Posts Tagged ‘Ray Charles’

Carrying On

Monday, January 16th, 2017

And the dog walked, walked… site

And the dog walked, walked… painting by Nolan Winkler

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

We are feeling pampered and special because the power went back on after a two-day outage. We know there will probably be another outage when the next storm hits, but for now we’re on Easy Street. No more cooking on the woodstove. No more boiling water in the old kettle to wash dishes. No more writing by candlelight. Our computers work again. We can take showers. Luxury!

The first article to pop up on my computer when I ignited the machine after the outage was about Professor Guy McPherson who says, “There’s no point trying to fight climate change. We’ll all be dead in the next decade and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

The second article was entitled “Why getting farmers to switch from tobacco crops is a struggle.”

Email brought an announcement from my niece, a yoga teacher, informing us that her Yoga and Art and Cooking retreat in Italy is sold out ten months in advance.

My sister called and told me of her summer plans to go camping in the environs of Mount Rainier. She is a biologist and knows well of the forces threatening the biosphere, but she carries on with her life as if we will all not be dead in the next decade. She catches her rainwater for watering her drought-resistant garden, walks to work most days, and looks forward to her children eventually producing a grandchild or two.

Speaking of grandchildren, since Marcia and I do not have children and grandchildren of our own, we enjoy availing ourselves of the offspring of our friends. For this holiday season we had several fun visits with Nick and Clare Bokulich and their nineteen-month-old son Vito. I was especially pleased to introduce Vito to the music of Ray Charles, Vito and I played some stirring blues on the piano, Vito ate many bananas and apples, and we had nothing but fun.

During the storm and accompanying power outage, a few large branches fell from our surrounding redwoods and narrowly missed the house. Then the pump in our well gave up the ghost, and despite the torrential downpour, the savants at Mendocino Coast Water Works rushed to our aid, removed the old pump and pipes, and installed a new and improved super duper pump and water transport system that will last for many years longer than Professor MacPherson says we have to live.

Marcia and I took advantage of not being connected to the outer world via computers to clean our offices and get a start on this year’s income tax. And I discovered the domain name of my web site Under the Table Books was about to expire. So I called the domain site people and spent a pleasant ten minutes talking to a nice young man who convinced me to re-up for another three years. He was pleased to find my piano tunes available for listening on YouTube and my novels downloadable to his Kindle.

Yes, our phones worked throughout the storm, though we had no electricity. We do not have smart phones or cell phones, and even if we did, there is no service for such here in the redwoods, but we do have good old land lines that for some reason almost never go down in these storms that routinely take out our electricity.

Hearing from friends about the latest sculpting of Big River Beach by high tides and a fantastic outflow of rainwater in the river, we trekked down to Big River to walk along the banks of the huge muddy torrent. Several dogs and their owners were out on the pristine sands, enjoying the sun and all that room to run. The formerly No Dogs Off Leash beach is now a prime destination for dog owners wishing to let their dogs off leash.

Fortunately, the dogs we encountered were all friendly or disinterested in humans, and one dog in particular, a magnificent roseate Malamute, ignited my dog-owning fantasies. But then I recalled the enormous dog I used to take care of in Berkeley when his owners were out of town, and how that delightful mutt ate more in a day than I did in a week, so I let my doggy fantasies go.

Home again, I got the fire going and found myself thinking about life in the context of everyone being dead within ten years—virtually all living things on earth extinguished by super heat and lack of oxygen; and I became immobile with grief.

When I was in my twenties and thirties and forties, I persistently lobbied my friends and politicians and the Sierra Club and local, state, and national government to take action to address the problems of overpopulation and our earth-destroying dependency on cars and gasoline. My proposals were received by nearly everyone in those days as the ravings of a nutcase, and I eventually stopped trying to convince anyone of anything. I came to realize that people, for the most part, believe what they want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary.

Now that my ravings, which were based on the work of many farseeing scientists, are shared by millions of people, and there is still little being done to address the processes that have brought us to this frightening phase of human and planetary life, I realize that whether Guy MacPherson is correct or not in saying we will all be dead in ten years, what is true is that Nature, not humans, will take the lead in saving the biosphere.

Perhaps some humans will survive the coming environmental crises, perhaps not. In the meantime, the sun is shining, the first plum blossoms have appeared in Mendocino, the ebullient teenagers swarm down from the high school to buy lunch at Harvest Market where gigantic pickup trucks crowd the parking lot and a hardworking fellow assiduously cleans the market windows.

