Posts Tagged ‘Under the Table Books’

Guitar Porn

Monday, June 18th, 2018

musicsexlove

music sex love drawing by Todd

“The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” Lou Reed

I recently started playing the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, and after some weeks of aching fingers and sore wrists, I have regained enough of my former chops so playing is pleasurable and fascinating again.

The guitar I’m playing is not a very good instrument. I gave away my excellent guitar a few years ago when I was jettisoning things freighted with bad mojo. Now, as I practice on a lesser instrument, I don’t long for the guitar I gave away, but for a guitar of equal excellence. However, I have decided not to purchase a better guitar until I have gotten as good as I can on this little axe I bought to determine if the magic is still there. For some reason, I want to earn the right to own and play a fine guitar again.

That’s kind of silly, actually, because the better the instrument, the more pleasurable the experience of playing, which would be added incentive to practice and explore, but I am often kind of silly. This earning process feels right to me at this point in my physical and spiritual and emotional evolution.

Meanwhile, I occasionally receive musical instrument catalogues filled with photographs and descriptions of awesome guitars, and I find myself staring at these pictures as I might stare at photos of attractive women. I imagine holding those guitars and playing them and thrilling to the feel of them against my body as I strum them and their bodies resonate with mine. Hence the title of this essay: guitar porn.

Perhaps you know someone, most likely a man, who owns multiple guitars, and I don’t mean two or three guitars, but seven or nine or seventeen or possibly thirty-seven guitars—and perhaps he rarely or never plays these guitars. Nevertheless, having these guitars defines who he is—to himself and to others. Searching for guitars gives him purpose. Maybe he only allows himself to own a total of twelve guitars and he must sell one before he can acquire a new one. Or maybe there is no limit to how many he can have, and he recently built an addition on his house where he keeps his forty-nine rare and frighteningly expensive guitars in a dust-free humidity-controlled environment.

Once in my life, for about two months, I owned two guitars simultaneously. I might as well have brought a third wife into my house, my first two wives being my other guitar and my piano. There was no way I could give any of my wives the attention they wanted if I was trying to please three of them. Two I could please, but three was one too many. In my case, I was not collecting guitars just to have them, but to play them every day. I would guess that most people who own more than a few guitars do not relate to guitars as spirit beings incarnate as musical instruments, but I could be wrong.

At the moment, I have two pianos. I’m waiting to find out if the new grand piano in my life can be regulated and repaired so it becomes as fine an instrument as the upright piano I’ve had for forty years. They are very different instruments, so I might keep them both, though I think I will feel I am neglecting the upright if I choose to make the grand piano the main focus of my piano playing.

How do my pianos feel about my taking up the guitar again? I suppose if I played them less than I did before I resumed guitar playing they would be unhappy, but actually, playing the guitar seems to have increased my appetite for playing the piano. So they don’t seem to mind. They are more concerned about each other than they are about my guitar.

As it happens, I took up the guitar when I became a vagabond and could not carry a piano with me. After a few months on the road without a piano, in 1970, I bought a not-very-good nylon-string guitar in the famous gigantic Mercado de Guadalajara, and I played that guitar every day for three years until I bought my first steel-string guitar, a slinky little Ovation with which I became a professional guitar-playing singer songwriter.

Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, I sold the Ovation for a hundred dollars to prove to my crazy angry girlfriend that I did not need a guitar to feel okay about myself. However, the only thing I proved by not having a guitar was that I missed having a guitar or a piano or both. Some people are just happier with musical instruments than without them. I am one of those people.

Perhaps those people, mostly men, who collect multiple guitars would not be happy without their guitars even if they don’t play them. After all, some people collect pottery and don’t eat out of the pottery, and some people collect jewelry and don’t wear their jewels, but enjoy looking at them and fondling them. Some people collect porcelain figurines of cherubs and repulsively cute children that are easy to break and take up shelf space and collect dust. Some people have five dogs. Some people have seven cats. I have a neighbor with four vintage Toyotas. I’ve known women with hundreds of pairs of shoes. When George Harrison of The Beatles died, he left behind hundreds of ukuleles.

Life is mysterious, but one thing is certain: the day I walk into a guitar shop intending to buy an excellent guitar, I will activate those neurological sectors of my being that evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of looking for and finding love, and by love I mean powerful emotional and physical resonance.

