Posts Tagged ‘Marcia Sloane’

Sherlock Gnomes

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Noam Gnomsky

Little Gnome photo by Marcia Sloane

 “I can never bring you to realize [Watson] the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace.” Conan Doyle

Marcia came into my office a few days ago and said, “Have you seen the little gnome in Flower Pot Village?”

I thought she might be pulling my leg, since we are not gnome collectors, but lo, clinging with both hands to the edge of a large terra cotta flower pot in the assemblage of flower pots we call Flower Pot Village was a small Caucasian gnome, five-inches-tall, a happy smiling ceramic fellow with a white beard, pointy gold hat, turquoise jacket, brown trousers and black shoes. Cute.

Having determined that neither Marcia nor I placed the little intruder in the village, we were confronted by a mystery: who did? And our suspicions immediately fell on our neighbor Marion.

I must digress slightly to say that every visitor to our house passes close by Flower Pot Village, a dozen large flower pots sitting on an elevated pad of bricks adjacent to the wooden deck one must traverse to reach our front door. Thus anyone with an interest in things growing in pots and gardens will note in passing the mint, cilantro, basil, aloe, and arugula citizenry of the village. Those not attuned to things in the garden will note nothing of interest there.

Which suggests that whoever introduced the little alien to the village is attuned to things in the garden, knew of the village, and is the sort of person who would enjoy giving us a gift without telling us so we might be confronted with a pleasant sort of mystery, assuming we don’t have a gnome phobia, which we don’t. Marcia and I are not gewgaw people, but we do like tasteful statues, large and small, if they harmonize well with the natural surround and are not too plentiful.

Marcia inquired of Marion if she knew anything about the little gnome and Marion said she knew nothing about him. This did not, however, immediately exonerate Marion. Denial is never proof, Watson, no matter how convincing. But denial in this instance did cause us to consider who else might have been responsible for the implantation of the gnome into Flower Pot Village.

“Pray compose yourself, sir,” said Holmes, “and let me have a clear account of who you are and what it is that has befallen you.” Conan Doyle

So we composed a list of visitors or possible visitors to our house over the preceding three days: Marion, Bob, Deb, Kate, Defer, Matt. We eliminated Defer, our across-the-street neighbor, because he only ever brings us piles of newspapers for fire starters and is concerned with large trees not little plants in pots. And we eliminated Matt, because he is not a gewgaw person and hasn’t been around much lately.

That left Marion, Bob, Kate, and Deb.

Marion. Avid gardener, presides over her own flower pot villages, appreciates our garden, visits frequently, has a wry sense of humor, is in the process of moving out of her large house into a smaller abode and is actively getting rid of things. Thus her denial of a connection to the gnome remains questionable.

Bob. I met Bob when he and I were nineteen, I in my second and last year of college, he in his first, and we have been fast friends ever since. Bob is one of the most reflexively generous people I know. He comes to visit us once a year from Sacramento and always brings gifts, insists on treating us to supper, and always wants me to put him to work hauling firewood or pulling weeds. What a guy. However, he is definitely not a gewgaw person, and his gifts are usually edible or drinkable. This time he brought an array of delicious microbrewery beers to share with Marcia, took us out to supper at the Mendocino Café, and bought us superb sandwiches from the Mendocino Market across the street from the post office—a gnome guy he is not.

Kate. Poet, professional caregiver, loving and generous, appreciative of the garden. She came for supper. Upon her arrival, I watched her cross the deck and take no notice of the flower pots. I accompanied her to her car after supper and she made no sudden move toward the pots. Thus we do not suspect her, though we think she would appreciate the gnome.

Deb. Serious gardener. Gifted us with a Daphne last year, which is taking root and slowly getting larger and had her first flowers this spring. Deb likes looking at our garden. Comes every two weeks for a cello lesson with Marcia. Always makes a circuit of the deck, checking things out. Makes quilts. Might be a gewgaw person. I have seen her on multiple occasions lingering in the vicinity of Flower Pot Village. If we believe Marion is not the culprit, Deb becomes the leading suspect.

Marcia emailed Deb, attached three photos of He Who Clings To The Flower Pots, and asked, “Any idea how this feisty little gnome got in our garden?”

To which Deb replied, “I’ve heard they sometimes travel in packs under the cover of darkness at night, and occasionally one will take off on an adventure searching for a friendly garden of his own. Danny [Deb’s husband] says they’ve been really bad this year (meaning lots of them) because of all the rain; we have a few here.  But they are rather cute and don’t seem to eat the plants or bother them. I’d just ask him his name and stay on his friendly side. Don’t be surprised if he moves around from plant to plant, looking for just the right place.”

So to be on the safe side, we inquired of the gnome what his name was. He blushed, smiled brightly, but remained mute until we were walking away, and then we distinctly heard him say, “Noam. My name is Noam Gnomsky.”

Not Stupid

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Todd and Squash

Todd and Hubbard photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Harper Lee

What most frightens me about the millions of people who want Donald Trump or someone equally fascistic and misogynist and woefully ignorant of international affairs to be President of the United States, and also what frightens me about those who feel Hillary Clinton would be a better choice for President than Bernie Sanders, is that many of these people are not stupid.

When I was in my twenties and roaming around the Midwest working as a farm laborer, I spent several days working for a farmer in eastern Kansas who was unquestionably a genius. He had quit high school at fifteen to take over the family farm when his father died, and had managed through hard work and intelligent planning to become a very successful wheat, corn, and alfalfa grower.

He was in his early fifties when I met him, his three children grown, graduated from college, and disinterested in being farmers. Thus he, as most of the Midwestern farmers I worked for in the early 1970s before it became common practice there to hire immigrants from Mexico and Central America, was glad to hire me at three dollars an hour plus meals and a barn to sleep in, to do the heavy lifting and drudge work his sons and grandsons might have done prior to the corporatization of agriculture and the demise of family farms.

