Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’

Roads Not Taken

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Roads Not Taken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obesity & Love

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Autumn Nolan Winkler

Autumn by Nolan Winkler

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

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

Sitting on the sun-drenched beach on this first day of August, writing in my Strathmore sketchbook, the waves setting up nicely for the surfers yet to arrive, the air chill but warming, the sky void of clouds, I am here this morning to write three little tales abut love and obesity. Coincidentally or ironically or naturally, of the nine adults I encountered on my way to this place on the sand overlooking Mendocino Bay, eight were enormously fat and the ninth was a woman so entirely void of excess weight she appeared to be a member of an entirely different species than her behemoth brethren.

We recently had a visit from a dear old friend of mine, and in the course of catching up on each other’s lives, I inquired about his sister G, now fifty-six, who I have known and loved since she was ten-years-old. I last saw G twelve years ago when she came to visit me in Berkeley with her two rambunctious children. Adjectives I have used in the past to describe G include brilliant, funny, musical, beautiful, sensitive, lithe, athletic and strong. I remember going on walks with G from the time she was ten until she was in her late twenties, and how on every one of those walks, with amazing ease, she would execute a handstand and walk twenty yards on her hands, just for fun and because such limber physicality was as natural to her as breathing.

So imagine my shock when my friend reported that G currently weighs well over two hundred pounds, down from the three hundred pounds she weighed a year ago. My jaw dropped and my mind reeled. Impossible! G? Beautiful, strong, slender, vegetarian, health-conscious G?

I went to G’s wedding twenty-two years ago and thought she was the most beautiful and poised and captivating bride I had ever seen. And, yes, I was jealous of the guy she was marrying and wished I’d had the nerve and foresight to ask her to marry me instead of whoever this lucky guy was. But then, when I had my one and only long conversation with G and her husband at the reception following their wedding ceremony, I thought to myself They really don’t seem to like each other. What’s up with that?

According to G’s brother, G never has and never will like the man she married and is still married to. Yet they stay together, ostensibly for the kids, and G eats and eats and eats. “And their house…” said my friend, his eyes widening. “You cannot imagine the chaos and squalor. Uninhabitable. Yet somehow they live there.”

“But I thought they were well off and successful and…?”

“They are,” said my friend, nodding sadly. “But so deeply unhappy. Off the chart unhappy.”

“There are only two ways to preserve your freedom and individuality: saying no, and living alone.” Nicolas De Chamfort

As it happens, I can imagine the chaos and squalor of G’s house because I know J and L, the lovable, smart and gainfully employed parents of a marvelous teenager. These three seemingly sane people live in a fine house, the interior of which they have rendered so squalid and chaotic it appears that an enormous truckload of random junk was dumped therein and then trampled by marauding elephants. There is no unoccupied surface in the entire house on which to sit, the kitchen is a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and the backyard might easily be mistaken for the city dump.

Having been the confidante of both J and L, I know that theirs was only briefly a sexual relationship, that they love each other but do not particularly like each other, and that they stay together for the sake of their child. When I first met J and L, J was a strikingly beautiful woman, a magnificently fit dancer and martial artist. L, twelve years older than J, was a chubby fellow who loved to take long bike rides and was in training to become a massage therapist.

Every six months for most of their eighteen-year marriage, J has traveled five hundred miles to spend a week with her lover, a married man she has known since childhood. L unhappily approves of J’s twice-yearly rendezvous with her lover, while L does not have a lover and is no longer interested in sex. When J returns from her erotic vacation, she is always full of energy, takes daily dance and yoga classes, eats sensibly, and sheds fifty pounds in three months, transforming herself into a beautiful dancer yet again. She even tries to impose a bit of order on the chaos and squalor of their home, but never with lasting success.

After J has been away from her lover for three months, she takes on way too much extra work, stops exercising, and begins to eat and eat and eat, pizza and ice cream and pastries her primary foods, washed down with oceans of coffee and beer. By the time she zooms off to be with her lover again, she is uncomfortably heavy, her feet and back ache constantly, and she is severely cranky. Her lover, as it happens, is a big fat man.

