Posts Tagged ‘Santa Cruz’

Hey Baby

Monday, March 26th, 2018

th_nighttrain-768

Petit point for Night Train cover by D.R. Wagner

“Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her and listen to me, listen to your heart and listen to your brain, listen to the sweet song of the rain. Oh my darling, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” from Todd’s song You Are the One.

My recent article about singing to the seals at Big River Beach and remembering my first paying gigs as a musician elicited several fascinating comments, so I thought I’d write a little more about my music. By the way, we’ve disarmed the Comments feature on my blog, so if you’d like to communicate with me about my articles, please send me an email.

So…having supported myself in minimal style for a couple years as a singer/songwriter in my early twenties in Santa Cruz circa 1973, I moved to Menlo Park and got a job as a janitor and teacher’s aid at a day care center in Palo Alto for children of single working mothers. My girlfriend G and I had broken up in Santa Cruz, but G rejoined me in Menlo Park, and after a year of saving our pennies, we moved to Eugene, Oregon where we lived in a converted garage while G attended the university as a music major studying piano and composition. Shortly after we arrived in Eugene, I sold my first short story for what was a fortune to me in those days, nine hundred dollars, and that allowed me to focus entirely for some months on writing short stories and a novel.

My relationship with my girlfriend was not mutually supportive. Which is to say, until I had some effective psychotherapy when I was forty, I routinely partnered with women who disapproved of me and my life choices, yet depended on me to encourage and support them. Why did I do this? To summarize volumes of emotional history, I was programmed by my disapproving and punitive parents to partner with disapproving others, and I didn’t know how else to go about life.

Lest you think I exaggerate my malady, check this out. For the entirety of our three-year relationship, G was adamant, and frequently shouted adamantly at me, that I was using my singing and songwriting and the adulation they brought me as emotional crutches to feel okay about myself and if I really wanted to face the truth about who I was, I would get rid of my guitar. So after we’d been in Eugene a month, I sold my guitar.

Now as it happened, we also had a piano in that garage because G was studying music theory and composition and wanted a piano handy for theorizing and composing. Because I make music as reflexively as ducks swim, I frequently played her piano. I don’t read music, but I had been improvising on pianos since I was sixteen, so in the absence of a guitar, I played her piano several times a day. This drove G bonkers because she struggled to compose anything she liked, while I reeled off hours of groovy-sounding music with no conscious knowledge of music theory.

Nine months into our Eugene sojourn, G and I broke up for good and I moved to Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper for two years. While living in Medford, I was contacted by my old high school chum Dan Nadaner who was a fan of my guitar playing and singing. He had written some rhyming verses for the soundtrack to a little film he made called Stripes and asked me to sing his verses in the manner of a country tune while accompanying myself on guitar. (Watch Stripes on my web site.)

To make that recording for Dan, I borrowed a small steel-string guitar and a little cassette recorder from my friend David Adee. Dan was pleased with how I sang his verses, and after making the recording I bought that guitar from David. Having gone two years without a guitar, songs began pouring out of me and I wrote several new tunes in the next few months. A year later, in 1977, I moved from Medford to Seattle, and while living a lonely life there, I wrote a nostalgic bluesy love song called Hey Baby.

In 1980, having had a large success with my first novel Inside Moves, I was attending a party in Sacramento, songs were being shared, and when the guitar came to me, I sang Hey Baby. When I finished the song there was much hooting and applause and a woman asked, “Who wrote that? Wasn’t that in a movie?”

I said, “No. It’s one of my songs.”

“Sounds famous,” she went on. “That’s like a song you hear in grocery stores, you know, the instrumental version of a classic.”

As of this writing, Hey Baby is not famous, but I never forgot what that woman said about the song, and her praise emboldened me to play Hey Baby when I gave readings at bookstores and cafés, and the song eventually became a mainstay of the one-man shows I performed for some years.

Fast forward to the first year of my first marriage, 1984. My wife introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, which I enjoyed, but there was one song on that album I absolutely with every cell in my corpus loved—Night Train (not the blues standard, but Rickie’s song with that title.) After listening to her Night Train countless times, I wrote a novel entitled Night Train that sprang from dreams inspired by Rickie’s song.

In the novel, the down-and-nearly-out narrator Charlie is haunted by the one success he ever had, a hit song he wrote called Hey Baby upon which hinges everything that happens in that wild crazy chase love story.

I eventually published Night Train with Mercury House, a San Francisco publisher, and they took the book out-of-print shortly after publication. Thus few people ever heard of my Night Train, though the following review by Tom Nolan ran in the LA Times in 1986.

“In his fourth novel, Todd Walton, author of the critically praised Inside Moves and Louie & Women, delivers an unusual and gripping tale that begins like a hard-boiled crime story and becomes something resembling science fiction. Walton evokes a paranoid romanticism reminiscent of Craig Nova, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon as he tracks the fate of Lily and Charlie, two down-and-out musicians on the run from an army of ‘very well-connected’ thugs out not just for blood but for spirit. Fleeing by car, foot, air, bicycle, train, covered wagon and dirigible, the two make their way with Lily’s baby from Sunset Boulevard to a mountain retreat in Oregon. Eluding all manner of physical and mental danger, Lily and Charlie take their final stand with a commune of utopian artists.

“Their odyssey is seedily realistic, wildly surrealistic, often erotic and only occasionally a bit precious. What seemed like a simple pursuit story has become an engaging parable of the responsibilities of creativity, the nature of self-worth, the redemptive power of love—perhaps the Meaning of Life itself. And the message, as Charlie reads it? ‘No matter how far down you get, you got to get up.’”

And now, thirty-three years gone by since Night Train was briefly available in a handful of bookstores, I love recalling the myriad threads that came together to make that book—Hey Baby a tune I wrote for my favorite singer in those days: Bonnie Raitt. And though I never got the tune to Bonnie, in my imaginings, her version of Hey Baby makes the song an instant classic, thereby fulfilling the long-ago prophecy of Hey Baby becoming a soundtrack for grocery shopping.

Night Train is available as a Kindle and iBook, and used copies of the hardback abound online.

