Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Augie and Tober’s Quest

Monday, February 4th, 2019

morning show

On April seventeenth, just a few days ago, Sharon Quincy asked her sons Augie, twelve, and Tober, thirteen, if they will approve whole-heartedly of her marrying Alex, a dear friend of the family.

“And,” she added, “if either of you has any reservations about my marrying him, I won’t.”

Sharon and Tober and Augie live at the end of Snake Creek Road, a mile-long dirt road in the coastal mountains of far northern California, four miles from the mouth of the Eel River, the nearest town Fortuna, ten miles away. Their ten-acre homestead is energy self-sufficient and they grow and raise and catch most of their food. Augie and Tober were born in the old farmhouse, and they were home-schooled by several excellent teachers who live nearby. Both young men passed their high school equivalency exams last year and are now pursuing independent studies, separately and together, with the guidance of their mother and other mentors.

Tober is nearly six-feet-tall and appears to be much older than thirteen. His dark brown hair was never cut, not once in his life, and reached nearly to the ground until last year when he decided to shave his head after being initiated into manhood by Titus Troutcatcher, an elderly Wailaki man who lives two miles west of where Snake Creek Road meets Highway 211. Tober’s hair is now four-inches-long and he looks forward to having it long enough again to wear in a ponytail.

Augie is stockier and a few inches shorter than Tober and keeps his auburn hair cut short. He, too, was initiated into manhood last year along with Tober and two Wailaki boys, Jacob Morningstar and Leon Kingfisher. Titus thought it would be wise to initiate Augie with the older boys because, as he explained to Sharon, “Augie is an old soul and he’ll be happier becoming a man with his brother and Jacob and Leon rather than waiting a year to be initiated alone. We want him to be happy about becoming a man so he will enjoy his manhood.”

Tober and Augie are both skilled carpenters and gardeners and fisherman and hunters with bows and arrows, both play violin and guitar—Tober favoring the violin, Augie the guitar—and both are thoroughly knowledgeable about the abundant edible and medicinal plants growing in the Eel River watershed.

Sharon Quincy is thirty-six, five-foot-three, and strikingly pretty with shoulder-length brown hair and dark blue eyes. She works twenty hours a week as a checker at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, plays violin in the Eureka Symphony, gives violin and guitar lessons, and is nearly as fluent in French and Spanish as she is in English.

Alex Redfield is forty-five and met the Quincys four years ago. A professor of European History at Humboldt State in Arcata, Alex is Scottish, Oxford-educated, witty and charming. For the first two years of his involvement with the Quincy family, neither he nor Sharon wished to become romantically entangled with the other. But they enjoyed each other so much and shared so many marvelous experiences that they eventually fell in love.

And because Alex was such an important friend to Tober and Augie, Sharon and Alex strove to create a relationship that did not much alter Alex’s friendship with Sharon’s sons; and they were successful in this regard until two months ago when Alex returned from a month in England and Scotland with news that he has been offered a professorship at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and now he has asked Sharon to marry him.

In order to assume this professorship, Alex must make a four-year commitment to Stirling. He badly wants this job because it will greatly enhance his academic credentials and assure the publication of his second major work about Queen Elizabeth I, a book he’s been working on for several years. However, he does not want to leave Sharon. He wants to marry her, and for her and her sons to live with him in Scotland for the next four years, and possibly longer, after which the family will return to California. However, if Sharon does not agree to move to Scotland with him, Alex says there will be no marriage and he will move back to Scotland without her.

To Alex, who is flabbergasted that Sharon would ask her young sons to make this decision for her, Sharon explained, “I was never allowed to make my own decisions about what I did with my life until I quit the ballet company when I was twenty and finally escaped from my mother who used me from the day I was born as an expression of her own ambitions. And I have made it a guiding principle of my life to relate to my children, within reason and according to their capabilities, as my equals. You and I may think it would be a marvelous experience for them to leave this place they love and to leave all their dear friends to go live on a college campus in Scotland for four years, but they may not think so. They are men now, though they are still in the throes of transitioning into being adults in this society, and I believe uprooting them at this time, if it is against their wills, would be a great disservice to them. And that is why I have asked them to make this decision.”

To ponder their mother’s question, Tober and Augie decide it would be best to absent themselves from their mother and Alex by backpacking through the forest to the coast where they will spend the night and fast for a day before heading home. They have made many such treks with their mother, two with Alex, four with Jacob Morningstar and Leon Kingfisher, and seven just the two of them.

Per their mother’s request, they will carry a cell phone to call her in case of an emergency, though cell phones rarely work in this remote wilderness.

They leave their house on Snake Creek Road on a cool cloudy morning, each carrying a backpack containing a sleeping bag, tarp, water bottle, water filter, matches, cooking pot, food, fishing pole, a pair of shoes, a knife, and a bow and arrows. Their hooded down jackets are waterproof, their shirts and trousers are made of sturdy cotton, and their feet, tough as leather, are bare.

Before entering the forest, they stop by their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road, the Bernsteins, to say goodbye to Cecily, who is fourteen, and Felix, who is twelve.

Cecily, her curly brown hair sporting subtle red highlights, announced six months ago that she intends to become a movie star, which will necessitate her moving to Los Angeles as soon as possible, though her parents are so far not cooperating with her plans.

Felix, who rarely brushes his mop of frizzy brown hair, is not much of an outdoors person and recently declared his intention to become a theoretical physicist. He did not participate in the labors and ceremonies of the Wailaki initiation into manhood because he is preparing for his bar mitzvah and dislikes sleeping outside and killing things.

Cecily is adamant that Tober and Augie should go to Scotland and experience life away from Snake Creek Road, which, now that she wants to be a movie star instead of a wildlife biologist, she decries as creatively limiting, whereas Felix doesn’t want Augie and Tober to go anywhere before he leaves for college some years hence because Augie and Tober are his only friends, not counting his parents.

“We’ll be back in three days,” says Tober, standing beside Augie on the Bernstein’s deck watching Cecily and Felix eat pastries and drink coffee at a small round table overhung by a big yellow umbrella.

“Have a mahvelous time,” says Cecily, winking at Tober in the manner of her movie star persona, a latter day Claudette Colbert. She’s wearing dark glasses and high-waisted beige pants and a peach dress shirt with cuffs unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up. “No offense, dahling, but I’m hoping to be long gone by the time you get back. I’m very close to convincing Ma-Ma to drive me to LA. Tremendous career momentum manifesting even as we speak. Wink, wink.”

“To visit your Aunt Lydia?” asks Tober, who keeps hoping Cecily’s movie star fantasies will fade away and she’ll become his tomboy girlfriend again.

“To live with dear Lydia, dahling,” says Cecily, taking off her dark glasses to show him the fire in her eyes. “So I can finally get my show on the road. Time’s a wasting. Fingers crossed.”

“But I’ll be here when you get back,” says Felix, who is dressed as per usual—black-framed glasses, gray MIT sweatshirt, brown Bermuda shorts, turquoise high-top tennis shoes, plaid socks. “We might go to the movies in Arcata tomorrow, but otherwise I’ll be here. Don’t get hurt out there.”