Over our long dinners—dinner the name of the mid-day meal on the farms in the Midwest—and suppers and breakfasts, this farmer shared with me his many ideas about society, capitalism, psychology, and many other subjects, and when I would say, “Well, you’re reiterating what Marx said about…” or “Freud said a similar thing regarding…” he would invariably and honestly say, “Who?”

He read the local newspaper but did not read magazines or books, and he was chagrined to admit he found The Bible largely incomprehensible. Yet his ideas about culture and society and economics, born of his phenomenal intelligence and curiosity, were as sophisticated and plausible as anything I had read before, during, and after college.

He was also a devout Christian, a staunch Republican, and a racist, though he had abandoned his belief that men were inherently superior to women—his two exceedingly bright daughters and highly intelligent wife having cured him of that. On my last day with him, I told him I was baffled that someone of his vast intelligence and possessed of what I considered formidable wisdom, could be a racist Republican, and he said humbly, “Intelligence has a hard fight against deeply ingrained beliefs.”

“Learning learns but one lesson: doubt!” George Bernard Shaw

My father was a vitriolic atheist and a psychoanalyst. In his old age, he was certain he had stumbled on the reason why so many people, even seemingly intelligent people, believed in God. He posited that the tendency to believe in God, what he called magical thinking, was genetic: that most people were genetically hardwired to be magical thinkers.

Any argument to the contrary infuriated him, so I would remain silent when he began his lecture about Type A People and Type B People, and how all of human history could be explained by understanding that Type A People, those who were not predisposed to believe in God, cleverly manipulated and controlled the much greater number of Type B People who had no choice but to believe in God. In other words, all the religious leaders in the world since the dawn of civilization were atheists who pretended to believe in God in order to control the genetically inferior masses.

My father believed it was the genetic mutation for atheism that began civilization, which was a direct consequence of one sector of humanity gaining power over another through this genetic intellectual superiority.

Science and history have shown my father’s theory to be nonsense, and modern history, current history, is replete with examples of masses of fanatically religious people being quite uncontrollable by people not predisposed to believe in God. And that, as I said at the outset, is what scares me most about the governors and legislatures of the majority of American states, and the current majority of representatives in the United States Congress, and the millions of people who favor Trump and Bush and Clinton over Bernie Sanders: these people are not stupid, they are insane.

Of course, they would say I am insane for thinking egalitarian socialism is a good way to go. They would say I am insane for thinking we ought to take half the military budget every year and spend it on solarizing every viable house in America and building fast electric trains to give hundreds of millions of people exciting and comfortable alternatives to automobiles, and making education free from kindergarten through graduate school. And they would say I am insane for thinking we should have Single Payer Healthcare.

“From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.” Denis Diderot

Walking to town today, I crossed the coast highway at the only stoplight in Mendocino, and exchanged smiles with a large man hitchhiking south, his backpack lying on its back on the ground. I continued into town, did my errands, and on my way home found the big man still there, waiting for someone to give him a ride.

As I waited for the light to change in my favor, I said to him, “In my hitchhiking days, albeit a long time ago, I found having a sign naming my destination was helpful.”

He nodded affably and said, “I find that’s still true.”

“Where are you headed?” I asked, curious why he didn’t have a sign.

He shrugged. “Don’t really have a destination. Just looking for a place to camp for a few days and stay dry.”

The light changed, and as I started across the highway I said, “Good luck to you.”

“Not luck,” he replied, shaking his head. “Everything is predestined.”

Four Chairs

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

four chairs

Four Chairs photograph by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Marcia and I recently bought four new chairs for our dining nook, and I think the way we got these chairs and the feelings they inspired will be of interest to people of my generation, those of us born in America between 1945 and 1955 or thereabouts. We were teenagers and young adults during the world-changing era known as the Sixties, which I believe lasted roughly from 1963 to 1975. By no coincidence those are also the years of the American chapter of the Vietnam War.

Exhaustive economic studies have found that my generation, despite the mythos of the Sixties, is the most materialistic generation to ever live on this earth. Whether that is true or not, when I and many of my age peers were in our twenties, we rejected the materialism of our parents and the larger society and chose lives of intentional simplicity, a choice that profoundly shaped my life ever after.

For one thing, choosing to live lightly on Mother Earth separated me from the vast majority of other people in America and made me keenly aware of the hierarchic nature of our social system, a hierarchy based on how much money and possessions a person has. Thus by choosing to have little, I found myself at the bottom of the heap, but because many of us made this choice in the Sixties, I did not feel lost and alone. On the contrary, I felt encouraged and excited about the potential for societal change that material minimalism and egalitarian socialism promised.

Anyway, the Sixties fizzled out, the so-called hippies became ravenous materialists, and those of us who remained true to the ethos of the Sixties found little support for our ideas and proclivities. Had I been even slightly prescient in 1972, I would have bought a few houses in Santa Cruz when a nice two-bedroom home a block from the beach could be had for seven thousand dollars. But I was not prescient and I didn’t buy, so today I do not sit on a mountain of gold.

“I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Henry David Thoreau

Which brings me to how we got our four new chairs. Marcia and I went to Santa Rosa to spend three days before Christmas with Opal, Marcia’s mother, a sneaky good pool player who always says, “Pure luck” after sinking another in a series of formidable shots en route to victory.

For lunch one day the three of us went to the Nepalese Indian restaurant Yeti, and when we were seated in our elegant wood-framed, broad-bottomed, high-backed, royally reddish upholstered chairs at the handsome dark wood table, Marcia declared, “I love these chairs. They are so comfortable. I would love to have chairs like these.”

We inquired of our friendly Nepalese waiter if he knew where one might purchase these enviable chairs, and a moment later the owner of Yeti, a charming man named Narayan Somname, came to our table and said, “Yes, I have more of these chairs in my warehouse in Glen Ellen. How many would you like?”