Seals

Monday, March 19th, 2018

waiting

Tilly, Molly, and Flynn photo by Todd

Harbor seals have spotted coats in shades of white, silver-gray, black, or dark brown. They grow to six feet in length and weigh up to three hundred pounds. Males are slightly larger than females. They are true crawling seals, having no external ear flaps. True seals have small flippers and move on land by flopping along on their bellies.

A few days ago I met the Golden Retrievers Tilly and Molly, and their Chihuahua-mix pal Flynn, along with their humans Sally and Robin at Big River Beach for a morning constitutional—walking for the humans, chasing tennis balls for Molly and Tilly, trotting along being sociable for Flynn.

Whilst flinging tennis balls for the retrievers, we spotted a big harbor seal in the waves offshore, the surf raucous, and to our delight, this seal dazzled us with expert body surfing, something I had not previously observed the seals doing at Big River Beach, though I have fond memories of watching harbor seals surfing the waves in Santa Cruz.

In California, harbor seal pups are born between February and April and weigh about twenty-two pounds at birth. Pups are born knowing how to swim and will sometimes ride on their mothers’ backs when tired. Pups are weaned at four weeks. Adult females usually mate and give birth every year, and may live thirty years.

I used to be a zealous body surfer, and I know the exact moment I gave up the sport. I was in my mid-twenties, living on Lighthouse Avenue in Santa Cruz back in the days when you could rent a four-bedroom house near the beach for a couple hundred dollars a month. When the weather was good, I would walk or run the four blocks to the beach just north of Lighthouse Point and body surf if the waves were good. Just south of the lighthouse is the world famous surfboarding spot Steamer Lane, where spectators can stand on the point and be incredibly close to the surfing action.

One late summer day I arrived at that oh-so-convenient beach, smiled in delight to see what looked like perfectly-formed body surfing waves, ran out into the surf, dove under a few breakers, and found myself caught in a powerful current that dragged me way out to sea as if I were floating down a fast-flowing river. By way out, I mean the people on the beach were ant-sized by the time the current released me. The water was very cold, I had no wetsuit, and I felt fairly certain I was going to drown.

I flopped onto my back and tried to swim back to shore, but I kept encountering that outflowing current. I tried to swim parallel to shore, but I was quickly growing too weak to make much headway. And then, miracle of miracles, my friend Bob Smith, who had come to the beach with me on that day, arrived on an air mattress he’d borrowed from a sunbather when he saw what was happening to me, and I clung to that air mattress and kicked with Bob, and we got to shore where I collapsed in exhausted ecstasy, so happy to still be alive.

Pacific harbor seals spend half their time on land and half in the water. They can dive to 1500 feet and stay underwater for up to forty minutes, though their average dive lasts three to seven minutes and is typically shallow. They sometimes sleep in the water. They feed on sole, flounder, cod, herring, octopus, and squid.

Harbor seals like to watch people playing Frisbee on the beach. One day at Big River Beach, I fell into an impromptu Frisbee exchange with another beachcomber, and a seal popped her head up out of the water to watch us. Then another seal popped up beside that first seal, and eventually there were four harbor seals in a little group watching the disc go back and forth between the two humans, those four beautiful heads moving synchronously from left to right, like spectators at a tennis match.

The worldwide harbor seal population is estimated to be 500,000, with 34,000 in California. They are usually found in small groups, but sometimes congregate in the hundreds.

My favorite connection to the seals at Big River Beach involves singing. Shortly after almost drowning in Santa Cruz, I started a musical combo called Kokomo. The group was composed of: Todd playing guitar and singing his original folk rocking bluesy songs, Jon playing violin and mandolin and singing harmony, and the occasional bass or dobro player noodling along with us. After Jon and I rehearsed a few of my songs, I called around to the various venues in Santa Cruz where such ragtag combos performed in the 1970s, lined up some auditions, and off we went.

Most of our auditions involved going into the prospective bar, pub, or café in the late afternoon and doing a couple tunes for the manager. The first place we auditioned was Happy’s, an upstairs bar in an alley off Pacific Avenue. When Jon and I arrived, there was a quartet of early drinkers at the bar and the bartender/manager on hand to listen. We launched into a groovy tune of mine called Should Be Better In the Morning, and when we finished, one of those early drinkers slapped a dollar bill on the bar and slurred, “For you do dat again.”

So we did the tune again and the bartender said, “You free tonight?”

I said we had another gig, which was true in the sense that we had to get busy rehearsing more tunes so we could play for forty-five minutes without repeating ourselves, and voila, we had our first gig: every Thursday night at Happy’s until further notice.

Then we went to Positively Front Street, a much bigger tavern, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier, and we auditioned for Terry, the owner/manager, and a lovely young woman and a handsome young man who were Terry’s pals. We played Should Be Better In the Morning and followed that with a skanky blues called Loose Woman, and Terry said, “Friday and Saturday nights, twenty bucks plus tips, all the burgers and fries and beer you want.”

The young woman and young man introduced themselves as Mouse & Timber. They had been the Friday/Saturday night act at Positively Front Street for the previous year, but they were moving on to a casino lounge at South Lake Tahoe paying three hundred a night, plus tips, five nights a week, plus a free hotel room. Timber said, “You guys would kill at Tahoe. Come on up and we’ll get you a gig.”

We never did get up to the casino, but we eventually rehearsed twenty of my tunes along with a few Hank Williams classics and a handful of other standards for lonely drunk people, and for most of the next year we were the house band on Friday and Saturday nights at Positively Front Street and the Thursday night attraction at Happy’s.

And once I’d earned actual dollars for singing, the world would never be the same. Making money for singing is like making money for being human—which can be both wonderful and confusing, depending on, as we used to say, how together you are.

Speaking of which, there I was a couple years ago, standing on the shores of Big River, inland a couple hundred yards from where the river meets the sea, and I sang out over the smooth surface of the water and a seal popped up to have a look at me. When she heard me singing, her eyes grew wide, she dove under the water, and a moment later popped up again with two friends. Ere long there were seven seals listening to me sing my song Real Good Joe, Hank Williams’ Cheating Heart, and another song of mine called Beautiful.

