Posts Tagged ‘Sacramento’

Tales of the Heat

Monday, September 4th, 2017

sunflower redwood

Sunflowers & Redwoods photo by Todd

“One of the big questions in the climate change debate: Are humans any smarter than frogs in a pot? If you put a frog in a pot and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t jump out. Instead, it will enjoy the nice warm bath until it is cooked to death. We humans seem to be doing pretty much the same thing.” Jeff Goodell

After a long, wet, and very cold winter in Mendocino, we decided that keeping our woodstove going from morning until night and running expensive space heaters in our offices and dressing like Laplanders, and still not being warm enough, was not the best way to continue, so we had a Mitsubishi electric heat pump system installed.

Heat pump technology has evolved and improved dramatically in the last twenty years, and heat pumps are now extremely efficient and cost effective. Since ours is electric, and we now get our electricity from 100% renewable sources, heating our house contributes very little to global warming. The initial installation is expensive, but the monthly heating bills are so much lower than heating with propane or wood, we are very glad we made the investment. And we still have fires in the woodstove when we want wood heat and flaming ambience. We have yet to go through a winter with our new system, but summers on the Mendocino coast can be mighty chilly and we have already enjoyed the benefits of our very quiet heating system.

The day was warm when the fellows were installing the heat pump a couple months ago, and they reminded us that heat pumps are designed to heat or cool the air coming into our house. We laughed and said, “We will never need an air conditioner.”

Well, a few days ago, on the second day of the historically hot air mass settling upon Mendocino and San Francisco and most of California and the western United States, we did, indeed, use our heat pump to cool our house. And when our brains cooled down enough so we could think clearly again, we rejoiced to be comfortable and clearheaded instead of dangerously hot and semi-comatose.

From 1980 to 1995 I lived in Sacramento in a house built before the advent of air conditioning, with a full basement and an upstairs. My daily routine during the blistering hot days that lasted from May to October, was to rise at dawn to exercise and work in the garden before the heat became overwhelming, close all the windows in the house by eight AM, and leave them closed until the afternoon when the house became unbearably stuffy and hot.

Then I would cover my sofa and office chair with towels, strip down to my underpants, open the windows, and every half-hour go outside to stand under ice cold water pouring onto my head from a garden hose while I stood amidst my zucchini and basil and tomatoes and corn and beans. I was the only person I knew in Sacramento who lived without air conditioning; and most of my Sacramento friends thought my way of adapting to the heat was a form of insanity. I saw my behavior as a way to conserve resources and not contribute to global warming, which none of my friends appreciated me talking about in those days.

I moved to Berkeley in 1995 and rented an old house that did not need air conditioning because of its proximity to San Francisco Bay and being directly across the bay from the Golden Gate. Thus on hot days, I simply opened my front door and the sweet oceanic breezes came rushing in.

When the temperature spiked to 104 on Saturday in Mendocino, I had an email exchange with a friend in Palm Springs where it was a mere 102. Communicating with him put me in mind of times I spent in Palm Springs with my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey. They moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles when they were in their late sixties, having lost their once sizeable fortune in a disastrous real estate deal.

For their first few years in Palm Springs they managed a swank getaway called La Siesta Villas, fourteen luxurious cottages arrayed around a big swimming pool. Their compensation for managing the place was a small apartment and stipend, their income supplemented by Social Security and my generous parents.

Movie stars and celebrities and rich people frequented La Siesta Villas—Natalie Wood and Dinah Shore among the many stars who came there to escape the smoggy megalopolis of Los Angeles.

“I often feel like the madam of an exclusive brothel,” Goody told me during her tenure at La Siesta Villas. “Illicit trysts abound here, all these famous people with their beautiful mistresses and handsome lovers, air conditioners blasting away to drown out the sounds of sexual exuberance. Champagne and caviar delivered at midnight. Sordid elegance!”

Goody and Casey rose very early each day to take a long walk before the temperature soared above a hundred as it frequently will in Palm Springs; and on their walks they would occasionally encounter their neighbor Liberace walking his poodles. Friendly hellos became longer conversations, Liberace was charmed by Goody, and one Christmas he gifted her with two wine glasses etched with his trademark candelabrum.

On one of my visits to Palm Springs, I went walking with Goody and we not only bumped into Liberace and I got to admire his diamond rings and famous pompadour up close, but after saying goodbye to him, we went to an Open House for a hacienda for sale and arrived just as Red Skelton was coming out.

Goody introduced herself to Red by saying, “You won’t remember, but long ago you and William Bendix posed for a picture with me at a party at Jay Sandrich’s.”

“You’re right,” said Red, smiling his famous dimpled smile. “I won’t remember.”

And then my grandmother and Red laughed together, and I laughed, too.

Goody, Red, and William

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.

Ann Menebroker

Monday, July 18th, 2016

flora tw

Flora painting by Nolan WInkler

“the two figures, male and female, are naked and gracefully huge. their raised right feet begin a dance that never continues.” Ann Menebroker

I moved to Sacramento in 1980. I was thirty-one and experiencing a bit of success with my writing. I bought a piano and an old house in a quiet neighborhood and thus began my fifteen-year residency in that river town. I still own the piano and play her every day.

Immediately upon settling in Sacramento, I got involved in the vibrant poetry scene, though I was not a poet, and my first new friends there were poets, one of them Ann Menebroker. Known as Annie to her many pals, I met her when she was forty-four, a beautiful charming woman, shy and brave, funny and deeply serious—a humble and brilliant maker of poems. She died a week ago at the age of eighty. I got the news from our mutual friend Martha Ann, and I have been crying off and on since.

Annie was never anointed by academia, but she published over twenty books of poetry and her poems appeared in dozens of poetry magazines all over America. She was revered by hundreds of poets and is, to my mind, one of our greatest unknowns—unknown in the sense of never being ballyhooed by the grand poohbas of the American literary scene. Her poems were consistently good and often great. She was highly self-critical, but knew she had a gift and continued writing poems until the end of her life.

Annie was poor and for many years lived in a tiny house on an alley. She cleaned houses, worked in art galleries, and for a decade or so was averse to reading in public, a phobia she eventually got over, thank goodness. We began to correspond via the post office while I still lived in Sacramento, though we lived but a few miles apart—we enjoyed keeping up with each other in that old-fashioned way.