“Well, er, four,” I said, looking at Marcia to see if she wanted to jump at the chance. “How much do…”

“I will sell them to you for ninety dollars each,” he said, nodding. “They require some assembling.”

We pondered the situation for the rest of our scrumptious meal and concluded we would buy four. We arranged to meet Narayan at the restaurant the next day to give him a check and get the chairs, which he would bring from Glen Ellen, and that is what we did. The chairs came two to a box marked Made In China, the two boxes just fitting in the trunk of our trusty old Camry.

As Narayan closed the trunk, he said, “You may have noticed in the restaurant we affixed braces to the legs because after a year, some of the chairs began to wobble. I will take ten dollars off the price of each chair so you can purchase the necessary hardware.”

We arrived home in Mendocino on Christmas Eve, and after we got the woodstove roaring and our frigid house was habitable once more, I unpacked the chairs and found in each box a piece of fabric wrapped around a couple dozen bolts of widely varying sizes, with no directions for assembling the chairs.

Four hours of cursing and futzing and puzzling and grunting later—did I mention cursing?—the four chairs were assembled and arrayed around our dining table where, for the last ten years, four small uncomfortable folding chairs had served us with the aid of additional cushions for butts and backs.

We sat in our new chairs, Marcia pronounced them marvelous, and I thought they were marvelous, too, but I also felt a little guilty about having such beautiful chairs to sit on.

The next day, writing to my friend Max, I said, “These new chairs make me feel very adult. I wondered if I ever would.”

Max wrote back, “I laughed aloud at this. Maybe all along you merely needed the exactly right chair in order to experience a change of consciousness? Or I should ask: what is it about these chairs, do you think, that causes you to feel very adult?”

I replied, “The previous chairs I bought were small and inexpensive and not particularly comfortable, and there was a Spartan precarious feeling to them. I still feel slightly immoral buying new clothing, though I do buy new shoes and I bought a new piano in 1980. I don’t know. Maybe in so completely rejecting materialism, I got stuck in the mindset of my penniless twenties, and spontaneously buying four groovy chairs feels antithetical to my lifetime practice of owning a few excellent things and making do with minimal everything else.”

Seymour

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Cat and jamming

The Piano Lesson photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“If you play an instrument or sing, you will no doubt agree that life’s experiences influence the way you practice. But has it ever occurred to you that the opposite may also be true: that the skills gained from practicing—namely, the refinement and control of your emotions, your thoughts, and your physical responses—can influence your life?” Seymour Bernstein

Last night Marcia and I watched Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about the pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, who was eighty-five at the time the film was made and is eighty-eight today. The film, directed by Ethan Hawke, the actor, is certainly about classical music and pianos and playing the piano, but the movie is also a fascinating and ever-surprising portrait of an extremely thoughtful person with an extraordinary talent for teaching.

The previews for the film made me worry that Ethan Hawke would be too much in the film, but his presence is minimal. Most of the film brings us into intimate closeness with Seymour, who is delightfully erudite and eccentric. I felt we were having a visit with a favorite uncle, and whether I agreed with everything he said or not, it was big fun hanging out with him.

A most unlikely veteran of the Korean War—and there is a great segment of the film devoted to his military experience in Korea—Seymour grew up in an entirely non-musical family, but began playing the piano when he was five, having begged his parents to buy a piano. His disapproving father used to say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” but Seymour was born indivisible from music and so was not deterred by his foolish father.

At one point in the movie, Seymour is in the piano rental room downstairs in the Steinway building in Manhattan, working with a brilliant young pianist on technique, and the young pianist says, and I paraphrase, “Everything in my life is about music.” And we see Seymour responding to the young man’s pronouncement with a look that says, “Yes. You are a younger version of me.”

Several scenes in the film take place in this Steinway rental room—Seymour looking for a grand piano to use for the recital Ethan Hawke has scheduled for the denouement of the film. As a piano player, these scenes made my mouth water and re-ignited my lifelong desire to have a super duper grand piano—not that there’s anything wrong with my trusty upright. But when one hears those bass notes played on a superlative grand piano, and one’s entire body begins to hum along, well…

Seymour goes from grand piano to grand piano, looking for one that sounds good to him even when played softly. He plays a few chords on one piano and crows, “Horror of horrors!” and then dashes away to try one he declares “not bad”, until at last he finds a piano he proclaims the finest he has ever played, and this from a man who has undoubtedly played hundreds of the finest pianos in the world.

My favorite scenes in the movie are when we get to watch Seymour giving private lessons and master classes, all of his students accomplished pianists. Again and again, we hear these pianists play parts of pieces that sound wonderful, and then we watch Seymour adroitly help them noticeably improve their playing of the part, either by explaining the music to them in a way they have not considered, by demonstrating what he wants them to do by playing for them, or by physically taking hold of them and altering their postures as they play. And everything he does and says is freighted with love for the music and for the musicians. Inspiring!

Hawke decided to film a number of conversations Seymour has with a variety of people: two pianists, a British guy claiming to be a mystic, and a man in his fifties who has been Seymour’s student since he was five-years-old. The self-proclaimed mystic struck me as entirely superfluous to the film, and I had the feeling Seymour thought so, too. The two pianists are useful echoes to some of Seymour’s ideas about practicing and self-discipline, and his middle-aged student poses a question that made me want to smack the guy, but Seymour handles the question with equanimity.

The guy, peeved that Seymour gave up performing when he was fifty, says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t you think someone with your extraordinary talent has an obligation to overcome his aversion to performing in order to give your gift to the world?”

Seymour’s answer is, “I poured my gift into you.”

And really a large point of the movie, and apparently the main reason Ethan Hawke wanted to make this film, is that Seymour is indivisible from his art, and this indivisibility is what he models for his students. Seymour’s bliss, if you will, springs from helping others become the best musicians they can be, regardless of their level of talent or whether they will ever perform for anyone other than themselves.