Cambridge

Monday, June 11th, 2018

i must go into the sea again tw

I Must Go Into the Sea Again painting by Nolan Winkler

Christine, the most excellent gluten-free baker of Mendocino, delivered some bread recently and mentioned she’d just returned from Boston where she attended her niece’s graduation from Harvard. And that reminded me of my Harvard adventure of 1972.

I dropped out of college in 1969 after two years of majoring in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, though Frisbee, basketball, piano, and writing were my main pursuits whilst enduring academia. For the next two years I lived as a hitchhiking vagabond, and in the late spring of 1971 I found myself in Boston with little money and wondering where I would sleep that night.

Schlepping my guitar and backpack into a café to get some tea, I fell into conversation with a guy who was keen to see my guitar. So I got out the handmade beauty I’d bought for fifteen dollars in the gigantic mercado in Guadalajara, and while the guy noodled on my guitar, I asked if he knew of any communes or hostels where I might stay for a few days.

“Go out to Cambridge,” he said, nodding. “Lots going on out there.”

“You mean Harvard?” I said stupidly.

“Yeah, Harvard,” he said, nodding. “Lots of communes out there. Hippies. College girls. Bookstores. Music. You’ll dig it.”

And then I remembered that two guys I’d gone to high school with had gone to Harvard, Dan and Joe, and if they were still there this would be their senior year. I caught a train over the river to Cambridge, found a phone booth, called Harvard, and sure enough they had a phone number for Dan. So I called him and he invited me to come crash in his dorm.

Now this dorm where I ended up living for a few weeks was not a typical dorm, but a huge brand new co-ed dorm built with millions of dollars given to Harvard and Radcliffe by the parents of a woman who had attended Radcliffe and died young. Everyone in the dorm had a large room outfitted with a comfy bed and a big desk, and on every floor of the massive four-story building there was a luxurious lounge and kitchen, some of these lounges outfitted with pianos.

On the ground floor there was a swank commissary providing excellent food, if one happened to be a resident. On my second day there, Dan presented me with the meal card of a Harvard student who was studying elsewhere for the semester, and the young gal who sat at the entrance to the commissary checking meal cards happily waved me in whenever I went there to dine, so…

The best part was that I was given my own room with a view out over the tennis courts where I played almost every day. Yes, overnight I went from homeless pauper to faux Harvard student living in a luxurious dorm, going to movies and pizza parlors and parties, attending lectures and playing tennis and romancing a young woman whose name I can’t remember.

One night, I and six peeps from the dorm piled into a big old car and went to a double bill of Five Easy Pieces and I Never Sang For My Father, and after the movies, because everyone except Todd was stoned or sans driver’s license, I was entrusted to drive the mob home.

Upon our arrival in the vicinity of the dorm, there were no available parking places, but after much driving around we chanced upon a small car pulling out of a spot just a half-block from the dorm. The consensus was that there was no way our big car would fit into the spot vacated by the small car. And I’m sure if I were confronted by such a challenge today, I would not do what I did then, which was to deftly and in one neat move parallel park our big car in that space with about six inches to spare on either end.

My feat was greeted with applause and huzzahs, and the next morning my parking job was the talk of breakfast and prompted a pilgrimage by several of us to view the miracle in the light of day.

I went to lectures given by famous anthropologists whose books I had read while at UC Santa Cruz, and while I enjoyed listening to these fellows pontificate, I was troubled that they, as had my professors at Santa Cruz, insisted on speaking about defunct and vanished societies in the Present Tense, as if these long-gone cultures were still intact.

At the conclusion of one lecture, having nothing to lose, I raised my hand and asked the esteemed professor if the childrearing practices and coming-of-age rituals he spoke of were still practiced by the Lakota today, given the genocidal demolition of their culture.

He squinted at me and said with obvious irritation, “No, of course not.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding. “I see. Thanks.”

After the lecture, a young man and young woman approached me and said how much they appreciated my asking that question. They, too, had grown disenchanted with the pretenses of academic anthropology.

“I just wish they’d call it historical anthropology,” said the young woman. “Why not tell the truth?”

“It’s curious,” said the young man. “They seem uneasy with the idea that the societies they speak of are no more.”

As the school year drew to a close, Jerry, one of my new friends from the dorm, landed a summer job on Nantucket Island attending to a wealthy Harvard alum who had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Jerry would be living in a converted windmill on the island, and he invited me to come visit him. So that’s where I headed after my free digs at Harvard were no longer available.