Tober and Augie head west through a forest of hundred-year-old redwoods and Douglas firs, and a half-mile along they come to where little Newt Creek merges into Wild Turkey Creek. They know the woods within a half-mile of both sides of Snake Creek Road as well as they know their bedroom, every fern and tree and stone familiar to them; and they have countless times followed Wild Turkey Creek westward to where it joins the mighty Eel two miles from the sea.

But today they head south away from the confluence of creeks, climb a steep slope populated with big trees, surmount a rocky ridge, and descend into a fern-clogged gulley they know little about.

The nameless creek at the bottom of this gulley is barely a trickle, and after a few hundred yards of slogging westward through thick stands of ferns arising from the mucky ground, they are about to change direction and head south again to see what they can see from the next ridge top, when they arrive at a large pool of crystal clear water set in a wide vein of gray granite, the pool about thirty-feet-long and ten-feet-wide; and they decide to shed their packs here and share an orange.

“I guess I’m kind of mad at Alex,” says Tober, taking off his clothes to have a dip in the pool.

“How come?” asks Augie, rummaging in his pack for an orange.

Tober thinks for a moment. “I mean… why did he have to tangle up marrying Mom with moving to Scotland? Feels so… extortive.”

“It is extortive,” says Augie, peeling the orange. “He seems so desperate now, and his sense of humor is completely gone. I mean… he was never desperate before he came back from England. I wonder what happened to him over there.”

“Mid-life crisis?” says Tober, wading into the pool. “Oh my God, Aug, this water’s warm. Incredibly warm.”

“A hot spring?” says Augie, leaving the half-peeled orange on his pack and stripping off his clothes.

“Getting warmer as I move downstream,” says Tober, the water up to his waist. “There’s almost no flow at all. I wonder if this is even part of the creek.”

They explore the pool, wading and swimming, until they locate a strong upwelling of extremely hot water erupting from a fissure at a depth of about four feet.

“Wow,” says Tober, floating on his back above the upwelling. “A hot spring of epic proportions, and not a whiff of sulfur.”

“Titus and Tina,” says Augie, grinning at Tober. “We have to bring them here.”

“And Mom,” says Tober, yawning. “It’s so relaxing. She’ll love this.”

“What about Alex?” Augie arches an eyebrow.

“He’d love it, too,” says Tober, sadly. “Don’t you think?”

“I guess so,” says Augie, getting out of the pool and resuming his peeling of the orange. “Only I don’t really want to bring anybody here who doesn’t want to live here. I know that’s selfish, but that’s how I’m feeling right now.”

“What about Cecily?” asks Tober, emerging from the pool and perching on a large rock at the water’s edge. “Shall we bring her?”

“She’ll hate it,” says Augie, handing Tober half the orange. “Or she’ll say she does. I wonder what happened to her. She changed even more than Alex. She used to love it here. She used to love going on adventures with us. Now suddenly she feels creatively stifled and wants to go live in a giant city.”

“She got hooked on movies and television shows.” Tober shrugs. “The minute they let her start watching them on the computer. The day she turned twelve. And now she hates it here.”

“She got unconnected from nature,” says Augie, knowing his brother is heartbroken about Cecily wanting to live somewhere else.

“Maybe that’s what happened to Alex, too,” says Tober, fighting his tears. “He used to love being here. But ever since he got back from England he hardly goes outside anymore. And now he wants to go back there and take us with him.”

“Mom,” says Augie, nodding. “He wants to take Mom with him. He’d love to leave us here, but Mom never would until we’re older, which is why he resorted to extortion.”

“He’s like a totally different person now,” says Tober, shaking his head. “He used to be so interested in what we were doing, our music and our hunting and fishing and gardening, in what we were studying. And he used to love going on adventures with us.”

“And now he doesn’t,” says Augie, finishing his orange. “And there’s nothing we can do about it except wonder why.”

They dress and put on their packs and take a few minutes to memorize the location of the hot spring before they follow the stream westward.

They reach the ocean in the late afternoon and walk south on a remote beach for a mile until they come to a large stream flowing into the sea; and they follow this stream inland for a few hundred yards to a copse of pine trees where they make camp.

While Tober gathers firewood, Augie assembles his fly rod, casts his line into the stream, and immediately hooks a fat brook trout.

By the time Tober has constructed a ring of large rocks and has a fire going therein, Augie has caught and cleaned two trout and skewered them on long sticks for roasting over the fire.

“I’d be surprised if anybody has fished here in a very long time,” says Augie, as he and Tober cook their fish. “They rose to my fly before it touched the water.”

“Wailaki people probably camped here,” says Tober, thinking of their mother working at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, chatting with customers as she rings up their groceries, and how after work she’ll either drive home or go to Arcata and spend the night with Alex. “These fish you caught probably hatched here and got this big without a human being ever trying to catch them.”

“I don’t want to move to Scotland,” says Augie, slowly rotating his fish over the coals. “Be fun to visit there some day, but I don’t want to live there. I want to live here.”

“Me, too,” says Tober, his thoughts turning to Cecily. “We might live other places when we’re older. Travel. But we’ll always come back here. This is home.”

“The thing is,” says Augie, frowning thoughtfully, “Mom was so happy having Alex as her boyfriend, and if he goes away she’ll be sad. I hate to make her sad.”

“Then she should go with him,” says Tober, inspecting his trout to see if the flesh is cooked how he likes it. “We’ll be fine on our own. Everybody on the road will check up on us, and Titus and Tina could come stay with us a few nights a week. They love our house.”

“Except Mom won’t go without us,” says Augie shaking his head. “You know she won’t.”

“That wasn’t even the question,” says Tober, angrily. “Of course we approve of her marrying Alex if she wants to, but not if it means we have to live in Scotland for four years. Why would he make that a condition for marrying her? It doesn’t make any sense. What does moving to Scotland have to do with loving someone and wanting to be with them for the rest of your life?”

“Nothing,” says Augie, sitting cross-legged on the ground. “Shall we eat?”

“Yes,” says Tober, sitting on a large rock and closing his eyes as Augie makes the prayer of thanks.

“Great Spirit,” says Augie, looking up at the white clouds tinged with pink. “Thank you so much for these good trout who gave their lives so we may live. Thank you for guiding us to the hot spring this morning and for helping us find this good place to camp. Thank you for our mother and for Alex and Titus and Tina, for all our friends and relations. Thank you for everything you give us.”

Waking in the morning to the sky dappled with row upon row of small fleecy clouds, no scent of rain in the air, they stow their gear under tarps and go out to the beach where the extremely low tide has exposed thousands of stones.

“Holy moly,” says Tober, as they walk among the stones. “Some of these are near-agates, and the shapes are exquisite.”

“You’re the stone man,” says Augie, bending down to pick up an egg-shaped blood red stone the size of a walnut. “Think we can sell some of these to Maybe?”

“No doubt,” says Tober, picking up a perfectly round blue green stone as big as a billiard ball. “He’ll give us at least five dollars for that red one you found. Maybe more. And this one…” He contemplates the stone in his hand. “Ten. At least.”

They spend the morning filling tote bags with stones and carrying them back to their camp. They make a dozen trips to and fro, finding hundreds of stones from which they will cull a few dozen to take with them.