One of my favorite memories of Annie was a poetry reading she gave at Luna’s, a Sacramento eatery. Somebody on the bill with Annie brought along an electric piano, and when it was Annie’s turn to read she asked me to accompany her. I stood behind her playing ever so sparingly to not interfere with her marvelous words, and she seemed to subtly sing her lines to the quiet music, her voice deep and warm.

When I moved from Sacramento to Berkeley in 1995, our correspondence accelerated and today I possess a big box full of letters from Annie along with many of her published works. Most amazing to me was that she had this same scale of correspondence with dozens of other people, mostly poets. She made the news of her daily life, no matter how mundane, into delightful impromptu poetry.

In 1991 Annie wrote, “I have never thought anyone would truly be interested in who I was, as I figure I’m just another female bloke who has gone through life, ass-end first, often, in my struggles to grow wiser.

“I was child-like in the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s. I may be growing up in the 90s. I drank and partied with poets by night, and tried to maintain this image of the better parent by day. I probably mixed both worlds to my disadvantage, often. The odd thing is, Todd, as wild as I considered myself, my kids have this image of the very good, caring mother. I hope that’s true. But I was pretty weak and confused.”

In 2003 she typed, “I do not like writing longhand. I used the typewriter as a teenager to write letters, and that—my dear—was so many years ago!

“My thoughts somehow run, where my body sits and lies! I feel I am someone else when I am working on a keyboard. That I exist in a more favorable disguise as a person of knowledge and wit and strength.

“Take away my keys and you take away my engine of existence! I am nothing!”

In 2004 she wrote, “A man on the street moved me, and also nearly intimidated me. I gave him $5. I had $11 in my wallet. I’d come to the grocery store and paid for my groceries with a check. He had spoken to me on my way in, and I liked something in his being, his voice. He practically demanded me to give him $5, but not in an intruding way. So I did. And he got all strange. He wanted to talk and talk and talk to this older woman who was suddenly talking to him and giving him $5. He wanted to write something to me, but couldn’t find any paper. He wanted to hug me and/or kiss me. I kept smiling and saying No, no, it’s fine. Please, may your day go well. We talked in the spirit of the street and he insisted on grabbing my cart and walking with me to my car to put my groceries in the trunk. I thought he would never leave and I wasn’t afraid, but people were staring at us and I was afraid they would insult him by asking me if I was being ‘bothered.’

“He said a few times, ‘Who are you?’ He said something else and told me never to forget, and I came home and was writing a letter to a woman poet down south, and told her [the thing I was never to forget] and she said, Annie, that’s a small poem. So I put it on top of a poem about winter I was working on but I’m not sure if the longer poem is any good, or that what I put on it makes sense. It was something silly, about the survival of a goose, what he said. I got it all mixed up. Does it matter? No.”

Several of Annie’s fine and inimitable poems can be found on the worldwide web.

Trust

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Question & Reply

Question & Reply painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Trust is a tricky thing. Long ago, I held writing workshops for groups of eight people meeting for two hours once a week in my living room, each course lasting eight weeks. At the outset, I would reiterate what I had explained to prospective participants when they called to sign up for the process: we would be doing my original writing exercises and there would be no lecturing or criticism or analysis of anything we wrote, by me or anyone in the group, and no one had to read aloud anything he or she wrote unless he or she wanted to.

Of the hundreds of writers who participated in these workshops over the years, nearly all believed there would be lecturing and analysis and criticism and judgment of their writing, despite my proclamations to the contrary. And almost all believed if they did not read aloud what they wrote, they would be made to feel stupid and ashamed.

By the end of the first session, there were usually two or three participants trusting they would not be criticized or shamed when they read or did not read aloud what they had written. But there were always people who needed three or four sessions to fully trust they would simply be listened to when they read what they wrote, and so they had to wait a long time to find out that being listened to by a group of non-critical people can be a deeply illuminating and inspiring experience.

And it was only when everyone in the group fully trusted that no one would criticize or be criticized, that we truly became a group and not eight individuals separated by fear and mistrust doing writing exercises. Everyone in the group would feel this momentous shift when the last doubter surrendered to the embrace of non-judgmental group mind. Talk about synergy! Talk about people taking chances, going deeper, and discovering things about their expressive talents they would never have experienced without trusting that anything they wrote was allowed.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” William Shakespeare

I make a part of my minimalist living selling my books and music and art. Customers can buy things from me using their credit cards via my web site or they can send a check to my post office box or they can bump into me at the farmer’s market and give me cash. I have a policy, established two years ago, that I no longer send or deliver orders until I have the money in hand. Had I established this policy ten years ago, I would be thousands of dollars richer than I am today.

Why did I continue to trust people after numerous people did not pay me for goodies received? Because I prefer trusting people to not trusting people, and I was embarrassed to imply to my friends that I didn’t trust them. But the fact is, since most of my customers are my friends, most of the people who stiffed me, knowingly or unwittingly, were my friends. I think poverty and forgetfulness, rather than malice and greed, were behind most of the stiffing, but still.

Yet it wasn’t until a very close friend ordered several hundred dollars worth of books and music CDs to give as Christmas gifts, and I gleefully sent off the big package to her before I received her check (money I was counting on) and then I never got her check, though she claimed it was immediately cashed yet was unable to confirm who cashed it, that I finally installed my policy of having the money in hand before shipping the goods.

And, yes, I have since lost sales to friends infuriated with me for not trusting them, which is why I say trust is a tricky thing.

“Trust, but verify.” Ronald Reagan

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, my neighbors told me that our neighborhood was so safe no one ever locked their doors and there had never been a theft of anything for as long as anyone could remember. And so I never locked my house or my car and I left my bike unlocked on the front porch, and for several years what my neighbors told me proved true, and life was groovy.

Then one night somebody stole a neighbor’s Volkswagen. And in a twinkling, everything changed. Everyone started locking their cars and locking their doors. I continued to leave my bicycle on the front porch unlocked, but then it was stolen, and thereafter I kept my bike in the locked basement accessed through a padlocked gate.