Just Old

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

if my head sinks beneath the sea site

If My Heads Sinks Beneath The Sea painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Samuel Ullman

A friend suggested that the reason I find contemporary American movies and books and plays and music to be largely junk is that I am just old.

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Crosby, and many other older musicians aver that contemporary popular music today is inferior to the popular music of their day, but that’s just because those guys are old.

Every writer I know over fifty decries the deplorable state of writing and editing today, but that’s just because we’re old. And when older poets recoil at the poetry of younger poets whose verses are rife with clichés, void of subtlety, and might be lyrics to rap songs, they are recoiling because they are just old.

If you ask young people about the movies of today, they will name dozens of films they think are light years better than movies we thought were great when we were younger. Young people are certain I cannot see and hear and understand what they are seeing and hearing and understanding because my eyes and ears and mind are just old, and they might be right about that, though I don’t like to think so.

My mother plugged her ears and shouted, “Turn that off!” when she caught nine-year-old me listening to Ray Charles. Maybe Mom was just old. She liked The Mills Brothers and Artie Shaw, and so did I, but she didn’t like Sam and Dave and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield because she was stuck in the musical aesthetics of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Little.

“Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.” Andy Serkis

I am sixty-five-years-old at last count. Depending on your view of things, I am middle-aged, old, or real old. Yes, contemporary cultural aesthetics are in constant flux, and yes, I am not enamored of most of the latest fluctuations. However, my estrangement from American culture did not begin when I qualified for Medicare and Social Security. No, my disaffection began when I was in the prime of my life, otherwise known as my twenties and thirties, and coincided with the lightning-fast conquest of America’s publishing industry by a few massive, politically conservative, morally bankrupt multi-national corporations.

To echo Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds in the publishing business fired by soulless corporate operatives and replaced by Yes people who only follow orders from the unimaginative number-crunchers above them, those orders being: publish books exactly like the books we already know sell lots of copies. Do not buy anything that might be too sophisticated for a poorly educated ten-year-old. Buy nothing remotely original. And only consider things sent to you by literary agents who agree to follow these same orders.

That merciless corporate blitzkrieg of America’s publishers began circa 1972 and the conquest was complete by 1980. Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think this takeover was part of a conscious effort by the ruling elite to snuff out the fires started in the counter-culture renaissance known as The Sixties, with the election of Ronald Reagan a direct result of their coup d’état.

Publishing was not the only branch of our cultural tree thoroughly infected by the corporate fungus during that same decade. Record companies, movie studios, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks were also conquered and gutted by the same multinational consortium, and we have lived in a culture shaped and controlled by this mind-numbing corporatocracy ever since.

I don’t hold this view of history because I am just old, but because I experienced this cultural takeover firsthand when I was a young and successful writer and screenwriter. When I refused to acquiesce to the new cultural guidelines imposed by the recently installed corporate managers, my career was effectively ended.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Before I was just old, I founded the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. Every summer for five years, my faculty and I would greet the fifty young writers we had selected from many hundreds of applicants, and we would invariably discover that all these bright young people were starving for something to read other than Anne Rice or Stephen King or To Kill A (expletive deleted) Mockingbird. I use the word starving because the nincompoops running our schools in collusion with the corporate overlords intentionally deprived those young people of varied, original, challenging and nourishing literature.

One of our first acts of compassion for these bright young people was to give them long reading lists of our favorite novels, short story collections, plays, and non-fiction works, as well as the names of hundreds of excellent writers and poets, most of those authors dead or just old. And for this simple gift of sharing the names of books and writers we admired, we were looked upon by our young peers as angels descended from heaven to end the vapidity of their cultural experiences.

Now that I am just old, I sometimes delude myself, just for fun, by imagining another totally neato renaissance happening in my lifetime. Or maybe, as a friend who is also just old opined, “The renaissance is always here, but like a whale, she dives deep for food and we can’t see her most of the time unless we happen to be watching when she comes up for air.”

Watching and Listening

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

1215beatsthinking350col

beats thinking ©John Grimes fizzdom.com grimescartoons.com

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

“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel

Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.

By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.

Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.

As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.

“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige

Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.

Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra

Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.

Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.

A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.

Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”

That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.

Whoopsie Doopsie

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2011)

“The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough is love.” Henry Miller

A couple years ago I created a catchy blues tune entitled Whoopsie Doopsie, and after I performed the song to the apparent delight of my wife Marcia, I thought I might make a recording of the tune and see how the world liked it. I wrote a note to myself—Whoopsie Doopsie Project—and put the note in the center of my just-cleaned desk, thereby establishing a new bottom layer for the accumulation of papers and books and drawings and letters and bills that would inevitably grow into a high plateau of dysfunction until, in a fit of frustration, I abstained from eating and drinking for several hours until the mess was properly expelled.