And though I would like to say those seven seals especially liked my songs, the truth is, just as with the mob at Positively Front Street, they favored Hank Williams. How do I know? Oh you can just tell when your audience really locks in with you.

Completion

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Kindling Pile

Kindling Pile photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the AVA entitled When Is It Done? in which I recounted my meeting with the poet William Everson in Santa Cruz circa 1971. I was hitchhiking on the coast highway, Everson picked me up, and being an aspiring writer and a devotee of his poet compatriot Philip Whalen, I asked William, formerly known as Brother Antoninus, a question I immediately regretted: how do you know when a poem is done?

Fortunately for me, he did not stop the car and tell me to get out. Instead, he thought for a moment and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

Now I am older than William Everson was when he gave me that ride way back when, and his reply to my youthful question still seems a good answer. There’s no rule about it. Something shifts in your awareness. You come into harmony with your feelings, and you just know.”

Or you don’t know. I know writers and artists who say a book or painting or recording project is done when they can’t bear to work on it any longer. I suppose that could be called a shift in awareness and coming into harmony with your feelings.

“The writer of any work must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”” Annie Dillard

One of my favorite paintings by Picasso is Paul In A Clown Suit, a portrait of Picasso’s young son wearing a harlequin costume and sitting on a chair. The upper two-thirds of the chair is black and makes a potent background for the boy, his costume composed of blue and yellow triangles, his reddish brown hair crowned by an odd black hat, his beautiful child’s face expressionless.

The bottom of the chair, however, is a bare charcoal sketch. This is also true of Paul’s feet, and there seems to be a remnant sketch of another leg and foot, unpainted and superimposed over the sketch of the bottom of the chair. Why did Picasso leave these parts unfinished? Or put another way: why did Picasso feel the painting was done?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that if Picasso had painted every part of this painting and removed the remnant sketch of another leg, the painting would be lovely, unremarkable, and would not incite me, as it does, to consider the countless fleeting moments our brains transpose into notions of reality.

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

For the last several months I have been writing the third volume of a fictional epic entitled Ida’s Place. Book One is subtitled Return, Book Two Revival, and Book Three Rehearsal. Set in a place reminiscent of where I live on the north coast of California and peopled with foreigners, artists, visionaries, brilliant children, and just folks, this is my first attempt at a multi-volume work—the process quite different for me than writing a single-volume novel.

Entering my fourth year of involvement with this large cast of characters, I no longer think about where the saga is heading or when it will end, and as a consequence I have been experiencing a wonderfully uninhibited writing flow.

“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Georges Braque

A couple weeks ago, Marcia went away for five days, and my usual three or four hours of writing each day became seven and eight, the momentum of the Ida saga lasting from morning until late at night. When I took breaks from writing to eat or work in the garden or go to town on errands, the story continued to speak itself, oblivious to my lack of pen and paper.

I thought the flow might slow when Marcia came home, but the pace never faltered. Then a few nights ago, I finished writing a scene, put down my pen, and felt something, a tangible something, sink from my head into my stomach, like an elevator going down and stopping abruptly—with something definitely in that elevator. And I wondered if the first draft of Ida’s Place Book Three was done.

So I posed the question to my muse: has everyone in the story arrived at a good pausing place? Yes. Okay.

I typed the last fifty pages of longhand into the IDA 3 document on my computer and printed out the entire opus to begin, as William Everson would say, working the lines. I have only a vague notion of what has gone on in these several hundred pages, and I am keen to find out. But first I will take a few days off from the adventures of Ida and her people to revel in the glorious spring.

Cheating Heart

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

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

“It’s like deja-vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

My recent essay Cheating elicited several responses from readers wishing to share more examples of cheaters in high places, cheating as an integral part of our economic and political and interweb reality, and tales of people who don’t cheat being routinely victimized by individuals and corporations who do cheat. So the word cheating was on my mind when I remembered…

Long ago in Santa Cruz, circa 1973, I fronted a jazzy folk rock group called Kokomo, and for the better part of a year we were the Friday and Saturday night band at the popular tavern Positively Front Street, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier. One of my favorite things about that gig was emerging from the smoky confines of the pub in the wee hours of morning and filling my beleaguered lungs with cool briny air as sea lions arfed to each other in the near distance and the somnolent fog horn lowed with reassuring regularity—little waves lapping the white sands of the Boardwalk beach.

In the beginning of our entrenchment at Positively Front Street we— sometimes a duo, sometimes a trio, rarely a quartet—played only my original songs, and to this day I am amazed that the owner of that commodious tavern allowed us such artistic freedom, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when the place was packed. On the other hand, he only paid us twenty dollars for four long artistically free sets (us being the entire band), plus complimentary fish and chips and burgers and beer and whatever tips we could entice from the tipsy crowd. Thus if we wanted to make more than five bucks a set it behooved us to play requests, and to that end we learned to play a handful of standards, two of which were Hank Williams songs, far and away the most requested tunes in that blessed watering hole patronized by many men and a much smaller number of brave women.

The two Hank Williams tunes we learned were Hey Good Lookin’ and Your Cheating Heart, the latter being the most requested of the two, which I found remarkable considering the song was already twenty-years-old in 1973, having been written and recorded in 1952 and released shortly after Hank’s death in 1953. The story I heard about Hank writing Your Cheating Heart is that he was driving drunk one night and musing aloud about his first wife, Audrey Williams, to his second wife, Billie Jean Jones, who was in the passenger seat writing down the lyrics as Hank sang and talked the words out to her.

The lyrics to Your Cheating Heart as I sang them (slightly different than the official lyrics) are as follows:

Your cheating heart will make you weep

You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep

But sleep won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll walk around and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

Your cheating heart will pine some day

You’ll crave the love that you threw away

But love won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll toss and turn and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

I think what makes these simple lyrics so meaningful to so many people is that Hank not only speaks of his ex-lover’s heart, but of his own. You’ll walk the floor the way I do makes it clear that the craving and pining go both ways; the sorrow shared.