In his youth, Seymour did concert tours and wowed the critics, but none of that for him compares to the joy he feels in exploring music on his own terms, including composing, and helping others overcome their obstacles to playing better.

At one point, Hawke is shown trying to elucidate why he feels so conflicted about himself as an artist and a person. He says his best work as an actor is often not successful, and his largest successes, in terms of money, are his worst work. Seymour, who has lived in the same little one-room apartment for sixty years, suggests by everything he does and says that the solution to Hawke’s problem is to stop making crappy movies and make good movies instead. In making Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke has certainly taken Seymour’s advice.

It may also be, that like Seymour, Ethan will eventually discover his greatest gift when he ceases to take roles to make big money and gives his all to the art of acting, perhaps as a teacher.

Thanksgiving

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

thanksgiving

Marcia’s Best Ever Blue Hubbard Squash Pie

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

Henry Abbot is not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers, though until eight years ago he very much enjoyed giving rides to strangers and dropping them at the best hitchhiking spots in Fort Orford.

Oh, he still stops for Miles Larsen when he comes upon Miles walking home burdened with groceries, and he still gives the Collison boys rides when he sees them trudging home in the twilight after football or basketball or baseball practice, but they aren’t hitchhikers, they’re his friends and neighbors.

Youthful at fifty-nine, strangers guess Henry is in his late forties. A big sturdy man with sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes, Henry is a former lumberjack, now the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the only hardware store in Fort Orford, a town of three thousand hearty souls on the north coast of California. Henry was born and raised here, and except for five years away when he was in his twenties—two years of military service and three years peddling his songs in Nashville—Henry has never gone away except for the very occasional vacation.

A bachelor until he was forty-two, neither he nor anyone who knew him expected he would ever marry. Friendly, intelligent, and handsome, Henry liked women and women liked him, yet he seemed incapable of more than fleeting intimacy. And then he met Katy, the new veterinarian in town, fifteen years his junior, and they married three months after her arrival. They had two beautiful daughters, Cecily and Diana, and when the girls were seven and five—eight years ago—Katy fell off a ladder, struck her head, and died instantly.

Now Henry’s primary goal in life is to live until his daughters are able to fend for themselves, which is why he doesn’t pick up hitchhikers anymore—to lessen his chances of encountering a crazy killer.

But on this cold November morning—driving to town in his old white pickup—when he comes to where the country road he lives on meets the coast highway into Fort Orford, he sees a woman standing by the road with a backpack, violin case, and a small brown dog, and this woman is so much like Katy, Henry cannot help but stop for her.

Everything about her reminds Henry of his wife—her dark brown hair in a three-strand braid, her white Guatemalan blouse embroidered with red and blue and green thread, her loose-fitting blue jeans, her pointy chin, her light brown eyes, and her radiant smile. That she also has a violin and her dog is the twin of Leo, Katy’s constant companion, makes the similarity uncanny.

She opens the passenger door, looks in at Henry gaping at her, and asks, “Are you okay? You look stunned.”

“Haven’t had my coffee yet,” he says, his voice catching in his throat. “Still a little dreamy.”

“How far you going?” she asks, scanning him with a practiced eye and judging him safe, her accent Midwestern, as was Katy’s.

“Just into town. Fort Orford. Four miles.”

“Mind a dog?” she asks politely. “We can ride in back if you do.”

“Love dogs,” he says, smiling as she makes the same clicking sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth that Katy made—the little pooch jumping up onto the seat and gazing intently at Henry.

The woman lifts her big pack into the bed of the truck with remarkable ease, gets into the cab with her violin case, puts on her seatbelt and says, “Thanks for stopping. I’m Jolene. The mutt is Crawford.”

Henry caresses Crawford’s head, and the little dog hops onto Henry’s lap.

“Now that is truly amazing,” says Jolene, frowning at Crawford. “He’s never done that before.” She turns her gaze on Henry. “What are you? Some sort of dog whisperer?”

“We have a couple dogs,” says Henry, scratching behind Crawford’s ears. “Probably smells them on me.”

“No,” says Jolene, shaking her head. “He doesn’t even do that with people he knows. Only ever does it with me.”

“Maybe I remind him of someone,” says Henry, pulling onto the highway—Crawford leaving him to sit on Jolene’s lap. “I’m Henry. Where you headed?”

“Portland,” she says, embracing her violin case. “Unless something better manifests along the way.”

“Are you a classical musician or a fiddler? My wife…she’s no longer alive…she played the violin, too.”

“This is not a violin,” says Jolene, smiling sweetly at Henry. “Mandolin. I play folk songs and my own tunes, too. Some jazzy Brazilian things.”

“I used to play guitar,” says Henry, remembering his days in Nashville, how so very close he came to selling a song. “A million years ago.”

“So beautiful here,” says Jolene, sighing with pleasure as the dark blue waters of Prescott Bay come into view. “You know a good place to have breakfast in Fort Orford?”

“I know the best place,” says Henry, looking at Jolene and realizing she is quite a bit older than he first took her to be, her eyes pale blue not light brown, her skin dark olive, not white and freckled as was Katy’s, her hair not brown but black with strands of gray, not braided but in a pony tail, her blouse pale yellow and not embroidered, her jeans brown not blue. “Stuyvesant’s. Excellent omelets, strong coffee, brilliant waitresses.”

“Then that’s where I’m going,” says Jolene, tickling Crawford’s chin. “And aren’t you a lucky dog it’s not raining, so you won’t be getting wet while you wait.”

“I just realized,” says Henry, laughing, “you’re not American. You’re…”

“Irish,” says Jolene, nodding. “What a remarkable ear for accents you have.”