And the unexpected result of this rash of thefts, this new economic reality, was that my neighbors began to mistrust each other and me, and there were fewer block parties, life became less casual, and people spent more time indoors. It seems that once mistrust becomes the overriding modus operandi, it permeates everything.

Then I moved to a working class neighborhood in Berkeley and my neighbors told me there hadn’t been a theft of anything in the hood for as long as anyone could remember, at least fifty years. And until rent control ended and the dot com explosion rendered Berkeley unaffordable for most of my neighbors, our neighborhood was blissfully safe and crime free. But once the street was gentrified, robberies became commonplace and gloomy mistrust descended and life sucked.

Then I moved to Mendocino, and the first joke I was told by two gregarious locals who sat with me in the café and paid for my tea was, “Why do you lock your car in Mendocino? Because if you don’t, someone will leave a bag of zucchini on your front seat.”

So far no zucchini, though I never lock my truck.

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.

Homelessness

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

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

I am currently in the throes of rewriting a novel I first completed in 2003, rewrote entirely in 2006, and then did not touch for six years. I have only undertaken this kind of extended creative venture a few times in my life because most of my long dormant creations do not stand the test of time for me; so I have no interest in spending another thousand hours remaking them. Nor would I have had the opportunity to rewrite any of these long slumbering works had I been a more successful writer with publishers and producers clambering for my works as I completed them the first time. In any case, these books and plays and screenplays I remake multiple times over the course of many years are my favorite creations, regardless of their commercial fates.

This novel I am rewriting is a quasi-autobiographical tale about a middle-aged man who invites a homeless woman and her four-year-old son to live with him. His relationship with the boy is loving and parental, his relationship with the woman in no way sexual, though sexuality is one of the larger subjects of the novel. And though I am still keenly interested in the book’s exploration of sexuality, I am most interested (at the moment) in the subject of homelessness, for I was reminded when I read this manuscript that homelessness has played a central role in many of my books and stories, both published and unpublished.

When I lived in Sacramento in the 1980’s, I became fascinated with several of the many homeless people who gathered downtown in Plaza Park before the park was gussied up and gentrified and made off limits to those outcastes I came to know quite well. The result of my fascination was a novel entitled Two Rivers, four years in the making, an epic stream-of-consciousness prose poem I was never able to publish, though two unusual literary agents and three brave New York editors fell in love with the book and strove mightily to convince the powers that be to publish it. In retrospect, I understand why the book was anathema to corporate publishers, for the interlocking stories composing the novel lay bare the truth of our society’s great shame—the abandonment of those most in need and the terrible legacy of that mass abandonment.

Because homelessness has recently returned to the fore of my consciousness, I am keenly aware that homelessness is almost never mentioned by any of the politicians currently running for local and national office. There is much talk of the great stress being put on the middle class and elderly by the current economic crisis, but homeless people and homeless families are rarely spoken about, though their ranks grow larger every day. Of course, homeless people do not vote, so why should politicians waste their precious cash appealing to the victims of our failing system of governance? Yet it is the unspoken specter of homelessness that is the very monster driving voters into the arms of countless crackpots who blame Big Government for the woes of our society, when our government is not acting in nearly big enough ways to do what must be done to resurrect a viable safety net for all our citizens.

If you are under forty you will not remember when there were virtually no homeless people in America, but that’s the way it was before Ronald Reagan became governor of California and then President of the United States. Certainly there were poor people and itinerant alcoholic bums before Reaganomics became the de facto law of the land, but there were not millions of homeless families in America or even thousands of them. I will not attempt to sum up the sickening history of how Reagan’s overseers shifted the political and social sands to create the economic forces that created the epidemic of homelessness we have today, but be assured that homelessness is the direct and recent result of the craven and amoral rigging of our systems of taxation to benefit the wealthy while sacking those social programs aimed at helping the economically disadvantaged.

What interests me more than the financial mechanics that caused so many millions of people to become economically disenfranchised is what homelessness means as a reflection of our collective response to such suffering. And I think our collective response, which is to do nothing to reverse the horrific policies of our so-called leaders over the last thirty years, is a reflection of a totally false and tactically implanted fear in all of us that there is not enough food and shelter and security for everyone, so that sharing our wealth with others is perceived to be the direct path to homelessness. That may seem simplistic, but that is what I observe in individuals and groups in response to individual homeless people and to homeless people as a growing sector of our population. The homeless are to be pitied or scorned, but not given the means to substantively improve their lives, for we have been programmed to believe that such giving will only impoverish us, when, in fact, the opposite is true.

For many years before I wrote Buddha In A Teacup, a collection of forty-two contemporary dharma tales, I was immersed in the writings of several excellent Buddhist teachers, and what I discovered time and again was that generosity, the sharing of one’s self with others, not only underpins all aspects of Buddhist philosophy, but is apparently the most difficult concept for Americans to fully understand and incorporate into their lives. And the reason for this difficulty, according to many Buddhist teachers, is that American are deeply entrained to believe that the purpose of giving is to get something in return, whereas the essence of true generosity is to give without any expectation of recompense.

Here is the tale Generosity from Buddha In A Teacup. I would be very curious to know how this little story makes you feel.

Generosity

Tess, a slender woman with brilliant blue eyes and long gray hair, lives in Golden Gate Park—her camping place known only to her.

“I don’t leave anything there when I come out. If you were standing right on it, you wouldn’t know anyone lived there because it’s just a place along the way. I leave no indentation. Even if you found me there you wouldn’t know I lived there because I might just be a tourist sitting in the park. I only have my knapsack.” She smiles. “The only way they could bust me is if they found me there at night, but no one comes there at night. Except me. It’s such an unlikely place for a person to live.”

Tess and a middle-aged man named Thomas are having lunch at a café a few blocks from the park. Thomas has known Tess for three years. They met at an arts faire in downtown San Francisco where Tess was selling handmade greeting cards. Each card contains one of Tess’s original poems. She is a highly skilled botanical illustrator. Most of her cards are scientifically accurate drawings of flowers rendered with fine-tipped pens.