I hitchhiked to Wood’s Hole and caught the ferry to Nantucket, and after a fine week with Jerry, I took the ferry back to the mainland and hitched up into Maine en route to Canada. But how did I pay for all that before I ran out of money in Maine?

Well, I had a three-day gardening job in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, so that would account for thirty dollars or so, but in thinking back I remember a gathering of people in one of the dorm lounges, and Dan’s father Hugo was there. He must have come out from California for Dan’s graduation. He was concerned about me heading off into the unknown with just a backpack and a funky guitar. I remember assuring him I would be okay, but he was still concerned.

“I know you may not need this,” he said, getting out his wallet, “but I want to give you a little something. Okay?”

I think he gave me fifty dollars, which was a lot of money for the likes of me in those days, and proves the old maxim: if you want to get ahead in this society, go to Harvard.

Old Perry

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

Forty years ago, I wrote a short story called Old Perry. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, made a valiant effort to sell the story to various magazines, and three interested editors could not convince three disinterested publishers to run the story, so the fable was never published. A few years later, I showed the story to Richard Marks and he thought Old Perry would make a fine movie.

Richard was, and still is, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. I first met Richard those same forty years ago when he was working at the late great Ziegler, Diskant, and Roth Agency, an agency specializing in representing novels to the movie industry. Following the demise of that agency, Richard and I remained friends and he endeavored to interest a movie producer or two in Old Perry, to no avail.

Somewhere along the winding path of my life, I lost track of Richard and also lost my few copies of Old Perry, and until a few weeks ago I never thought I would see that story again. Every once in a while something would remind me of Old Perry—the running of the Kentucky Derby or a visit with a friend’s horse—but I remembered little more than the gist of the tale.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I was in need of a little advice from an entertainment lawyer. Richard is the only entertainment lawyer who has ever befriended me, so I looked him up via Google, sent him an email, and we restarted our friendship after thirty-some years. He inquired about Old Perry and I told him I lost the story long ago. Then a few weeks ago, Richard wrote to say he found a copy of the story while cleaning out his garage. He scanned the story and sent me a copy of the scan and I had the fascinating experience of reading a story I penned forty years ago—fascinating because I can’t imagine present-day Todd writing such a story, yet I enjoyed the energy and spirit of the tale.

Here for your reading pleasure is Old Perry.

Old Perry

It hurt me because he was too good for that and I always said we could make more money if we just let him win his races, but Jackie said he was too good not to use him as our bread and butter horse and he also said Old Perry didn’t mind losing. But I never believed that, or that Jackie believed it.

Okay, now what a bread-and-butter horse was to Jackie was a horse that could win almost all the time in low stakes races, but you didn’t let him win. You held him back in five or six races in a row, or maybe even ten races if your other horses were makin’ money, and you built up the odds against that horse until he was a real long shot, say twenty-five to one, and then you’d bet four or five hundred on him, win, and there was your money for keeping seven horses in good shape for a couple months anyway.

Course you had four or five people bet a hundred each so the big take wasn’t so obvious, and you had to move your horse around to different tracks all the time, which we did anyway, and you had to talk down his workouts if they were too good, and maybe once in a while you let him Place in a couple races or Show a couple times, so people didn’t get suspicious, when actually Old Perry could have won every race he ran at those second-rate tracks, and I always thought he could win at the best tracks, but Jackie said he couldn’t and was just a damn good bill payer.

But it still hurt me. I couldn’t ever look Old Perry in the eye after a race, even if he won, because I’d ridden him some mornings when he felt so strong and smooth and powerful and came in way under his fastest official time, close to the track record, and I would tell Jackie, though I didn’t have to because he was there most of the time watching it happen. But he would say, “No, we can’t ever let him race like that or we’ll be in big trouble.”

And that’s also why Jackie named him Old Perry (he’s only three now) because when people saw that Old they backed off, because old means slow, right? Most people are so damn stupid and superstitious, including horse people, you can scare’em off easy. They don’t take the time to really look at a horse. If they’d ever really looked at Old Perry they would have seen he was good, because sometimes people who really knew horses would watch him work and say to me, “Man, that’s some animal. Wonder why he doesn’t win? No guts, huh?” Which would hurt me.

