuhan’s observation “the medium is the message” as a warning that what we think we’re doing may not be what we’re actually doing. McLuhan was speaking about mass media, television in particular, a medium through which I thought I was watching shows I wanted to watch, when in actuality I was allowing myself to be seduced by processes designed to entrain me to think and feel the way our corporate overlords want everyone to think and feel. Television is a medium of conquest and control. The message of that medium is “Do and be and buy what we tell you to do and be and buy or you will never be safe and happy. Ever.”

So it came to pass that I and many other people figured out the real message of mass media and television and broke free from that enslavement and stayed free long enough to help engender and partake of a brief renaissance of creative freedom known as the Sixties, a cultural revolution largely defined by its independence from mass media and corporate control. Some say the Sixties lasted into the 1970’s, and some say reverberations of that renaissance continued into the 1980’s, but for however long the groovy vibes of the Sixties kept on vibing, the important thing to know is that the innovative energy and expressions of that renaissance were eventually captured and drained of their power by the corporate media apparatus; and the next iteration of television was the computer and the internet and all the attendant satellite devices that define this digital age.

When I quit watching television in 1969, very little else changed in my life. My arts of writing and music were independent of television, and communications for personal and business matters were fast and effective by telephone and through the post office. But a couple years ago when I came out of a trance to find myself watching a basketball game on my computer, having sat down with the specific intention of rewriting a story, it suddenly dawned on me that computers are nothing more than interactive televisions, and now, oops, virtually all my personal and business dealings are inextricably bound to the use of the computer. Today I send my essays to the Anderson Valley Advertiser and other prescient publishers via email, I offer my music and books and art for sale through the internet, and to abstain from using my computer in the same way I abstained from using television would render me immediately and entirely removed from all but the most local of cultures, counter or otherwise.

Yet to stay hooked up to my computer is to be an active and addicted user of a medium that is the message, “Do and be and buy what we tell you to do and be and buy or you will never be safe and happy. Ever.” Except just as there are more layers to the computer/internet interface with our lives than there were with that earlier version of television, so are there more layers to the new medium’s message. Now, along with being told a million times a year what to do and be and buy, we are also compelled through the brutal elimination of alternatives to spend most of our time peering at our computer screens if we wish to feel connected to what we think is most important and meaningful, i.e. what is happening right now in those fields of endeavor we are most interested in.

Post offices, in my view, are among the last few vibrant vestiges of the non-computer way of doing and being, which is the real reason the Council of Evil Morons wants to strangle that marvelous system; so there will be no alternative, none at all, to computers and the internet as a means of doing and being, except on a local basis—very local. Which brings me to my latest idea for kindling the next cultural and social and political renaissance that will save the world and usher in the long awaited age of global enlightenment, which then may or may not precipitate contact with brilliant aliens who have been waiting for us to make the evolutionary leap from stupid selfish poopheads to smart generous sweetie pies.

My idea is that we start our own local post offices, without the aid of computers. We can use telephones to get the ball rolling, but not cell phones. These extremely local post offices will be adult versions of the post offices we had in First and Second Grade, manned by fun loving volunteers. Stamps created by a wide range of local artists will cost a nickel. You will need one stamp for every ounce of mail you send. Post office boxes (cubbyholes) will rent for ten dollars per year. The money collected from selling stamps and renting cubbyholes will go into maintaining the postal buildings with their clean and commodious adjoining public restrooms and teahouses.

Among the many cool things about these local post offices will be that they will be open seven days a week from morning until night, they will have tables and chairs where people can sit and write letters and decorate envelopes and gossip, of course, and they will have multiple gigantic well-maintained bulletin boards whereon anyone may post anything. Neato one-of-a-kind rainproof mailboxes created by local artisans will be scattered throughout the local watershed—and mail will be collected from these neato mailboxes several times a day and transported to the post office in colorful burlap bags. Then the letters will be sorted into our cubbyholes throughout every long day, thus making everyone feel safe and happy.

Yes, it would be easy to set up this kind of local post office using computers, but making something easy doesn’t necessarily make it good.

Todd’s snail mail address is P.O. Box 366 Mendocino CA 95460

 

 

 

 

Yes, But…

Thursday, December 15th, 2011


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

“If there’s not drama and negativity in my life, all my songs will be really wack and boring or something.” Eminem

For many people, December is the most neurotic month; and Christmas marks the apogee of shame, jealousy, disappointment, and self-loathing. Indeed, most psychotherapists aver that Christmas in America might as well be called Crisismas. One can theorize endlessly about why Christmas/Hanukah (and the attendant mass gift buying) inflame the dominant neuroses of so many people, but the picture that sums it up for me is of a child surrounded by dozens of presents she has just frantically unwrapped, not one of which satisfies her craving to be loved.

“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

When I embarked on my first experience of formal psychotherapy, I knew my parents had abused me, but I could not clearly elucidate the rules of behavior instilled in me by their abuse. My therapist suggested I try to write down the basic rules governing my behavior so I might gain a more objective view of how those rules impacted my life.