When we played Positively Front Street we installed a gigantic glass tip jar on a high stool on the little stage with us, a jar we would prime with coins and a few dollar bills to make it clear what we wanted from our audience. And several times a night, some guy or gal would stagger or sashay up to the stage and shout over the din, “Play Cheatin’ Heart!” and drop a buck in the jar; and if we hadn’t just played that tune, we would play her again, and our violinist would wring out a heart wrenching solo to bring a few more coins to the tip jar.

Hey Good Lookin’ never failed to get people dancing in their seats or up and dancing to the bar, so we would play that sweetly sexy tune whenever we wanted to brighten the mood and give folks something familiar to balance all my original tunes they hadn’t heard before unless they were regulars.

One of my songs, Loose Woman, was much loved by the Positively Front Street crowd, and we got requests and tips for Loose Woman several times a night. The chorus of that skanky ballad became a sing-along anthem for the love-starved denizens of that beer-drenched dive:

I’m hooked up with a loose woman

A loose woman’s all right with me

She don’t like my songs or my jokes or my dreaming

But she gives me all her love for free

I don’t care what she don’t like

What she don’t like don’t hurt me

Just so long as she’s a loo-loose woman

And gives me all her love for free

But the biggest tip we got—ten smackers every Friday and Saturday night—came to us from the same man; and when I think back to the dozens of times we enacted the little drama I am about to describe, I marvel at how easily I was ensnared in such an odd ritual by the lure of big (relatively speaking) money.

Rodney was an effeminate middle-aged man who rarely missed our shows at Positively Front Street. After every set, as we headed for the bar to whet our whistles, Rodney would come close and whisper, “Please, please, please won’t you play Puff the Magic Dragon?” For our first few weekends of playing the joint, I fended him off by saying we only did original material, but after we felt compelled to learn those Hank Williams tunes and a few other songs by other people, I resorted to saying, “Well, gosh, Rodney, I don’t think Puff really goes with the tone of our show.”

But Rodney persisted, and one Friday night he dangled a ten-dollar bill (my rent was due) and said, “Oh, Todd, please play Puff. Pretty please.”

Wanting that money, I replied, “Tomorrow night, Rodney. Just for you.”

So the next evening on our way to the gig, my mandolin player asked me, “Do you even know how to play Puff the Magic Dragon?”

“Not really,” I said, feeling cornered. “Do you?”

“Easy,” he said, grinning at me. “But the rowdy boys aren’t gonna like that sissy stuff. Prepare to get booed.”

“We’ll play it for Rodney between sets,” I said, thinking fast. “Back in the Pong room.”

Pong, electronic ping pong, was one of the very first video games, ever, and there was a dark little alcove behind the stage where the Pong game lived, twenty-five cents a game, and that is where every Friday and Saturday night for the better part of a year we performed Puff the Magic Dragon for Rodney, playing and singing very quietly so the tough guys and rowdies out front wouldn’t hear us—Rodney singing falsetto on the chorus—so we could make an extra ten dollars, which was a good deal of money to the likes of us in 1973.

And there was one night we sang Puff the Magic Dragon for everyone to hear, that being the last night we played Positively Front Street, our resignation precipitated by the owner of that marvelous tavern making an impossible demand on our artistic freedom such that I had no choice but to give up our lucrative (relatively speaking) gig.

Unaware of what was about to befall us, we arrived a half-hour before show time as was our custom to eat fish and chips and have a couple beers before taking the stage. The bartender said the owner wanted to see me upstairs in his office, so I took the stairs two at a time thinking maybe we were finally going to get a raise.

“Here’s the thing, Todd,” said the owner, smiling painfully. “You know I love your music, and I especially love your voice, but I cannot stand the way the other guys in your group sing. So…I will double your salary if you do the singing and your buddies keep their mouths shut. Deal?”

Well, I wasn’t about to tell my buddies they couldn’t sing with me. Half the fun of playing four hours of music in a smoky tavern was playing and singing together, fueling off each other, trying out new harmonies, playing the fast songs slow and the slow songs fast. And I sure wasn’t going to tell my partners that our patron hated their voices but loved mine. Never.

So I said to the owner, “I’m very sorry, my friend. This gig has been a godsend and a rent payer and I will be forever grateful to you for giving us this opportunity to hone our chops, and I think it fair to say that your business has not suffered from our playing here, but I cannot tell my pals to keep their mouths shut. It would be cruel and mean and they would hate me forever, so…I guess tonight will be our last show here.”

“Okay,” he said, pointing at me in his friendly way. “But if you change your mind, the gig is yours. Fifty bucks a night.”

And you know what? When we sang Puff the Magic Dragon that night for the whole mob of rowdies and tough guys and brave women and college kids and tourists, every last one of them sang along, and our tip jar overflowed, and Rodney was moved to tears, which just goes to show you how little any of us knew about anything. And at song’s end the audience let out such a roar that the owner came down the stairs to see what the hell was going on, and when I saw him gazing in wonder at the happy mob, I turned to my buddies and said, “Let’s finish with Cheatin’ Heart,” which we did, and it brought the house down.

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

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

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.

The Manure Chronicles, Part Two

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

 

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

“Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.” William Wordsworth

Long ago in the Santa Cruz of 1972, I was a member of a large commune occupying a grand old abode on the edge of the sea. A former stagecoach stop, hotel, brothel, and motel, the three-story main house shared a two-acre plot with four one-room cottages and a large barn that had once been a carriage house and served us as woodshop and garage. I am convinced that my vow to plant and maintain a big vegetable and flower garden was what decided the communards to vote me in, but it may also have been that they liked me.

In any case, I did plant a big vegetable and flower garden, roughly a fifth of an acre, and I not only grew enough vegetables to feed our twelve members and myriad guests throughout the year, but I frequently traded surplus vegetables for eggs and fruit produced by other communes in the area, and I made a bit of extra money for the communal pot from passersby attracted to my Pick-Your-Own-Bouquet sign affixed to the trunk of a fallen but still-living cypress at the mouth of our driveway. Our soil was sandy loam and needed help in the way of manure, most of which we got from a horse ranch on Trout Gulch Road out of Soquel, but there was one spectacular load of manure that came to us as a most surprising gift.