Seized by hunger after their morning’s labor, they discuss whether to break their fasts or not, now that they have agreed they don’t want to go to Scotland; and they decide to desist from eating a while longer until they come up with a well-stated response to their mother’s question and codicil: will they approve whole-heartedly of her marrying Alex, and if they have any reservations about her marrying him, she won’t.

Now the myriad clouds scurry away, and Tober and Augie shed their clothes and wade out to a big flat rock in the middle of the creek to sunbathe.

“Okay, so we don’t approve whole-heartedly of Mom marrying Alex,” says Augie, feeling drowsy on the warm rock in the sun, “because we don’t approve of his extortive tactics. Right? Because if he really loved her, he wouldn’t put conditions on their love.”

“You know what just occurred to me,” says Tober, sitting up. “Maybe Mom asked us to decide because she knew we’d say we didn’t want to leave, and that would give her an excuse not to go because she really doesn’t want to go, but she doesn’t want to say that to him and hurt his feelings, so this way she’ll be able to say she’s staying because of us, not because she doesn’t love him.”

“Or maybe she doesn’t love him anymore,” says Augie, shielding his eyes from the sun to look at Tober. “Now that he’s so gloomy and weird.”

“I think she still loves him,” says Tober, hugging his knees to his chest. “But maybe she doesn’t want to marry him now because he’s more like…”

“A visitor,” says Augie, lowering his hand and closing his eyes. “Scotland is his Eel River watershed. He likes it here, but this isn’t his element. Remember how he said he liked going to those islands off the coast of Scotland and staying for a few days? But he never wanted to live there.”

“He’s a town person,” says Tober, thinking of how most of Alex’s stories are about Edinburgh and London and Oxford and Paris. “He loves cities. Maybe he finds life boring here. Like Cecily does now.”

“And the other thing,” says Augie, growing angry, “is how condescending he was about our initiation. The fasting and the days of aloneness and learning the songs and prayers and dances, making our new bows and arrows, killing our deer. He dismissed it all as…”

“Silly good fun,” says Tober, using one of Alex’s favorite expressions.

“Exactly,” says Augie, sitting up. “We don’t want to make him into a villain, but I don’t think he really believes we’re men now. Like Titus said, Great Spirit knows we’re men now, but most people think we’re still children.”

“You think Mom still thinks we’re children?” asks Tober, sliding off the rock into the cold stream.

“No, she knows we’re men,” says Augie, joining his brother in the stream. “That’s why she asked us to make this decision.”

“Might be good to talk to Titus,” says Tober, sitting down in cold current, the water coming up to his mouth.

“If you want to,” says Augie, shrugging. “But I think we’ve got this figured out.”

“So how do we say it?” asks Tober, spluttering the water with his mouth. “‘We don’t approve wholeheartedly of you marrying Alex because he’s using the threat of ending your relationship to get you to marry him and force us to move to Scotland, which is emotional extortion and he should be ashamed of himself?’”

“That’s pretty good, Tobe,” says Augie, climbing back up on the rock. “Only maybe we don’t need to be quite so accusatory. We could say we feel he’s threatening her with ending their relationship to force her to go to Scotland, and that gives us reservations about her marrying him.”

“Right,” says Tober, starting to shiver. “All we need is one reservation.”

In the mid-afternoon they get ready to go; and to erase any obvious proof of their having spent the night here, they disperse the ashes from their campfire and fluff the ground where they slept.

Now they take a last look around to make sure they haven’t left anything behind, walk out to the beach, and hike north on the yielding sand for a half-mile until Tober stops and takes off his pack.

“We either have to leave some of these stones behind,” says Tober, sweating profusely, “or I need to eat something. I’m running out of gas, Aug.”

“Me, too,” says Augie, taking off his pack and kneeling in the sand. “I vote for eating.”

“Handful of nuts and raisins and a chocolate bar sounds pretty good to me right about now,” says Tober, smiling hopefully at his brother.

“Quel coincidence,” says Augie, feigning surprise. “I just happen to have a bag of nuts and raisins and two chocolate bars.”

“No,” says Tober, feigning amazement. “Really?”

“Yep,” says Augie, unzipping a pocket on his backpack. “End of fast coming right up.”

Titus and his wife Tina live in the deep forest a quarter-mile off Highway 211, about two miles from the mouth of the Eel. Titus is a big craggy Wailaki man, seventy-nine, with a large nose shaped like an eagle’s beak, deep-set black eyes, huge hands, and long gray hair he wears in a ponytail except when he’s communing with Great Spirit.

An herbalist and healer, Titus was apprenticed to a Wailaki medicine woman when he was nine and stayed with her until she died when he was nineteen. He then joined the Army and served as a medic for four years, after which he returned to Fortuna and worked for his brother as a house painter off and on for thirty years until he’d had his fill of town life and retired to his little house in the woods.

Tina is seventy, Latina, small and pretty with long white hair. Tina and Titus have been married for twenty years. Tina was married once before, Titus twice. Tina retired from the postal service seven years ago and now spends her time cooking and sewing and keeping house, gathering herbs and wild mushrooms with Titus, and helping her daughters and granddaughters with their kids.

At dusk, having stopped at Good Used Stuff to sell some of the stones they found this morning, Augie and Tober arrive at the gravel driveway leading to Titus and Tina’s place. Maybe, the proprietor of GUS, as the second-hand store is known to locals, gave them fifty dollars for seven of their stones, and they intend to give Titus and Tina forty of those dollars for a consultation with Titus and the privilege of camping on Titus and Tina’s land for the night, though Titus would gladly give them a consultation for free, and Tina loves having them around because they always do lots of chores Titus is slow to get to.

As Tober and Augie come in sight of the red one-story house, Titus’s two scruffy longhaired Chihuahuas, Spider and Feather, come trotting down the driveway to greet the young men.

Titus is chopping wood for kindling on the west side of his house, and when he sees the young men approaching, he leaves his axe sunk in the chopping round and goes to welcome them.

“I was hoping I’d see you today,” he says, his voice deep and quiet. “Been a long time. Eight days. Or is it nine?”

“Nine,” says Augie, shaking Titus’s hand. “But we think of you every day.”

“I’m glad,” says Titus, turning to Tober. “I see you’ve been to the beach. Sand in your hair.”

“We spent the night three miles south of the mouth,” says Tober, gripping Titus’s enormous hand. “Camped by a good trout stream and found some beautiful stones. We brought you some.”

“I’m grateful,” says Titus, beckoning them to follow him into the house. “Tina’s picking up pizza for supper. She’s in Fortuna at Teresa’s. I’ll call her and tell her to get plenty.”

Augie and Tober follow Titus from the house to his small studio where he helps people seek guidance and healing from Great Spirit.

They sit in a circle around a low round table in the middle of the room, a big brown ceramic bowl in the center of the table. Titus sits on a low stool, while Tober and Augie sit cross-legged on small hand-woven rugs.

Titus undoes his ponytail, strikes a match, and lights a wand of ceremonial sage. Now he counts seven of his slow heartbeats, shakes out the flames, and drops the smoking sage into the bowl.

