Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

In the Beginning

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Toddy

Calvin: Dad where do babies come from?

Dad: Well Calvin, you simply go to Sears, buy the kit and follow the assembly instructions.

Calvin: I came from Sears?

Dad: No you were a blue-light special at K-Mart—almost as good and a lot cheaper!”

Bill Watterson

Not long after we are born, before we know we know anything else, we know we are alive. We don’t know this intellectually. We simply know because knowing we’re alive is inseparable from being alive. And you’re thinking: so what else is new?

On assignment from my therapist, I’ve been hanging out with my baby self via photographs of me taken shortly after I was born and going up to about age five. I was ten months in utero and born with a full head of black hair. According to my mother, the black hair quickly gave way to blondish brown hair, and for a few years I might have been Danish. Then my hair grew dark brown again and I went through my Navajo/Magyar phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have two memories vying for Earliest Experience I Remember Not Based On A Photograph, both experiences occurring when I was three-years-old. One of these experiences was pleasurable, the other terrifying. I’ll start with the good news.

So…we were living in the house my parents built in Mill Valley, a little town fourteen miles north of San Francisco. When my parents built that house in 1949, the year I was born, the hillside lot and three-bedroom house, beautifully made by artisan craftsmen, cost seven thousand dollars. Today, 2018, that house, which is still standing, would go for multiple millions.

I woke up and padded down the hall in my pajamas to my parents’ bedroom where, to my chagrin, they were not in their bed. Where were they? My pajamas, I must tell you, were white, of one piece, and covered me from neck to toes, the sock-like endings to the legs having thin leather soles. I tell you this because those leather soles figure prominently in this memory.

Not finding my parents in their bed, I went in search of them, and as I emerged from the hallway into the living room, I saw our front door was open. I know this experience took place on a Saturday or Sunday because my father was home. Monday through Friday he was not home because he left the house at dawn and came home at night long after my two older sisters and I were asleep.

I stood in the front doorway and looked out on the cement walkway leading from the door to our lawn. On the right side of the cement walk was a bed of succulents—bluish plants surrounded by white sand. My mother, her black hair in a ponytail, a sunhat on her head, was on her knees, pulling little weeds growing among the succulents. I remember she was wearing a sleeveless top and shorts, and I remember thinking she was incredibly beautiful. This is my only memory of my mother ever doing anything in a garden other than strolling around. My father was further down the walkway—a blur.

I was keenly aware that my mother was calm and happy, and I was also aware that her calmness and happiness were unusual and mysterious, and this felt wonderful to me. The other mystery was: why were my parents up before me, which, apparently, was an unusual circumstance on weekends.

As I stood on the walkway beside my mother, I very slowly shuffled my feet back and forth so the leather soles of my pajamas rubbed grains of sand against the cement and made scratching sounds I really enjoyed making; and I just kept sliding my feet back and forth as I gazed at my calm and happy mother.

The second memory involves our mangy gray cat—Casey Cat.

We kept our metal garbage can on a cement patio on the backside of the house. One morning I stepped out of the kitchen onto the patio and found Casey Cat crouched atop the garbage can devouring a big rat, the rat’s dark red blood running down the side of the can—Casey Cat’s snarling face half-buried in the eviscerated body of the rat.

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” Mary Roberts Rinehart

I’m tempted to make a big deal out of these two memories because they are my earliest, but as I’ve been hanging out with these pictures of little me and enjoying the child I imagine—a kid wanting to be outside as much as possible, wanting to run and dig and shout and play with other children—I doubt these two remembered experiences are bigger deals than thousands of other experiences I don’t remember.

Still, as Sherlock Holmes liked to say, there are several points of interest that may explain why these experiences are so deeply etched in my memory.

1. My mother was calm and happy, which amounted to something extremely rare in my memories of her: she was content. I have many subsequent memories of my mother smiling and laughing, but very few memories of her being calm, and no other memory of her seeming content. To be content is to feel we have enough, to feel we are safe, to feel we are loved.