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

Sitting here gazing at the timeless sea and thinking of J and G armoring themselves with so much extra weight in order to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and their painful longing for love and satisfaction, I am reminded of a brief love affair I had long ago and the shocking coda to that short-lived romance.

S was short and rather heavy, a darkly beautiful gal who hid her body in baggy trousers and oversized sweatshirts, and kept her hair extremely short. When I met her, and we were obviously attracted to each other, she told me with disarming candor that her few relationships with men had been hideous disasters, she had sworn off men forever, and she wasn’t sexually interested in women. “I’m a secular nun,” she told me in her tough-talking way. “The only decent men I’ve ever known are gay. Heterosexual males are evolutionary mistakes.”

Nevertheless, we went out for Thai food, traded books, met for coffee, and a few weeks into our friendship became lovers. Surprise, surprise. S turned out to be a zealous and imaginative lover with a large appetite for sex, we had a great time in and around the bed, and she swiftly shed her excess weight. It was as if satisfying sex negated her need for anything in the way of food other than salads and the occasional slab of meat, and ere long her body and face were so dramatically transformed that she began attracting men and women like clover attracts honey bees.

Alas, S was one of the angriest and most cynical people I’ve ever known, and she was so persistently and viciously dismissive of my writing and music and everything else that mattered most to me that I had a hard time being with her except in bed where she was one of the happiest and most uncynical people I’ve ever known. And our marvelous sexual connection sufficed to keep me entangled with S for four months until I couldn’t take another word of her verbal abuse and declared, “Enough. No more. Goodbye.”

S was stunned that I wanted to end things between us. “Oh, honey,” she said, her voice becoming the soft sweet loving voice I knew from making love with her, “I’m sorry. You know I think you’re wonderful.”

“How would I know that when you’re always telling me how shitty my writing is, how crappy my music is, how stupid my friends are?”

“I’m just teasing, sweetheart. I love everything about you. Please. Give me another chance. We’ve got such a good thing going here. How can you throw this away? Come on, sweetie. Let’s go to bed.”

But I was done. Sex, no matter how good the fit, is not love without love, and love cannot survive without trust, so…

Three years later, I arrived at a friend’s house, and my friend greeted me at the door, saying, “S is here. That okay?”

In retrospect, I wish I had said, “I think I’ll come back another time,” but instead I said, “Sure,” and entered the house and there was S, so huge she took up an entire two-person sofa with no room to spare. I would never have known that this gigantic person was once upon a time my sexy beautiful curvaceous lover. Never in a million years would I have known it was she.

“Mother, food, love, and career are the four major guilt groups.” Cathy Guisewite

As I’ve been sitting here on the windswept sand scribbling in my notebook, three women with their eight children have arrived and set up camp a very short stone’s throw away from me. Why do people do that? Twenty acres of sand, hundreds of great places to sit, nobody on the beach but little old me, and they choose to sit right beside me. Perhaps it is because they make an apt ending to this article.

I would guess these women are all thirty-something, their children ranging in age from two to twelve. One of the mothers is trim and muscular and moves with a pleasing grace. The other two mothers are massive and ungainly and clearly uncomfortable in their bodies, while all the children are skinny and wildly active. Some minutes after the mothers have settled down on their beach blankets to watch their children playing, two of their husbands arrive, huge men with gigantic bellies. These enormous fellows plant themselves several feet apart from the women—with them but not with them.

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet.” Will Holt

Lemon trees growing near the kitchen. What a wonderful idea. So we chose the perfect spots on the south side of the house for two goodly Meyers, the warmest and sunniest place on our property, only to discover that one of those perfect spots was home to the root mass, still very much alive, of a gargantuan shrub I removed nine months ago. Thus a Herculean task awaited me, one I would postpone until I brought the lemon trees home and their presence inspired me to extricate the massive tangle.

And so on a sunny Saturday, homeward bound after pruning a gorgeous green-leafed Japanese maple, a crab apple, and a plum, I stopped at the admirable Hare Creek Nursery on the south side of Fort Bragg and bought two little Meyer lemon trees. The friendly folks there cautioned me not to plant the lemon trees in the ground, but to grow them in tubs. However, Marcia and I are not after bonsais; we’re aiming for large trees festooned with hundreds of delectable yellow orbs, and I figure with global warming proceeding apace, the Mendocino climate should henceforth be perfect for growing citrus in the ground.

