Posts Tagged ‘MIT’

Uncle David

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

davidwalton

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

My uncle David Walton died in China on March 8 at the ripe old age of eighty-seven, just a week ago as I write this, yet I have already received an email with photographs from the lovely memorial service that was held for him in Xichang where David lived and taught English for the last several years, his Xichang friends and students in attendance. And that memorial service email was just one of many I have received so far along with several phone calls from a tiny fraction of the hundreds of people who knew and loved David.

David was the youngest of three brothers, my father Charles the eldest, Robert in the middle. They grew up in Beverly Hills, their father a bookkeeper for movie stars and people who needed a bookkeeper, his most famous client Hedy Lamarr. The child movie star Jackie Cooper lived down the street and the Walton boys attended one of Jackie’s birthday parties when David was very young. The brothers graduated from Beverly Hills High, where my father met my mother, and David went to MIT, as did Robert, the alma mater of their father, while my dad broke with family tradition and went to UCLA after which he attended medical school in San Francisco.

Upon graduating from MIT, David returned to Los Angeles and went to work for his father as a bookkeeper for some years, and when his father semi-retired in the early 1950’s, David relocated with his parents and brother Robert, who was by then severely disabled, to Carmel and Monterey, which is when my firsthand memories of Uncle David begin.

David was a handsome man, graceful and charming. In middle and old age he resembled the actor Alec Guinness to such a remarkable degree that after the first Star Wars movie came out, people frequently approached him thinking he was Obi-Wan Kenobi. I know this to be true because I was with David on two occasions when he was waylaid by star-struck people wanting Obi-Wan’s autograph.

David wore the same outfit every day of his life starting when he was in his early twenties. Unless he was backpacking in his beloved Sierras, he wore black shoes, black socks, black slacks, white dress shirt, bow tie, and black dinner jacket. In the privacy of his home he liked to wear a silk bathrobe. His bow tie was most often black, but occasionally plaid, the plaid of the Ross clan, which Uncle Bob discovered was a big part of our Scottish lineage. David told me that wearing the same clothes every day—his uniform as he called it—saved him time and trouble and money, made his suitcase light, and fulfilled his vision of himself as a kind of butler-at-large.

A butler? Yes. David told me that when he was eleven, circa 1937, he saw the movie My Man Godfrey, and thereafter knew who and what he wanted to be. The movie is a zany comedy starring the charismatic William Powell as a derelict who becomes a butler in the home of a wealthy and highly dysfunctional family, the female lead played by Carole Lombard. David told me that William Powell’s character Godfrey, the confidante and indispensable aide to everyone in the family, became David’s ideal for the kind of person he wanted to be; and to a remarkable degree David’s life reflected his adherence to the role of an indispensable servant, in butler’s dress no less.

In Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, the young hero is known to his admirers as Little Friend of All the World, and that, too, describes Uncle David, for he had legions of friends around the world, many of them falling under his spell while being served by him in one or another of the famous eateries he opened in Monterey, first in the 1950’s and then again in the 1980’s.

The first place David opened (circa 1955) was a coffee house, the Sancho Panza, in downtown Monterey when Monterey was a still a sleepy little town and Cannery Row was boarded up and abandoned. Sancho Panza, you will recall, was the loyal servant to Don Quixote, and David was the loyal servant to the public that came to hang out in that now mythic café for the decade when it was a cultural epicenter for artists and renegades and sophisticates and regular folk of Monterey and Carmel and Pacific Grove, as well as a wonderful surprise for tourists and travelers from far and wide.

The Sancho Panza, according to David, was home to the second genuine Italian espresso coffee machine on the entire west coast of North America when he first opened his doors, the first such machine being in Caffé Trieste in North Beach, the founders of that famous coffee joint being David’s friends and through whom David got his machine. Henry Miller, Joan Baez, Alan Watts, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Bob Dylan were among the many writers and artists and musicians who frequented the Sancho Panza, the coffee drinks legendary, as were the fruit frappes David concocted to go with yummy comestibles.

David would eventually open a little bookstore upstairs over the café, and in the early 1960’s David opened his second establishment The Palace on Cannery Row, which was one of the earliest sparks leading to the revival of that now aquarium-centric hot spot. The Palace was a beer and sandwich joint with a stage for live performers, and I regret I never got to experience The Palace in full swing. The Sancho Panza, on the other hand, was the highlight of our trips to visit my grandparents, and I would always have a peach or banana frappe and a cookie while hanging on Uncle David’s every word.