One of the most deeply entrenched rules I uncovered was: Nothing I do is good enough. Sound familiar? I ask because I subsequently learned that this rule runs many people’s lives. And though I doubt our parents ever came right out and said, “Nothing you do is good enough,” I know that in myriad other ways they repeated that message thousands and thousands of times; and repetition accomplished the entrenching.

For instance, my mother used “Yes, but…” responses to everything I did or said. “Yes, but…” responses are characterized by positive (though insincere) opening statements followed by the word but, followed by subtle or emphatic derogatory proclamations. Here are a few examples of the thousands of “Yes, but…” responses I received from my mother over the course of my life.

Following my performance in a high school play, my mother said, “You were very good, but…you’re not going to be in another play, are you?”

Upon hearing about my very first sale of a short story, my mother said, “Well, that’s good news, but…they didn’t give you very much money, did they?”

And after meeting my girlfriend(s) for the first time, my mother opined, “Well, she seems nice, but…maybe just a little cuckoo/not too bright/might have a weight problem/might be anorexic/seems rather young for you/seems rather old for you/never finished college/works in a restaurant/rides a motorcycle/do you think she takes drugs?/she sure can drink/she wears an awful lot of makeup/why no makeup?”

Children who are constantly bombarded with “Yes, but…” responses grow into adults incapable of hearing or believing positive responses from anyone. If such a bombarded person sings a song and a friend responds, “That was beautiful,” the bombarded person will assume the compliment is false because in their experience honest responses (which are always negative) only come after the word but. Indeed, a statement not followed by but and a negative comment has no meaning at all to a person programmed to believe Nothing I Do Is Good Enough.

Some people grow up with “Yes, but…” fathers and non-“Yes, but…” mothers, or vice-versa; and these people tend to have mixed views of themselves as partly good enough and partly not good enough. Their versions of the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule are Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Dad (men) or Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Mom (women). However, if both parents employ “Yes, but…” responses to everything a child does or says, then that child will become an adult with serious trust and intimacy issues; and he or she will almost certainly fear and loathe Christmas because no matter what he or she buys for anyone, it, the present, won’t be good enough. How could the stupid thing be good enough? Consider the source!

Most of my father’s responses to me began with, “You know what you really should do?” followed by a lecture about what I should be doing as opposed to what I was already doing. In this way he re-enforced the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule with the I’m Never Doing What I Should Be Doing rule.

At best the family teaches the finest things human beings can learn from one another— generosity and love. But it is also, all too often, where we learn nasty things like hate, rage and shame.” Barbara Ehrenreich

I vividly remember the day before Christmas when I was twenty-two, a scruffy lad hitchhiking to my parents’ house for our annual festival of neuroses starring my brother and sisters and parents and moi. This was during the vagabond phase of my life—a cold and rainy day in California, the oak trees rife with mistletoe. I was standing on the western edge of Highway One, about ten miles south of San Francisco, the rain drumming on my gray plastic poncho, my backpack and guitar sheltered under a silver tarp, my soggy cardboard sign reading Half Moon Bay Or Bust. I was dreaming of a hot shower and a good meal and a warm bed, and trying not to think about the de rigueur verbal abuse that would accompany such parental hospitality, when a tie-dyed Volkswagen van stopped for me.

The driver was a loquacious fellow named Larry from Galveston, Texas, his coach reeking of tobacco and marijuana, his voice warm and comforting. After a few minutes of back and forth, he said, “Hey, man, I like you. Why don’t you come to our house for Christmas? Stay a couple days? We live right down here in San Gregorio. Kind of a commune, you know? My wife Suse is cooking a big turkey, my sister Clara’s making yams. Bunch of artists and musicians.” He bounced his eyebrows. “Lots of pretty women. You’ll dig it, man. There’s plenty of room to spread your kit.” Then he grinned enormously and added, “It’ll beat the shit out of mom and dad, guaranteed.”

As the child of two alpha “Yes, but…” parents, I was certain there was an unspoken but attached to Larry’s generous invitation—a problem or multiple problems. Larry’s wife might become violent after her third glass of wine, and the wine would probably be cheap and give me a headache. Their dog would bite me or give me fleas. Suse’s turkey would be overcooked, Clara’s yams inedible, and I’d become constipated or get the runs. I would hate the music Larry and his friends played, and Larry and his friends would hate my music. The women would not be pretty and the whole affair would be a disaster.

“The thing is,” I replied, hating myself for turning him down, “I promised my mother I’d come home for Christmas, and…she worries about me. I haven’t seen her in a year, so…”

“I hear you,” said Larry, nodding sympathetically. “But listen, man…if it sucks, you know where to find us. We’d love to have you.”

We parted ways at the San Gregorio general store and I hitched the last thirty miles to the festival of neuroses at my folks’ house. And that festival did, indeed, totally suck. So the next day, Christmas, despite the howling wind and torrential rain, I hitched back to San Gregorio, found the dirt road to Larry’s and Suse’s place, and arrived at their little farmhouse to find Suse storming around in the wreckage of her kitchen and raging on the phone at her mother in Los Angeles—Larry sitting in his van with his five-year-old son Lance, Buffalo Springfield on the stereo singing, “Listen to my bluebird laugh, she can’t tell you why. Deep within her heart, you see, she knows only crying. Just crying.”