The first card he bought from her—Crimson Columbine—contained the following poem.

this wildflower

short-lived, yes,

but no prisoner

 

A few months later, Thomas met Tess walking on Ocean Beach. They were both searching for unbroken sand dollars. He introduced himself and asked if he might hire her to make a drawing of the leaves and flowers of camellia sinensis—tea—for his business card and stationery. She was happy to make the drawing for him and he was thrilled with the result. Since then they have met every week for lunch.

“I made you something,” she says, handing him a greeting card. “That’s Arnica mollis. Cordilleran Arnica. I love how the yellow flower stands out against the dusky green leaves.”

He opens the card.

Dear friend,

Winter is nearly upon us.

May I sleep on your sofa at night until Spring?

I will be quieter than a mouse.

I will leave no indentation.

For the rest of my life,

I will make drawings and poems for you.

Blessings and Love,

Tess

 

 

The Manure Chronicles, Part One

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

 

Rabbit Manure Garlic Mulch photo by Marcia Sloane

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

You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” Hank Williams

Sandy calls to say she’s gotten permission to harvest rabbit manure from her friend’s rabbit barn. So I load my wheelbarrow and a big shovel into my little old pickup and head for Fort Bragg. A sunny spring morning, the angry winds of the past few days in abeyance, I roll along the Comptche-Ukiah Road at forty miles per and try to remember if over the decades of gathering manure for my various gardens, I have ever scored more than a baggy of rabbit manure. Horse, mule, cow, sheep, goat, chicken…but never a truckload of rabbit poop, until today.

At the intersection of Little Lake Road and Highway One, I pull over to pick up two scruffy humans, their formidable backpacks, and three large dogs. Before I can announce how far I’m going, the humans and dogs scramble into the back of the pickup and hunker down around my big blue wheelbarrow, a smile on every face. I roll down my window and say, “I’m going to Fort Bragg. Please keep a good hold on your dogs.”

To which the taller human rejoins, “No worries, man. No worries.”

And I think to myself No worries. Why not? Sure. Let’s go with that.

As we near the new roundabout at Simpson Lane, one of the humans taps on my window to let me know, I think, that they want to disembark. Blessedly, I navigate the roundabout without incident and pull off to the side of the road, expecting humans and dogs to jump out with the same zeal and alacrity with which they jumped in, but both species remain onboard. I roll down my window and ask, “Is this not where you wished to get out?”

“Sorry, man,” says the shorter of the humans. “Can we have a minute to figure something out?”

“Sure,” I say, being free of worries and in no great hurry.

The humans confer for a moment—a fine moment full of cars and trucks and buses rumbling by on the ribbon of highway (cue the Woody Guthrie.)

“Can you drop us at the post office?” asks the taller human.

So on we trundle, I and my cargo of humans and happy dogs; and I am reminded of my favorite Sufi tales, the ones in which God speaks to a person stuck in some quandary or another and tells that person to go forth into the world, to stop fretting and fly the coop, to go on a quest, or at the very least take a long walk, and in so doing the person becomes available for interactions and experiences he or she never would have had staying home; and through these interactions and experiences, the person’s quandary is transformed into a deeper appreciation of the miracle of life.

“We have been God-like in our planned breeding of our domesticated plants and animals, but we have been rabbit-like in our unplanned breeding of ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee

We arrive at the rabbit barn, an L-shaped windowless building containing some sixty cages, each wire cage containing a single white rabbit. The rows of large square cages sit atop platforms some three feet above the ground, rabbit poop falling freely down through the spacious weave of wire into earthen troughs we find heaped with hundreds of thousands of grape-sized pellets, some freshly dropped, some several weeks old. Concrete walkways crisscross the room and are hosed off several times a day. Florescent lights give the room the feel of a factory, and that’s what this is, a rabbit growing factory, the end product being slaughtered and dressed rabbits for the restaurant trade.

Indeed, rabbits are being butchered just around the corner from where we are busily filling my wheelbarrow with rabbit manure, the rabbits in the cages near us sitting quietly, eating and defecating and waiting to die. There are no flies in here, no life really, other than the white rabbits and the man around the corner killing the rabbits and skinning them and dressing them, and Sandy and Todd, eager gardeners glad to be getting so much good shit for free.

I return home with my pickup brimming with rabbit pellets, Sandy having needed only enough to dress her two small raised beds; and the first thing I do with my bounty is mulch my burgeoning garlic. When I water down my beds, the thousands of silver gray pellets glisten in the sun, my garlic appearing to be growing in pea gravel.

But as I wheel my wheelbarrow back and forth from truck to garden, and the pile of pretty pellets grows into a goodly pyramid atop the patch of ground that last year yielded a bushel of potatoes, I keep thinking of those white rabbits, small, medium, and large, growing inexorably to the size of slaughter. They never know sunlight or grass or sex, never stand on terra firma, and never even enjoy movement because their feet are forever pressing down against the subtly cutting wire.

And thinking of what I imagine to be the constant sorrow of those rabbits, I find I am less happy about this manure than I am about the manure I bring home from Kathy Mooney’s corral, her magnificent horse Paloma so well-loved, the apples she eats from my hand becoming the manure I dig into my soil. Yes, Paloma’s crap seems imbued with love, and…I don’t eat horses.

“A lovely horse is always an experience…an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.” Beryl Markham

When I lived in Sacramento I had a huge backyard vegetable and flower and herb garden, and for three of the fifteen years I tended that soil, my manure came from a champion pony (a breed, not a young horse), a slender white pony too small to be ridden by adult humans, though children could ride her and she pulled some sort of cart in her performances. This horse had won so many trophies and ribbons in competitions all over America that her owner had dedicated a gigantic room in his house solely for the exhibition of the pony’s myriad prizes, as well as dozens of framed photographs of the pony adorned with victory wreaths and standing with her owner as he accepted trophies on her behalf.

I always went to the pony ranch with my friend Doug because he knew the pony’s owner, I’m not sure how, and because Doug had access to a pickup truck. Those were the days when I did not own a vehicle and so depended on the kindness of friends. We’d get a truckload for Doug and a truckload for me, an excellent blend of horse manure and sawdust, nicely aged in a spacious old barn so the rich mixture was not disempowered by hard winter rains.