2. Casey Cat, sweet purring fun-to-pet Casey Cat, turned out to be a ferocious snarling murderer. How confusing! And that torn-apart rat atop the blood-drenched garbage can was my first glimpse of mammalian death, my first inkling that my own life might have such an end.

I admire this young Todd for his openness, his curiosity, his remarkable physical energy, and his great joy at being alive. He seems sad sometimes, and worried about something, but he doesn’t let sorrow and worry keep him from dancing and singing and exploring the world.

toddy older

Strangely Early

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

All that you ask of me tw

All That You Ask Of Me painting by Nolan Winkler

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.”  Mary Roberts Rinehart

One of the great pleasures of living in this rural area is that many of my neighbors and friends are avid observers of the natural world. And so in early August when I began sharing my observations that maple trees and fruit trees and blackberry bushes here on the coast in Mendocino were behaving as if it was late September, many folks concurred with similar observations about the local foliage and fruit.

In reading about climate change, I have come upon a number of reports by credible scientists suggesting that those physical indications of what we used to associate with fall—leaves changing colors, fruit ripening, colder nights—will henceforth become much less predictable in terms of when they manifest. Thus fall may come in summer, spring may come in winter, summer in spring, and…will we have a winter this year in California?

That’s an interesting question. We just had our first relatively wet winter in the last five years courtesy of a huge El Niño. The long-running drought in California and throughout the Southwest was barely dented by the glorious but not excessive precipitation. Here in Mendocino, where our aquifers are not directly dependent on Sierra snow, our water supply was much improved.

Now, however, the National Weather Service is reporting a formidable La Niña taking hold in the Pacific. Given this dramatic cooling of the ocean waters, what do the precipitation maps recently released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association say will be coming California’s way in the months of October, November, December, January, February, March, and April?

Not to be an alarmist, but NOAA’s maps indicate that California’s rainfall for those seven months will be Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

Oh what do they know? Well, actually NOAA has been highly accurate in predicting precipitation in California over the last decade, and if these predictions are even close to being accurate, the state of California will soon be gripped by a disaster of epic proportions. And what about right here in Mendocino? According to those NOAA precipitation maps, we are facing disaster, too.

There is a possibility, of course, that Mendocino may receive more precipitation than those NOAA maps suggest, if, and it is a big if, some of the storms predicted for Oregon and Washington extend far enough south to douse us, too. Then our aquifers might be somewhat replenished and the scope of the local disaster somewhat diminished.

Then again, given that no one expected August to be October this year, maybe several massive storms will unexpectedly dump thirty inches of rain on us in November and December. Stranger things have happened. Yes, this is wishful thinking, but wishful thinking may be the best response to a climate verging on chaos and another year of drought looming

“One has to fear everything—or nothing.” Jean Giraudoux

I recently broke my self-imposed ban on listening to or reading any news of the great big world outside Mendocino County. I turned on the radio and caught the end of National Pentagon Radio’s daily news program Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration.

There were two young women talking to each other about this year’s crop of summer movies. I listened for a moment and decided this must be a special feature of the news program encouraging people of extremely limited intelligence to share their incredibly simplistic ideas with a national audience—some sort of diversity-enhancing show to end the doctored news on a folksy note. In any case, I couldn’t bear to listen and turned off the radio.

Then my curiosity got the better of me, and having remembered the names of the two women, I fired up my computer and did a little research and discovered that one of the women is a regular host of Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration, and the other woman is that esteemed program’s regular movie critic. And because August is now October, I was not surprised.

“There are three things to do in dealing with a crisis—search for the guilty, punish the innocent, promote the incompetent.” Louis Goldman

Once upon a time there were billions of humans on earth and the biosphere began to disintegrate under the pressure of their personal and collective habits. And so there came a time when much of the earth became uninhabitable and nearly all those billions of humans perished along with many other living things. However, some of those humans survived, and here and there on the earth, plants and animals and sea life began to thrive again. After several thousand years of recovery, the biosphere was healed and the earth a verdant paradise once more.