“Hey,” said Larry, rolling down his window and smiling at me. “You came. Right on.”

“Is it still okay if I stay here tonight?”

“Absolutely,” he said, turning to his son. “Hey, Lance, this is Tom.”

“Todd,” I said softly. “Merry Christmas, Lance.”

“I got four books and a ball and crayons,” said Lance, nodding seriously. “What did you get?”

“Fifty dollars,” I said, thinking of my unhappy mother slipping me the money under the table so my dad wouldn’t see, and how, despite her disapproval of everything I chose to do, she loved me; if only I would be someone else.

“Suse is seriously bummed,” said Larry, shaking his head. “Bullshit with her mom. You don’t want to know. So…I think maybe you better sleep in my van tonight. Should be better in the morning.”

“I think I’ll just come back another time,” I said, taking a hit from the proffered joint. “But I thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh, stay, man,” he said, nodding encouragement. “This, too, shall pass. Besides, we need you to help us eat all the leftovers. Right, Lance?”

“Right,” said Lance, nodding emphatically. “There’s tons.”

Whoopsie Doopsie

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Drawing by Todd

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

“The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough is love.” Henry Miller

A couple years ago I created a catchy blues tune entitled Whoopsie Doopsie, and after I performed the song to the apparent delight of my wife Marcia, I thought I might make a recording of the tune and see how the world liked it. I wrote a note to myself—Whoopsie Doopsie Project—and put the note in the center of my just-cleaned desk, thereby establishing a new bottom layer for the accumulation of papers and books and drawings and letters and bills that would inevitably grow into a high plateau of dysfunction until, in a fit of frustration, I abstained from eating and drinking for several hours until the mess was properly expelled.

Thus time and again over these many months, I worked my way down to a little yellow square of paper on which was writ Whoopsie Doopsie Project, a trio of words that sent me to the piano to bang out the latest rendition, after which I would say to myself, “Yes, I really should record that and see what the world thinks of it.” Then the tides of time and paper would rush in again and submerge the note, and the project would largely vanish from my consciousness, except on rainy mornings when I was practicing the piano, at which times I might essay a version or two of the pleasing apparition.

Feeling especially sad one such rainy morning, I played a very slow Whoopsie Doopsie, and the sweet little love song became dark and plaintive; and I appreciated the song in my bones rather than with my sense of humor. And that very night we went to a dinner party at which the hostess asked me to play, and Marcia suggested I premiere Whoopsie Doopsie for the public, as it were. So I performed a rather timid version of the tune, the piano unfamiliar to me, and everyone in the audience said I must bring out a recording of the song—everyone being four people.

Here are the lyrics, in their entirety, of Whoopsie Doopsie.

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Whoopsie daisy, I’m in love with you

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Tell me how you like it,

Tell me what to do

Wanna make you happy

When we’re making whoopsie do

The last line is a not-so-subtle tribute to Ray Charles. As you can see, we’re not talking about great art here. However, we are talking about the artistic process, which I find fascinating and difficult to write about. The difficulty in writing about creative processes, for me, lies in the non-verbal nature of those processes through which original art and original concepts emerge and evolve and are ultimately captured so others may experience those creations. Since there are no words for that which is wordless, the best one can hope for in describing such wordless processes are faint approximations. And the other large challenge for me in writing about making art is to ignore the nagging feeling that I am describing a process that almost always results in mediocrity or crap, otherwise known as failure.

“There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

On the other hand, many great teachers, Buckminster Fuller among them, espouse the idea that there are no failures in the inventive process, that everything we do is a valuable part of the continuum of experience. Failure, these wise ones suggest, might more usefully be understood as a necessary step along the way to discovery and fruition. Two of my favorite quotes about this idea, referring specifically to musical improvisation and composition, are from Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Miles said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” And Bill said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions. I think of all harmony as an expansion and return to the tonic.”

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

My favorite composer of classical music is Felix Mendelssohn. Why? Hard to say, for love is as ineffable as creativity. Maybe his use of complex harmonies resonates especially well with my chakras. Maybe the brilliant confluences of his polyrhythms synch perfectly with my inner groove. I don’t know. In any case, I dig the cat. So a few years ago our very own Symphony of the Redwoods performed Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and after hearing Marcia practice the cello parts for several weeks, and then being enthralled by the marvelous local rendition, I got out my Mendelssohn books to read about the Italian Symphony.

In Conrad Wilson’s Notes on Mendelssohn, to my great interest, I found that though the Italian Symphony was an instant and enormous success (the composer conducted the world premiere in London in 1833 at the ripe old age of twenty-three), Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the composition and immediately after its premiere set about “changing the coloring of the andante, adding fresh touches of poetry to the third movement, and considerably extending the finale.” Yet despite Mendelssohn’s great fame, “his revision remained unperformed for a century and a half, and has only recently been issued in a performing version upon which most conductors are turning deaf ears.” I rushed to get one of the few extant recordings of the revised symphony (not readily available in the United States, but gettable from England) and to my ears the revised version is vastly superior to the original.