I made my money in those days as a laborer and musician. The minimum wage circa 1972 paid to Santa Cruz hippies for physical labor was two dollars an hour. Being a prideful sort, I would never work for less than two-fifty, and some people paid me three. This may not seem like much by today’s standards, but when you consider that cheese in those days, good cheese, was twenty-nine cents a pound, a loaf of fantastic organic bread made at our local bakery was eighty-nine cents (and half that a day old), and a towering glass of draft beer was fifty cents, then three dollars an hour was serious money.

But even living frugally, I was always low on cash, and so when I landed a four-days-a-week job as an estate gardener at four dollars an hour, I was suddenly a wealthy man, riding my bike six miles up into the mountains to a five-hundred acre estate of redwood forest surrounding rolling hills of wild grasses and poison oak transected by a narrow asphalt road leading to a spectacular house of stone and wood perched on a bluff overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, an eagle’s eye view of what once was surely paradise.

My employers were an exceedingly wealthy middle-aged couple, he from Boston, she from Cincinnati, with one child, a bearded man of twenty-seven who still lived at home, their fortune inherited from the wife’s predecessors who had established one of the world’s largest oil companies. The husband had an office and a townhouse in San Francisco and would go there for days at a time to venture capital, I suppose, but more probably to get away from his wife who was phenomenally bossy and intrusive and sour.

They had lived in the Philippines for many years, which is where their bearded son had developed his great passion for polo, and where they had employed legions of servants and kept dozens of polo ponies and had a mansion on the outskirts of Manila and a beach house on Puerto Galera Bay and a mountain chalet near Baguio City; and they had loved living there. However, two failed but terrifying attempts by guerillas or crime lords (they were never sure which) to kidnap the bearded son convinced them to return to America, to build a house overlooking the Pacific on one of their many landholdings, and to live in peace and safety. They missed their legions of servants and days of splendor at the polo club, and the sweet warm evenings on various verandahs, and the divine luxury of having anything they wanted at any time, but they did not miss masked gunmen trying to kidnap them.

Since returning to America, the wife had taken to raising champion Saint Bernards, which pastime was the centerpiece of her life. The sire was a massive champion weighing well over two hundred pounds, the bitch a champion, too, weighing a petite one hundred and seventy. When I began working there, the champion pair had nine yearling male pups yet to be sold, each pup destined to surpass his father in size. These enormous dogs roamed free during the day and spent their nights in a quarter-acre pen ringed by a ten-foot-high cyclone fence. They were beautiful beasts, friendly and full of fun, and God help anyone they decided to have fun with.

The first thing I did every morning when I arrived (following my strenuous forty-five minute bike ride) was to release the pups from their pen. Why, you might ask, didn’t the wife or her bearded son or the German housekeeper or the Mexican cook release the pups? Because releasing the pups was a downright dangerous and heroic act, and here’s why.

Imagine nine two-hundred pound dogs, albeit friendly and full of fun, each possessed of frightening strength, hurling themselves against a cyclone fence in a frenzy to be released to go running over the hills and through the forest, sniffing and peeing and chasing deer and all other living things. Imagine the large outward-swinging gate needing to be unlatched, the person doing the unlatching directly in the path of the nine exuberant monsters who wished to show their gratitude to their brave savior by jumping on him and breaking his bones while licking him to death.

Further imagine that some fifteen feet directly in front of the gate was the thick trunk of a sprawling old live oak, a trunk wide enough, and ascending at such an angle, that an agile human could run up the trunk some seven or eight feet before needing to use his or her hands to climb another ten feet up into the tree. Now imagine a person, me, using a very long pole to flip up the latch on the gate, dropping the pole, running up the tree trunk, and then climbing high into the tree while eighteen hundred pounds of Saint Bernard came crashing out of the pen, and six or eight hundred of those pounds came running up the trunk of the oak in joyful pursuit of me. Eventually the colossal pups would leave me treed and rush away and I would climb down, sorely regretting that I had taken this job, yet counting myself lucky to have it.

Oh, the stories I could tell about those crazy rich people; but this is a story about manure, so I will cut to the chase. One day the wife and I were doing what we did every afternoon after lunch, which was to sit in the dappled shade of an oak on the hillside overlooking the flower garden I was forever repairing and replanting because of the rampaging pups. There in that dappled shade we would comb the coats of the huge dogs in search of burrs and wild oats the dogs had collected while rampaging over the hills, some of those oats having corkscrewed into the flesh of the dogs which required us to unscrew the oats and pluck them out—a painful procedure eliciting growls and yips and sometimes snaps from the behemoth canines.

I hated this part of my job more than any other part because I knew that the moment I released the burr-free dog, he would wander into the high grass and invite more oats to jump on for a ride. Or he would traipse down the hill and roll around on the newly planted petunias or begin digging furiously in the just-repaired tulip bed, uprooting bulbs and plants in search of gophers that were never to be unearthed. And the wife would smile at the demolition of my morning’s work and say things like, “They certainly love to dig, don’t they?” or “Where do they get so much energy?”

And the wife confided in me. She told me everything about her life, her husband’s life, and her son’s life; and on this one day, for the first time in the many months I’d worked for her, she asked me about my life. I told her I was a writer and hoped one day to publish stories and novels.

“Well,” said the wife, arching an aristocratic eyebrow, “then you’ll be interested to know that we were good friends with William Faulkner. We visited him three times in Mississippi and the last time we saw him he sold us the desk on which he wrote The Sound and the Fury. Do remind me to show it to you next time you come to the house for your pay.”

“Wow,” I replied, feigning enthusiasm. “The actual desk,” though the idea of these obscenely wealthy people buying Faulkner’s desk ignited a rage in me that spawned the fantasy of my stealing the desk and fleeing with the blessed thing to Oregon. Why should they have Faulkner’s desk? If anyone should have Faulkner’s desk, it should be me, not them. I had, after all, read As I Lay Dying twice!