Holding his hands over the dense white smoke, Titus calls, “Oh Great Spirit. Come to us. Be with us. Listen to these young men and lend them your wisdom. They are good men, generous and kind. I vouch for them. Please help them.”

A silence falls as the room grows hazy with smoke.

“You speak first, October,” says Titus, pointing at Tober. “Great Spirit is listening.”

“Thank you, Titus,” says Tober, holding his hands over the rising smoke. “My brother and I are seeking clarity about a question our mother asked us.”

Titus nods. “Say the question as you remember your mother saying those words to you.”

Tober thinks for a moment before speaking. “Will you approve whole-heartedly of my marrying Alex? If you have any reservations about me marrying him, I won’t.”

Titus turns to Augie. “Now you, August. Say the question as you remember your mother asking it.”

Augie holds his hands over the rising smoke and says, “I want to know if you will approve whole-heartedly of my marrying Alex. If for any reason you don’t approve, I won’t marry him.”

Titus gazes intently at Augie. “How did you answer her?”

“We said we would go to the ocean, and fast to seek clarity,” says Augie, looking into Titus’s eyes. “And we did. We were quiet for many of those hours and we talked about the question for some of those hours, and we decided we could not approve of her marrying Alex because he wasn’t acting in a loving way, so we didn’t trust him anymore. And then Tober suggested we consult with you.”

Titus turns to Tober. “Have you more to say about this?”

“Yes,” says Tober, nodding solemnly. “We loved and admired Alex for three years until we became men and he kept treating us like children, as if our initiation was meaningless to him. And then he went back to England and Scotland for a month at the beginning of this year, and when he returned he wasn’t interested in us anymore. He only wanted to be with our mother. So we honored this until he asked her to marry him on the condition that we move to Scotland with him, and if we won’t go with him, he says he won’t marry her.”

Titus looks at Augie. “What else?”

“He used to be so happy about being part of our family, part of our community. You could see how happy he was, how excited he would get when we’d go into the forest or to the beach to hunt for stones. But now his eyes have no light in them. He’s so different now, if he didn’t look like Alex, I would think he was someone else.”

“An unhappy someone else,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “An angry someone else.”

Titus waits to see if either of them has anything more to say.

When they both remain silent, Titus says, “His soul got caught in Scotland when he went there for those two months, and he returned without his soul.”

Augie nods. “That seems right to me.”

“To me, too,” says Tober, nodding.

Titus clears his throat. “A person disconnected from his soul is always afraid. Why is this? Because our soul is the source of our courage. Without our soul, we can only act out of fear. He wants to reclaim his soul, but he doesn’t know he left it in Scotland, not consciously. We always want to be united with our souls, but sometimes we can’t be, and when we have no soul we are pathetic and frightened and weak. Greed and hatred and violence take over when we lose our souls. Sadly, many people lose their souls and never get them back in this life.”

“So he needs to go back to Scotland and find his soul,” says Augie, urgently.

“Yes,” says Titus, nodding slowly. “But he must go without you, and without your mother, or he will never find his soul.”

“Why must he go alone?” asks Tober, frowning gravely. “Maybe we could help him.”

“You have a generous heart, October,” says Titus, smiling, “but he must go alone because if he is living off your souls, his soul will find no place inside him to live.”

“He has been living off our mother’s soul,” says Augie, giving Titus a wide-eyed look. “I know this is true.”

“This is the most important moment in his life,” says Titus, holding his hands over the smoke again. “But this is no business of yours, and it’s not your mother’s business either. Alex brought this crisis with him four years ago when he came here from England, though he thought he was escaping his crisis by traveling to the other side of the world. But when he returned to England and Scotland for those two months at the beginning of this year, his soul stayed there so he would have to confront what he has been avoiding his whole life.”

“What has he been avoiding?” asks Tober, holding his breath.

Titus takes a long slow breath. “He has been doing the bidding of his father and mother his whole life, though it was never his soul’s desire to be what they wanted him to be. He was never initiated into manhood, so he never severed the ties that bind us to our parents in childhood. It was only when he joined your family that his parents’ hold on him began to weaken, and that’s when he became confused because he had never felt so free before. And his freedom frightened him. He was afraid to feel so powerful and so different than he had ever felt before, so he went back to Scotland and found a way to end his freedom, though he didn’t know that’s what he was doing.”

“What should we do?” asks Augie, holding his hands over the rising smoke. “Shall we tell him what you just told us?”

“No, my son,” says Titus, chuckling. “He must awaken to this truth on his own, with his own power and the power Great Spirit will lend him if he asks for help.”

“But what if he doesn’t?” asks Tober, fighting his tears.

“Then he doesn’t,” says Titus, nodding. “Many people don’t, my son. The world is full of people separated from their souls. That’s what makes so many humans cruel and selfish. That’s why people do such terrible things to each other and to our mother earth. They have lost their souls.”

The next morning after breakfast, Tina drives Augie and Tober home on her way to Fortuna to babysit her grandson.

Sharon isn’t home when they arrive, but they find a note from her on the kitchen table.

Dear Tobe and Aug,

I hope you had a good journey. I want to apologize for asking you to answer a question I never should have asked you. The first night you were gone, I went to Arcata to be with Alex and we got into a ferocious argument about my leaving the decision up to you, and in the course of the argument I realized I don’t want to marry him even if he stays here and we never go to Scotland. I realized how deeply troubled he is about something that has nothing to do with me or you, something about his self-identity, about not liking who he is, though he adamantly denies this.

When I told him I won’t consider marrying him until he reclaims his joy, he called me a New Age idiot, so I left and came home.

Yesterday he came here to apologize and tell me he was going to take the job at Stirling. He said he wants to see you before he leaves in a few weeks. He said he’ll call you.

I’ll be home around five-thirty. Lasagna and a big salad for supper.

Love you,

Mom

That afternoon, Tober wanders down the hill and finds Felix pacing back and forth on the sunny south-facing deck of the Bernstein’s house, reciting some of the Hebrew text for his bar mitzvah.

“Cecily home?” asks Tober, hoping to entice her to come to the hot spring he and Augie discovered on their way to the ocean.

Felix shrugs. “They left for LA this morning. My dad’s driving her.”

“Your dad?” says Tober, collapsing in one of the two deck chairs. “I thought he said she was too young to go.”

“You want some lemonade?” asks Felix, heading for the sliding glass door. “I’m parched.”

“Okay,” says Tober, stunned by the news of Cecily’s departure.

Felix brings Tober a big glass filled with ice cubes and sour lemonade and sits in the other deck chair.

“She just kept after them,” says Felix, gulping his lemonade. “You know how she can be. All day every day, week after week, month after month, until finally they relented.”

“So… what will she do when she gets there?” asks Tober, who has never been to a city larger than Eureka, which seems like a huge metropolis to him, though only 25,000 people live there.

“She’s going to live with Aunt Lydia in Brentwood and go to auditions and get parts and be a movie star.” Felix shrugs. “That’s the plan anyway.”

“She can just go to auditions?” asks Tober, knowing nothing about show business. “Anybody can just go? I could just go? Just walk into wherever they make movies and they’ll give me an audition?”