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Oscar Wilde

With the help of Peter Temple, I have made two solo piano CDs in these last year two years: Ceremonies and 43 short Piano Improvisations. While working on those albums I was forever being seduced by a particularly alluring chord pattern I would improvise on for hours at a time; yet only one diminutive piece born of that pattern was strong enough to include on 43 short Piano Improvisations. However, I continued to be enamored of that pattern and felt that one day I might succeed in recording a few longer takes of what I call Mystery Inventions.

Meanwhile, the Whoopsie Doopsie Project was bubbling away on a back burner; and verily it came to pass (driving to town one day, singing nonsense songs to the clickety-clack of our old truck on a country road) that a new and very different version of Whoopsie Doopsie escaped my lips and catalyzed an epiphany: why not make an album composed of several different interpretations of Whoopsie Doopsie, and throw in a Mystery Invention or two, too?

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

As of this writing (early October 2011) the Whoopsie Doopsie recording project has been seriously (or at least continuously) underway for a month, and save for a slightly menacing a cappella version of Whoopsie Doopsie that came to me in the absence of a piano, nothing is turning out as I imagined anything would. Indeed, I would say the Whoopsie Doopsie Project is currently in creative free fall, and I am not surprised. The song that inspired this undertaking becomes less and less significant with every new Mystery Invention we capture, and new tunes audition daily as I chop wood and plant garlic and pick apples and make spaghetti sauce. Old tunes, too, long neglected, saunter out of the woods, tap me on the shoulder, and sing, “Hey, what about a revised version of me?”

The floodgates have opened. Mazel tov! So long as I don’t panic and attempt to control the flow too soon or too restrictively, there’s no telling what might come pouring out of that mystery reservoir I am convinced was once a river free of dams.

Sexual Comportment

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Shall We Dance painting by Todd

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

“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers

You may have heard about Cynthia Daily, a social worker using an interweb directory to keep track of all the children fathered by the same sperm donor who fathered her child. According to Cynthia’s data, this same sperm donor has now fathered one hundred and fifty children, several more of his offspring are on the way, and, also according to Daily (who enjoys vacationing with families of other children fathered by said sperm donor), “It’s wild when we see them all together because they all look alike.”

Wild? Interesting choice of words. I’m inclined to call this phenomenon anti-wild. I mean, what qualifies this guy to be populating the earth with his genes? Is he fabulously strong and intelligent and handsome and creative? Maybe. But he might be weak and stupid and ugly and nearsighted and prone to arthritis and gluten intolerance. Or maybe he’s just a regular guy with time on his hands, so to speak, and that’s why he’s donated so much sperm. The only thing we know for sure is that he’s potent.

One of the concerns of parents of children fathered by the same prolific sperm donor (and there are apparently quite a few of these randy fellows flooding the gene pool) is that their daughters and sons may unwittingly end up procreating with their half-siblings, which apparently multiplies the chances of genetic defects manifesting in offspring. On the other hand, some people with the same father but different mothers may enjoy hooking up with someone who looks wildly like them. I don’t know. I, for one, enjoy having a wife who looks nothing at all like me, thank goodness.

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

I remember some years ago there was a sperm bank in New York offering the sperm of celebrities to women seeking artificial insemination. I seem to recall that Woody Allen was one of the sperm donors. Several jokes come to mind about that, but I don’t want to get sued for slander. The idea that a woman would want to have, say, Albert Einstein’s baby, has a certain appeal until one considers the issues of unruly hair and huge foreheads. Are those attributes we would knowingly want to burden our children with in this appearance-oriented culture, even if he or she did turn out to be wildly intelligent?

“The four best things in life: to love, to be in love, to be loved, and to make love.” Lilo Bloch

As a young man I was a voracious reader of ethnographies, with a particular interest in how people of other cultures comported themselves sexually, both in terms of what was acceptable in those societies and what was taboo. I’m sure my fascination with sexual comportment in other cultures had to do with my sense that the acceptable sexual comportment rubrics of my own society were emotionally and physically suffocating, and I was looking for sexual comportment models that made more sense to me, and I don’t mean intellectual sense.

As a consequence of my particular interest, I unearthed dozens of ethnographies of indigenous societies with sexual comportment systems so shockingly antithetical to the American way of doing it, euphemistically speaking, that I could star at any party by reeling off a few synopses of the spicier comportment models employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe. And in none of these indigenous socio-sexual systems were anonymous men fathering hundreds of kids.

“In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reasons or principles contain it or stand against it.” Jane Smiley

I know what you’re thinking. Or hoping. Am I going to share with the reader a few of those spicier (compared to the American model) sexual comportment systems employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe? Yes, but with the following disclaimer: I will not be precise regarding locations, names, and historic time frames of the ethnic groups about which I write. And in keeping with the traditions of academic Anthropology, I will employ the present tense when speaking of these societies, whether or not they still exist.