“If you’d like, you can leave Crawford with me,” says Henry, feeling perfectly at ease saying so. “I’m two doors down from Stuyvesant’s. The hardware store. I’m the manager. Dogs allowed.”

Jolene considers this offer and says, “Only I was hoping you’d have breakfast with me. My treat. I made a bundle busking in San Francisco.”

“Then we’ll bring Crawford with us,” says Henry, slowing way down as they enter the town, his eyes full of tears. “They won’t mind him if he sits on your lap.”

“Or yours,” says Jolene, gazing at Henry. “He loved you the minute he saw you.”

Roads Not Taken

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Roads Not Taken

Trail To Garfield Peak (Crater Lake 2015) photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

Do you sometimes look back on your life and recall those turning points that made you the chiropractor you are today instead of a tax attorney, a real estate agent instead of a dance instructor, a massage therapist instead of a taxidermist, a school teacher instead of a stockbroker, a hedge fund billionaire instead of a white water tour guide—or vice-versa?

Or your daughter calls you from her dorm at Pepperdine and says something that makes you think of the dance your sophomore year in college when you snubbed Andy Philips who was crazy about you because you thought he was dorky, though you liked him and laughed easily with him and you both loved Dickens and bird watching and Joni Mitchell and Emily Dickinson, and you adored Andy’s voice and sense of humor, but you were smitten with Brad Hamilton who was a total hunk, so you did everything in your power to seduce him, and you succeeded and got pregnant and married Brad, though you and he had nothing in common, and you ended up with three kids in Modesto where Brad is a clerk at Home Depot and you are a legal secretary.

So you Google Andy Philips and here he is, a professor of Poetics at the Institute For Transcendent Happiness on the island of Majorca, and the picture of him with his adorable cockapoodle Artemis on the shores of the Mediterranean is so lovely, and Andy, Andrew, is so handsome and lean and romantic looking you want to scream, but before you can scream Brad waddles into the room, bald and enormously fat, and says he can’t find the remote for the television and the game is just about to start—where is it?

But sometimes you look back over your life and see a key moment when you took a certain road that changed your destiny, not because you wanted to take that road, but because forces seemingly beyond your control forced you to go in a direction you might otherwise not have gone. I say seemingly in deference to those who believe we create our own karma, and even forces seemingly beyond our control are set in motion by our unconscious expectations of how things are supposed to be.

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

When I was in my early twenties and roaming around the country, my supreme wish was to break into the movie business and eventually write and direct movies. But how could I do that as a vagabond in Vermont, hitchhiking to Canada, my destination Montreal? Three weeks earlier, I had been refused entrance into Canada because I lacked sufficient funds—two hundred dollars—and therefore qualified as a potential vagrant and drain on the Canadian economy.

This was when thousands of American youth were taking advantage of Canada’s marvelous system of hostels providing free meals and beds to transients—yay for socialism—and the Canadian border guards were under orders to do what they could to restrict the influx of undesirables from America.

So I had gone back down into New England, worked on farms, hauled crab traps, and washed dishes in restaurants until I amassed two hundred smackers, and now I was on my way to try those border guards again.

I was standing by the road, my cardboard sign reading MONTREAL, lost in yet another fantasy of my meteoric rise as a filmmaker, when a car driven by two friendly men stopped for me. I loaded my guitar and backpack and myself into their back seat, and off we went. They asked where I was going and who I was, and after my brief autobiography, they informed me they were filmmakers, had just completed a documentary about Tiny Tim (the longhaired fellow who played ukulele and sang ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips’) and were on their way to Quebec City to make a movie about a famous bike race.

We got along splendidly and they offered me a job assisting them on their film. I could hardly believe my good fortune. At the border, they showed their passports to a young border guard, he welcomed them to Canada, and then he asked me to get out of their car and show him two hundred dollars, which I did, much to his surprise and chagrin.

“Can we go now?” asked one of the filmmakers. “We’re due in Quebec City tonight.”

“You can go,” said the guard, “but I have to search this guy’s stuff. Lots of drugs being smuggled into Canada these days.”

So the filmmakers left me at the border and said if I could get to Quebec City the next morning, the job was mine.

Overhearing their offer to me, the guard made sure I would never make it to Quebec City the next morning. He tore my pack apart. He crushed my aspirin pills to see if they were cocaine. He measured the largest blade on my Swiss Army knife to determine if I was carrying a concealed weapon. He jumbled my food and clothing together and unrolled my sleeping bag and tent on top of the jumble. I knew he wanted me to protest his absurd search so he could use my belligerence to deny me entry, but I gave him no such satisfaction, and finally, with darkness and a hard rain falling, he let me walk into Canada.

I camped in the woods that night, a mile past the border, and the next day, after waiting for several hours, I caught a ride with a longhaired guy smuggling several pounds of marijuana into Montreal. I suppose I could have hitchhiked to Quebec City the next day and begged those filmmakers to take me on, but I chose instead to spend the next week busking on the streets of Montreal and gawking at the gorgeous French Canadians.

Fin Again—Wake!

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

todd at Crater lake

Todd At Crater Lake photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“…that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes…” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

We just returned, Marcia and I, from a nine-day journey to Oregon, our motive operandi a visit to my brother and his wife in their new digs in Portland, they among the wave of humanity crashing onto Portland, which is now the fastest growing urban area in these United States. We stayed in Gold Beach and Yachats on the Oregon coast on the way up, two nights in the Portland manse with mein brudder und his wife, a night in Eugene with friends on the banks of the Willamette, two nights at the lodge at Crater Lake, a night with friends in Arcata and…

This morning I woke in our familiar king-sized bed here in the kingdom of Mendocino, and before clarity conquered the last wisps of dream imagery, I wondered: did I dream the entire journey? And then I remembered Norman O. Brown from whom I took a course at UC Santa Cruz in 1969, Myth and History, and saw him standing perfectly still on the stage of the lecture hall, this the umpteenth pregnant pause of his lecture. He was about to speak the last words of the day’s thought ramble, and he liked to give plenty of air to his final pronouncements.