And while he was running the Sancho Panza and The Palace and performing in local theatre productions, David continued to be his brother Bob’s main caretaker, Bob having been paralyzed on the entire right side of his body as the result of a terrible car accident when he was in his mid-twenties. David was also a daily visitor to his parents’ house just up the hill from his café, his mother and father staunch Republicans and proud members of the John Birch Society, while the lefties and lesbians and Buddhists and artists gathered at the Sancho Panza to drink cappuccinos and revel in the Bohemian joint that David built.

Then in 1966, much to the shock and dismay of his many friends and followers, David announced he was selling both the Sancho Panza and The Palace and going to Vietnam to open USO clubs for the troops. David’s father, my grandfather, had recently died, and David had settled his mother into a nice apartment he shared with her on the beach in Monterey, and he arranged for people to do for Bob what he had been doing for Bob, and off he went to Vietnam.

“When I got off the jet in Saigon,” David told me, “and I was being driven to the site of the first club I opened, I felt deep in my bones I’m home. I’m finally home.” He came to realize that this feeling of being home was not so much about Vietnam as it was about Asia, for after a few years in Vietnam, David moved to Thailand and lived in and around Bangkok for many years. He came back to America fairly often to check on Bob and visit his many friends, but he was committed to living in Thailand where he was planning to build a retirement community and open a restaurant on an island owned by wealthy Thai friends.

I am, believe me, skating over the surface of David’s life, much of it unknown to me. When in 1978, I published my first novel Inside Moves, I let David know that Doubleday was throwing a publication party for me in Manhattan, and David sent me a roster of a dozen of his New York City friends he wanted me to invite. I did invite them and they all came out of loyalty to David, among them corporate executives, college professors, and penniless poets. One of the wealthy executives bought a dozen copies of my book and said as I signed them, “It is a great honor to meet the nephew of David Walton.”

“How do you know David?” I asked him.

“We go way back,” he said, winking mysteriously. “He’s a great man. One of the greatest.”

Then in 1984, just as David was about to open a Thai-American restaurant in Thailand, a friend called and offered him a restaurant location across the street from the brand new Monterey Bay Aquarium, and as David told me, “I couldn’t pass up the chance, so I brought my crew from Thailand and we opened the Beau Thai.” And that restaurant, known as David Walton’s Beau Thai, was soon famous and adored by locals as well as tourists, and David settled back into life in Monterey in his little beachside apartment, which he shared with two and sometimes three folks from Thailand.

No matter the season, David would take a daily plunge in frigid Monterey Bay before donning his uniform and heading off to the Beau Thai. Sadly, at the zenith of the Beau Thai’s popularity, tax trouble forced David to close the place, after which he returned to Thailand where he became entranced with the idea of moving to China, which he eventually did. David’s first home in China was an apartment in the enormous city of Chengdu where he lived for some years before moving to Xichang in the foothills of the Himalayas where he swam in Lake Qionghai, taught English to eager students (though he spoke no Chinese) and lived quite happily until he died. His sole income was from a pittance, less than eight hundred dollars a month, from Social Security, “Which is more than enough,” David told me, “to live quite well in Xichang.”

“I will cross over on my ninetieth birthday,” he said to me on several occasions, and though he died three years shy of ninety, knowing David as I do, I would not be surprised if he waits to cross over entirely until another three years have gone by, which would be fine with me because he was a wonderful spirit, a vibrant fun-loving soul who always encouraged me on my less traveled path, which was a great boon to me.

I have barely scratched the surface of David’s life in this telling, and I have at least a hundred good stories to tell about David, but that is nothing to the thousands, nay, tens of thousands of stories his many friends could tell about him, which supports my lifelong suspicion that there must have been more than one of this astounding fellow.

Here is one very telling story about David. When he was a young man, he drove up from Monterey in his famous yellow convertible Volkswagen bug to visit relatives in Oakland, and stopped at a florist’s shop to get flowers to bring to his cousins. He entered the shop to find the owners, a middle-aged couple, in crisis because their delivery person had suddenly walked off the job. Without a moment’s hesitation, David said, “I will be happy to deliver flowers for you,” which he did for the rest of that day and the next. He became fast friends with the couple, visited them many times over the ensuing years, they came to the Sancho Panza when in Monterey, and when the woman’s husband died, David helped the woman move to a commodious trailer on a lot in Vallejo, a lot and trailer, along with all the woman’s earthly possessions, that David inherited when she died.