But Jackie had a point because you had to have a really good horse, a winner, if you were gonna put down a big chunk of cash so you could keep your operation going. And Old Perry was perfect for that. He’s a real big horse and bettors don’t like real big horses in low stakes races. They like peppy little horses that come out snorting. And Old Perry walks with his head hung low, which bettors hate. And he always had a geek for a jockey because Jackie wouldn’t put anybody good on him or word would have spread fast how good he really was.

He ran thirty-two races as a two-year-old, which was crazy for an animal that fine, but he did, and we bet him to win in seven races and he won all of’em easy. I know because I was that geek jockey and I was holding him back even when he won.

But it got to hurt me so much I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I’d keep Floss up late, talking to her, whining actually, and she’d try to calm me down by making love to me, but I couldn’t even do that after a while because Old Perry and Jackie were screwing me up so bad.

So I decided to let him go in his first three-year-old race, even though Jackie told me to hold him. That was in May at Golden Gate fields, last race of the day. I’ll never forget that race. Triple Jump, a big black monster from New Zealand was the heavy favorite and Jackie thought this would be a good race to bring Old Perry in second and maybe we’d win a little cash that way without wrecking the long-shot buildup. But I told Floss to bet a hundred on Old Perry to Win since I knew Jackie was betting a hundred on him to Place and the damn odds were thirty to one before the race and jumped to forty-five to one at post time because nobody there had seen him run, so nobody bet on him at all.

I swear to God I just let him do whatever he wanted. Didn’t whip him, didn’t push him, but I didn’t hold him back and he won by twenty-five lengths and came within a half-second of breaking the track record, which we coulda massacred if I’d even touched him a little.

Naturally Jackie was pissed. He was pissed when he got the purse check for five thousand and even more pissed when I gave him four thousand more and he was really pissed when the reporters came around and asked him how it felt to have a turkey like Old Perry win at forty-five to one odds. He tried, oh God he tried to smile for them, but he couldn’t, and if he’d killed me that night I would have been surprised.

Next day he calls me in and says, “Listen you little shit, if you ever do that again I’m gonna kick your butt so hard you’ll never sit on a horse again.” Then he scrunched up his ugly face like he does so you don’t know if he’s in pain or just pissed and says, “Jimmy, I wish I could make you understand about that horse. He’s gonna keep us in chips for a long time, and we can’t screw that up. He can’t ever make us rich, but he can keep us going.” Then he stalked around the stall (his office was always a stall he fixed up) and he says, “Cause if he wins too much down here, I gotta move him up, right? If I move him up, I gotta pay more to enter him, keep him, insure him, everything…and he ain’t gonna win up there. He’s a good horse, Jimmy, but he’s not a great horse, and we can’t take any chances because I might never find such a sure thing again in my life.”

And that’s when I saw for the first time that Jackie actually thought Old Perry might be a great horse, but he was afraid to admit it because he was scared shitless of winning big. Which is true of lots of little time trainers. And Jackie was definitely in the little time habit. He was a sweet guy, but he just never saw himself as quite good enough for anything. That’s why he got divorced three times, because his women got sick of him not liking himself. That was pretty obvious.

And so here was this horse that was really something, that Jackie and I had made into whatever he was, that even a two-bit, too tall, scaredy-cat jock like me could win with, and Jackie didn’t have the balls to try with him.

So I said it wouldn’t happen again and then I went out and ran a couple of our nags and tried to figure out how I was gonna convince Jackie to let that horse really run. And then as I was going by Witherspoon’s fancy pants part of the facility, I realized maybe Jackie was right. You get a champion or a near champion and you’re suddenly talkin’ huge operating fees. Which I knew we could win by betting on Old Perry, except it’s crazy to bet much on your own horses. Nobody stays in business for long betting heavy on their own horses. I mean you bet a little, naturally, because that’s what it’s all about in a way, but you’re not supposed to bet big, whatever big means to you, except we were betting our own horses, Old Perry in particular, which is why, I guess, we were considered scum by the class trainers. They looked down on us so much they didn’t even think about trying to buy Old Perry, either outright or in a claiming race.

So then I figured, who cares, I’d let him win again the next race and see what Jackie did then. Except two days later, Jackie told me he wanted me to win, that he’d entered Old Perry in a big purse race and we were gonna load the windows, too.