“Well, no,” says Felix, shaking his head. “She got invited to audition because we made a video. An audition reel. With Dad’s Nikon. Cecily and I edited it on Mom’s computer. She did a scene with Lisa and one with you. Remember?”

“You mean when she pretended to be lost and I was chopping wood?” Tober frowns. “You put that on the video?”

“Yeah. And three monologues and a song.” Felix finishes his lemonade and sucks on an ice cube. “Then she mailed the video to Aunt Lydia and she showed it to a friend of hers who’s a talent agent in Beverly Hills, and the agent got Cecily three auditions. One for a television commercial, one for a sit-com, and one for an indie.”

“What exactly is a sit-com?” asks Tober, who has never watched television and has only been to the movies twice in his life, each time a mind-boggling experience.

Sit-com stands for Situation Comedy,” says Felix, pursing his lips as he does when making a guess. “They… you know… a bunch of actors act out scenes in a humorous situation.”

“And what’s an indie?” asks Tober, his heart aching from the loss of Cecily.

“It’s a type of movie,” says Felix, taking off his glasses and cleaning them with a pale blue handkerchief, something he often does when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Where most of the action takes place indoors.”

Meanwhile, Augie is in the vegetable garden picking lettuce for tonight’s salad and humming a tune that came to him this morning.

Now he sings, “Searching for the magic stone, searching together, searching alone, we dream of love and think of home.”

     fin

Medicine Birds

Monday, July 24th, 2017

hawk

Hawk pen and ink by Todd

Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, someone gave me Medicine Cards, a book and accompanying deck of cards written by Jamie Sams and David Carson, and illustrated by Angela C. Werneke. Each card features a picture of an animal or bird or insect or reptile or amphibian. For purposes of divination, the user randomly chooses cards from the deck and reads the text in the book corresponding to those cards.

Each animal represents some aspect of power in the natural world. For instance, ant medicine involves patience and trust and hard work, badger medicine is the wise use of aggression, and beaver medicine helps us pursue our goals through cooperation and planning and persistence. The text of Medicine Cards reflects the teachings of various indigenous peoples of North America regarding the physical, energetic, and spiritual attributes of forty-four non-human beings.

When I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino twelve years ago, I found myself in a world populated by most of the beings represented in the Medicine Cards, so I no longer needed to draw cards from the deck to ignite my wondering about what Nature wanted to tell me. And last week, in the course of a single day, I had three extraordinary meetings with non-human beings that gave me much food for thought.

In the morning of that remarkable day, I walked from our house to the commercial district of Mendocino—about a mile—and upon completion of my errands decided on a circuitous route home that took me through the graveyard at the south end of town. And there amidst the gravestones I came upon a magnificent Great Blue Heron, stalking gophers—the living seeking sustenance among the dead.

The Great Blue Heron is not one of the birds in the old Medicine Card deck I have, but herons represent to me the power of stillness and stealth and careful observation, three important skills that herons use to catch fish and frogs and rodents to sustain their lives and empower them to fly.

Home again, my mind filled with visions of the Great Blue Heron among the graveyard monuments, I shed my pack, drank a glass of water, and went to see how my carrots and lettuce and chard and zucchini plants were faring in the heat of day. And whilst perusing my garden, I decided to nitrogenize the soil, otherwise known as taking a piss.

Now on several occasions in my life I have been wielding a garden hose when a hummingbird arrived to drink from the cool flow of water—a most delightful happenstance. But this piss I speak of was the first I’ve taken that attracted a hummingbird thirsty enough and brave enough to take a sip of my warm salty flow.

According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, hummingbirds are bringers of joy, and I must say that this piss-drinking little beauty certainly made me smile in wonder at both her appetite and her audacity.

In the afternoon, I needed to make another trip to town and took our trusty old pickup. I turned onto Little Lake Road and was going about fifteen-miles-per-hour when a huge Red-tailed Hawk flew across my path no more than ten feet in front of the truck and only a few feet off the ground. I hit my brakes, missed the big bird by inches, and she flew away to the south. Phew! What a relief not to have killed her.

And I wondered if almost hitting a hawk meant something more than almost killing a hawk. Is life a random meaningless crapshoot? Was the universe communicating with me by sending the hawk across the road at that moment? Was the hawk telling me that death is always near, so enjoy life while we may? Was she a harbinger of a publisher calling to say she wanted to present my books to the greater world? Or was the hawk asking me to consider the question: “What’s the big hurry?”

Sams and Carson write, “Hawk may be bringing you the message that you should circle over your life and examine it from a higher perspective. From this vantage point you may be able to discern the hazards which bar you from freedom of flight.”

At dusk on that day of visitations, mammals took over the harbinger business, and a young doe with a nest in a copse of redwoods on our property brought her two fawns to the clearing outside our office windows, and we delighted in the adorable baby deer until they wandered away.

Sams and Carson write, “Deer teaches us to use the power of gentleness to touch the hearts and minds of wounded beings who are trying to keep us from Sacred Mountain.”

And let us never forget: there’s no telling what a hummingbird might do.

Late Spring

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

36 and Counting site

36 & COUNTING painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” Hal Borland

Nature brought us a treat two weeks ago, a young doe, resident to these woods we own a small part of, sauntered by the north-facing windows followed by two tiny fawns, their smallness amplifying their cuteness. Since then, the doe and her fawns have returned several times, the two babies larger each time, their movements ever more graceful and assured.

A couple days ago, I went strolling in our woods and unwittingly surprised the doe and fawns, the little ones leaping away with astonishing agility and speed, their mother standing between me and them and giving me a look that said, “My nest is near, please don’t come any closer.”

I think I know where her nest is, in a dense copse of thirty-year-old redwoods on the edge of our property, but I will not go looking there and risk permanently scaring her away. We made a decision when we bought this place to leave the land on the north side of our house as wild as can be so the deer and other critters will want to hang out there, and so far that seems to be the case.

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Pablo Neruda

On the same day we first saw the fawns, I was sitting in my very high chair at my very high desk at which I sometimes stand to work, when something out my south-facing window caught the corner of my eye, and before I could turn to see what it was my brain fired off the word kitten, for the thing was small and gray and moving with the uneven gait of a baby cat just learning to trot. However, the thing was not a baby cat, but a baby opossum, and though I would not call the adult version of that animal cute, this baby was hella cute, compact and fluffy, the nose already Durante-like in proportion to the body, the tail just getting going in its growth to becoming long and thick, the little animal still more kitten-like than rat-like as are the adults, rat-like in a Dr. Seuss sort of way.

My enjoyment at seeing the baby opossum immediately turned to fear for the baby because our cat Django is a large, persistently hungry, skilled and ruthless killer of baby mammals, especially baby rabbits and baby rats, and I imagined this tiny marsupial would be just Django’s cup of tea, so to speak. So I leapt from my chair and dashed into the living room where I found the voracious beast sound asleep on his tuffet, and I breathed a sigh of relief, though the fact is opossum are a scourge of my vegetable garden, rooting as they do for earthworms in the well-nurtured soil. Go get him, Django!

“Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.” Al Bernstein

We had a foggy cold May, germination in my vegetable garden pathetic, the baby plants remaining nascent and wimpy for weeks on end from lack of sunlight and warmth—neighbors and friends pale and gloomy and cranky and depressed. Humans, clearly, are solar-powered. Don’t forget to take your Vitamin D.

On the first of June I flipped the pages on our two wall calendars, and as if the weather spirits had been waiting for the name of the month to change, the fog vanished and the sun came out and has been out every day since then—our baby vegetables waking from their suspended animation and stretching their fog-beleaguered limbs to the great giver of life to say, “What took you so long?”

Now every day is like waking to the next frame of a time-lapse nature movie, tomato plants doubling in size overnight, dormant perennials bursting forth with colorful blooms, hummingbirds zipping around the garden in blissful hysteria, zealous bees working the clover, everybody making up for lost time— neighbors and friends rosy and cheerful and kind and effervescent, the gals in the post office giggling, the bank tellers ebullient, the high school girls half-naked again after a month of suffering under hoodies and leggings.

“Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!” Sitting Bull

We denizens of Mendocino are used to fog and long stretches of foggy days, but May is not usually a foggy month here, not in the nine years I’ve lived here, and not in the experience of several old timers I queried about the odd weather. But one longtime resident, a student of redwood ecology, suggested that our especially foggy May was a reaction to the continuing drought and extreme heat gripping inland California.

To paraphrase him: there have been many droughts in the last several thousand years, some lasting decades and possibly centuries, yet the redwood forests survived. How did they do that without much rain? They survived because of fog, which is what occurs vastly and persistently when hot dry inland air meets the cooler moister ocean air. Redwoods steep in the fog that refreshes their thirsty foliage and coalesces into drops that fall into the spongy duff or trickle down the trunks into the root masses.

Does this mean many more foggy days lie ahead, more than usual? Will May be a foggy month again next year as the great drought persists? We shall see. In the meantime, June is doing a splendid imitation of May, the blackberry bushes between here and town are so dense with blossoms I can already taste the blackberry jam we’ll make from the bounty, and the apple trees seem to have enjoyed cool foggy May, their branches full of young fruit. Still, the ground is perilously dry and we will want to water our younger fruit trees deeply a couple times this summer if we can possibly spare the water.

Mowing

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Mowing Two

Mowed Down photo by Todd

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

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Henry David Thoreau

A friend called last week to ask if I was aware of the recent carnage wreaked on the Mendocino headlands from Ford House down to the land above Portuguese Beach. She said giant bulldozer mowers had mowed everything, except the very largest shrubs, down to bare earth. I said I would take a look.

“All those lizards and bugs and flowers and grasses just gone,” she said. “The official word from the state park people is they did it to control non-native species, but we know they did it to make sure there’s no place for homeless people to lie down or take a pee. No more privacy, no more wildness. I’ve been crying about it for two days.”

I walked to town the next day to check out the mown headlands. On my way I passed a favorite field that had just been mowed, and my first thought was what a pity the lovely vetch and clover that had been on the rise would now not bloom to feed the bees and bugs and birds. My second thought was how spiffy everything looked—civilized. The house attached to the newly mown field has been empty and for sale for two years, the price steadily dropping from the absurd to the upper reaches of plausible. Did the realtor think mowing the field would make the place more saleable?

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Albert Einstein.

I love the wildness of the unkempt headlands, as do birds, lizards, snakes, gophers, rabbits, bees, bugs, birds and people who like to pick blackberries in August and September. Seeing the south side of Main Street mowed down to the bare earth was a shock. I’ve written poems and scenes in novels set here among the wild grasses and poppies and renegade callas and wild roses that abound on this particular swath of headlands, or did abound until they were rendered unsequestered carbon by the whirring blades.

Now the place looks like a raggedy golf course or a field waiting to be plowed and planted with Brussels sprouts, kin to the coastal fields north of Santa Cruz. If not for the inconvenient water shortage hereabouts and the headlands being public property, condominiums could be built here with ample parking and lights blazing day and night. Damn that water shortage and the socialist conspiracy known as state parks. Hell, with a big desalinization plant, we could have a casino here. After all, Mendocino was once the site of a Pomo village, so…

 “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” William Shakespeare

Except we like that the only human construction rising on these slaughtered fields will be the music festival tent that comes and goes every July. We like the vetch and mustard and brassica, the poison oak and poppies, the seed birds, the bunnies, the lupine, the blackberries and rambling roses, some of which will come back eventually, now that the mowers are done and gone—assuming they don’t come back for another several years.

We doubt the mowing was done to eradicate non-native species. They mowed everything, native and non-native. I think they mowed to make the place inhospitable to homeless people and people who like to pee outside rather than suffer the slimy stench of the shameful public bathroom bunker, and because they, whoever ordered the mowing, are mean-spirited dummies.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein

On the bright side, we now have the opportunity to watch how Nature goes about re-wilding land that humans have trashed. Nature works fast around here, left to her own devices. True, she might reseed the new mown fields with Pampas Grass and Scotch Broom and eucalyptus, invasive non-natives all, but reseed the fields she will. I say lets help her by broadcasting a hundred pounds of wildflower seeds out there. Why not?

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Frederick Douglass

A stone’s throw west of the scalped fields we come to a multi-acre expanse where all is grasses and mustard and lupine bushes and renegade brassica, with no large shrubs to hide behind—a place where homeless people rarely venture to rest and pee. No, this is acreage upon which valuable turísticos tread to reach the scenic shorelines whereupon photogenic waves crash, and from where whales may be espied spouting. Here in this fairly bland ecosystem (bland compared to the one that just got mowed) a tiny section of the headlands has been cordoned off with flabby orange plastic fencing for the purpose of (so says the sign) Native Habitat Restoration.

This privileged chunk of native habitat seems to be mostly mustard, a few native and non-native grasses, and vetch. What’s really going on is the footpath tracing the edge of a precipitous cliff is about to collapse into the sea, and the aforementioned dummies are hoping to delay a trail collapse resulting in the death of a tourist or two. To call this operation native habitat restoration is plain silly, especially considering the destruction of fifty times as much native habitat right over there.

Meanwhile, the myriad creatures displaced by the mowing, those that weren’t killed, are adjusting to the new reality. Earthworms continue doing their thing, snakes and lizards and rabbits have moved to safer ground and keep up their relentless search for sustenance. Ditto bees and butterflies. Gophers carry on as if nothing has happened. The homeless and the desperate pee elsewhere for now. Locals continue to walk their dogs here, and their dogs continue to sniff and pee and poop and bark.

Seeds, native and non-native, are already germinating in the scarified soil. Life, such as it is, goes on.

Jehovah’s Witness

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Mixed media, Shall We Dance, by Todd

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

A friend recently wrote to me about his philosophical discussions with a Jehovah’s Witness, and his letter brought back boatloads of memories of my friend Woody, an African American Jehovah’s Witness, an elder in his church, who visited me every month for the eleven years I lived in Berkeley.

The first time Woody came up my stairs and knocked on the front door, I intended to say to him what I had been saying to Jehovah’s Witnesses since I was a boy. “No thank you. Please don’t come again.” That was the little speech my mother taught me to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses when they came to our house, and those were the words I dutifully repeated to every Jehovah’s Witness who called on me until I was forty-five and opened the door to Woody and the young man accompanying him.