With the little beauties sitting nearby and crying for release from their plastic pots, I began digging around the root mass and confirmed that my nemesis was gigantic, well connected, tenacious, and uncooperative. To borrow from Bogart, I have met a lot of root masses in my time, but this one was really something special. After an hour of heavy labor using shovel, mattock, pick, trowel, axe and crowbar, the mass remained unmoving, as if I had done nothing. This depressed me, so I took a break, had some water and a handful of almonds and tried not to take the root mass’s indifference personally.

“The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.” Blaise Pascal

When I lived in Berkeley, and before I discovered a secret post office where I never had to wait, I frequently stood in long lines to mail packages and buy stamps. And on many such occasions, people in line with me would take it personally that they had to wait more than a few minutes to do their postal business, and they would say things like, “This is an outrage,” or “No wonder they’re going out of business,” as if the postal clerks were intentionally taking as long as they possibly could with each transaction.

Having made a careful multi-year study of the service in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and El Cerrito post offices, I have no doubt that the real cause of the slowness of service was the alarming number of befuddled and dimwitted customers who would, upon their arrival at the counter, act as if they had no idea how they came to be there or where on their persons they had secreted their wallets or how they wanted to mail whatever it was they wished to mail. The postal clerks would patiently explain the various shipping choices and how much each choice would cost, and the befuddled dimwits would stand in frozen dismay for minutes on end pondering such deep philosophical questions as “Priority or Media?”, “Would you like to insure that?” and “For how much?”

One day at the Albany post office, a man several places behind me in line shouted at the two harried postal clerks, “Has today’s mail been delivered into the boxes yet?”

The clerks had their hands full helping befuddled dimwits, so neither replied to the shouting man.

Their indifference enraged the man and he screamed, “Has today’s mail been put in the boxes? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”

One of the clerks said wearily, “Yes, the mail has been put in the boxes today.”

“Bullshit!” screamed the man. “I know a letter arrived for me today and you are intentionally keeping it from me. I demand that you give me my letter or I’ll call the police!”

The two clerks exchanged glances and one of them said, “Go right ahead, sir. Call the police.”

“Fascists!” screamed the man. “Thieves!”

Then the poor fellow ran out of the post office and the woman behind me murmured, “Thank God he didn’t have a gun.”

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Returning to the root mass, I resumed my digging and picking and chopping and clawing, and soon enough the mass began to move when prodded, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope of eventual success. After another hour of digging and chopping, there remained but one fat root connecting the root mass to the earth. I rose from my knees, took hold of my axe, positioned myself above my target, and was about to swing the axe high, when I felt a pang of empathy for the root mass and decided to wait a moment before severing that last life-giving tendril.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Kahlil Gibran

Speaking of roots, I was thinking about homegrown carrots the other day as I was making pancake batter using eggs we got from our neighbors Elias and Emily, who also provide us with exceptionally yummy goat cheese. Emily and Elias’s eggs come from their herd of happy-go-lucky free-ranging chickens whose eggs are so delicious they make the best organic mass produced eggs seem tasteless and tawdry in comparison. Indeed, these Emily and Elias chicken eggs make my gluten-free pancake batter so rich and tasty I dread the day when I have to resort to store bought eggs again. But why did Emily and Elias’s grandiloquent eggs make me think about homegrown carrots?

Because there are few things in the world as delicious as a well-grown carrot in its prime just pulled from the friable earth of a wholly natural garden. Indeed, so sweet and delicious is a just-pulled homegrown carrot, that the very best organic carrots money can buy are but pale imitations of the homegrown variety. Just-pulled is a large part of the answer to why homegrown carrots are so superior to even the best store or farmers’ market-bought carrots; the delectable sugar in just-pulled carrots has yet to turn to starch. Ergo, Emily and Elias’s eggs are to eggs what just-pulled homegrown carrots are to carrots.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

The roots of our culture nourished by art. Society setting artists free to follow their visions wherever those visions may take them. Can you imagine such a society?  Kennedy spoke those words on October 26, 1963, less than a month before he was assassinated, and I’ve often thought his words were prophetic of what was to come and ever after be called The Sixties, a brief era when more artists freely followed their visions than ever before. And it took the overlords of our society a good decade to get control of the situation and put a stop to most of that status-quo-threatening socialistic vision following.