“I think there are two areas where new ideas are terribly dangerous: economics and sex. By and large, it’s all been tried, and if it’s new, it’s probably illegal or dangerous or unhealthy.” Felix G. Rohatyn

There is a sect in India in which no one may marry outside the sect, and everyone in the sect must marry an age peer born in the same five-year period. For instance, an age peer group might be composed of everyone born between 1995 and 1999, after which the next age peer group would be everyone born between 2000 and 2004. Now here’s where things gets spicy by American standards. From the onset of puberty until marriage at eighteen to twenty years of age, all members of a particular age peer group are expected to have sex with all the members of the opposite sex in that group except with the one person of the opposite sex they ultimately marry and have children with. Try to wrap your American mind around that one. According to the ethnography I read, incidents of adultery among married couples in this sect are so rare as to be virtually non-existent.

“If a man and a woman go into the woods with a picnic basket and a blanket and have a picnic, that’s a G. If they go into the woods with a picnic basket and crawl under the blanket, that’s a PG. And if they go into the woods without a basket or a blanket and have a picnic anyway, that’s an R.” Jane Fonda on movie ratings

I’ve read several ethnographies of Australian aboriginal societies, and though these societies differ from each other in little ways, they share many foundational beliefs and sexual comportment rubrics that allow one to generalize about Australian aboriginal society.

One of the most un-American of those foundational beliefs is that females are born perfect, whereas males are born deeply flawed and must spend most of their lives striving to overcome their flaws in hopes of becoming more like women. Again, try to wrap your patriarchal Judeo-Christian-Muslim minds around that one.

Because females are perfect, when a girl begins to menstruate, her transit into womanhood is joyfully celebrated, whereas boys, being terribly flawed, must undergo brutal initiation ceremonies that often result in the deaths of some of the young males. Should they survive these initiatory ordeals, these young men are then sent off to wander about with other unmarried men as they quest to overcome their flaws so they might one day be good enough to marry one or more of those perfect women. Hence most Australian aboriginal men do not marry until they are in their late twenties and thirties, at which time they usually wed women who have only recently attained sexual maturity, which means a typical Australian aboriginal couple will feature a man much older than his wife or wives.

Adultery is taboo among Australian aboriginals, but it is a soft taboo, which means many people have lovers outside their marriages. That, on the face of it, is not unlike the American model, but among Australian aboriginals extra-marital activities are expected and even encouraged (even though they are taboo), and so there are rarely any dire consequences for extra-marital hanky panky.

Now…those questing men I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago? The ones sent off to roam around with other imperfect men? Well, they wander for years and decades trying to improve themselves spiritually and emotionally so they can one day get married, have children, and grow old in the company of perfect women and other much improved men. And in the course of those many years of roaming around, these groups of men occasionally come into contact with mixed gender bands with whom they like to hang out for a time because, well, that’s what life is all about, bumping into groups of other people and socializing. And the sexual comportment practice that goes on at the outset of contact between roaming men and a band of married people and children and unmarried women is, to say the least, by American standards, spicy.

So…imagine a band of four or five extended families camped by a desert spring, life meandering along, so to speak, when a group of wandering men appears and stops a respectful distance away from the camp to await a response from the larger mixed gender band. And that response, assuming the wanderers are discerned to be a worthy bunch, is for several of the women, married and unmarried, to go out to greet the wandering men.

And when the wandering men see the women coming out to them, they lie down on their backs and surrender themselves sexually to the women, who mount those eager yet submissive visitors and thereby expiate lust, tension, mistrust, and you name it, so that when the wanderers enter the camp, they are, as it were, tame. This is the only acceptable occasion for a married woman to have sex outside of marriage.

Are there any occasions when a married Australian aboriginal man may, with the blessing of his society, have sex with a woman other than his wife or wives? Yes, there is one such occasion. But because I am absolutely certain my description of that occasion would deeply offend at least half my readers, I shall not endeavor to describe such a shocking event and the astonishing aftermath.

After Rain

Friday, December 24th, 2010

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser Christmas 2010. I am grateful to Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella for giving me the space to share my fiction and non-fiction with their readers.)


After Rain

1

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

“I think,” says Bob, scratching his scalp through his wiry white hair, “I was writing a poem in that dream.”

A slender man, Bob often thinks of his bowling ball of a beer drinker’s paunch as a tumor, ugly and discomfiting, yet benign. He is also handsome and remarkably graceful, yet wholly unconscious of those traits.

Bob consults his Gauguin calendar on the kitchen wall to confirm the moon will be full tonight, and here is Christmas three days in the future, Christmas reminding him of his son Daniel who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, and of his daughter Alice who calls him on his birthday in June to give him a rundown on how she’s doing, only she never gets very far before she starts taking other calls, and Bob grows weary of being put on hold so he hangs up and she doesn’t call him again until his next birthday.

His children remind him of his house in Sacramento that is no longer his house, and of his wife Andrea who is someone else’s wife now, which makes him think of the thirty-three years he worked for the state because he couldn’t imagine any other way to give Andrea and Daniel and Alice what he thought they wanted. Oh, how he hated that mind-numbing job of incessant phone calls and emails and senseless meetings to organize seminars on traffic abatement when all he ever wanted to be was a poet.

He recalls the bad air, the crowded malls, and the countless things he bought for his wife and children because he felt he had to buy them. He remembers Daniel and Susan tearing open their gifts, both starving for what was never there. He remembers sitting in church feeling cold and tired and bored and false.