And as I was having my silly fantasy of stealing her desk, my usually brash and bossy employer said in the sweetest way, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?”

In retrospect, I think she may have been asking me to say “Faulkner’s desk.” But at the time, her question seemed so ridiculous and insensitive—I, the struggling artist unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs, she the billionaire heiress unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs—that I almost said, “If I could have anything in the world it would be for you to hire someone to install an electric gate opener you can activate from the safety of your house so I won’t have to risk my life every day,” but instead I said, “I’d like a huge truckload of well-aged horse manure delivered to my garden.”

And two days later, as I was planting lettuce in the commune garden, a big old dump truck heaped high with well-aged horse manure came backing down the drive and hissing to a halt, the driver jumping out to ask where I wanted the glorious stuff dumped.

There should probably be a moral to this story. I dunno. I quit that job a couple weeks after the manure was delivered because a woman I was crazy about started dating the bearded son and changed overnight from a sweet hippie gal who used to come to my gigs and sing along to my songs and gift me with scintillating smiles and congratulatory hugs and kisses bordering on sex, into a snazzy club-hopping fashion plate. And she and the bearded son would come zooming up in his spanking new convertible Porsche to the fabulous house of stone and wood on the bluff overlooking Monterey Bay, dressed like movie stars at an opening night gala, while I was kneeling in the dog piss dirt replanting the flower bed for the umpteenth time under the watchful eyes of gigantic dogs…and I just couldn’t handle it anymore, though the money was awfully good.

When Is It Done?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

(This piece appeared—twice!—in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2008-2009. I recently got a request for this article, thought it was on my blog, but could not find it herein. So here it is now. Enjoy.)

Thirty-five years ago, I was hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on Highway One, and I got a ride with the poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus, one of the more esoteric Beats. He sported a wispy white beard and a well-worn cowboy hat, and his old car reeked of tobacco. Recently installed as a poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz, he was going to a party in Bonny Dune but had no idea how to get there.

 I knew exactly where he wanted to go and offered to be his guide, though it meant traveling many miles out of my way. I was obsessed with poetry and wanted as much of the great man’s time as I could finagle. He accepted my offer to be his Sancho Panza and did me the honor of asking, “So what’s your thing?”

“Guitar. And I write stories and poems, too.”

He nodded. “Who do you read?”

“Philip Whalen. Lew Welch. Faulkner. Kazantzakis.”

He lit a cigarette and seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.

And then, without consciously intending to, I asked, “So…how do you know when a poem is done?”

So pained was Everson’s expression, I might as well have asked him what he thought of the poetry of Rod McKuen. Here he was on his way to a party, no doubt to drink and smoke and let his hair down and take a break from all the bullshit attendant to his newly won academic sinecure, and his guide to such bliss—a scrawny wannabe with nary a joint to share—asks him the single most annoying question an artist can be asked.

I was about to blurt an apology for my stupid question, when the good man cleared his throat and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

William Faulkner rewrote his first two novels, Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay, many times. But no matter how many drafts he wrote, he always wanted to rewrite. He came to realize that in the time it took him to complete a new draft, he had so changed as a person and grown as a writer, that he had become, literally, someone else; and this new person wanted to make the book his book.

So from then on, Faulkner made it his practice to write three drafts and call the book done. Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ also settled on three drafts. And I, in the days before computers, would do four drafts before undertaking a final draft with an editor. Of course, with the advent of computers, rewriting has taken on whole new meanings, and our beleaguered bookstores and libraries are jammed with proof that computerized word processing has in no way improved the quality of writing or the quality of books.

There is a marvelous movie made in 1956 entitled The Mystery of Picasso. The film was revived in the 1980’s and shown in art houses all over Europe and America. In the film, Picasso paints on one side of an absorbent canvas that allows colored ink to seep through the canvas unadulterated and without running. The camera is on the other side of the canvas, filming Picasso’s strokes as they appear, as if by magic, and coalesce into paintings. Some of the paintings are shown developing in real time, some manifest in time lapse.

When I watched this movie in a theatre full of artists and art lovers, the response from the audience was remarkable. As Picasso rapidly created a painting, a person—or several people—would cry out, “Stop! It’s perfect!” and then they would groan as Picasso carried on, changing the image until someone else would shout, “Yes! There! That’s it!” only to have the master paint on and on and on.

By the end of the film we had witnessed the making and annihilation and making and annihilation of hundreds of great works of art—done and not done and done and not done and done.

With the exception of The Prince and the Pauper, which may be a perfect fable, Mark Twain had great difficulty finishing his novels, as did Thomas Hardy. Both men would write in trances of inspiration until they reached the climaxes of their stories, and then not know how to end them. Both writers would put their incomplete manuscripts away for several months, even years, then get them out and affix endings quite unrelated to the original spontaneous flow. Sadly, these forced completions are the great weaknesses of otherwise masterful works.

So Twain might have said a book is done when the writer ceases to write it. Faulkner might have said there is no guarantee that when a thing is done the artist will like it. Picasso might have said the thing is always done and never done. And in this moment, reserving the right to change my mind in the next, I say the poem or song or book or painting is done when a comfortable silence falls and I’m absolutely certain it’s time for me to do something else.

Occupy Yourself

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Photo of Todd by Marcia Sloane

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

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Quentin Crisp

In 1972, when I was in my early twenties, I founded a commune in Santa Cruz, California, a collective of eight people (with numerous and frequent overnight guests). We were disenchanted with American society, with America’s wars of aggression, with America’s pyramidal scheme of things, and with America’s environmentally disastrous use of the land, so we decided to explore new (to us) and regenerative ways to interface with the world rather than follow in the destructive footsteps of our parents and forefathers.

To that end, the eight of us shared a house built for a family of four, created a large organic garden (some of us having worked with Alan Chadwick in the university gardens), and pooled our minimal resources for the good of the group. Our experimental community lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of selfishness, immaturity, and a profound lack of preparation for such an undertaking. Our intentions were flawless; our skills and execution abysmal.