“Fin. Again,” he said softly. And then louder, with an urgency bordering on ecstasy, “Wake!” Then soft again, almost under his breath, “Finnegan’s Wake.” And once more, “Fin. Again. Wake!”

“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

I have not traveled away from Mendocino in seven years, save for the occasional visit to Santa Rosa to visit Marcia’s mom and a few trips to San Mateo for Thanksgiving with the brother now in Portland. Thus for a stay-at-home, this Oregon jaunt was what my long-ago friend Leo used to call a Large Pattern Change.

I met Leo when I lived in a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972. My room was on the second floor of the big house I shared with eight other people, a long narrow room with a view of Monterey Bay. Leo would come to visit me twice a week and sprawl on my bed while I sat at my desk. He would speak of his difficulties with his mother, with his depression, and with women. As he spoke, I would jot down things he said that seemed pertinent or interesting to me.

How did I meet Leo? I was having coffee with a friend at the Catalyst—I am speaking of the original Catalyst housed on the ground floor of the St. Charles Hotel destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Leo approached our table to speak to our mutual friend, joined us, and asked me politely if I would buy him a cup of coffee and baklava.

Having barely enough money to pay for my own coffee, and not knowing Leo from Adam, I hesitated and Leo said, “You, too, currently short of funds? Then a small coffee and I’ll get yours next time.”

When I think of Leo, I think of Winnie-the-Pooh. I cannot imagine Leo running, only trudging. He was large, overweight, and had a beautifully sad old man’s face, though he was only in his late twenties when I knew him. He had long light brown hair and wore a beaten brown derby, a long scarf, and enormous shoes with holes in the toes. He was unemployed, lived in a boarding house, survived on a stipend from his mother, thought he might like to write something, but couldn’t get down to business.

I was little enamored of Leo after our initial meeting, so when he showed up at my house one afternoon a few days later, I hesitated to invite him in, but he seemed not to notice my hesitation. Shortly thereafter, he was sprawled on my bed recounting his latest disaster with a woman who waited tables at the Catalyst, “She obviously liked me until that Fulcrum Moment when we sat down in the Acapulco and I explained I only had sufficient funds for guacamole and one beer we could share, and it was Leo Becomes A Demon Time. Now when I come into the Catalyst she won’t even look at me and I want to shout, ‘What does money have to do with love?’ And now she asks He Of the Large Mustache to wait on me. I’ve seen her asking him and nodding furtively in my direction without looking at me.”

Thus I became Leo’s psychotherapist, and that was the extent of our relationship. He visited me twice weekly, unburdened himself for an hour or so, and then wandered away. He was fond of saying things like, “I’m on yet another plateau without a view,” and “My mother has entered another Stretch of Minimal Funding,” and “Yes, I lack purpose, but not for lack of desire.”

Leo believed all his troubles would be over if he could only convince one of the many beautiful young women he was madly in love with to become his lover. “I suffer from a lack of Reciprocal Passion. When I’m with Carla (the woman Leo spent most of his money on paying for sex) she won’t even open her eyes when…you know.”

 “The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity.” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

Today Mendocino is sunny and cool. Marcia is about to give a cello lesson and I am girding my loins to move two cords of summer-seasoned firewood into the woodshed in anticipation of what we hope will be a very wet winter—my batteries recharged by the splendors of our Oregon odyssey.

Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Crater Lake Chipmunk

Crater Lake Chipmunk photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

1972. Santa Cruz. Never enough money. I was working days as a gardener, nights playing music. My girlfriend was a waitress and house cleaner. Rent was cheap but wages were negligible.

So one day my girlfriend said to me, “My brother and his wife are making good money housesitting. If they can do it in Philadelphia, why can’t we do it here? People go away for a night, a week, a month, and they pay us to stay in their house, water the plants, feed the cats, walk the dog, maybe take care of their kids.”

She put an ad in the Sentinel. Something like: Responsible couple with good references will housesit for you. We are clean non-smokers, good with pets, good with plants, good with children.

Truth be told, I was not keen on housesitting, but my girlfriend was tired of our lack of cash and Spartan lifestyle.

A few days later, a woman called in response to the ad. Ellen. She was going away that Friday and returning Sunday. Ellen had a ten-year-old son and a dog. We went over to her house that night to audition. She was large, mid-thirties, we were skinny, early twenties. Her very fat son Perry was sitting on the sofa eating candy and watching television.

We met the dog, a friendly German Shepherd named Georgia. Her parents were purebred mega-champions. Ellen was planning to breed Georgia with another champion and sell the puppies for big money.

“Oh,” said Ellen, “I forgot to mention, Georgia is in heat, so we’ve been keeping her locked in the garage at night because lots of male dogs are coming around. Oh, and the reason I’m keeping Georgia in the garage at night instead of in the house is ever since she went into heat she’s been acting crazy. She barks and growls at the guinea pigs. Oh, I forgot to mention the guinea pigs. Chester and Madge. They’re purebred prize-winning longhaired black and white guinea pigs. That’s their cage on the high shelf. Their special food is in the refrigerator. I sell their babies for big money. Oh, and my most prized possessions, handed down from my great grandparents, are an onyx chess set and four onyx teacups and an onyx teapot. Hand-carved by a famous Mexican artist. They’re on the shelf above the stereo. Oh, and Perry is fine with TV dinners. He likes three or four of them for lunch and dinner. Cereal for breakfast. He has a television in his room, too. Helps him go to sleep.”

I was about to say maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, two complete strangers taking care of a big crazy-in-heat dog. My girlfriend was having second thoughts, too. But then Ellen said, “How does a hundred and fifty dollars plus twenty dollars for food sound?”

