Posts Tagged ‘Oregon’

Oregon

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Rita

Rita photo by Todd

“He walked joyously, triumphantly, through the peace and beauty of springtime in California.” Katharine Grey

My great grandmother Katharine Grey wrote a pair of novels Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold, published by Little Brown in the 1930s. Based loosely on the experiences of my paternal ancestors, Rolling Wheels is about a family coming to California from Indiana via wagon train in the years before the Gold Rush of 1849, and Hills of Gold is about that same family living in California during the Gold Rush.

Throughout my childhood, my father impressed upon me that we were real native Californians, being descended on my father’s side from people who came here before California was even a state—never mind the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before my Anglo ancestors arrived, or the Mexicans who settled here hundreds of years before the first Anglos came to California.

I was also repeatedly told that my ancestors came to California in the same large wagon train that included the ill-fated Donner party, except my ancestors made it over the Sierras before the onset of winter and founded the town of Fremont while the Donners starved and ate each other.

And this is some of why when I travel to Oregon, I think of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and the Oregon Trail and pioneers and the wilderness that was Oregon and California before cars and freeways and computers and everything that has transpired in the last little while of human history.

Marcia and I just returned from an eight-day drive-about in Oregon, and the trip was a Big Deal for the likes of me, one who rarely leaves our watershed here on the Mendocino coast and rarely rides in a motorized vehicle for more than a few minutes at a time every few days. We spent two nights on the Oregon coast, four nights in Portland, a night in Bend, a night in Eugene, and another night on the Oregon coast before returning to California. We took many hikes, ate many good meals, communed with good friends, and saw many sights, some marvelous, some not so marvelous—a fine trip all in all.

The biggest motivating factor for making the trip was to visit our friends Bob and Rita who recently moved to Portland from our neck of the woods. They have both become adept at navigating the byways of Portland and were marvelous guides and hosts as we explored that sprawling metropolis full of trees and roses and bridges and breweries and cafés.

On our last full day in Portland, we took the light rail from a station near Rita and Bob’s house to the center of downtown. A few decades ago, Portland became the first large metropolitan area in America to begin using most of the monies returned to them by the federal government (from the federal tax on gasoline) to create an urban transportation system that would make a good life possible for city people who don’t drive cars. Thus Portland has an excellent and ever-expanding light rail and trolley system second to none west of the Atlantic seaboard.

While riding the light rail into downtown Portland, I became aware that everyone in the crowded car, save for Marcia, Todd, Bob, and Rita, was staring into some sort of portable computer and occasionally diddling the keyboard: small and large smart phones, pads, and laptops. Everyone. No one was looking out a window or at another person. The young woman sitting in front of me was scrolling through photographs of tattooed naked women posed provocatively; and the man sitting beside her was playing a violent video game and snorting every time he killed something.

When we detrained downtown, I noticed that many of the people walking around and sitting in cafés and on benches were also staring into portable computer screens and jabbing them with their thumbs. In fact, save for the legions of homeless people occupying downtown Portland, almost everyone who was not walking fast or riding a bike was staring into a screen and diddling. For some years now I have been aware of the entrainment-to-screens phenomenon in America, but I had never before seen this mass entrancement on such a huge urban scale; and I was both astonished and weirded out, if you know what I mean.

A few days later in Eugene, we were eating good Indian food with our friends David and Joan and Eileen. David is an elementary and middle school music teacher who combines song, dance, comedy, marimbas, ukuleles, drumming, improvisation—you name it—to create exciting and engaging musical experiences for his students culminating in fabulous group performances.

“But,” he said, while telling me about various aspects of his work, “I now feel the most important thing I can do for my students is give them time to engage with me and each other and their own creative impulses without interfacing with their diddle boxes. Because interfacing with their diddle boxes is the main thing most of them do all the time now.”