David told me that story when I visited him in a tree house he’d built in a gigantic old pine tree in Pacific Grove on the property of a good friend. The tree house was full of books and things he’d inherited from his parents and various folks who loved him along his way.

“Take anything you want,” he said to me. “I’m not attached to any of it. But do let me have a look at what you take before you go and I’ll tell you the story behind it.”

Thus Spake Angelina

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.”  Montaigne

I used to hate it when I predicted something long in advance of when it happened, and then no one remembered I predicted it or believed me when I insisted I predicted the thing. And I used to really hate it when I invented something but didn’t bother to patent it because I didn’t have the money or the time or the personality, and then someone else found out about the thing I invented and they patented it and became filthy rich from my invention. But now I don’t mind when people don’t believe I predicted important things before they happened. Nor do I mind when people get rich and famous from my inventions. And here’s why.

The writings of my hero Buckminster Fuller convinced me it was a colossal waste of time to worry about people stealing our ideas or not believing us because ultimately the universe (transcendent of human pettiness and ignorance) responds appropriately and exquisitely to our thoughts and actions regardless of whether we own the patents on the lucrative inventions or whether people believe us.

For instance, I invented snail tongs. Yep. That (those) was (were) mine. I knew I would be ripped off (just as I know you don’t believe me) and that’s why I wrote up the invention several years ago, made precise drawings of the device, and sent the write-up and drawings to dozens of gardening supply catalogs, garden tool inventors, and a few hundred people selected randomly by using pages torn from phone books, darts, a blindfold, and the appropriate incantations. The rest, as they say, is history. Snail tongs, with or without teak handles, and with or without the accompanying snail bucket (with Velcro pad or dainty hook for connecting to your gardening belt) are now de rigueur for serious gardeners who don’t like to get slimed whilst plucking mollusks from precious garden plants.

I have no idea how the universe has reacted to the invention of snail tongs. Just because people have made millions from selling snail tongs and now live in abject wealth because of those sales doesn’t mean snail tongs are a good idea. Indeed, the universe may be withholding from me great gobs of money and success and access to daring and creative publishers and brilliant green-lit movie producers because I loosed snail tongs on the world. After all, expensive snail tongs (not the ones made entirely from recycled materials) use valuable natural resources that would be better left in the ground. To be quite honest, I now regret letting anyone know about snail tongs. But I was so curious to see what would happen, I couldn’t keep from letting the tongs out of the bag, so to speak. Fortunately, no one believes me, so I am at least safe from persecution by humans for that crime.

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.” Faith Whittlesey

Note the date. June 29, 2011. I predict that Angelina Jolie, the famous movie star, will become the first female President of the United States. When? I’m guessing 2020, but possibly 2016. Why do I make this prediction? Because everything she has done and is doing, and everything that has happened and is happening in terms of the evolution of mass media, the state of the world, and the exigencies of fate (I love that expression) lead me to believe Angelina’s ascendancy is virtually a done deal.

If you think I’m crazy, please view recent video clips (easy to find on the internet) of Angelina visiting Syrian refugees in Turkey or flood victims in Pakistan (and wearing the traditional garb of the women in those locales) or more recently paying tribute to the inhabitants of the Italian island of Lampedusa for giving aid and comfort to boat people refugees from the strife-torn Middle East. Wherever she goes in her role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, Angelina, without a script, speaks eloquently, knowledgably, compassionately, and with charismatic strength on behalf of the refugees, and refugee women in particular. She has also adopted three children and raised them along with three children she’s had with her movie star and politically sort of left and totally supportive (so far) husband. Angelina is picky about the roles she takes, refuses to play bimbos, is on the verge of portraying Cleopatra in a movie that will probably cost more to make than the Gross National Product of Belgium, and recently directed a serious romantic drama set during the siege of Sarajevo. In other words, she is a beautiful, articulate, feminine feminist; she knows what’s going on and she’s nobody’s fool.