The only drawback to this source of manure was that every time we went to get our loads, we had to pay obeisance to the horse’s owner, an elderly fellow with a terrible case of logorrhea, by going with him into the vast trophy room where he would tell us his champion pony’s life story, beginning with lengthy biographies of the pony’s champion father and champion mother, which biographies set the stage for a riveting account of the pony’s birth and her remarkable childhood full of startling exhibitions of her extraordinary intelligence and innate talent leading to her first triumphs as a young adult pony doing whatever such ponies do to win whatever they win, and moving along to stirring tales of her multiple and consecutive championships at state and national levels, culminating with her tour of England and France where she was hailed by the pony people of those nations as a visiting god.

Then we would go out to the champion pony’s barn adjacent to the barn wherein was piled the poop we sought, and we would have a look at the champion and feed her sugar and scratch her muzzle, and her owner would command her to do things, and she would bow and paw and spin around and sit on her haunches like a polar bear. Amazing knee-slapping wow kind of stuff.

Finally, before this verbal blitzkrieg of a man would let us get on with our shoveling, he would ask us each to think of a number between one and ten, and to look into the pony’s eyes as we thought about our number. And then the pony would paw the ground as many times as it took to paw the number she thought we were thinking.

Now the first time I went through this lengthy rigmarole to get the manure, I found the ordeal tolerable and even kind of interesting, though an hour and a half seemed excessive to me. But the second time through was pure torture, and the third time I had to excuse myself when the old fellow began to recount the pony’s remarkable childhood. I hurried to the bathroom where I stayed for as long as I could, humming to drown out the sound of the blitzkrieg’s voice while leafing through an excellent collection of vintage Playboys. And the following year I got my manure somewhere else.

No, the pony did not correctly guess the number I was thinking. I was thinking four all three times, and she always guessed seven. Then again, Doug was always thinking seven, and she always guessed seven, so maybe Doug’s thought waves threw her off when it came to guessing my number. I dunno.

Coming soon: The Manure Chronicles, Part Two.

 

 

Thus Spake Angelina

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

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

“Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.”  Montaigne

I used to hate it when I predicted something long in advance of when it happened, and then no one remembered I predicted it or believed me when I insisted I predicted the thing. And I used to really hate it when I invented something but didn’t bother to patent it because I didn’t have the money or the time or the personality, and then someone else found out about the thing I invented and they patented it and became filthy rich from my invention. But now I don’t mind when people don’t believe I predicted important things before they happened. Nor do I mind when people get rich and famous from my inventions. And here’s why.

The writings of my hero Buckminster Fuller convinced me it was a colossal waste of time to worry about people stealing our ideas or not believing us because ultimately the universe (transcendent of human pettiness and ignorance) responds appropriately and exquisitely to our thoughts and actions regardless of whether we own the patents on the lucrative inventions or whether people believe us.

For instance, I invented snail tongs. Yep. That (those) was (were) mine. I knew I would be ripped off (just as I know you don’t believe me) and that’s why I wrote up the invention several years ago, made precise drawings of the device, and sent the write-up and drawings to dozens of gardening supply catalogs, garden tool inventors, and a few hundred people selected randomly by using pages torn from phone books, darts, a blindfold, and the appropriate incantations. The rest, as they say, is history. Snail tongs, with or without teak handles, and with or without the accompanying snail bucket (with Velcro pad or dainty hook for connecting to your gardening belt) are now de rigueur for serious gardeners who don’t like to get slimed whilst plucking mollusks from precious garden plants.

I have no idea how the universe has reacted to the invention of snail tongs. Just because people have made millions from selling snail tongs and now live in abject wealth because of those sales doesn’t mean snail tongs are a good idea. Indeed, the universe may be withholding from me great gobs of money and success and access to daring and creative publishers and brilliant green-lit movie producers because I loosed snail tongs on the world. After all, expensive snail tongs (not the ones made entirely from recycled materials) use valuable natural resources that would be better left in the ground. To be quite honest, I now regret letting anyone know about snail tongs. But I was so curious to see what would happen, I couldn’t keep from letting the tongs out of the bag, so to speak. Fortunately, no one believes me, so I am at least safe from persecution by humans for that crime.

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.” Faith Whittlesey

Note the date. June 29, 2011. I predict that Angelina Jolie, the famous movie star, will become the first female President of the United States. When? I’m guessing 2020, but possibly 2016. Why do I make this prediction? Because everything she has done and is doing, and everything that has happened and is happening in terms of the evolution of mass media, the state of the world, and the exigencies of fate (I love that expression) lead me to believe Angelina’s ascendancy is virtually a done deal.

If you think I’m crazy, please view recent video clips (easy to find on the internet) of Angelina visiting Syrian refugees in Turkey or flood victims in Pakistan (and wearing the traditional garb of the women in those locales) or more recently paying tribute to the inhabitants of the Italian island of Lampedusa for giving aid and comfort to boat people refugees from the strife-torn Middle East. Wherever she goes in her role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, Angelina, without a script, speaks eloquently, knowledgably, compassionately, and with charismatic strength on behalf of the refugees, and refugee women in particular. She has also adopted three children and raised them along with three children she’s had with her movie star and politically sort of left and totally supportive (so far) husband. Angelina is picky about the roles she takes, refuses to play bimbos, is on the verge of portraying Cleopatra in a movie that will probably cost more to make than the Gross National Product of Belgium, and recently directed a serious romantic drama set during the siege of Sarajevo. In other words, she is a beautiful, articulate, feminine feminist; she knows what’s going on and she’s nobody’s fool.

By 2016, the world will be firmly in the grip of widespread social and environmental chaos, at which point Angelina will be forty-one and ready to answer the call of billions of women and poor people and smart people chomping at the bit to make the great global transition to universal socialism, free healthcare, disarmament, material minimalism, and gluten-free dining. I will serve in Angelina’s cabinet if she will have me, but only if I can do so from my home via weekly essays.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay

I also invented the bandarang. Yep. That was mine, too. Forgive me if you’ve been bopped by one of the larger ones whilst minding your own business at the beach. Yes, I should have foreseen they’d turn the wonderful thing into yet another tool of competition and consumerism, though you must admit that some of the things people do with bandarangs are absolutely mind-boggling. Sadly, I was recently informed that the military is developing explosive bandarangs as well as new stealth aircraft employing bandarang aerodynamics.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking. You invented the bandarang, Todd? Then why aren’t you rich as Croesus and producing your own movies? Well, because I gave the idea away, just as I gave away the idea for snail tongs and several other inventions you won’t believe I invented. And I gave them away because along with being a devoted follower of Buckminster Fuller (see above theory of adjudication by Universe), I am also extremely lazy regarding anything requiring contracts, lawyers, or government bureaucracies; and though I knew bandarangs would be popular, I never imagined they would be voted Thing of the Century by the Union of Unconcerned Hedonists.