Woody was about fifteen years my senior, handsome, honey brown, bald, slender, wearing a beautifully tailored suit and a royal purple tie. Before I could recite my oft-repeated rejection, I found myself totally disarmed by Woody’s mischievous smile and charming southern accent. “Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly. “We saw the moving truck here last week and wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. Where did you all come from?”

“Sacramento,” I said, struck hard by the realization that this stranger was the first person to welcome me to my new home.

“Awful hot up there in the summer,” he said, nodding knowingly. “You’ll be glad you live here and not there come August.”

To which I replied, “Amen,” and then immediately regretted my choice of words.

“This is Aaron,” said Woody, introducing me to his companion. “He’s helping me spread the word today and we were wondering if we might share a short passage from the Bible with you, something I think you will find quite interesting and relevant to the situation in the world today.”

“Sure,” I said, enjoying the company. “Read to me.”

So Woody opened his well-worn leather bound Bible and read something about the terrible state of the world and how God was going to clear things up any day now. And though I was not moved by the words themselves, I was deeply touched by the halting way Woody read, as if he had only recently learned to read, and each word was a challenge to him.

When he finished reading the brief passage, he smiled like a boy who has accomplished a difficult feat, his eyes shining with pleasure at having conquered the troublesome words. And then, for reasons I have no explanation for, our eyes met and we both burst out laughing, and we laughed until tears ran down our faces.

Thereafter, every month, Woody would stop by to deliver the latest editions of The Watchtower and Awake! and to share a passage from the Bible apropos of the terrible state of our society. If Woody found my door ajar, which it often was, he would call to me as he climbed the stairs, “Tawd! It’s Woody. You home?”

I admit there were times I did not answer the door when Woody came to visit, times when I was in no mood for a Bible reading or for hearing brief synopses of articles in the latest Awake!, but I usually opened to him, and I was always glad when I did. Woody was a beacon of friendliness in a largely unfriendly world, and I greatly enjoyed our few moments together—moments filled with appreciation for each other.

For two of those eleven years, Woody came to my house with Clarence, a very serious man who was learning to grow vegetables. If the weather was good, Clarence and Woody and I would go out into my little garden and I would answer Clarence’s questions about my methods for growing vegetables and garlic, my tricks for catching earwigs, and what I thought about various methods of composting.

Now and then, after Woody read to me from the Bible in his halting, innocent, enthusiastic way, I would read to him from Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which I told him was my Bible. I vividly remember the time I read him Fuller’s passage, “I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained,” and Woody frowned and pondered and finally said, “Well…that’s what God does, isn’t it?” And then we burst out laughing.

Only a few times did Woody urge me to come to a Bible interpretation meeting at his church, and each time he invited me, I said something along the lines of, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not really interested in studying the Bible. I’ve read the good book, and I’m glad I did, and now and then I dip into Psalms, but I’m more interested in Buddhism these days.”

“Oh, Buddhism,” he would say, nodding thoughtfully. “We have a number of former Buddhists in our congregation. Wonderful people.” Then he would smile his mischievous smile and say, “Well, you let me know if you change your mind.”

One day, Woody came to my door accompanied by a beautiful and vivacious Eurasian woman with long black hair and black-framed glasses. “This is Carmen,” said Woody, gesturing to her in his gallant way. “Carmen, this is my good friend Tawd. I’ve been coming to see him for seven years now and it’s always a pleasure.”

Woody then asked Carmen to read a passage from the Bible, and she did so beautifully, her voice melodious and full of passion, her enunciation perfect. What’s more, Carmen proved to be the only one of Woody’s many companions who laughed with us when he and I laughed, which was almost every visit, and I flatter myself to think Carmen really liked me, and I know I really liked her. Yes, it was like at first sight, and being single as I was and seeing she wore no wedding ring, I often regretted I hadn’t met her at a café instead of over religious magazines featuring silly drawings of grinning people picnicking with tigers and lambs.

Carmen came with Woody four times, and the thought of seeing her always propelled me to the door with a greater than usual momentum. Alas, the last time she came with Woody, as I was enjoying her graceful descent of the stairs, Woody tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “I know Carmen would sure like it if you came to Bible study. She told me so, Tawd. Yes, she did.” And when I didn’t go to Bible study, Carmen ceased to accompany Woody on his visits to me.

During my last two years in Berkeley, Woody’s congregation fulfilled their dream of building a new temple near the North Berkeley BART station, and Woody invited me to attend the grand opening, but I did not go. Looking back over the years, I wish I had gone to the temple opening because I know Woody was immensely proud of that accomplishment.

When I told Woody I was moving away, he put on a sad face and said, “Where are you going, Tawd? I’m gonna miss you.”

“I’m moving to Mendocino,” I told him. “On the coast a hundred miles north of here.”

“I have heard of Mendocino,” he said solemnly. “And though I have never been there, I hear there are some very good people there, and I hope you meet them, I do.”

Then much to my surprise, we did not burst out laughing, but shook hands as tenderly as hands may be shaken. I cannot explain what it was about Woody that so appealed to me, or why we recognized each other as kindred spirits right off the bat, or why our good feelings for each other never waned. I just liked him and he liked me. He never once asked me about my personal life, nor did I ever ask him about his.

I especially remember one cold wet winter day as I was kneeling on my hearth and failing repeatedly to get my fire going due to lack of newspaper, when I heard Woody and a companion coming up the stairs, and I thought, Oh, good. He’ll leave an Awake! and I’ll be able to start my fire.

With that shameful thought in mind, I opened the door to behold Woody and Clarence, their raincoats soaking wet, Woody saying, “We can’t stay long today, Tawd, but we wanted to make sure you got the latest Awake! and Watchtower. Some very interesting articles.”

“You growing anything in your garden this time of year?” asked Clarence, ever serious. “Besides your garlic?”

“Lettuce and kale and chard,” I intoned. “They grow year round in Berkeley.”

“See,” said Woody, handing me my fire starter, “I knew he’d have something illuminating to say on the subject.”

Then, as we were wont to do, Woody and I burst out laughing, with Clarence perplexed as ever by our inexplicable gaiety.

Creeping Up On God

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

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

So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and after fifty minutes the psychiatrist says, “I think you’re crazy.”

And the guy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I want to get a second opinion.”

And the psychiatrist says, “Okay, you’re ugly, too.”

My father was a child psychiatrist. Until I was eight or nine, I had only vague notions of what my father’s practice consisted of. I knew he had a playroom adjacent to his office, and in that playroom there were board games and a sandbox and dolls and trucks and other cool things for kids to play with, and I knew my father wore a suit and tie when he interacted with these kids, and that he was sort of a doctor.

So this guy with a chicken on his head goes to see a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist says, “What’s this all about?”

And the chicken says, “I don’t know. I woke up this morning and there he was.”