By 2016, the world will be firmly in the grip of widespread social and environmental chaos, at which point Angelina will be forty-one and ready to answer the call of billions of women and poor people and smart people chomping at the bit to make the great global transition to universal socialism, free healthcare, disarmament, material minimalism, and gluten-free dining. I will serve in Angelina’s cabinet if she will have me, but only if I can do so from my home via weekly essays.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay

I also invented the bandarang. Yep. That was mine, too. Forgive me if you’ve been bopped by one of the larger ones whilst minding your own business at the beach. Yes, I should have foreseen they’d turn the wonderful thing into yet another tool of competition and consumerism, though you must admit that some of the things people do with bandarangs are absolutely mind-boggling. Sadly, I was recently informed that the military is developing explosive bandarangs as well as new stealth aircraft employing bandarang aerodynamics.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking. You invented the bandarang, Todd? Then why aren’t you rich as Croesus and producing your own movies? Well, because I gave the idea away, just as I gave away the idea for snail tongs and several other inventions you won’t believe I invented. And I gave them away because along with being a devoted follower of Buckminster Fuller (see above theory of adjudication by Universe), I am also extremely lazy regarding anything requiring contracts, lawyers, or government bureaucracies; and though I knew bandarangs would be popular, I never imagined they would be voted Thing of the Century by the Union of Unconcerned Hedonists.

You may be interested to know that I didn’t so much invent the bandarang as discover it. Wikipedia erroneously reports that the inventors of the original bandarang were competing teams of nerdy dweebs at Harvard, MIT, and Oxford circa 2007-2011 using computer modeling and origami brainstorming to perfect the design, but that is hokum. It was I alone standing in the shallows of the American River (up to my knees in the icy flow) in Sacramento on a blistering hot day, August 17, 1989, who first discovered/invented the bandarang.

I had just lost another Frisbee to the swift current. Feeling bereft (as I always do when I lose a Frisbee to a river or the ocean) and wanting to continue playing with the wind, I rummaged in my knapsack and found a large rubber band—three inches in diameter if spread open to approximate a circle. I carried the rubber band with me into the aforementioned shallows, and using the thumb of my left hand as fulcrum, I shot the rubber band almost-but-not-quite straight up in the air. When gravity halted the flight of the projectile some thirty feet above the blessed waters, the elongated band contracted and relaxed into the form of a circle, which, in the dainty breeze, rotated counter-clockwise as it drifted back to earth and settled gently around my upraised index finger. Thus was born the banderang.

On September 9, 1999, after a decade of intermittent experimentation, I settled on an optimal size and weight (and color: neon orange) of rubber band, angle of launch depending on breeze coefficients, etc., wrote a clear description of the bandarang, made precise drawings, and sent forth packets of the salient information to Harvard, MIT, Oxford, and myriad toy manufacturers.

On April 13, 2012, a twelve-foot-long bandarang (flaccid) will be stretched by a pneumatic traction crane to a length of two hundred and thirty-seven feet using a top corner of a thirty-story office building in Oakland, California as fulcrum, and shot up and out over San Francisco Bay. The neon orange, seventy-seven-pound rubber bandarang, with finely tapered edges coated with micro-thin Teflon, will attain an altitude of 1778 feet and a rotational speed of 174 revolutions per minute, catch a friendly westerly breeze, travel 3.7 miles, and gently (erotically) settle upon a phallic obelisk on Treasure Island to the roaring approbation of eighty thousand giddy bandarangists (also known as rubberoos) gathered on the island to greet the mythic rubber ring.

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” Sigmund Freud

June 29, 2011. I predict that the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima marks the beginning of the end of nuclear power (and eventually nuclear weapons) on earth. Safety and decency, however, will not be the reasons the powers-that-be finally grok the insanity of nuclear power. No. What will ultimately tip the balance in favor of livingry (a term coined by Buckminster Fuller to mean the opposite of weaponry) will be the stunning decline in male fertility brought about by the enormous and continuous release of radiation and radioactive particles from Fukushima and other soon-to-be-announced failing nuclear reactors around the world.

As the human population begins a precipitous (and ultimately fortuitous) decline, trillions of dollars will be diverted from weaponry and needless pharmaceuticals and worthless hedge funds and earth-killing genetically modified grain growing into the male-dominated fear-driven medical industrial complex to find a cure for sterility, resulting in the ultimate realization that the best way to keep human love goo viable is to entirely clean up our act, environmentally and emotionally speaking, and never again, one earth under Angelina with liberty and justice for all, ever foul our nest again!

Todd’s books and music and a blog archive of 117 AVA essays are available at UnderTheTableBooks.com