Thus time and again over these many months, I worked my way down to a little yellow square of paper on which was writ Whoopsie Doopsie Project, a trio of words that sent me to the piano to bang out the latest rendition, after which I would say to myself, “Yes, I really should record that and see what the world thinks of it.” Then the tides of time and paper would rush in again and submerge the note, and the project would largely vanish from my consciousness, except on rainy mornings when I was practicing the piano, at which times I might essay a version or two of the pleasing apparition.

Feeling especially sad one such rainy morning, I played a very slow Whoopsie Doopsie, and the sweet little love song became dark and plaintive; and I appreciated the song in my bones rather than with my sense of humor. And that very night we went to a dinner party at which the hostess asked me to play, and Marcia suggested I premiere Whoopsie Doopsie for the public, as it were. So I performed a rather timid version of the tune, the piano unfamiliar to me, and everyone in the audience said I must bring out a recording of the song—everyone being four people.

Here are the lyrics, in their entirety, of Whoopsie Doopsie.

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Whoopsie daisy, I’m in love with you

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Tell me how you like it,

Tell me what to do

Wanna make you happy

When we’re making whoopsie do

The last line is a not-so-subtle tribute to Ray Charles. As you can see, we’re not talking about great art here. However, we are talking about the artistic process, which I find fascinating and difficult to write about. The difficulty in writing about creative processes, for me, lies in the non-verbal nature of those processes through which original art and original concepts emerge and evolve and are ultimately captured so others may experience those creations. Since there are no words for that which is wordless, the best one can hope for in describing such wordless processes are faint approximations. And the other large challenge for me in writing about making art is to ignore the nagging feeling that I am describing a process that almost always results in mediocrity or crap, otherwise known as failure.

“There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

On the other hand, many great teachers, Buckminster Fuller among them, espouse the idea that there are no failures in the inventive process, that everything we do is a valuable part of the continuum of experience. Failure, these wise ones suggest, might more usefully be understood as a necessary step along the way to discovery and fruition. Two of my favorite quotes about this idea, referring specifically to musical improvisation and composition, are from Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Miles said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” And Bill said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions. I think of all harmony as an expansion and return to the tonic.”

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

My favorite composer of classical music is Felix Mendelssohn. Why? Hard to say, for love is as ineffable as creativity. Maybe his use of complex harmonies resonates especially well with my chakras. Maybe the brilliant confluences of his polyrhythms synch perfectly with my inner groove. I don’t know. In any case, I dig the cat. So a few years ago our very own Symphony of the Redwoods performed Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and after hearing Marcia practice the cello parts for several weeks, and then being enthralled by the marvelous local rendition, I got out my Mendelssohn books to read about the Italian Symphony.

In Conrad Wilson’s Notes on Mendelssohn, to my great interest, I found that though the Italian Symphony was an instant and enormous success (the composer conducted the world premiere in London in 1833 at the ripe old age of twenty-three), Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the composition and immediately after its premiere set about “changing the coloring of the andante, adding fresh touches of poetry to the third movement, and considerably extending the finale.” Yet despite Mendelssohn’s great fame, “his revision remained unperformed for a century and a half, and has only recently been issued in a performing version upon which most conductors are turning deaf ears.” I rushed to get one of the few extant recordings of the revised symphony (not readily available in the United States, but gettable from England) and to my ears the revised version is vastly superior to the original.

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Oscar Wilde

With the help of Peter Temple, I have made two solo piano CDs in these last year two years: Ceremonies and 43 short Piano Improvisations. While working on those albums I was forever being seduced by a particularly alluring chord pattern I would improvise on for hours at a time; yet only one diminutive piece born of that pattern was strong enough to include on 43 short Piano Improvisations. However, I continued to be enamored of that pattern and felt that one day I might succeed in recording a few longer takes of what I call Mystery Inventions.

Meanwhile, the Whoopsie Doopsie Project was bubbling away on a back burner; and verily it came to pass (driving to town one day, singing nonsense songs to the clickety-clack of our old truck on a country road) that a new and very different version of Whoopsie Doopsie escaped my lips and catalyzed an epiphany: why not make an album composed of several different interpretations of Whoopsie Doopsie, and throw in a Mystery Invention or two, too?