Considering I made two dollars an hour and my girlfriend made one-fifty plus tips, this was a dizzying sum so we said yes.

When we showed up on Friday afternoon, several male dogs were hanging around the house. Ellen was dolled up. Her perfume was so strong, I nearly fainted. She gave us the name of the motel in Monterey where she was attending a conference. We didn’t ask what the conference was about.

She served us beer and chips. Perry was eating a TV dinner and watching Leave It To Beaver. Georgia was asleep on the living room rug. Ellen had given her a tranquilizer in ground beef. When Georgia woke up, we were to lock her in the garage.

A horn sounded. Ellen grabbed her suitcase and dashed out the door. Perry looked up from Leave It To Beaver and said, “She’s not going to a conference. That’s Hal. He’s married.”

We made supper. My girlfriend got drunk and fell asleep beside Perry on the sofa. I fed the guinea pigs. Georgia woke up and I locked her in the garage. Perry fell asleep with his head on my girlfriend’s shoulder. At midnight, I woke up Perry and my girlfriend and we brushed our teeth and went to bed.

In the wee hours of the morning we woke to a loud crashing sound and whining and moaning. We got up to investigate. The guinea pigs were fine. The onyx teacups and teapot and chess set were fine.

But the whining and moaning coming from the garage did not sound fine, so I opened the door connecting the kitchen to the garage, turned on the light, and there was Georgia, daughter of registered champions, locked in coitus with the ugliest mongrel I have ever seen.

“Stuck together,” said Perry, giggling. “His penis has kind of a hook on it.”

The ugly mongrel had gotten into the garage by hurling himself through the window-top of the outside door. When the dogs finally separated, we shooed Ugly outside, I nailed a piece of plywood over the broken window, and we brought Georgia into the house and gave her a tranquilizer in ground beef. She was exhausted from her sex with Ugly and fell right asleep.

Alas, Georgia did not stay asleep. While we slumbered, she knocked the hamster cage off the shelf, tore the flimsy door off the cage, and slaughtered Chester and Madge. Then she annihilated the onyx teapot, teacups, and chess set.

The next day and night and day were torture as we waited for Ellen to come home from her conference with Hal. I spent the long hours gluing onyx shards together. But miracle of miracles, when Ellen came home and learned of the disaster, all she said was, “My fault. I never should have left you with Georgia in heat.” Then she handed us a hundred and seventy dollars.

A few days later, we got a check from Ellen for an additional fifty dollars and a note saying she felt terrible about putting us though such an ordeal. Would we consider housesitting for her again? We were the first sitters Perry had ever liked.

And though we were glad to know Perry liked us, we were no longer in the housesitting business.

Ganesha

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Ganesha

Ganesha photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Arthur Conan Doyle

Ganesha, also known as Ganapati and Vinakaya, is the male Hindu god with a human body and head of an elephant. His Rubensesque androgynous form is most often represented with four arms, each arm with a five-fingered hand, though some drawings and statues of Ganesha have as few as two arms and as many as twenty. Revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom, he is also the patron deity of writers.

I knew nothing about Ganesha until nine years ago when Marcia and I got together, and Marcia revealed she was a devotee of the chubby multi-talented deity. She owns two small statues of Ganapati, one a handsome two-armed drum-playing fellow carved from wood, and the other an alluring six-armed dancing guy made of brass.

A remover of obstacles is my kind of deity, so with Marcia’s permission I placed her wooden Ganesha on top of my upright piano where he shares the lofty plateau with two statues of Buddha, one a happy standing fatso, the other a mellow lotus-positioned fellow with his thumbs and fingers touching each other in an intriguing mudra. The only other idol atop my piano is a tiny glass baseball player currently stationed in the shadow of Ganesha—my last gasp plea for the removal of the Dodgers from the path of our floundering Giants.

The more I learn about Ganesha, the more I like him, and when we recently removed the obstacle of an unsightly outhouse from a cirque of redwoods viewable from the eastside windows of our house, we decided to look for a large statue of Ganesha to stand in the grotto previously occupied by the ugly pooper.

And lo we were directed to Sacred Woods in Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, an impressive yard containing hundreds of statues imported from Thailand and Indonesia by Rachelle Zachary, the owner of Sacred Woods. After a delightful hour of statue shopping, we settled on an exquisite four-and-a-half-feet-tall white-stone statue of the elephant-headed god, hand-carved by a Balinese master, and a few weeks later the weighty objet d’art was delivered to our south-side deck.

Our plan was to have the redwood trees surrounding the proposed location for the statue limbed up before we engaged a trio of strong men to transport the statue to the grotto. However, after two weeks of gazing out the south-facing dining room windows at the magnificent statue standing on the far edge of our ground-level deck, we decided to move the statue just a few feet off the deck from where he was. We had fallen in love with seeing him from the dining nook, which is also where I do much of my writing.

And so I began clearing away the dense grass and brambles and vines and dead fern fronds clogging the ground where we envisioned Ganesha standing in the embrace of two stately ferns, and after a few minutes of work I uncovered a massive flat-topped granite stone butting up against the deck. We briefly considered placing the statue on top of the granite stone, but the top was too narrow and too close to the deck where rambunctious dogs and exuberant children and clumsy adults might unwittingly topple the statue.

When Marcia came outside to see how my work was progressing, I gestured at the mass of dead branches and fern fronds and chunks of old bricks and rotting abalone shells left by the previous owners and said, “The ideal thing would be a little brick pad right in there.”

Marcia nodded, winked at Ganesha, returned to her studio, and as I filled my wheelbarrow again and again with the brittle remnants of the past, I held in my mind’s eye an image of our magnificent Ganesha standing on a small brick pad surrounded by an expanse of gray gravel populated with large stones.

Then something astonishing happened, something a non-believer would call a fortuitous coincidence, and something a devout follower of Ganesha would call His doing.