But humans were no longer the dominant species on earth. Something had changed in their nature during the holocaust of biosphere collapse and they never again aspired to anything more than growing vegetables and fruit, catching fish, making and wearing comfortable clothing and footwear, singing, dancing, telling stories, and traveling hither and yon on foot or in canoes. Since there were no roads or sidewalks, skateboards did not make a comeback. No human possessed any more or any less than any other human, and the few times someone invented a weapon deadlier than a bow and arrows or someone built an engine requiring the burning of fossil fuels, such weapons and engines were ceremoniously destroyed and the inventors required to undergo extensive psychotherapy and live naked for seven years surviving on roots, berries, and small mammals caught by singing enticing songs, after which they were re-integrated into society and allowed to resume wearing comfortable clothing and footwear.

Thus the earth continued to spin on her axis and speed around the sun for a hundred million more years until the Cosmic Metamorphosis began and…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

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.”

Walton Predicts

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

WALTON PREDICTS

Walton Predicts graphic by David Jouris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The future will be better tomorrow.” Dan Quayle

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

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

“So what are you saying?”

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

“About the ozone layer? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Mystery Inventions

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Daughter Mystery painting by Todd

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

Deeply moved by a concert of music by Martinû and Mozart, a man gives fifty dollars to a street musician, a Venezuelan bass player whose musical inventions are reminiscent of Eric Satie and Bill Evans. The bass player uses the fifty dollars to buy herself the first nourishing meal she’s had in weeks, after which she catches a train to visit her mother for the first time in several months, and arrives to find her mother dying. With her last breath, the bass player’s mother reveals the identity of the bass player’s real father; and while questing to find her father, the bass player meets a pianist with whom she records ten improvisations, each a musical meditation on the question: what is life all about?

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.” Albert Schweitzer

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas makes an excellent case for the digging stick and the ostrich egg being the two most important inventions in human history—more important than fire or weaponry. I am reading The Old Way again, Thomas’s masterpiece about the Bushmen of the Kalahari; and I find her book the perfect antidote to the information overload and resultant anxiety of this digital age. Here is a tiny taste of The Old Way.

“A digging stick is humble, yes. The very name of this item in the English language shows how seriously we underrate it—we assign specific nouns, not vaguely descriptive phrases, to objects that we consider important. Our long stick with a blade at the end is call a spear, for instance, not a stabbing stick. But even if a pointed stick seems insignificant to us in our innocence, as an invention of consequence it ranks with the discovery of the deep roots themselves and has made more difference to our species than virtually all the other inventions we celebrate with more enthusiasm.”

“Then, too, there is the ostrich egg. This useful item is first a meal and then a water bottle. To use these eggs, we had to do only two things—steal a fresh egg without being kicked by the ostrich, and open a hole in the shell. Unless the egg is opened carefully, the contents will spill, so the best way to eat the egg without wasting the contents is to pick up a rock, tap open a small hole in the shell, and stir the contents with a stick. After sucking out the egg, we had an empty eggshell, with obvious implications. An ostrich egg holds from five to five and a half cups of water, more than a day’s supply. No further refinement was needed except a wad of grass for a stopper.”

“On the dry savannah, the need for water limited our foraging. One ostrich eggshell filled with water could expand the foraging range of its owner by fifty to one hundred square miles.”

“Only one kind of primate—our kind—found a way to reach the deep buried foods, carry small amounts of water, and modify tree nests into ground nests so that we could sleep anywhere.”

“There is no greater mystery to me than that of light traveling through darkness.” Alexander Volkov

Writing about inventions, I am reminded of that old joke (and its many variations) about a world conference to determine the most important invention of all time, each nation having an egoistic stake in nominating an invention thought to have originated in their country.

So the Russian representative rises. “We nominate sputnik. After all, first satellite started space race that put people on moon and spawned most important technological breakthroughs thereafter.” Loud applause.

The American representative stands. “Hey, there’s no denying sputnik was a good little kick in the pants, but has anything changed the world more profoundly than the computer? We don’t think so. We nominate the computer, that fundamentally American creation, as the most important invention of all time.” Thunderous applause.