“My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler

Who are your chosen ancestors? What are the roots of the decisions you make that direct the course of your life? The root mass got me thinking about roots, the ones we spring from and the ones we create for ourselves. Some root masses are inescapable, some allow for the intrusion of new roots, and sometimes we have to excise the present root mass to make room for the new.

I know I was emboldened by the poets Philip Whalen and David Meltzer and Lew Welch, the example of my uncle David, the movies The Horse’s Mouth and Zorba the Greek, and the powerful societal ferment roiling northern California in the 1960’s to drop out of college and follow my visions, much to the chagrin of my parents, speaking of root masses. My father and mother strove mightily to convince me to change my mind and return to the straight and narrow and safe, but I would not change my mind.

After two exciting, challenging and exhausting years of vagabonding, I found myself with a terrible cold, a worse cough, and barely surviving on rice and lentils in a badly insulated room in Ashland, Oregon. I was in the throes of writing my first novel and loving the work, but I was so lonely and sad and tired of being poor that I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel and return to the ease and comfort of college. And then at the absolute nadir of my despair, I received a letter from my father, the gist of which so surprised me I had to read the letter three times before I could even begin to believe what he had written.

My father wrote in black ink on light orange stationery that he was both jealous and proud of me for doing what he had always longed to do but never had the courage to attempt—to leave the straight and narrow and go a’ wandering with pack on his back, following only the whims of his heart and intuition—those words from my greatest critic providing the inspiration I needed to continue my uncharted course.

Some years later, I mentioned this remarkable letter to my father, and he snorted and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never have written such a thing to you because I have never for a minute been jealous of you and I am not proud of you pissing your life away on your delusional infantile fantasies.”

“Oh, but you did write that, Dad,” I said, not at all surprised he didn’t remember writing such words to me. “And you sent the letter, too, along with a twenty-dollar bill that bought me chicken and eggs and almonds and cheese and cookies and a wonderfully warm jacket from the Salvation Army.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and filling his wine glass yet again, “making shit up to fit your fantasies.”

“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Carl Jung

Now the little lemon trees are planted in the good earth and sending forth their new roots—the gargantuan root mass gone. Emily and Elias’s chickens are foraging in the meadow, their just-laid eggs awaiting discovery in the coop. Carrot seedlings are emerging in my carrot patch, and soon I will thin the rows of promising babies, only one in a dozen to be spared to grow beyond the first culling.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

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.

Fiscal Cliffs

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

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

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

So…immediately following and ever since the re-election of President Obama, we have been told day and night by the various media that we, America and her people, are approaching a fiscal cliff. Are we approaching this cliff from the bottom and looking up? No. According to the latest diatribes, we are moving inexorably toward the edge of a cliff over which we will fall to our fiscal doom if the Republicans and the Democrats can’t agree on how to proceed with taxing the American people (while barely taxing the corporations who have most of the money.)

Hmm. Whenever our overlords trumpet something like an impending fiscal cliff or constitutional tsunami or economic donnybrook, I think of Dorothy and Tin Man and Lion and Scarecrow trembling before the scary projection of the Wizard on the gigantic movie screen in Oz, trembling until they discover the projection is the creation of a wimpy old man hiding behind a curtain bellowing, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Which is to say, I wonder what we’re not supposed to be paying attention to while the mass media and her propaganda pundits scare us with fiscal cliff hocus pocus, and by hocus pocus I mean illusion.

America is awash in money. Last week a new kill-as-many-people-as-you-can video game was released and took in close to a billion dollars in just a few days. New iterations of the Iphone and Ipad and Imac rake in billions and billions for Apple. Americans spend billions of dollars a year on lottery tickets and gambling, and the latest beyond-stupid teen vampire movie will gross a billion easy. Meanwhile, America continues to spend trillions of dollars on military operations around the world for the benefit of multinational corporations and continues to hand hundreds of billions of dollars in interest to the owners of our national debt, while many of the largest American corporations and most of America’s wealthiest citizens pay little or no income tax. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of us hand trillions of dollars to amoral health insurance companies that should have been replaced with Single Payer Healthcare a generation ago. So I’m not buying this fiscal cliff nonsense. What we have is yet another charade to keep us baffled and bewildered while tens of millions of Americans who long ago fell off their personal fiscal cliffs are suffering terribly and many more millions are on the verge of falling into bankruptcy and poverty.