“If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.” Alan Watts

There is a square in downtown Portland, one of the main squares, that has lots of places to sit and gawk at passersby, and in one part of this square there is a small parabolic amphitheater made of bricks. If one stands in the center of the parabola facing the ascending tiers of brick half-circles, and one speaks aloud at a normal volume, one’s voice sounds incredibly loud and clear in one’s ears—a totally neato auditory experience.

So I’m standing in the center of the parabola facing a young woman who is sitting slightly above me in the amphitheater and facing in my direction, though not seeing me. She is hooked up to her smart phone with wires connected to tiny earphones plugged into her ears, and she is diddling her screen.

I say, “Hello there,” and the words sound loud and clear in my ears. And then I say to the young woman, “You’re doing this aren’t you? You’re making this happen.”

She frowns quizzically at me and takes the earphone out of her right ear. “Are you talking to me?” she asks, her voice remarkably sonorous.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “You’re doing something to make my voice sound loud and clear in my ears, aren’t you?”

After a moment of silence between us, a sweet smile claims her face and she nods in agreement.

Fin Again—Wake!

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

todd at Crater lake

Todd At Crater Lake photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chosen

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Mendocino Coastline, Todd

Mendocino Coast photo by Bill Fletcher

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

“The best is the enemy of good.” Voltaire

You have probably heard the provocative news that the New York Times recently declared the village of Mendocino and the surrounding scenic coastline to be the Third Best Travel Destination in the World. Not the best place to visit in America or in the Western Hemisphere, but in the entire world.

When I heard this startling pronouncement I went into a trance and heard someone say, “It was a tossup between Bali or Venice, but then we got the idea of cruising the fjords of Norway and we were about to book our flight to Oslo when we read the article in the New York Times about Mendocino being the third best place on the planet to visit! We rushed to make reservations at one of the inns there and soon we’ll be ogling the rugged coastline and buying T-shirts and sampling seaweed and drinking local wine and beer and eating lots of California Cuisine and, you know, reveling in the magnificence.”

Emerging from my trance, I read the article in question and was surprised to find nary a mention of the current devastating drought that puts Mendocino near the bottom of a number of other Best lists, including Best Places in the World To Take Long Showers and Best Places In the World To Grow Rice In Flooded Paddies. Nor did the article mention Mendocino being dead last on the list of Best Places With Decent Public Restrooms and Best Places With Good Chinese and/or Mexican and/or any sort of ethnic food.

Indeed, the upshot of the article seems to be that the rugged coast and gorgeous crashing waves and redwood forests are what make Mendocino the third most wonderful place in the whole world, not the amenities for humans, which I think does a great disservice to my favorite places in the village: Zo (copy shop extraordinaire), post office (world class), Mendocino Market (superb deli), Corners of the Mouth (stupendous avocados), Goodlife Bakery & Café (yummy combo salads), Harvest Market (olive bar heaven), Gallery Books (be still my heart, they carry my books), Rubaiyat (beads meet Buddha), Frankie’s Pizza (and ice cream), our lone bank (sympathetic tellers), and last but not least, the little hardware store that could.

“Avoid popularity; it has many snares, and no real benefit.” William Penn

In the mid-1970’s I moved to Ashland Oregon, having lived there briefly and happily in the early 1970’s. To my dismay, the place had changed dramatically in just the few years I’d been gone. Real estate prices had skyrocketed, Southern Oregon College had been absorbed into the state college system and doubled in size, the airport in nearby Medford had been greatly enlarged, and people from all over America, not just from California, were flocking to what was fast becoming a kind of Carmel-Not-By-The-Sea with year-round Shakespeare.

Most of the artists and eccentrics and free thinkers I’d found so appealing during my brief sojourn there in the 60’s had fled the burgeoning hamlet in search of less expensive pastures and been replaced by…well, people like Gerald, a big blustery overweight middle-aged real estate developer from New Jersey. He had only been in Ashland for two years, yet had already built two hideous, crappy, environmentally disastrous four-unit apartment buildings and was in the process of building two more such monstrosities.