All of which brings to mind the annual trip in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Sacramento to San Jose for Christmas eve and Christmas morning with Andrea’s parents, and gobbling breakfast while ripping open presents before jumping back in the car for that hellacious drive to San Luis Obispo for Christmas supper with his mother, the children squirming and miserable in the backseat, Andrea vowing for the millionth time, “Next year we make a choice,” but they never did.

Bob’s dog yips three times in quick succession.

“Sorry, pup,” says Bob, turning away from Gauguin’s portrait of brown-skinned women in paradise.

Boots, a yearling Malamute, huge and black, sits at the front door waiting as patiently as he can for Bob to let him outside to chase the delicious scents of deer and rabbit and coyote.

“Here you go,” says Bob, opening the door for Boots and letting in the sweet mountain air.

Bob has lived on String Creek for two years now, the nearest town Willits—a slow, bumpy, half-hour drive away. When he was a young man living in a garret and striving to write good poems, he dreamt of living in a fertile valley such as this, a valley surrounded by wilderness, but in those youthful dreams he was not yet bitter, nor was he so entirely alone.

He steps out onto the front porch and watches Boots race across the meadow and leap over the little stream that is String Creek, a tender flow not three-feet deep where salmon will soon be arriving at their journey’s end. Bob didn’t believe the realtor when she told him that salmon, big salmon, swam up the mountain every year to spawn in the tiny creek. “They swim hundreds of miles from the ocean,” she said matter-of-factly, “and climb two thousand feet to spawn right here in your own backyard. How’s that for a selling point?”

The idea of enormous fish finding their way to a stream that was no more than a trickle in September seemed so preposterous to Bob that he banished the thought until the week before Christmas last year. And then, after unceasing torrential rain kept him inside for six days, Bob braved the deluge and went out to walk his twenty acres; and there were the salmon, beaten and bloody, crowding the rain-swollen creek to birth their next generation.

And when he saw those salmon in the little creek, the wall around Bob’s heart came tumbling down. He wanted to shout and weep in amazement and grief and triumph, but no shouts or tears escaped him. Still, he wanted to weep, and this was enough to inspire a new poem, the first he’d written since the birth of his daughter thirty years ago.

But a few days later, Bob woke to find the wall around his heart rebuilt, and no more poems came to him. So he cursed himself for failing as a poet and for selling his soul for money and for being a terrible father and a rotten husband and a disgraceful human being, and he burned the new poem.

Boots returns to Bob, laughing in the silent way dogs laugh.

“Smells good out here,” says Bob, scratching the big pup’s head. “I’ll get my boots on Boots and meet you down the road.”

Reassured by Bob’s voice and touch, Boots races away to sniff the myriad traces of animal news.

2

Are we expressions of dreams?

Bob walks north on the valley road, moving slowly until exertion lessens his stiffness. The air is icy, the sky void of clouds, the sun an hour away from cresting the ridge.

“Gonna finally have some blue sky,” he murmurs, smiling in anticipation of meeting Boots along the way, their day officially begun when they return home together, Boots to come and go as he pleases, Bob to spend time in his woodshop making beautiful little boxes, and in his living room sitting by the woodstove reading history and short stories and poetry. And after supper, Bob will play Scrabble and chess with himself at the kitchen table before moving into the living room to practice Bach For Beginners on an old teak upright piano until he’s good and tired and ready for bed.

Afraid the pup would run away and be eaten by coyotes, Bob kept Boots inside all day and on a leash whenever they went out until Boots was five months old. But now that the dog is so huge, Bob’s fear has largely subsided, though he still worries when Boots is gone for more than an hour or so; and he keeps him inside at night.

3

Are we flesh and bone bagpipes

to be filled with air and played?

There are eight homes on String Creek, and everybody knows everybody else, except for Bob, who made it perfectly clear from the outset he wasn’t interested in making friends with anyone. Indeed, to this day he never waves when he drives past other people coming and going in their cars and trucks, nor does he wave to people working in their orchards or out chopping wood or walking their dogs. He is a recluse and his neighbors leave him alone.

As he approaches the house of his nearest neighbor, a modest one-story home watched over by five colossal oaks, Bob is surprised to see a woman in the road. She is wielding an axe and striking ineffectually at a tangle of enormous oak limbs that have fallen across her drive and trapped her car. Small and pretty with gray hair in a ponytail, she’s wearing brown boots, black jeans, and a black Giants sweatshirt—a strong, healthy woman, but no match for the massive branches.

Bob has met this woman twice before. The first time was on his third day in the valley when she came to his house to welcome him with a bottle of red wine and a bouquet of yellow roses. He declined her gifts, saying he didn’t drink wine, which was a lie, and that he was allergic to roses, which was an even greater lie since roses are his favorite flowers. And the second time he met her was a few months ago when she walked Boots home after the pup spent the morning playing with her dog. On that day, she caught Bob out chopping wood and managed to tell him a little bit about herself before he escaped. She is German, a therapist of some sort, lives alone, has children and grandchildren, and is exactly Bob’s age: sixty-six.