“Money often costs too much.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The American economy today is in large part a consortium of extortion rackets, the largest racket being the oil gas automobile industry, otherwise known as the great engine of global warming. Speaking of which, could the man behind the curtain be global warming? In a report written for the World Bank and published last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, the authors declare that humans must immediately impose radical limitations on carbon emissions or prepare for the collapse of entire ecosystems and the displacement and death of hundreds of millions of people. If we do not undertake extreme ameliorative measures, the report concludes, then the planet will inevitably warm by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, with unimaginable disasters wracking the earth long before then.

To quote a bit from Chris Hedges writing for Truthdig, “The 84-page document Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided paints a picture of a world convulsed by rising temperatures…a mixture of mass chaos, systems collapse and medical suffering like that of the worst of the Black Plague…and the tepidness of the emission pledges and commitments of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will make such a temperature increase almost inevitable…causing a precipitous drop in crop yields, along with the loss of many fish species, resulting in widespread hunger and starvation. Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the sea rises. There will be an explosion in diseases…Devastating heat waves and droughts, as well as floods, especially in the tropics, will render parts of the Earth uninhabitable. The rain forest covering the Amazon basin will disappear. Coral reefs will vanish. Numerous animal and plant species, many of which are vital to sustaining human populations, will become extinct.”

But, hey, surely extinction can wait while all the Chicken Littles rush around screeching, “We’re approaching a fiscal cliff! Here comes the fiscal cliff!” and the bozos in Congress argue about whether to raise taxes a teeny little bit on wealthy people or to keep screwing the middle class and the poor. What a dilemma? Meanwhile, the governor and other top politicos of New York are asking Congress for 32 billion dollars to pay for the damage done by super storm Sandy, money that will no doubt be used to rebuild archaic housing and transportation systems guaranteed to exacerbate global warming and spawn more super storms. And where will Congress get the money for New York if we go over the fiscal cliff? Maybe on the way down the cliff, you know, as we’re falling and falling and falling, our wily representatives will find little caves in the cliff full of money for New York and for waging endless war and stuff like that. Sure. Yeah. Little caves full of money. Okay.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” Anatole France

For much of my life I lived on the edge of a monthly fiscal cliff that necessitated my coming up with enough money to pay my rent, my utilities, and for buying sufficient groceries to keep me alive. The fiscal cliff was the last day of every month, which was when my landlords required me to pay what I owed them. I did not own a car, did not have health insurance, bought my few clothes at the Salvation Army, and rarely traveled outside my local watershed. I patched together a living as a laborer, editor, and babysitter, and I tried to give myself a few hours every day to work on my writing and music, which occasionally brought in a bit of money.

When I had an especially good month, I would squirrel away anything extra in my savings account to give me a leg up on the next month, and every once in a while I would get two or three months ahead and allow myself even more time for my creative pursuits. My great fear was that I would hurt myself or get sick and not be able to work, and the few times that happened were frightening times, indeed, times I only survived with the help of friends.

In other words, I lived as many Americans live, one paycheck away from homelessness. For a few years I supported a friend and her daughter and thus needed to treble my income, a feat I was able to accomplish by giving up my artistic pursuits and doubling my workload. The largest expense was always rent, far more than half my income, and I was constantly worried that sickness or injury would render me incapable of working.

So when I hear politicians using the metaphor of a fiscal cliff to keep the American people frightened and unresisting, I am filled with sorrow and anger. There is so much we could do right now to transform our society into a wonderful system for everyone, a system of living and working and learning and sharing that would swiftly reverse the environmental damage done by the current system of senseless greed and plunder. There is plenty of money. There is no fiscal cliff. There are merely choices to be made. Do we use our fantastic collective wealth in ways that will benefit everyone and mother earth or do we continue to flush our wealth down the toilet of greed and selfishness and over the cliff of monstrous stupidity?