I rented a room in Gerald’s house—Gerald being one of those extremely wealthy people who leave no income-producing stone unturned—and he was a nice guy, albeit reflexively combative, a reflex that quickened in direct proportion to his alcohol intake. Gerald was also extremely pragmatic, and because he liked to get smashed several nights a week but didn’t want to drive drunk, he would go to bars, meet people, buy them drinks and invite them home with him to continue their drinking in our living room. Thus on many nights for those few challenging months I shared a house with Gerald, the living room was full of strangers drinking and talking over the din of Gerald’s always-on television.

While attending my first such impromptu party, I asked Gerald what had brought him to Ashland from far-away New Jersey.

He glared at me and said, “Same thing brought everybody else here.”

“Shakespeare?” I said dumbly. “No sales tax? Pretty women pumping your gas? Rafting the Rogue River? What?”

“The thing on CBS News,” he said, his glare intensifying. “You know, the list. Come on. Don’t say you didn’t see it. Everybody saw it. The Ten Best Places To Live In America Nobody Knows About Yet. Ashland was number two. They made it look like heaven.”

“I missed that show,” I said, apologetically. “So you came here because you saw something about Ashland on television?”

“Me, too,” said a cute gal with impossibly red impossibly curly hair. “I was living in Cleveland because my husband got transferred there from Chicago, otherwise I never would have gone there. Who would? And then we got divorced and…anyway I saw the same news thing, only I think it was NBC. Anyway…they did make it look so good here, and John Denver was singing and everything was so green and the swans swimming on the pond by the Shakespeare theatre so I thought…”

“No, it was an orchestra thing,” said a guy on the sofa, holding his glass aloft. “You know…with violins? Not John Denver.”

“Yeah,” said Gerald, pointing at the guy on the sofa. “That’s the one I saw, too, the one with violins. Not John Denver.”

“I was living in Riverside,” said the guy on the sofa. “And my eyes were watering all the time, and I had this horrible cough that I could not get rid of because the air was so bad, and the traffic…ridiculous, so when I saw that show about the best places nobody knew about yet I hopped in my car and drove up here and…”

“They must have shown it more than once,” said the cute gal from Cleveland, “because the one I saw definitely had John Denver singing.”

“Avoid popularity if you would have peace.” Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday, sitting on the headlands overlooking Mendocino Bay, enjoying the spectacular coastline and listening to the crashing waves and marveling that I actually live in the third best place in the entire world to visit, I was approached by a man and a woman, their eyes shielded by dark glasses reflecting four little funhouse Todds.

“Hi,” said the woman, exhibiting brilliant white teeth. “You live around here?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

“Told you,” said the man, looking away as if embarrassed by the success of his guess.

“We were wondering if you could recommend any interesting things to do around here,” said the woman, glancing at her partner. “You know…besides the scenery.” She gestured toward Japan. “We went to the bakery for coffee and scones. That was nice. And we had a beer at the hotel. And now…” She shrugged pleasantly. “Any suggestions?”

“Gosh, that’s a tough one,” I said, gazing out to sea. “We have three excellent chocolate shops in the village and a number of curio stores, but the cultural hub of the area is Fort Bragg, ten miles north of here.”

“We went there,” said the man, his voice devoid of enthusiasm.

“The Botanical Gardens? Cabrillo Lighthouse? Headlands Café?”

The woman nodded. Waves crashed on the rocky shore. Gulls flew north, ravens south. Seven vultures circled in the sky above us, patrolling paradise for dead things to eat.

“Hey, thanks,” said the man, turning to go.

“Yeah, thanks,” said the woman, turning to go, too. But then she looked back at me and asked, “Which one is your favorite chocolate shop?”

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

I asked my neighbor what he thought about Mendocino being touted by the New York Times as the third best place in the whole world to visit, and this is what he had to say about that.