You may be interested to know that I didn’t so much invent the bandarang as discover it. Wikipedia erroneously reports that the inventors of the original bandarang were competing teams of nerdy dweebs at Harvard, MIT, and Oxford circa 2007-2011 using computer modeling and origami brainstorming to perfect the design, but that is hokum. It was I alone standing in the shallows of the American River (up to my knees in the icy flow) in Sacramento on a blistering hot day, August 17, 1989, who first discovered/invented the bandarang.

I had just lost another Frisbee to the swift current. Feeling bereft (as I always do when I lose a Frisbee to a river or the ocean) and wanting to continue playing with the wind, I rummaged in my knapsack and found a large rubber band—three inches in diameter if spread open to approximate a circle. I carried the rubber band with me into the aforementioned shallows, and using the thumb of my left hand as fulcrum, I shot the rubber band almost-but-not-quite straight up in the air. When gravity halted the flight of the projectile some thirty feet above the blessed waters, the elongated band contracted and relaxed into the form of a circle, which, in the dainty breeze, rotated counter-clockwise as it drifted back to earth and settled gently around my upraised index finger. Thus was born the banderang.

On September 9, 1999, after a decade of intermittent experimentation, I settled on an optimal size and weight (and color: neon orange) of rubber band, angle of launch depending on breeze coefficients, etc., wrote a clear description of the bandarang, made precise drawings, and sent forth packets of the salient information to Harvard, MIT, Oxford, and myriad toy manufacturers.

On April 13, 2012, a twelve-foot-long bandarang (flaccid) will be stretched by a pneumatic traction crane to a length of two hundred and thirty-seven feet using a top corner of a thirty-story office building in Oakland, California as fulcrum, and shot up and out over San Francisco Bay. The neon orange, seventy-seven-pound rubber bandarang, with finely tapered edges coated with micro-thin Teflon, will attain an altitude of 1778 feet and a rotational speed of 174 revolutions per minute, catch a friendly westerly breeze, travel 3.7 miles, and gently (erotically) settle upon a phallic obelisk on Treasure Island to the roaring approbation of eighty thousand giddy bandarangists (also known as rubberoos) gathered on the island to greet the mythic rubber ring.

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” Sigmund Freud

June 29, 2011. I predict that the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima marks the beginning of the end of nuclear power (and eventually nuclear weapons) on earth. Safety and decency, however, will not be the reasons the powers-that-be finally grok the insanity of nuclear power. No. What will ultimately tip the balance in favor of livingry (a term coined by Buckminster Fuller to mean the opposite of weaponry) will be the stunning decline in male fertility brought about by the enormous and continuous release of radiation and radioactive particles from Fukushima and other soon-to-be-announced failing nuclear reactors around the world.

As the human population begins a precipitous (and ultimately fortuitous) decline, trillions of dollars will be diverted from weaponry and needless pharmaceuticals and worthless hedge funds and earth-killing genetically modified grain growing into the male-dominated fear-driven medical industrial complex to find a cure for sterility, resulting in the ultimate realization that the best way to keep human love goo viable is to entirely clean up our act, environmentally and emotionally speaking, and never again, one earth under Angelina with liberty and justice for all, ever foul our nest again!

Todd’s books and music and a blog archive of 117 AVA essays are available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

He Is Us

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without the proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.” David Hume

I may be wrong. I thought I’d begin with that disclaimer to defuse the notion I think I’m right. What troubles me most about zealots is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is not only deemed wrong, but bad. Oh, get to the point, Todd. Well, but this is a big part of the point, this trouble I have with people who think they have the one and only true answer, true faith, true way to grow strawberries. There’s no way to have a meaningful discussion with them.

When I had my oh-no-we’re destroying-the-earth-we’d-better-change-our-ways epiphany in 1965 at the tender age of fifteen, even most of my fellow Sierra Club members thought I was either crazy or a dangerous radical. Forty-six years later, my assertion that radically reducing our individual resource consumption can help save the earth is scoffed at and ridiculed by a growing cadre of environmentalist celebrities who insist that personal lifestyle changes no longer matter. The only thing that can possibly save us now, they proclaim with absolute certainty, is violent or semi-violent opposition to oil drilling, coal mining, forest cutting, and other forms of large-scale resource extraction and resource combustion.

A recent email to me from a follower of one such environmentalist celebrity said, “You’re the problem. Your copout attitude that we can humanely reduce human population and make a difference by using less water and energy is the problem. Quit giving people excuses for not fighting the earth killers.”

Another email said, “We’ve tried to get people to consume less. It doesn’t work. We have to directly attack the corporations to keep them from raping the earth.”

These emails and the environmentalist celebrities they echo make me despair for humanity almost as much as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and people opposed to family planning.

Honestly, how hard have we tried, collectively, to consume less? I would say hardly at all. Have we done anything approaching the scale of tens of millions of people planting victory gardens during World War II? Have we had a serious several-years boycott of Chevron, the flagship oil company of the American and Saudi oligarchs? No. Have we, the people, embarked on a conscientious energy conservation program? Nope.

How is it that the connection between consumption and the rape of the earth is so difficult to comprehend for anti-corporate environmentalists? Why isn’t human overpopulation the centerpiece of every environmentalist celebrity’s stump speech?

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes

I recently happened upon an amazing, to me, video clip from German television (because such news was not available from American media) about the Japanese government’s plans for addressing their nation’s huge and potentially catastrophic energy shortage resulting from the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdowns. Attractive male and female models paraded for cameras to show off the new “cool look” fashions the Japanese government hopes a large portion of the population will adopt to help immediately lower energy consumption fifteen (15) per cent.