Nevertheless, I learned many valuable lessons from that adventure, and my next communal experience was vastly more successful, though it, too, died a sorry death for lack of skills, experience, and commitment by the majority of the participants. We were children, after all, though we had attained the age of adults in other societies; and children, with rare exceptions, eventually need guidance from elders to make the transition from play into self-sustaining living.

A few nights ago, after watching a raft of Occupy Wall Street videos sent to me by fascinated friends, I was reminded of a night in that first commune, when several of us were gathered by the fire in the living room, rain pounding the roof of the house owned by an opportunistic university professor with a penchant for young hippy chicks, the owner of several houses he rented to gangs of youthful experimenters, many of whom I have no doubt would have flocked to the Occupy happenings of today—for the fun and adventure if nothing else.

So there we were discussing Marx and Sartre and Steinem and the tyranny of patriarchal theocratic monogamy mingled with visions of interconnected communes and solar organic farms and grassy walkways instead of cement sidewalks; and mass transit and bicycles instead of poisonous factories and cars and freeways—utopia manifesting in clouds of cannabis—when Pam appeared on the threshold connecting the kitchen and living room and said, “Hey, I totally dig where you guys are coming from and where you’re going, too, but who’s on dishes tonight? The kitchen is totally gross.”

“To heal from the inside out is the key.” Wynonna Judd

A psychotherapist once said to me, “The problem with blaming others for our unhappiness is not that those others aren’t important in the history of our sorrow, but that blaming them for everything interferes with our taking responsibility for what we have done and are doing now.” And one of my problems with blaming Wall Street and Washington and the wealthiest people for the woes of the nation (and the world) is that though many Wall Street operators and politicians and excessively wealthy people are unscrupulous jerks and thieves, blaming them for all our social and economic problems seriously interferes with taking responsibility for what we of the so-called 99 per cent have done and are doing now.

I find it maddeningly simplistic to suggest that we of the 99 per cent are not profoundly involved in the socio-economic systems of our towns, counties, states, and nation. As I read history, until the most recent collapse of the gigantic Ponzi schemes that kept our false economy bubbling along at least since Clinton took office in 1992, many of the people (or their parents) now bemoaning the economic imbalance of our society were perfectly happy to reap the rewards of that fakery, including the promises of fat retirements based on their 401 Wall Street retirement plans, and to hell with the rest of the world and those less fortunate than they. And I am certain the so-called one per cent know this about the 99 per cent, which is why they, the one per cent, do not take the 99 as seriously as they should.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” Carl Jung

Shortly before Obama became President of the United States, I wrote that unless Obama moved quickly to institute Single Payer Healthcare and nationalize the banking system, within two years we would see massive social unrest. I was wrong. When the Occupy happenings began I thought they might be the start of that massive unrest, but now I doubt anything immediately massive will be sparked. I hope I’m wrong. But when someone sent me a link to an Occupy Kauai YouTube, and thirty seconds into the silly thing I was guffawing, I had the feeling the Occupy phenomenon might be well on its way to self-parody. Can the Occupy clothing line and Occupy Café chain and Occupy app be far behind?

“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez successfully employed non-violent protest, resistance, and boycott to further their political, social, and economic aims, and we are all beneficiaries of their courage and strategies. I assume some of the Occupy folks have studied the methods of Gandhi and King and Chavez, and I remain hopeful they will eventually decide to emulate those visionaries. Discussing my hope with an avid fan of the Occupy Wall Street folks, I asked, “So would you say the strategy of the occupiers is to not have a strategy?”

“Absolutely,” said my friend, “because to have a strategy is to commit to an ideology, which could quickly become vertical and therefore inherently divisive. This is a horizontal movement so no one is excluded.”

“Excluded from what?”

“From protesting how unfair the system is. That’s the beauty of saying we are the 99 per cent, because that’s totally inclusive except for the few people who have everything.”

“But a few people don’t have everything and the situation is much more complicated than some infantile delusion that one per cent of the population is determining everyone else’s fate. Among many other things, we do elect the charlatans passing the laws favoring the fat cats, don’t we?”

“Of course, but we don’t want to make this too complicated. By keeping things simple no one feels excluded.”

“I feel excluded.”

“That’s because you like things complicated. You want everyone to push for taxing corporations and socialized medicine and free education and shrinking the military. Talk about divisive.”

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” Aldous Huxley

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I wrote the end of this article. In the dream I was madly in love with the Occupy Wall Street people and compared them to the disenchanted rebels and counter culturists of my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I compared Occupy Wall Street to the Be Ins of those mythic times, and I wrote eloquently (as one does in dreams) about how the only agenda anyone had at those Be Ins was to “be there now” for whatever might go down, so to speak. Then, still in my dream, I thought of the television show Laugh In starring the young Goldie Hawn and Lili Tomlin; and in that marvelous way of dreams, Laugh In and Occupy Wall Street merged, and the protests became funny and sexy and good.

I think my dream was partly inspired by a slide show I watched before going to bed. Marcia sent me a link to a Huffington Post slide show of the Wall Street Occupation, a montage of compelling images that might have been shot in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the mythic Summer of Love in 1968, though I’m not saying the Occupy folks are a bunch of latter day hippies, but rather that they are as disenchanted (yet hopeful) as we were forty years ago, and they are passionately seeking alternatives to the earth-killing system that currently holds sway over our country and the world.

The article in my dream ended with lyrics to a beautiful song that made me cry. I wish I could remember the words, but they did not survive the transition to my waking state. What did survive was the feeling that just as we didn’t have an agenda forty years ago when we waved goodbye to the old ways and set out to figure out new ways that made more sense to us, neither do the Occupy people have an agenda other than to take things one day at a time, to be there now, to be good to each other, and to see what might evolve. So hurray for them, and by association, hurray for us.

Duck!

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

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

“One cannot write of ducks without mentioning water.”  Ernest Thompson Seton

Just when we thought the apex of human stupidity was a toss up between building nuclear power plants and waging wars for gasoline, here comes…

Marcia and I strolling inland along the shores of Big River, a cool breeze wafting in from the Pacific, the sun playing peek-a-boo with wispy white clouds, when suddenly Marcia shouts, “Duck!”