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

As of this writing (early October 2011) the Whoopsie Doopsie recording project has been seriously (or at least continuously) underway for a month, and save for a slightly menacing a cappella version of Whoopsie Doopsie that came to me in the absence of a piano, nothing is turning out as I imagined anything would. Indeed, I would say the Whoopsie Doopsie Project is currently in creative free fall, and I am not surprised. The song that inspired this undertaking becomes less and less significant with every new Mystery Invention we capture, and new tunes audition daily as I chop wood and plant garlic and pick apples and make spaghetti sauce. Old tunes, too, long neglected, saunter out of the woods, tap me on the shoulder, and sing, “Hey, what about a revised version of me?”

The floodgates have opened. Mazel tov! So long as I don’t panic and attempt to control the flow too soon or too restrictively, there’s no telling what might come pouring out of that mystery reservoir I am convinced was once a river free of dams.

Young Pot Moms

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Youth is wasted on the young.” George Bernard Shaw

When I and my middle-aged and elderly Mendocino Elk Albion Fort Bragg peers convene, talk often turns to the paucity of younger people coming along to fill the local ranks of actors and musicians and writers and artists and activists. The excellent Symphony of the Redwoods plays to audiences of mostly white-haired elders and is itself fast becoming an ensemble of elders, ditto the local theater companies, ditto the legions of Mendocino artists and social activists. People under fifty in audiences and at art openings hereabouts stand out as rare youngsters; and the question is frequently asked with touching plaintiveness, “Will it all end with us?”

“The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them.” Robert Graves

A few days ago I was waiting my turn at the one and only cash dispensing machine in the picturesque and economically distressed village of Mendocino, my home town, and I couldn’t help noticing that the woman using the machine was young (under forty), expensively dressed, and pushing the appropriate buttons with an ambitious energy that made me tired.

When it was my turn to stand before the cash dispensary, I noticed that the young woman had declined to take her receipt, which hung like a punch line from the slot of the robot. Being a hopeless snoop, I took possession of the little piece of paper, affixed my reading glasses, and imbibed the data. Did my eyes deceive me? No. This young woman had a cash balance in her Savings Bank of Mendocino checking account of…are you sitting down?…377,789 dollars.

In a panic—dollar amounts over four figures terrify me—I turned to see if her highness was still in sight, and there she was climbing into a brand new midnight blue six-wheel pickup truck the size of a small house, her seven-year-old companion, a movie-star pretty girl, strapped into the passenger seat.

“Did you want this?” I cried, wildly waving the receipt.

She of great wealth slowly shook her head and smiled slyly as if to say, “That’s nothing. You should see the diamonds in my safety deposit box.”

Staggered by my encounter with this local femme Croesus, I wandered toward Corners of the Mouth hoping to find my eensy teensy rusty old pickup parked there, and further hoping a little overpriced chocolate would calm me down. My truck was not there, but I didn’t panic. I only park in one of four places when I drive into the village, so I was confident I would eventually find my truck: somewhere near the Presbyterian church or adjacent to the vacant lot with the towering eucalypti where I gather kindling or in front of Zo, the greatest little copy shop in town (the only one, actually, and not open on weekends.)

In Corners, the cozy former church, I came upon three young (under forty) women, each in jeans and sweatshirt, each possessed of one to three exuberant latter day hippie children. These lovely gals were gathered near the shelves of fabulous fruit comparing notes on diet, marriage, motherhood, and who knows what. Beyond this trio of young moms, and partially blocking my access to the chocolate bars, were two of the aforementioned latter day hippie children, a very cute snot-nosed four-year-old redheaded girl wearing a bright blue dress, and an equally cute roly-poly snot-nosed five-year-old blond boy wearing black coveralls and red running shoes.

The boy, I couldn’t help but overhear, was trying to convince the girl to secure some candy for him because his mother wouldn’t buy candy for him, but the girl’s mother would buy the candy because, according to the boy, “Your mom let’s you have anything you want, and my mom won’t,” which, the boy indignantly pointed out, was not fair.

“But my mom will know it’s for you,” said the girl so loudly that everyone in the store could hear her, “because I don’t like that kind.”

I reached over their innocent little heads and secured a chunk of 85% pure chocolate bliss flown around the globe from England, and feeling only slightly immoral to be supporting the highly unecological international trafficking of a gateway drug (chocolate is definitely a gateway drug, don’t you think?) I headed for the checkout counter where two of the aforementioned young moms were purchasing great mounds of nutritious goodies.