I was high as a kite for the rest of the week, and the night before the race I took Floss out to dinner and to a show and the next morning early I went to see my horse, to work him light before the race that evening, and he was sick. I checked him over and could see he’d been doped, and I just wanted to kill Jackie.

But I didn’t say anything because we still had thirteen hours until the race, so I got Floss to stay with him so Jackie couldn’t give him anything else, and I got Pike over. Pike wouldn’t tell on a doped horse but sure knew how to undope a horse if anybody could. He gave Old Perry something to make him piss extra and something else that made him shit extra, and then I gave him a long walk and chanced a little more water than usual, and by race time he wasn’t perfect but he was okay, pissing steadily, all the way out into the paddock.

And Jackie was there acting like nothing had happened. I tried to ignore him while he saddled Old Perry, but I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to be there. He was whistling, making wisecracks, pretending not to see the horse wasn’t lookin’ so good. I coulda killed him.

Then I got on and we got out on the track and I wondered if we’d cleaned out most of the dope. And then I thought to myself What kind of a man would poison his own horse just to keep a dumb jock from letting him win? I mean I knew I was important to Jackie. I’d been with him for six years. He liked me and he needed me because I was a jockey/trainer/stable boy/everything sorta guy, and me and Floss were just about all the family he had. But still, what was he trying to prove? That he was boss? Was he trying to put me down so I wouldn’t buck him anymore? He must have known I knew he’d doped my horse. I couldn’t figure him out.

But anyway, there we were out on the track, and I was thinking as I headed Old Perry down to the starting gate, Holy shit, I’m in a serious horse race. It hadn’t even occurred to me how big a race this was. I hadn’t ever ridden against horses like those. Blue Light, Queen’s Four, Cat’s Eye. A damn fast field. Fact is, I shouldn’t have been out there at all because I was a hack. I knew horses and I could feel their moods, but my body was all wrong and I couldn’t move with the horse the way the real artists do, the real pros.

And then I had to swallow to keep from crying, thinking about how if Old Perry hadn’t been doped I mighta had a chance against those bastards. Might, but now I didn’t because he’d been doped, and I hated Jackie and cursed him and cursed his rotten soul that he would do that to a good animal like Old Perry and to me and to Floss. I hated him and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do well, how much I wanted Old Perry to run a proud race and not to fall. Please God, I prayed, don’t let my horse fall, and for a minute I thought about pulling him out of the race, because I’d seen horses fall and later on found out they’d been doped.

So I did something I’d never done before and something that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble if I didn’t have a good reason for doing it. I reined him in and got off out there on the backstretch and I looked him over. I looked him in the eyes and in the mouth and patted him and checked for shivers or anything that might have told me he was too sick to run. But he looked okay. He usually looked great, but at least he looked okay and I knew he wouldn’t fall.

And even though he hesitated a little as we came into the gate, something he’d never done before, I knew he’d make a good run, maybe not a great run, but he’d get around okay and then I’d go into Jackie’s office and I’d say, “Go to hell you rotten bastard. Go to hell and goodbye.” Because Floss and I could get work somewhere else, and I might even report him and try to get Old Perry taken away from him so the horse would have the chance to be the horse I thought he might be.

But then for the few seconds before the race I tried to clear my brain of all my bad thoughts. That’s something Floss and I learned from this book on meditation. I got really calm and relaxed and I looked up at the stands full of people and colors and looked down the row at the other jocks, all so flashy and colorful, and I looked for beauty, like the book said to, and I saw it everywhere, and then I looked down at Old Perry, at his beautiful brown skin, and I patted him and squeezed him with my legs and felt the miracle of life rush through me, and then the bell sounded and we flew out of the gate and we didn’t touch ground for a long time.

The whole first half of the race was like that—floating, flying, and I felt stoned, like all the energy of the lights shining down was being concentrated into me and into Old Perry and the race seemed like a fantastic dream, at least the first half of it.

But then I came out of the dream and saw where I was, a tight third, right on Cat’s Eye’s tail, and Lobato was holding the Cat back a length behind Blue Light, just waiting for the home stretch to take it. And I could feel Old Perry working, struggling to get into his rhythm, but not really being able to because he just didn’t feel fine to himself. Which is when I got mad again, thinking how we hadn’t let this horse be himself, and I wasn’t allowed to be myself and Floss wasn’t herself and Jackie wasn’t himself and almost nobody was themselves because we’re all playing these shitty games to win, to pay bills, to not be ourselves because for some stupid reason we’re afraid. And I got so mad, I just went crazy and laid the crop on harder than I ever have and I could feel Old Perry brace against the blows because he didn’t like that, didn’t ever need it, but I needed it and I couldn’t hit myself, not then anyway.