And I reply (hoping for a glimpse of a mallard or possibly a merganser or improbably a McGregor’s Cuckooshrike), “Where?”

“Not a duck,” cries Marcia. “Duck! As in Get Down!”

So I do a belly flop in the sandy duff just as a loud report from a big gun presages a swarm of buckshot flying overhead and ripping a humongous chunk of bark out of an innocent redwood tree.

Okay, so that didn’t actually happen. But if the dingbats (and I chose that word carefully) of The California Outdoor Heritage Alliance have their way, flotillas of duck hunters may soon be motoring around the Big River estuary, blasting away at…

Okay, so that is highly improbable, too. But for the last few weeks rumors have been flying around Mendocino about duck hunters descending on Big River to massacre the few and far between ducks and geese that seasonally splash down in the picturesque waterway just south of the economically distressed hamlet of Mendocino. These rumors came out of meetings of various organizations responsible for protecting or sort of protecting those few pseudo-wilderness coastal areas not yet or not anymore under the control of rapacious private interests who wouldn’t know a fir from a spruce and could care less about endangered salamanders let alone a bunch of ducks.

I will not bore you with a list of acronyms because you’ll stop reading if I do, but suffice it to say that The California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, i.e. a well-financed hunting lobby dedicated to keeping as much California ground open to hunters as quasi-legally feasible, has been exerting pressure on the people composing the boards of various acronymic organizations (MLPA, NCRSG, F&G, to name a few) to not make permanent the No Hunting status we all thought the estuaries of Big River, Navarro River, and Ten Mile River enjoyed and would continue to enjoy in perpetuity.

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Big River a state park? Yep. Isn’t it illegal to bring firearms into a state park? Yep. So what’s the problem? Well, the gun-toting dingbats claim that Big River estuary (roughly the first mile of the river inland from its mouth) though certainly born of the river and most certainly surrounded entirely by state park land, is itself something separate from the park. Huh? Yeah. That’s what I said, too. Huh? So your next thought, as it was mine, is how then are these duck killers going to get themselves with their guns onto the estuary if…

Well, they could kayak in from the ocean, or maybe ride the wild surf in those cool inflatable Zodiac rafts with big outboard motors, and then rumble up the river scaring the crap out of nursing mothers and little kids building sandcastles on the beach. And there is that little road off the Comptche-Ukiah Road that takes you down through Stanford Inn land to the bike and canoe shop. The duck assassins could drop their rafts down into the estuary from that dead end and…

There they’d be, heavily armed dingbats in rafts looking to shoot some ducks. True, they would be hunting under severe legal limitations because if they didn’t hit the duck they were aiming at, and their bullets or buckshot or depleted uranium projectiles happened to land onshore (state park land), they would then be guilty of a felony. And, of course, if they endangered someone’s life or actually wounded or killed someone…

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? The crazy gunslingers are not going to be allowed to hunt ducks on Big River or Navarro River or…so what’s this really all about? These trigger happy dingbats may be dingbats, but they must have some reason or reasons (however perverse) for calling into question the sanctity of these estuaries, and for even suggesting that heavily armed men should be allowed to wield their weaponry within range of people walking their dogs and families biking up the Haul Road and newlyweds necking on the bluffs.

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

What, I ask, is the hidden agenda of these mallard murderers? I have two theories based on past experiences. One of my very first professional writing gigs (in the early 1970’s) was to cover the meetings of the California Coastal Commission whenever the commission met in Santa Cruz, and to write a detailed report of what went on at those meetings. My client was a lawyer who was frequently consulted by unscrupulous developers who wanted to know how best to manipulate the commission so they could effectively bend the rules, so to speak, and build mansions and resorts where such things were not, by law, supposed to be built. These meetings were remarkable for the displays of kingly power wielded by people, mostly men, who had gained their positions on the commission through political appointment, for the blatant and recurrent misuse of this power for personal gain, and for how easy it was for organizations with sufficient money and political influence to get whatever they wanted, no matter how illegal and destructive their plans.

So my first theory, based on what I learned at those coastal commission meetings, is that hunting lobbyists are employing the primary tactic of all special interest groups and corporations, which is to ask for the moon and settle for something less. Thus I theorize that the Outdoor Heritage Alliance (as opposed to the Indoor Heritage Alliance) is pushing for access to all our precious and heretofore off-limits estuaries with the expectation of being turned away at Big River and Navarro, but hoping to gain access to more remote estuaries along the coast; and not just estuaries, but inland areas currently closed to hunting.

My second theory is that this sort of bureaucratic maneuvering is both intentionally clogging and obfuscating—clogging the regulatory processes with bogus silliness that eats up valuable time and money the state and counties can ill afford, and obfuscating larger more insidious aims. I come to this theory through my experience in those same 1970’s in Santa Cruz when I helped launch the organization that eventually saved Lighthouse Point, twenty acres of coastal land just north of the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a parcel that was slated to become a resort hotel for the super wealthy, and is now all these decades later vacant land where Monarch butterflies share the fields with surfers and stoners and gophers and grass.

What became clear to me early on in the fight to save Lighthouse Point was that the developers of the Santa Cruz area, which at the time was still a sleepy and largely undeveloped town, were happy to engage our raggedy band of fledgling environmentalists in a long and costly battle to save a highly visible but not very important chunk of ground, so they could then blithely, and with little or no resistance, grossly over-develop every square inch of coastal property for miles and miles north and south of Lighthouse Point. We were too few and too inexperienced to know how to effectively fight them; and Santa Cruz swiftly became what it is today, a somewhat rustic Santa Monica north, a college town and bedroom community of ugly houses for the speedsters of Silicon Valley.

So…will the hunting lobbyists, a few years hence, proclaim that they will abjure from shooting up our paltry estuaries while they take control of everything north of Cleone? I don’t know. We invite anyone with any sort of understanding of this matter, or those with cogent intuitive hunches, to gift us with your insights. Special thanks to William Lemos and Wendy Roberts for their assistance, and to Bruce Anderson who thought, despite the apparent absurdity of the idea of duck hunters descending on Big River, that it would be a good idea to look into the matter.