When I was in my forties, a childhood friend invited me to lunch with him at his mother’s house. After lunch, I called my father to let him know I’d be dropping by a little later. While I was on the phone with my father, my friend’s mother said, “Tell your dad he did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”

So I say into the phone, “Dad, Iris says you did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”

It turns out that Marvin, my friend’s younger brother, had gone to see my father a dozen or so times when he, Marvin, was seven and suffering from insomnia and sudden outbursts of rage. This was before the widespread use of drugs in psychotherapy, so my father treated Marvin with talk therapy and play therapy, and Marvin began sleeping well and his rage outbursts mostly went away.

Until my father was in his seventies and near the end of his time as a practicing psychotherapist, he rarely spoke about his clients to me, and he certainly never spoke about anyone we might know. I later found out that my father treated a number of my classmates, but I did not know this at the time of their interactions with him.

Thus I was mightily curious to know what my father had done to help Marvin, a person I knew pretty well. My friend said, “Marvin never told me.” My friend’s mother said, “I think they played cards and talked. Your father is a miracle worker.”

So when I got over to my father’s house, I said, “Dad, what did you do to help Marvin?”

My father sipped his coffee and frowned as he tried to remember back thirty-some years to his time with Marvin, and then he smiled and said, “Oh, yes. He had two much older brothers. They played Monopoly and cards and all sorts of games with him, but his brothers were merciless and never let Marvin win. No matter how hard he tried, Marvin couldn’t win, and he was so terribly frustrated that he began to act out, and he had nightmares as I recall.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, as his mother told you, we played cards and Monopoly, and he talked about how he hated his brothers, and…I let him win.”

So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my wife thinks she’s a refrigerator.”

The shrink says, “How long has this been going on?”

And the guy says, “Oh, about a week now, and I can’t sleep.”

“That’s only natural. You’re worried about her.”

“Well, it’s not so much that,” says the guy. “But she sleeps with her mouth open, and you know that light that goes on when you leave the door open? Shines right in my face.”

My junior high school brought together kids from two elementary schools, so there were lots of new kids to get to know, and the inevitable question of what my father did came up. And I will never forget my shock when I told a guy that my father was a psychiatrist and the guy replied, “Oh, a head shrinker, huh?”

“A what?” I said, dismayed.

“A head shrinker,” he repeated. “A shrink. Ugga bugga. Witch doctor.”

When I asked my father about the term shrink and the witch doctor reference, my father explained that there were many people (in 1960) who still thought psychiatry was hocus pocus nonsense. He said that many people thought that when a person went to a psychiatrist it meant the person was crazy; and many of my father’s patients were so ashamed about coming to see him that they did so clandestinely.

So these two psychiatrists are having lunch together, and one of them says, “Man oh man, I was having breakfast with my mother yesterday and I made the most incredible Freudian slip.”

“Oh, really,” says the other shrink. “What happened?”

“Well,” says the first shrink, “I meant to say, ‘Mom, will you pass the butter?’ But instead I said, ‘You bitch! You ruined my life!’”

We often wonder, my siblings and I, what our lives would have been like if our father had treated us and our mother as he treated his clients, with kindness and patience and compassion and acceptance. But we will never know, and that’s life.

So this priest is sitting in the confessional and a guy comes into the booth and sits down on the other side of the grill and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned.”

“I’m listening,” says the priest.

“I’m eighty years old,” says the guy, “and I’ve been married for sixty years and never once cheated on my wife. But yesterday I’m sitting in the park and this beautiful young woman approaches me and says she’s got a thing for older men and would I like to come to her apartment. So I go with her and we have fantastic sex for hours and hours and hours.”

“Heavens,” says the priest, taken aback. “How long has it been since your last confession?”

“Oh, I’ve never confessed,” says the old man.

“You’re Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”

“I’m not Catholic,” says the man. “I’m Jewish.”

“You’re Jewish?” says the priest, flabbergasted. “So why are you telling me?”

“Telling you? I’m telling everyone.”

I am Jewish, though I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was twelve. When my mother was growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s she was twice stoned by gangs of kids when they found out she was Jewish. Her parents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton in the 1930’s so they could get housing and my grandfather could get work more easily. Thus my mother learned to erase any overt traces of her Jewishness, married a non-Jew, and vociferously denied that she was Jewish for the rest of her life.

So these two cops are driving along and they see a nun walking to town. They know that the only nuns in the area live in a cloistered nunnery and never ever come out except in the direst emergencies. So they pull up beside the nun and one of the cop asks her, “Sister, anything wrong?”

“Indeed,” says the sister, nodding gravely. “The mother superior is terribly constipated and sent me to town to get her a laxative.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” says the cop. “Can we give you a lift?”

“No, thank you,” says the sister, averting her eyes and continuing on her way.

A few hours later, the cops are driving that same part of their beat when they see the same nun walking back to the nunnery, and she does not appear to be steady on her feet. As they get closer, they see she is obviously drunk. They pull up beside her and the cop says, “Sister, you’re drunk. I thought you were going to town to get the mother superior a laxative.”

“I did,” says the nun, slurring her speech. “And when mother schuperior sees me, she’s gonna shit.”

My parents were alcoholics, but they did not appreciate jokes about drunks. Call it a coincidence, but my brother and I became avid collectors of jokes about drunks, and we took extreme pleasure in performing these jokes when we knew our parents were listening.

So there’s a rabbi living in New York City and one day he wakes from a dream and distinctly hears God say, “Rabbi Feinberg, go to the small Arkansas town of Redfern and carry on your work there.”

So the rabbi gives up his life in New York and moves to Redfern where there are no Jews. Having no money and no way to build a synagogue, the rabbi arranges with the Baptist minister to use their church on Saturday mornings. And every Saturday he carries out the duties of his office in an otherwise empty church.

One Saturday as the rabbi is preaching in the Baptist church, there comes a great storm and it rains so hard the town begins to flood. The Baptist minister comes rushing in and says, “Rabbi, sorry to interrupt, but they say the river could overflow her banks and seriously flood the town. Come with me to safer ground.”

“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”

So the Baptist minister leaves and the river, indeed, overflows its banks and the town is soon four-feet deep in water. The Baptist minister returns in a rowboat and says, “Rabbi, get in. The upstream dam is about to break and the church will be entirely underwater.”

“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”

So the Baptist minister rows away and the water continues to rise until it is up to the rabbi’s chin, at which point the Baptist minister returns in his boat and says, “Rabbi, please. Get in the boat or you’ll drown.”

“Nay,” gurgles the rabbi. “God sent me here. If he wants to save me, he will save me.”

Well, the Baptist minister reluctantly leaves, the water rises over the rabbi’s head, and he drowns.

Shortly thereafter, the rabbi arrives at the pearly gates, pushes past St. Peter and storms into God’s office.

“Why did you let me drown?” he cries. “You sent me to that town, so I went. I did everything you asked of me. I, your devoted servant, Rabbi Feinberg. So why did you let me drown?”

“For goodness sake, Feinberg,” says God, with a mighty shrug. “I sent the boat twice.”

My father was a fierce atheist. I tried to follow in his footsteps, but in my early thirties I had the first of several experiences that made it impossible for me to deny the entirely mystical nature of my life. Eventually, I got over my aversion to the word God, and now I use it synonymously with Nature, Universe, and Tim Lincecum.

Todd Walton’s web site is underthetablebooks.com