But then we started to move and we seemed to lock into Cat’s Eye’s pace as we slid by Blue Light together, like a matched pair, and it wasn’t like we were trading the lead, we were sharing it, moving step for step perfectly down the run and I didn’t whip Old Perry anymore because I could feel he was locked into that other horse and all we had to do was run that last two hundred yards—no, not run, fly, because we were flying and it was like a dream again and I didn’t even feel it when we touched down. So I guess I didn’t really have to, but right at the end I touched him a little and he moved ahead by a length at the wire, just so there wouldn’t be any question.

And as I stood up in the stirrups as we slowed on the turn, I thought Holy shit, we won. Old Perry and I won. And all the bastards in the world couldn’t undo that.

But you want to talk about a surprise. When I rode Old Perry into that winner’s circle and Jackie was there crying his eyes out and hugged that horse and looked up at me and said, “Jimmy, we did it! You were right!” I about fell off. Because he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t bullshitting. He didn’t know about the dope.

Later on we put it together that somebody from one of the class acts must have doped Old Perry so we’d yank him. It figured because since he almost broke the track record a few days before, they knew he had a chance to win and that must have screwed up somebody’s big plans.

So I worried for a while they’d try to poison him, and me and Floss slept down there with Old Perry for a few weeks after. But we stopped doing that after a while, after he won three more races. And he hasn’t lost since. He’s too well known now for somebody to poison him.

Sure sometimes I wish I was racing him still, but I know if he’s gonna be as great as he can be then we’ve got to have a great jock riding him. I still run him in the morning and walk him and groom him and talk to him, cause he likes me and I can look him right in the eye now and say, “We really are what we are Old Perry. We might lose tomorrow, but not on purpose.”

Morning Coffee

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Blessed Brew Nolan Winkler

Blessed Brew painting by Nolan Winkler

“Get out those coffee beans and grind’em just so, make us both a cuppa real good joe.” from Todd’s song Real Good Joe

I was grinding coffee beans this morning, and as I listened to the beans turning into brewable dust, I realized Oh. I’m drinking coffee again, which made me think about my ever-changing relationship to coffee, starting sixty-two years ago when I was a wee tyke.

My mother and father were both hooked on coffee by the time I was born, and my father drank multiple quarts of coffee every day of his life until he died at eighty-four. My mother ceased to drink coffee in her sixties after undergoing successful treatment for bladder cancer.

One of the first difficult tasks I learned to perform as a little boy was the making of my mother’s morning coffee. My father drank that coffee, too, but my motive for making the first pot of the day was to soothe my mother’s jangled nerves sufficiently so my siblings and I might get through breakfast and leaving for school without suffering our mother’s wrath—so easily ignited in those crucial minutes before she had her coffee.

So six-year-old Todd would get up before anyone else, and with the help of a little kitchen stepladder, I would place a medium-sized pot on the electric range and use a two-cup measuring cup to fill that pot with water from the tap. Then while the water was coming to a boil, I would carefully fold a large round paper coffee filter in half, then in half again, and insert this now-triangular filter into the top of a Chemex coffee maker—a large hour-glass-shaped thing made of glass. I would then scoop seven scoops of Folgers drip grind into that folded filter, and used a ladle to pour the just-boiled water over the grind again and again until the bottom half of the hour glass was full of coffee.

As I grew older and stronger, I was able to lift a full kettle and pour hot water onto the coffee, but when I was six and seven the kettle was too heavy for me to lift and safely pour.

My mother, awakened by an angrily buzzing alarm clock, would stagger into the kitchen, pour herself a cup of the freshly brewed coffee, and metamorphose into a functionally civil human being. I don’t recall her ever thanking me for making her morning coffee, something I did every morning until I started going to high school, though I never drank any coffee, nor did I develop a taste for coffee until I was in my thirties—and then, oh boy, did I develop a taste.

When I was in Third Grade, a mob of us from Las Lomitas Elementary School went on a tour of the Hills Brothers coffee plant in San Francisco courtesy of their marketing director who was the father of one of my classmates.