Then the representative of the group or nation the joke teller wants to make fun of stumbles to the podium. “Of course, sputnik was a game changer, and life without computers is almost unimaginable, but there is one invention we think is far more amazing than both of those illustrious inventions, and that is the thermos. Keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold. How does it know?”

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

In 1900, the average life span of an American was forty-seven years, and the average life span for people in many other societies in the world was considerably less. The invention and deployment of penicillin in the 1940’s is credited with increasing that average life span to eighty years for citizens of America and other so-called advanced nations. Prior to the widespread use of antibiotics, millions of people, especially infants, children, and the elderly, died annually of diseases now easily cured. The most troubling result of this vast increase in human longevity is the increase in human population far beyond the regenerative capacity of the planet.

Consider this: paleoanthropologists have found almost no remains of pre-historic humans older than thirty. Lose a step ten thousand years ago and you were tiger food, or possibly vittles for your brethren. Now try to imagine the world today if most people still died shortly after their wisdom teeth emerged to replace those molars lost during the first twenty years of chewing on the tough and the raw.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung

I recently came out with a new CD of piano and bass duets entitled Mystery Inventions on which I play piano and Kijé Izquierda plays bass. Each of our ten tunes explores variations on a basic melodic expression underscored by an intriguing bass pattern. Because my piano playing is spacious (some would say spare), the tunes on my previous piano albums 43 short Piano Improvisations and Ceremonies are melody-driven, whereas the bass drives the Mystery Inventions, even when the tempo is slow. I was tempted to bring in a drummer, but the interplay of bass and piano sounded so groovy, I opted for duet.

The most mysterious thing to me about my piano playing is that my left hand operates with no conscious direction from me, whereas my right hand learns through my conscious intentions. Because I do not read music or play music composed by other people, my compositions and improvisations are the result of hours of daily keyboard explorations during which I discover note patterns and interrelationships that captivate me sufficiently so I will repeat those patterns until my fingers remember them. The more thoroughly my fingers memorize these patterns, the freer I am to improvise on those patterns. I have been practicing this way for forty-five years, my right hand learning through my conscious inquiries, my left hand figuring things out on its own.

 “The final mystery is oneself.” Oscar Wilde

I don’t read music because when I was seven-years-old I took piano lessons from a very unhappy man who did not like me. After a few traumatic lessons wherein he berated me for not sufficiently practicing the assigned pieces, there came a horrific moment when he struck my right hand with a heavy metal pen because I was not, in his estimation, holding my hands correctly. I screamed bloody murder and ran out of the room. I can feel the ache in my knuckles to this day.

Thereafter I not only refused to play the piano, I could not look at our piano without feeling sick. Singing became my main mode of musical expression, and at sixteen I was a singer in a very loud rock band. The leader of the band was my close friend, and a talented guitarist. He used to come to my house and noodle around on his guitar while I accompanied him on bongos. One evening he pointed at our old upright piano and said, “Can you play that?”

“No,” I said, reluctant to even look at the piano.

“Oh, go on,” he said, reaching over and plunking a few notes. “Just play anything and I’ll play along.”

“No,” I said, furiously. “I don’t play the fucking piano, okay?”

“Please?” he insisted. “Just a few notes so I can play some harmonies.”

And because I wanted to please my friend, I went to the piano and played a simple pattern of notes; and six weeks later we opened for a rock band at a teen nightclub in the basement of a church in Woodside, California. I played simple patterns of notes and chords while my friend improvised on his electric twelve-string guitar. Two beautiful hippie chicks wearing dresses made of diaphanous scarves danced to our pubescent ragas, and afterwards a big black guy with a shaved head came up to me and said, “Busted hip, kid. You know Monk? Miles? Hubbard? Hancock? Evans? Cannonball? Check’em out.” So I did; and I was a goner.

And now, listening to Mystery Inventions, I bless that very sad man who smacked my knuckles fifty-five years ago, because if not for his striking me so cruelly, I might never have left the well-trod path and gotten lost in the wild jungle of possibilities.