“I’ve lived here sixty-seven of my seventy-four years and things were real good around here until about fifty years ago when certain types of people started moving in and growing you know what and then those crooks got hold of the lumber companies and started cutting the trees way too fast and selling all the wood to Japan and that ruined everything. No, if I were younger, I’d move to Idaho. You can still live the way you want up there, step out your door and shoot a deer. Used to be like that around here, but not anymore.”

My Big Trip, Part One

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

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

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France

In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.

Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King

I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.

I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.

And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.

We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.

“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”

To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.

“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner

About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.

Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.

My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.

“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”

“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”

“Nega-gravity? How…”

“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”

To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”

“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.

“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”

“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”

“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”

“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin

My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”

“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”

O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.

Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.

So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.

Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.

And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.

Apes

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

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

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Sometimes it helps me to remember we are apes. Before the advent of clothing and tools and weapons and religion and cars and nuclear power and nations and money and vast social and economic inequities, we were naked apes looking for sustenance, shelter, safety, and love. We foraged for food, made nests for sleeping, and hung out in groups large enough to dissuade leopards. We had mates and children, we changed locations when our favorite foods grew scarce, and we socialized with family and friends every day. We did not, I think, have long terms goals. We lived wholly in the moment because we didn’t have anything other than the moment to live in. We had nothing to carry, nothing to hide, nothing besides each other.

Okay, so that is a gross oversimplification of ape reality, which is not without violence and danger and sorrow and death; but thinking of myself as an ape in a group of excellent and sympathetic apes living in a jungle full of tasty leafs and fruit helps me grok why so many people are unhappy today and why our so-called advanced society is so incredibly stressful and dysfunctional and stupid and wrong. We have not only lost our collective connection to the earth, we have lost touch with what really made us happy when we were apes—each other.

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” James Thurber

I remember a moment in July of 1976 when I suddenly thought, “This is the happiest day of my life.” I was not thinking about happiness at the time, nor was I aware, until that moment, of being particularly happy. I looked around, wondering what could possibly have inspired such a thought, and what I saw unseated all my previous notions of what great happiness would look like: a dozen males and females and children (in Medford, Oregon on a very hot afternoon) sitting and standing around a picnic table on a scraggly lawn in the dappled shade of a towering elm, eating watermelon and spitting seeds.

I was a landscaper and had given up writing for a time. I didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have much money, and I was living in a funky bunkhouse next to the house of my boss and his wife and their kids. Oh, yes, now I remember it was the birthday of one of my boss’s kids, and we were drinking beer along with eating watermelon and spitting seeds, I and a couple other landscapers and their wives and my boss and his wife and a couple of their kids, including the birthday boy who was turning fourteen.

Why was I so happy? Looking back on that unexpectedly magical moment on that very hot day, I think my happiness came from our just being apes, eating fruit and spitting seeds and hanging out and talking and laughing and enjoying the moment without much thought or care for what might happen next.

I’ve had other happy days since that hot day in July in Medford in 1976, but I’ve never again been struck so forcefully by the thought, “This is the happiest day of my life,” which brings me to that unanswerable question: what is happiness?

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Kurt Vonnegut

Long ago I read the transcript of a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut about the happiest day of his life. In the tradition of apes, I will relate to you what I remember Kurt told us in his speech rather than locate the transcript on the interweb and copy his words verbatim. What I remember is that Kurt began speaking about the happiest day of his life by first telling us about the happiest day of his grandfather’s life and then about the happiest day of his father’s life.

The happiest day of Kurt’s grandfather’s life was when Kurt’s grandfather was a young man. He and his best friend were walking through an Indiana cornfield on a hot summer day when a freight train came chugging along and stopped in the middle of the cornfield for no apparent reason. Seeing the train idling there, Kurt’s grandfather and his friend were filled with desire to climb onto the cowcatcher and have a ride, the cowcatcher being a big V-shaped steel bumper mounted on the front of the train’s engine. So Kurt’s grandfather and his friend ran through the corn and hopped onto the cowcatcher, the train started moving and picked up speed, and for many miles Kurt’s grandfather and his best friend sailed along through the corn, happier than they had ever been.