Remember, I was still reeling from my encounter with she of the massive blue truck who had enough money in her checking account for my wife and I to live luxuriously (by our Spartan standards) for the rest of our lives, should we live so long, when Young Mom #1 took from the front pocket of her form-fitting fashionably faded blue jeans a wad of hundred-dollar bills that would have made a mafia chieftain proud, and peeled off three bills to pay for six bulging bags of vittles.

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, ceremoniously held each bill up to some sort of validating light, and made small change.

Meanwhile, Young Mom #2 had stepped up to the other checkout counter and proceeded to pay for her several sacks of groceries from a vast collection of fifty-dollar bills which she pulled from her pockets like a comedic magician pulling so many handkerchiefs from her coat that it seemed impossible she could have crammed so much stuff into such a small space.

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

Further frazzled by the sight of so much filthy lucre, I stumbled to the post office to buy stamps and see if Sheila wanted to talk a little Giants baseball. Ahead of me at the counter stood a beautiful young (under forty) mom with one of her cute little kids sitting on the counter picking his nose, her other slightly larger cute little kid standing on the floor, embracing his mother’s leg while sucking his thumb. The beautiful young mom placed a pile of brand new hundred-dollar bills on the counter, a pile as thick as a five-hundred-page novel, and proceeded to buy a dozen money orders, each order (I couldn’t help but overhear) for many thousands of dollars, and each order duly noted in a leather-bound notebook.

The thumb-sucking lad clinging to his mother’s leg looked up at me and I made a funny face at him. He removed his thumb and half-imitated my funny face. So I made another funny face. He laughed and patted his mother’s leg. “Mama,” he gurgled. “He funny.”

“Not now Jacarandaji,” she said, keeping her focus on money matters. “We’ll go to Frankie’s in just a little while.”

Jacarandaji smiled at me, daring me to make another funny face, which I did. Jacarandaji laughed uproariously, which caused his nose-picking brother to stop picking and ask, “Why you laughing?”

“He funny,” said Jacarandaji, pointing at me.

At which moment, the beautiful young mom turned to me, smiled sweetly (ironically?) and said, “You want’em? You can have’em.” And then she gave each of her boys a hug, saying, “Just kidding. Mama’s only kidding.”

“Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.” Norman Cousins

Who are these young (under forty) moms? They are pot moms, their wealth accrued from the quasi-legal and/or illegal growing of marijuana and the almost surely illegal sale of their crop to feed the insatiable appetite for dope that defines a robust sector of the collective American psyche. Many of these moms have husbands. Many of these moms have college degrees. And all of these moms have decided that it makes much more emotional and economic sense to grow and sell pot than to work at some meaningless low-paying job.

And let them grow pot, say I, so long as they don’t carry guns and shoot at people, and so long as they don’t have dangerous crop-guarding dogs that might escape and attack me or my friends as we’re riding by on our bicycles or walking by minding our own business. What I care about is this: will their children grow up to fill the ranks of the aging musicians and actors and artists and writers and activists who define the culture of our far-flung enclave? Or will those snot-nosed cuties grow up spoiled and arrogant and not much good for anything except growing dope, which will almost surely be legal by the time they’re old enough to join those aforementioned ranks, so then what will they do to make easy money?

Hear me, ye young pot moms. The lives you are leading and this place where you are leading those lives are rare and precious beyond measure. Thus it is your sacred duty to strictly limit the garbage your children watch on television and on computers. It is your sacred duty to give your children plenty of Mendelssohn and Stevie Wonder and Mozart and Joni Mitchell and Brahms and Cole Porter and Eva Cassidy and Richard Rogers and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and Nina Simone and Gershwin, to name a few. And beyond Harry Potter and the corporate guck that passes for children’s literature, at least give them Twain and Steinbeck and Kipling. Beyond today’s execrable animated movie propaganda, give them O’Keefe and Chagall and Picasso and Ver Meer and Monet and Van Gogh. Use your pot money to give your children not what the corporate monsters want to force them to want, but great art that will engender in them the feeling and the knowing that they were born into this life and into their bodies to do something wonderful and special and good.

Yay verily, I say unto you young pot moms, every last one of you beautiful and smart and good women, your children, and you, too, have come unto this bucolic place far from the madding crowd so they and you will have the chance to fully blossom. Feed your family well. Yes. Excellent organic food is good for their bodies, but do not neglect their precious minds and their generous hearts, for we oldsters desperately need them to fill our ranks when we are gone.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.