For men: short-sleeved shirts or sleeves rolled up, open collars, no ties (a radical break with propriety in Japan) and lightweight pants. For women: loose blouses and short sleeves and modestly short skirts. These comfy outfits will, the Japanese government hopes, allow people to set their air conditioning thermostats at eighty-two (82) degrees and not suffer unduly. And if the people of Japan don’t reduce energy consumption by fifteen per cent, immediately, there will be unavoidable and massive power outages because, frankly, Japan doesn’t have enough energy to keep 130 million people cold in summer and hot in winter.

The Japanese government calculates that by setting home and factory and automobile air conditioner thermostats to eighty-two (82) degrees, there will be an immediate ten (10) percent energy savings for the entire nation. Add to this the fact that Japan is a nation of super-fast-food consumers with six million (6,000,000) big energy-guzzling refrigerated vending machines they could easily do with half of, and you can see the low lying fruit, so to speak, of energy conservation is abundant and in plain sight.

As for the eighty-two (82) degree thermostat setting: I lived in Sacramento for fifteen years. I was told when I moved to the capitol in 1980 that my days of treading lightly on the earth in terms of my personal energy consumption were over. I would definitely need a car to get around, and most definitely need air conditioning to survive the brutally hot summers there. When I asked how people had survived in Sacramento before the advent of air conditioning, no one knew, but everyone was certain the people must have suffered terribly because without air conditioning, life in that former swamp was unimaginable.

In keeping with my minimalist modus operandi, I decided to give life in Sacramento a try without air conditioning and without a car. Incredibly (not really) I did okay. The old house I lived in was built in 1910, long before the advent of air conditioning, and was possessed of a six-foot deep basement. If I opened my windows in the late afternoon on days when the outside temperature exceeded 95 degrees, and left those windows open all night, the house cooled down wonderfully. I would close the windows around nine in the morning, and the house stayed cool until the afternoon, at which point I would open the windows. Those very hot (over a hundred degrees) afternoons, I deduced, must have been the times when our ancestors suffered so terribly from lack of air conditioning, because those were the times I often resorted to bicycling to the river for a swim or standing in the garden holding the hose over my head while simultaneously watering the tomatoes.

Amazingly (not really) my body became accustomed to the heat, so those days when the temperatures rose to only 95 degrees seemed cool, and those days when the temperatures rose to 82 degrees (the temperature at which the thermostats of all the air conditioners in Japan are being set) called for a sweater until the zenith of the so-called heat.

You see where I’m going, don’t you? Upwards of two million people live in the Sacramento area, and another eight million live in the hot central valleys of our golden state. Nearly all of these people have their air conditioner thermostats set much lower than eighty-two (82) degrees. Another fifteen million people live in southern California, and most of those people use air conditioners, too. Indeed, the Enron scandal heist of our recent past that knocked Gray Davis out of office and ushered in the reign of Arnold Schwarzenegger was predicated on energy demand from…wait for it…air conditioners.

Shall we call it ironic or idiotic that a huge chunk of the energy being consumed today all over the world, energy contributing mightily to global warming, is energy being used to artificially cool down naturally warm air? As I said at the outset, I may be wrong, but I remain convinced that, in the famous words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The worst part for me about living in Sacramento, environmentally speaking, was not the heat but the toxic quality of the air and water. For several of my years in Sacramento, I attended meetings of a group of concerned citizens hoping to do something to improve local air quality. Consequently I learned many distressing facts about Sacramento air pollution, one of which is that upwards of eighty per cent of all the air pollution in Sacramento does not originate there, but comes from the Bay Area borne on powerful easterly winds, and from agricultural field burning outside the metropolitan area.

So. Here is a scenario I’d like us to consider. As a matter of national and global security and to ensure a livable future of our children and grandchildren, the people of the United States, with or without the cooperation of our government, agree to set all the air conditioning thermostats in the country to eighty-eight (88) degrees, including automobile air conditioners because running a car’s air conditioner drastically reduces fuel efficiency. This unanimous effort of the people will immediately save billions of barrels of oil and billions of gallons of propane and natural gas, a sudden savings that will cause the prices of crude oil and gasoline to tumble, which will immediately cause food prices to fall, too.

But we won’t stop there. Turning down thermostats and wearing skimpy clothing is easy. We want to save the earth, so we’ll take on the hard stuff, too. We, the people, each and every one of us, will consciously and demonstrably eliminate not one but two automobile trips per week. This might mean one less trip to the store per week or making one commute per week to work or school by bus or bike or on foot. Or it might simply mean occasionally resisting the impulse to jump in the car and zip to the store for that six-pack. Hey, there’s always tomorrow, and this is the earth we’re saving.

Okay. Two less car trips per person in America a week along with not turning on the air conditioner unless absolutely necessary, and we’ll have an instant and gargantuan global oil glut. An emergency meeting of OPEC ministers to discuss the precipitous decline in demand will result in the price of oil being lowered to almost nothing. But demand will continue to fall because people around the world are waking up to their collective ability to create a new and regenerative environmental paradigm, thus fulfilling the mandate of the hit song from the musical Hair.

The demand for genetically modified corporate-grown corn to concoct environmentally disastrous bio-fuel disappears overnight, and farmers all over the world are encouraged to reclaim the land stolen from them by multinational corporations that no longer need that land to grow stuff no one needs. With hundreds of millions of people growing their own food again, food prices continue to plummet, which frees families in the so-called Third World to educate their daughters, which in a single generation will lead to a vast decline in birth rates. It has long been known that the fastest way to swiftly and humanely reduce population is to educate the population, especially the girls, about everything, not just birth control.

We’re on a roll now, aren’t we? Empowered by the success of turning down thermostats and driving less and consuming less and turning off lights we aren’t using, twenty million exuberant people descend on Washington D.C. and surround the capitol until Single Payer Healthcare becomes the law of the land, not just in Vermont. Euphoric about that great victory, bills (with teeth) are passed ending our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and everyone, including corporations, making more than a million dollars a year is asked to please pay at least a little income tax.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So how do we begin? I could be wrong, but I think the first step would be to locate our thermostat(s), and the second step would be to meditate (for more than a minute) on the concept of less is more.