The happiest day of Kurt’s father’s life, if I’m remembering correctly, was his wedding day when he was in his early twenties. Kurt’s father had a friend who worked at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the gigantic track where they hold the famous Indianapolis 500) and as a wedding gift to Kurt’s father and mother, this friend let them onto the speedway in their regular car to zoom around and around the track, which zooming filled the newlyweds with joy.

And the happiest day of Kurt’s life was the day he was discharged from the Army.

“If you want to be happy, be.” Leo Tolstoy


Happiness (a short story from Buddha In A Teacup)

Gerald is turning the soil in the narrow bed of earth that runs the length of the south-facing side of the old house he rents—October more than half over. He intends to plant snow peas where the sun and white walls conspire to keep the ground relatively warm throughout the winter months.

He is not conscious that it has been seven years to the day since he learned of his wife’s unfaithfulness to him for all of their eighteen years of marriage. He is divorced now and has grown accustomed to living alone. The discovery of his wife’s secret life shattered his confidence in himself and in his closest friends—two of them being his wife’s lovers. He sold his law practice after finalizing the divorce and has been unemployed ever since.

His days are spent reading, taking long walks, listening to music, writing letters to friends, and sitting still. His money is nearly gone. He has no intention of practicing law again, though he has yet to decide how he will earn his living.

His shovel sinks into the dry ground, and as he turns the soil it crumbles into tiny fragments, leaving only the smallest of clods. Six years ago the soil here was dense clay, but hundred of buckets of kitchen compost and the labor of ten thousand worms have made the soil rich and pliable.

Recalling how difficult this task was a few years ago, Gerald smiles at the ease with which he now readies the bed. He rakes the ground until it is essentially level, and creates a little dam at the slightly downhill end of the bed. Now he kneels, and using his index finger, draws an inch-deep channel in the dirt some ten inches out from the wall of the house.

He reaches into his pocket and brings forth a packet of snow pea seeds. The planting instructions promise bushes thirty inches tall—self-supporting. But Gerald knows the vines will be much taller than thirty inches and will require support to keep from sprawling. He wonders why the seed sellers boast that the bushes will stand on their own when they never do, and he smiles again, happy to know the gangly plants will need his bamboo poles and string.

He drops the pale green pearls into the rough channel—one pearl every three or four inches along the way—and covers them with the rich soil. Now he stands and treads on the row, pressing the dirt down upon the seeds.

The bright blue hose is nearby, the water running noiselessly onto rust red chrysanthemums—wild children of a housewarming gift from a thoughtful friend.

As he takes up the hose from the mums—survivors of a dry summer and his occasional neglect—he remembers his wife and the sorrow of their parting. Now he presses his thumb into the mouth of the hose and sprays the water onto the new bed of peas—the grayish soil turning black—and he remembers his wife’s ecstatic face as they mated on sun-dappled sheets.

The bed becomes a pool with spray dappling the surface—a rainbow appearing in the mist near Gerald’s hand.

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

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

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.

Outer World

Friday, June 5th, 2009

 

Marcia and I just returned from three weeks in the outer world. We gave nine house concerts, two bookstore performances, and visited a couple dozen bookstores from Mendocino all the way to Lummi Island, Washington and back, with layovers in Arcata, Coos Bay, Astoria, Seattle, Bellingham, Port Townsend, Portland, Medford, Ashland, and Sacramento. Our concerts were a mix of guitar/cello duets, cello solos, songs, and short stories. We had audiences as large as fifty, as small as five. Since I rarely go anywhere outside of the Big River watershed, this was a monumental and highly stressful journey for me. For Marcia it was pure fun.

Here are some of the things I discovered en route.