Three things stand out in my memory from that long ago field trip: the heavenly smell of roasting coffee, the fantastic Rube Goldberg-like structure of metal tracks on which cans and lids zipped around the cavernous factory, and the white bag full of coffee candy and miniature cans of Hills Brothers coffee for my mother.

When I was twenty-nine and having success with my writing, I hired my friend Prairie to be my part-time secretary. This was before the advent of personal computers, so having a fast typist to type up my pages of longhand and then retype those pages after I bloodied them with my editor’s pen was a dream come true. Prairie was a religious coffee drinker, and now and then I would have a cup with her, which cup would turn me into a fast-talking jitterbugging crazy person until the caffeine wore off and I descended into gloom. So I stopped drinking coffee.

Five years later, I married a dedicated coffee drinker, and after a few months of marriage I was a daily coffee drinker, too. But coffee made me hella jittery and then horribly cranky once the high went away, so I quit. And then I started again. And then I quit. And so on without end. My marriage fell apart, but my relationship with coffee endured.

Fast forward to about four years ago. Having gone sans coffee for a couple years, I started drinking coffee in the morning, black coffee, in lieu of breakfast, and I was soon drinking two and three cups a day. At the same time, I was suffering from severe shoulder pain for which I was popping lots of aspirin and ibuprofen, often on a stomach containing only coffee.

Then one day I woke in the morning feeling as bad as I have ever felt and assumed I had powerful flu. But after two days of growing weaker and weaker, I realized I was on the verge of dying. Marcia called an ambulance, the volunteer fire department folks and paramedics arrived, and I was rushed to the hospital where it was determined I had lost nearly all the blood in my body as a result of punching a hole in my stomach by taking way too much ibuprofen and aspirin on a stomach containing only coffee.

I was transfused with a couple units of fresh blood, spent a night in ICU, and took a year to regain a modicum of my former strength. Since that frightening experience four years ago, I have taken a total of two aspirin and two ibuprofens, and for the two years following my near death I drank no coffee.

Yet here I am today having a cup of coffee diluted with almond milk. For some months now I have been having one such cup a day, and I have no intention of increasing my coffee intake any time soon. The truth is, a little bit of coffee goes a long way for the likes of me. I love the smell of just-made coffee, I enjoy the ritual of making a cup, and I prefer the taste of coffee to tea.

In the afternoon and evenings I drink nettle or chamomile tea, both of which I find soothing and warming.

Some years ago, a friend wrote to say that her morning ritual was to listen to my piano music while she made and drank her first cup of coffee, so for my album of solo piano tunes Incongroovity, I improvised a piece called Morning Coffee with her in mind. Now every time I listen to this tune, I think of her sipping her coffee and listening to my music.

idas2-cover-sm

Minus Tide

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Dog & Ball

Molly Waiting photo by Todd

Marcia and I met Sally and Molly at Big River Beach for the extraordinary minus tide on Friday morning—Sally our human friend, Molly a Golden Retriever dedicated to fulfilling the imperative of her breed: retrieving.

The beach was vast, the ocean’s withdrawal awe-inspiring, and ere long we were standing on sand where for most hours of most days the water is several feet deep. We were the only people on the vast fantastical beach, and this reminded me of an encounter I had a week ago with a couple of German tourists.

I was sitting on a log on Big River Beach, eating an orange and reveling in the sun after several days of unrelenting fog, when the Germans, a man and woman in their thirties, approached me and asked in excellent English if I lived around here. I said I did, and the woman said excitedly, “Oh, good. Can you tell us why so few people live here? This is the most beautiful place we have ever been. California is so crowded. Why don’t more people move here?”

“Water,” I said, smiling out at the vast Pacific. “There is very little fresh water here and we are far from any large sources of water that might be readily piped here. So the population remains static at about a thousand people. I’ve been here for thirteen years, and only a handful of new houses have been built in that time and the population has remained unchanged.”

“Water,” said the woman, frowning. “But it is so lush here.”

“We’ve had relatively wet winters these last two years,” I explained. “But before that we had four years of drought. However, drought or no, every year in Mendocino we have more cloudy and foggy days than days of sun. The fog is a great moisturizer.”

“Too many foggy days can be depressing,” said the man, nodding.

“Yes,” I said, smiling up at the sun playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, “but oh do we get happy when the sun comes out.”