“Do you have a chainsaw?” asks Bob, surprising himself by asking. “I can clear a path for you to get your car out.”

“Oh, thank you,” she says, her blue eyes sparkling. “I have one in my tool shed. Would you mind? I’m picking up my friend in town. She came all the way from Switzerland to celebrate the solstice with me.”

“But first I need to get my dog,” he says, hurrying past her. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Oh, I’ll send Lily to get him,” she says, looking toward her house. “She and Boots are good friends.”

Bob is about to decline her offer when a big wolfish white dog appears beside the woman and gazes at Bob with her big brown eyes.

“Go find Boots,” says the woman, touching Lily’s head. “Bring him home for snacks.”

Lily sings a high musical note and runs away.

“Are you sure she knows what you mean?” asks Bob, suddenly aware of the musical burbling of String Creek.

“Oh, yes,” says the woman, beckoning him to follow her. “She knows exactly what I mean. And she knows my feelings, too.”

“I had a cat,” says Bob, recalling his long ago life when his greatest joy was to be writing a poem he thought might be good. “A big orange tabby. And she always knew when I was sad.”

“What would she do when you were sad?” asks the woman, turning to look at him.

“She’d come to me and mew until I picked her up and held her.” He smiles wistfully. “But only when I was sad. Her name was Athena.”

“I had a wonderful cat, too,” says the woman, sighing. “A gray tabby named Omar, after the baseball player. But she killed so many birds and then a coyote killed her so I never got another one.”

Bob blushes. “Forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“Irene,” she says, bowing in a sweetly clownish way. “Irene Weintraub.”

“Bob,” he says, bowing a little, too. “Bob Webster.”

“So how do you like living so far from town?” she asks, her accent beguiling. “We’ve all been wondering about you.”

“Oh, really?” he says, oddly flattered. “What have you been wondering? Whether I grow pot or not? I don’t.”

“No, it’s just that most people who come to live on the creek only keep to themselves for a year or so before joining in or running away, so…”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m here to the bitter end.”

“Why so grim?” she asks, pouting sympathetically. “When the air is so sweet.”

4

hungry animals

Irene’s chainsaw is out of gas and in need of oiling. She finds some oil, but her gas can is empty.

“Do you have a length of hose?” asks Bob, glaring at the funky old chainsaw. “For siphoning gas from your car?”

“My car is electric,” she says, apologetically. “The man who cuts my wood brings his own fuel.”

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” says Bob, turning to go. “I’ve got a much better saw and plenty of gas.”

“Great!” she says, calling after him. “You’re a prince, Bob.”

5

desperate criminals

Bob likes Irene. He admits this as he jogs back to his house. And he likes that she needs his help, which reminds him of how he met Andrea.

He was shooting hoops at McKinley Park in Sacramento when Andrea walked by disconsolately pushing her flat-tired bike. Bob had a pump on his bike and offered to fill Andrea’s tire so she could ride a bit further before having to walk again. He ended up riding with her and pumping up her tire every few blocks until they got to her house.

6

lost children

Bob eats two bananas and three big handfuls of almonds to give him energy for the work ahead. Now he loads his saw and axe and toolbox and gas can into his pickup; and as he is about to get into his truck, he realizes that he is happy. So he stands still for a long moment and enjoys the rare sensation of being eager to help someone.

7

visionary geniuses

Irene comes out of her house as Bob is inserting his earplugs.

“Good news,” she says, smiling warmly. “My friend, her bus is delayed, so we have extra time to clear things.”

“Extra time,” says Bob, daring to return her smile. “What a concept.”

“All the time in the world,” she says, laughing. “In no time at all.”

“I should have this cleared by then, I think,” says Bob, putting on his work gloves. “I hope.”

“You’re an angel,” she says, gazing fondly at him. “My savior.”

He pulls the cord and his saw roars to life.

Irene covers her ears and retreats into her house.

Bob lowers the whirring blades onto the bough and braces himself as the teeth bite into the wood.

8

earthworms

Eleven months ago, on a rainy day in January, Bob was driving into Willits to buy his suicide kit—a gun and bullets. On a hairpin turn halfway to town he came upon a little girl, barefoot and filthy, carrying a cardboard box.

Bob stopped to see if he could help her, and she said, “My dad wants to drown them so I’m going to Safeway in Willits and give them away.”

There were four pups in the box, three dead, Boots barely alive.

Bob steps back as the blade comes through the bottom of the bough, his seventh cut complete. He shuts off the motor and sets the saw down. His heart is pounding, his shirt soaked with sweat, his beard and face and hair covered with sawdust.

Irene brings him a big glass of water. “Boots and Lily are in the kitchen,” she says, speaking loudly so he can hear through his plugs. “I think I will keep them inside so they don’t run off. Lily hates chainsaws.”

“Thanks,” he says, gulping the water. “Big old tree. Too bad so much had to come down.”

“Yes,” says Irene, taking his empty glass. “But I can use the firewood, and now I will have more light in winter.”

“The benefits of tragedy,” he says, laughing self-consciously.

“The opportunities of crisis,” she says, dancing away.