1. Nearly all the independent bookstores that don’t have some sort of café component are going out of business. Astoria’s most popular bookstore is a commodious joint called Godfather’s, a kind of coffee saloon with books surrounding an enormous bar, and Village Books in Bellingham has a great café above the store that keeps the cash flowing when book sales falter.

2. Bookstore owners tend to be highly suspicious of authors hawking their own books, especially books not published by multi-national corporations i.e. the New York houses. This preference for mainstream guck strikes me as ironic, but then again bookstores have to carry what they think people want to buy, and people usually want to buy what the multi-national corporations promote through their strictly controlled mass media.

3. The New York Times Bestseller List is owned by Barnes & Noble, and Barnes & Noble decides which books go on the list.

4. The economic meltdown is happening in a big way in Oregon and Washington. We drove through many neighborhoods in small towns and large towns where half the houses had For Sale signs out front, often with the asking price affixed to the sign.

5. As you drive through Oregon and Washington, whether on the coast highway or the interstate freeway, clear cuts are everywhere to be seen. Whole mountains are scraped clean of their forests, then sprayed with horrible poisons to kill all life save for the kind of tree the lumber companies want to grow back on the scraped land. These poisons are then washed by the copious rains into the soil and rivers, rendering most of Oregon and Washington highly toxic, however green and bucolic the countryside appears.

6. One wonders what all the talk of the Greening of America means in the real world. Seattle and Portland are both obscenely oversized and dysfunctional urban areas with no thoughtful planning evident, and the outlying areas of these overpopulated cities are wastelands of auto-centric sameness. We looked for but found little evidence of green or solar anything except in extremely affluent neighborhoods.

7. Many towns throughout Oregon, Washington, and California only have chain stores. Talk about ugly and depressing. In some towns there are official Historic Districts, and therein one might find a few non-chain stores, an actual bookstore (as opposed to a mirage), and possibly a non-Starbucks coffee house. Historic means Before the Chains destroyed America.

8. In small towns everywhere, often in the absence of any other sort of food-getting place, stand little buildings offering drive-thru coffee and stale cookies and/or biscotti. These diminutive buildings are called variously: Drive-Thru Espresso, Espresso Depot, Espresso Express, Espresso Stop, Espresso Unlimited, Espresso Extreme, etc. Time and again we would see these boxcar-like structures and realize they were very possibly the cultural apexes of the towns we were driving through.

9. Cell phones make of the world a surreal place. We do not have a cell phone, and so in order to make phone calls to friends we had to find pay phones. The surest bet to find a pay phone is at an official rest area on the interstate. Otherwise, pay phones are a vanishing breed. On a number of occasions I asked people where we might find a pay phone, and it was as if I had asked them to succinctly elucidate the meaning of life.

10. At these official rest areas along the interstate in Washington, free coffee is provided to weary travelers. The coffee we sampled at two of these rest areas had to be the worst coffee I have ever tasted. I would not have known it was coffee if they hadn’t said it was coffee. Perhaps this is intentional so people will be inclined to patronize Espresso boxcars.

11. You cannot pump your own gas in Oregon. This provides thousands of jobs for surly men and women who would otherwise be fired for surliness from some other job.

12. No one seemed to notice that we were gone for three weeks. It seemed to me we were gone for several months, but not a single person said, “Where have you been?” or “Haven’t seen you in a while.” This, perhaps, is the most important thing I learned from our odyssey. That no matter how profound my personal experiences, no matter how enormous the changes wrought on my psyche and spirit by all the incredible things that happened to us, no one really cares.

13. And why should they? The world is large. Humans are everywhere, and it is the rare human who doesn’t make a mess of things upon this fragile earth. Cars and television and cell phones and computers have separated us from the earth, and the evidence of that separation was everywhere as we traveled from here to Canada and back.

14. Is there hope for the future? Sure. Why not?

Todd’s book Buddha In A Teacup just won the 2009 National Indie Award for Excellence in Short Story Fiction.