As I clipped away the last of several dozen dead fern fronds from the lower reaches of a large fern, I espied the corner of a pink brick lying in the ground. Having previously removed several chunks of old brick from the vicinity I thought this might be another such chunk. However, upon removing more of the detritus, I exposed a perfectly level pad made of eight whole bricks.

And that is where our statue stands today, surrounded by an expanse of gravel populated with large granite stones. We have no idea what stood on the brick pad prior to the coming of Ganesha, nor are we certain the brick pad was there before I suggested to Marcia and Ganesha that such a pad should be there. Judging from several other artifacts left behind by the previous owners, I would guess a statue of John Wayne or possibly Ronald Reagan stood where our Ganesha now lords it over the ferns and stones.

I was inspired to write about Ganesha today, remover of obstacles, after a visit to Main Street in Mendocino to view the sturdy white fence recently erected on what is now the end of the sidewalk just to the west of Gallery Books.

A public servant, or as A.A. Milne might have written, a Person Of Very Little Brain, is no doubt behind this blood clot, so to speak, in a major artery of our little town, and as I stood at the ridiculous fence and gazed out over the headlands and Big River Bay, I thought of Monty Python and Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers, for this travesty of a mockery of a sham is a hilarious commentary on how far we humans, collectively speaking, have not come since we climbed down from the trees millions of years ago and sallied forth to people the earth.

Oh Ganesha, Ganapati, Vinakaya—we implore you to help us remove the Dadaesque obstacle on Main Street.

Django

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Django

Django On Todd photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” Albert Schweitzer

On this first day of August, 2015, as darkness gives way to daylight and the cobwebs of sleep are swept away by a slowly dawning clarity of mind, I wonder what this deep silence is all about. Our thirteen-year-old cat Django is what I refer to as an alarm cat. Like clockwork, promptly at seven every morning, rain or shine, he begins to yowl for his humans to feed him. Marcia does not hear the morning yowls of our large gray shorthaired kitty, or so she claims, thus I am the human who most often rises to feed Django at the beginning of each day.

But today, when my expectant ears hear no feline cries for sustenance, my brain presents me with two options: the time is not yet seven or Django has gone hunting and will be home soon and start yowling. Upon rising, I find the time is 7:22, no cat in sight. I dole out a modest portion of food into Django’s empty bowl, and step outside into the deep quiet of the fog-enshrouded forest.

“Django. Django,” I call. “Come get your breakfast.”

By ten o’clock, Django has not yet appeared, and my brain reminds me that there have been a few times in the eight years I’ve been with Marcia when Django was gone for as long as twenty-four hours.

At quarter to eleven, fifteen minutes before Marcia is scheduled to leave with our neighbor Marion to attend a wedding in Eureka, Marion phones to say she just came home from visiting a friend and noticed the body of a large gray cat on the side of the road where our lane meets Little Lake Road, and she fears the cat might be Django.

In the next moment, Marcia and Marion and I are running down our quiet lane to Little Lake Road, and just to the east of our street lies the body of Django. Marcia bursts into tears, and I can barely see through mine as I lift the already stiff body into the box I brought to carry him home, one of his back legs badly broken and nearly separated from his body.

Because Marcia and Marion have to leave very soon to make the long trek from Mendocino to Eureka to be in time for the wedding, we hastily choose a place in our flower garden next to the agastache—the cones of purple flowers swarming with bumblebees and honeybees—and I dig a deep hole, bury Django’s body, and Marcia makes a beeline for a large brown stone on the north side of our house, a stone she wants to put atop Django’s grave. We fetch the dolly, load the big stone thereon, wheel the stone to grave, and together place the stone atop the freshly turned earth.

“Makes me feel better knowing he’s in the ground before I go,” says Marcia, giving me a farewell hug.

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” Sigmund Freud

Django had a near death health crisis two years ago due to his extreme obesity, and thereafter I became his strict dietician, doling out small portions of cat food, four times a day. He lost seven pounds, regained his energy, and became much happier and more loving—but he was always hungry and not shy about letting me know. Thus it became my daily habit to feed him when I got up in the morning, and again at noon, five, and ten.

With the advent of his persistent hunger, my regimen of late evening stretching exercises became an exciting event for Django—the unfurling of my yoga mat meaning Meal #4 would be served shortly after the mat was rolled up and put away. Thus whenever I would look up from my routine on the living room rug, there would be our big hungry cat on his footstool, watching my every movement, a cat who prior to the change in his culinary reality would sleep through my stretching because it had nothing to do with him.

After some weeks of observing my nightly stretching, the new slender Django apparently decided that if he stretched, too, his chances of being fed would improve, though I always fed him whether he stretched with me or not. In any case, he developed a series of cute flirtatious poses, our favorite being when he would lie on his back on his footstool, and hang halfway off, upside down, kneading the air with his mighty claws and making a high clucking sound.

“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” James Herriot

Django sat with us during supper every night. His designated chair was to Marcia’s right, and he often fell asleep while we ate and talked. But the moment, and I mean the very moment, Marcia put her fork down after taking her last bite of supper, Django would wake up, often from a deep snoring slumber, and reach out to Marcia, his paw suspended in the air.

What followed was unquestionably Django’s favorite time of every day, lap time, the lap in question Marcia’s. She would pull Django’s chair close to hers, he would cross to her lap and assume the pose of the famous sphinx of Giza, facing forward, his eyes closed, purring profoundly. And he would stay in that pose on Marcia’s lap for as long as she would let him, his bliss so huge and obvious, it never once occurred to me to ask Marcia to put Django back on his chair and assist me with the dishes. How could I possibly disturb Django’s ecstasy? I could not.

In my experience there are few things as marvelous to see as a big handsome cat meditating splendiferously on a lovely woman’s lap, and that is the memory of Django I will cherish for as long as I live.