9

indigenous hominids

Bob has been working for three hours and is exhausted, the driveway not yet clear.

“Help me,” he whispers, speaking to God. “Help me do this.”

He tries to lift the saw to start the next cut, but his arms are too tired. So he kills the motor and sits down on the last bough he has yet to clear, the largest of them all, and recalls the last time he saw his son.

Five years ago. Sacramento. Bob arrives at Daniel’s house in River Park to visit Elise, his beloved grandchild. She is four years old, Bob’s only certain joy in those terrible days of his horrid divorce and the nightmarish selling of his house and the humiliation of training his replacement for that insipid job that defined him for thirty years.

After a few beers, Bob begins disparaging Andrea.

Daniel interrupts and asks to speak to Bob outside.

On the front lawn, the Gingko leaves turning yellow, Daniel says, “I don’t want you saying bad things about Mom in front of Elise. It isn’t fair. She wants to love you both. Needs to, Dad. She needs to love you both.”

“Fair?” says Bob, trembling with rage. “Was it fair that bitch used me for thirty years and dumped me like so much garbage?”

“That isn’t true,” says Daniel, shaking his head. “You used her as much as she used you.”

Bob explodes—blasting his son with cruel obscenities.

Daniel goes inside and closes the door.

Bob lifts his head as a big brown United Parcel Service truck comes around the bend and stops a few yards from Bob’s pickup.

Now a beautiful man with creamy brown skin hops down from the truck and says, “Sorry to bother you, but could you move your truck? I have a package for Bob Webster. Last house on the road.”

“I’m Bob Webster,” he says wearily. “Trying to clear this tree so Irene can get out.”

“You want some help? I’m Alfredo Lopez. Brought you a million books from Amazon. I wondered if I’d ever get a look at you.”

“I hide whenever you come,” says Bob, laughing at how silly he has been for so much of his life. “But now I’m too tired to hide.”

“I’ll get my earplugs,” says Alfredo, hopping back into his truck. “You lend me your gloves, I’ll get that last limb for you.”

“You’re a prince,” says Bob, slowly rising to his feet. “Thank you.”

10

goldfinches diving out of the sky

Driving home from Irene’s, Boots beside him in the cab, Bob begins to shiver violently.

Too exhausted to bring in his tools, Bob barely has the strength to open his front door.

His heart beating erratically, Bob somehow manages to take a shower and crawl into bed.

11

angels descending with wings extended

Bob and Alfredo hover in the air over String Creek, the tender flow dammed with logs and debris. Below the dam, hundreds of salmon lay gasping for oxygen in the dry beds.

Bob and Alfredo attack the dam with huge electric carving knives.

The dam gives way and Bob runs down a wooden tunnel into the living room of his old house in Sacramento where Daniel and Alice are hiding behind an unadorned Christmas tree.

Bob sings to his children, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

And here under the tree, presented on a red pillow, is the package Alfredo brought.


12

and golden slippers touching down beside the river

Having slept through the night and most of this next day, Bob wakes to the slow steady beating of his heart.

He gets out of bed, his arms and legs aching from yesterday’s labor—dusk giving way to moonlight. He feeds Boots, starts a fire in his woodstove, and runs a hot bath.

And as he watches the water tumble from the spigot into the tub, he conceives the letter he will write to Daniel and Susan and Andrea.

Greetings from String Creek

I hope you’re sitting down when you read this so you don’t fall over in amazement and hurt yourself. Ahem. As you know, I have been a self-righteous, self-loathing, self-pitying jerk for a very long time, and you have suffered greatly because of my actions toward you. I don’t expect you to forgive me for being so unkind to you, or to believe me when I say I have changed, but I want to invite you back into my life, however that may manifest. Maybe we could write to each other. Or maybe you could come and visit me. And should you invite me to Sacramento, I will come in peace as a friend.

From now on I am going to make a conscious effort to live my life with an open heart and an open mind, and do my best to eschew (gesundheit) blame and shame and judgment. I want to love you, nothing more.


13

we kneel to kiss the lucid flow

Lying in his hot bath, Bob weeps for the first time in three decades, and when he is done weeping, he laughs.

14

and imbibe the divine infusion

Bob goes out naked into the moonlight, his body steaming, and immerses himself in String Creek.

Now he hears splashing downstream—the salmon coming home.

15

clarity after rain

Bob shaves off his beard and dresses warmly for the walk to Irene’s. But before he and Boots leave the house, Bob opens the package delivered by Alfredo, a package from Bob’s granddaughter Elise who is nine-years-old now.

Her gift to Bob is a turquoise T-shirt, turquoise being Bob’s favorite color. Across the chest in purple thread she has carefully embroidered

I  AM

ELISE’S GRANDFATHER


16

After Rain

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

Are we expressions of dreams or

flesh and bone bagpipes to be filled

with air and played or hungry

animals or desperate criminals or

lost children or visionary geniuses

or earthworms or indigenous

hominids or goldfinches diving out

of the sky or angels descending with

wings extended and golden slippers

touching down beside the river

where we kneel to kiss the lucid

flow and imbibe the divine infusion

of clarity after rain?

(Photo by Marcia Sloane)