Todd’s new piano CD Ceremonies is available from iTunes and Amazon and UnderTheTableBooks.com

Kyoto Amore

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

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

“But a whole school of lady koto players

Best kimono and Japanese hairdo

Perform on tatami platform underneath falling blossoms”

Philip Whalen

I’ll never forget the night in 1989 when we danced at Melarkey’s on Broadway in Sacramento, dancing for joy because in a free and fair election, for the first and only time in history, the majority voted to shut down an active nuclear power plant. And only a handful of people know that Ben Davis started the whole thing, and I, in the beginning, helped him keep the ball rolling.

Ben, an eccentric, stubborn, self-educated advocate for the public good, first tried to shut down the Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Facility by single-handedly taking SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) to court for not having an adequate emergency evacuation plan in the event of a catastrophe such as the multiple catastrophes ongoing in Japan today. The courts wouldn’t oblige Ben for the usual putrid reasons (putrid as in corrupt), though Ben had more than ample proof that SMUD, for all intents and purposes, had no evacuation plan at all.

Failing to overcome the entrenched putrescence of California’s so-called legal system, Ben thought he would get a proposition on the ballot and encourage the people of Sacramento to shut the plant down, since SMUD was a public utility owned by we, the people. With zeal and naiveté, (and before the advent of the internet) Ben and I thought we would use a pyramid scheme of friends to get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot; and that is what we set out to do. Joining us in our endeavor were two others, Martha Ann Blackman and Melinda Brown. Ben wrote the ballot initiative and had a lawyer friend help him get the wording right, we had a couple strategy sessions at my house, and then we alerted the media.

When an article about us appeared in the Sacramento Bee, and we got a bit of radio coverage, all hell broke loose. To make a very long story short, our little organization was quickly joined and taken over by professional environmental peeps who got all the credit for getting an initiative on the ballot, passing the initiative, and shutting down the power plant. But I know that Ben Davis started the whole thing and got none of the credit. So what else is new? The important thing is that we, the people, shut down a piece-of-crap nuclear power plant that almost surely would have partially or entirely melted down by now and irradiated most of northern California had it been allowed to stay in operation.

How can I say such a thing? Because after I joined forces with Ben, I did a ton of research and learned more than I ever wanted to know about nuclear power plants, Rancho Seco in particular. And by the way, Rancho Seco is still home to piles of nuclear fuel rods that will remain murderously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Those cancerous rods sit in that massive mausoleum of human stupidity because, oops, there’s no safe place on earth to store them.

Buckminster Fuller pointed out that Nature knew exactly how far from humans and other living things to site a nuclear facility: 93 million miles. He also suggested the only safe way to dispose of nuclear waste was to deliver that waste to our sun (93 million miles away) where said waste would be harmlessly incinerated. However, getting the poisonous radioactive guck to the sun without blowing up the planet in the process is seriously problematic, so forget about it. Instead, we must swiftly end all the needless wars, carefully dismantle every last nuclear power plant on earth, and spend the next half-million years safeguarding the poisonous guck and never making another drop of it.

“Autumn comes now triumph chrysanthemum harvest

Moon burnished persimmon plumed Suzuki grass

The spirit perishes when the season turns.”

Philip Whalen

Sick with sorrow about the devastation in Japan, I am also furious that amoral corporations in collusion with amoral governments have poisoned and continue to poison the planet with radioactive waste. The media coverage of the nuclear crisis in Japan has been, to me, most remarkable for the enormity of the lies and misinformation spewed forth by the offices of propaganda. The truth, alas, is in the isotopes, and they have been unleashed in quantities the nuclear overlords will never admit to. The next time you hear someone say nuclear power is safe, please know that they are either extremely stupid, morbidly ignorant, or insane.

“We have going to change it all.” Philip Whalen

When I was twelve, my mother went back to college to get a master’s degree in education. To replace her on the home front, she hired Doris Ishigawa to clean our house, do our laundry, and be on hand when my little brother came home from school. Never was our funky old house so deeply cleaned as when Doris cleaned it. The previously perpetually filthy windows became so clear the house seemed wholly new and better—flooded with light. Doris introduced us to salmon and bass sashimi, fresh-caught by her husband. She created exquisite flower arrangements using flowers and twigs and grasses she found in our largely neglected garden. She was, as I recall her, gentle and generous and kind.

When Doris died of a stroke some years later (she was in her fifties when she died) her obituary revealed that she and her husband, prior to World War II, had been wealthy, successful, and revered members of their community. However, while the Ishigawa’s were incarcerated in an American concentration camp for the crime of being Japanese, their house and land and money and possessions were stolen from them by opportunistic crooks. And when our putrescent legal system negated the Ishigawa’s attempts to reclaim their stolen property, Doris became a cleaning lady, her husband a gardener; none of which I had known about because Doris never once spoke of her ordeal.

Gauzy emerald

goldfinch music

pleasure & delight

Philip Whalen

I have been punctuating this article with snippets from poems by Philip Whalen because he was a great lover of Japan, lived in Kyoto in the late 1960’s, and is one of my favorite poets. Whalen wrote funny lyrical insightful poems while in Japan, and thereafter about Japan. I experienced a profound transformation of how I saw myself in the world when I heard Whalen read his poetry in 1966, and I became a devoted reader of his work. I possess a handwritten note from him giving me permission to use one of his poems to begin my novel Ruby & Spear, and every now and then I’ll get the note out and feel amazed and grateful to see Philip’s scrawl. Here is the poem.

LATE AFTERNOON

I’m coming down from a walk to the top of Twin Peaks

A sparrowhawk balanced in a headwind suddenly dives off it:

An answer to my question of this morning

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, nearly eight-hundred pages, was published in 2007 by Wesleyan University Press, and though I had read most of Whalen’s poems several times before, I devoured every word in that fat volume from first poem to last, inspired anew by Whalen’s originality and musicality.

In my anguish about Japan and the madness of nuclear power—which I know is your anguish, too—I hear Whalen exhorting us to pay special attention to the present moment, to the joy and sorrow and miracle and mystery and humor and pathos of Now; for the past no longer exists, nor has the future yet arrived, so to dwell persistently in either is to miss the boat, miss the point, miss the present—to not receive the gift.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

Philip Whalen