Which is true. The day I encountered the German tourists was our first sunny day after a week of perpetual grayness, and when I ran my errands before going to the beach, the bank tellers and postal agents and grocery store clerks and bakery patrons and tourists were all positively giddy, as if we had collectively won the lottery, which, in a way, we had—the solar lottery.

Being on Big River Beach for a minus tide feels like a lottery win, too, and every time I get home from that dramatically transformed landscape—the vast expanse of sand, the waves breaking far out in the bay, the river racing by—I feel rejuvenated. My piano playing is more inventive, my writing energized, and I feel physically and emotionally expanded. I also feel more optimistic, having been reminded so eloquently of what we are born knowing but often forget: we are part of an ongoing miracle.

Which reminds me of when I moved to Mendocino thirteen years ago from Berkeley, how for the first year I lived here I went to the beach almost every day, rain or shine, and I could feel my body and mind and senses healing from decades of city living, my spirit imbibing the wildness and spaciousness and purity of this place.

But isn’t it fascinating how one person’s miracle can be another person’s No Big Deal. For several days prior to the minus tide, I told everyone I knew about the coming miracle of the ocean’s larger-than-usual withdrawal, and though a few people expressed mild interest, for the most part my chattering about the minus tide fell on disinterested ears.

A man at the post office overheard me gushing about the minus tide to someone, and called to me gruffly, “You must be new here.”

“I’m sixty-eight,” I said, bewildered by his contemptuous tone. “And I’ve loved minus tides since I was a wee tyke.”

“I mean here,” he said, clearly annoyed by my reply. “You’re new here, not in the world.”

“I’ve lived here for thirteen years,” I said, knowing exactly what he was going to say next.

“Yeah,” he snorted. “A newbie.”

Big River is currently featuring a couple dozen harbor seals, which means there must be a sizeable population of fish and other tasty comestibles in the river, which speaks well of the health of the watershed. On our most recent minus tide visit, we saw some seals doing something we’d never seen them do before—resting on their bellies on the sand in shallow water with their tails raised behind them and their backs arched so their heads were out of the water, too.

In yoga they call this posture Dhanurasana, the bow pose, and humans performing this asana maintain the bow by gripping their ankles or feet with their hands. Seals do not have hands, so they execute the pose without holding onto anything, and they can hold the pose effortlessly for a long time.

Molly, when not chasing her tennis ball, is fascinated by the seals, and the seals seem quite interested in her, too. Sometimes Molly will try to swim out to the seals, and Sally always calls her back before tragedy can ensue. Interestingly, Molly was not the least interested in the seals performing Dhanurasana, perhaps because they were holding so still and she is more interested in things that move.

At one point on our minus-tide sojourn, we were crossing an expanse of sand that is usually underwater, when simultaneously the four of us, three humans and a dog, sank into quicksand up to our shins; and it was not easy getting free of the sucking muck. However, we did not retreat, but sloshed through the goopy stretch to reach more solid sand as far out into the bay as we could go, from where we looked back at the land and saw the cliffs and the beach and the river as we rarely get to see them.

arch

 

Opening Words

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Big River Meteor

Big River Meteor photo by Todd

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I like to write letters to friends and to artists and writers and movie directors I admire. Sometimes my friends will send me letters, but the artists and writers and movie directors I write to very rarely answer my letters, though until twenty years ago if the admired person was British, Australian, or from New Zealand, no matter how famous, he or she always wrote back—but not anymore.

For many years, before there was email and texting and tweeting, I sent off several letters every week; and almost every day in those halcyon days of postal abundance, the postal service agent would bring me letters from friends. On my computer I have a file entitled Letter Head Quotes. In this file are pages topped with a quote I especially like, and I will either type a letter to someone on one of those pages, or print out the page and use the empty space below the quote to write a letter by hand.

Here are some of my favorite letterhead quotes and a few thoughts about them.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

Alan Jones is an Episcopal priest who was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 1985 until 2009. When I lived in Berkeley from 1995 to 2006, I would attend Evensong on Thursday evening at Grace Cathedral twice a month. I’d take BART from the North Berkeley station, get off at Montgomery Street, hike up the hill to the cathedral, walk the labyrinth adjacent to the cathedral, enter the cavernous church, listen to the Boy’s and Men’s choirs sing gorgeous unintelligible hymns accompanied by a genius organist, and open my heart and mind to Alan’s spontaneous prayer, which always concluded Evensong.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

This quote from Winnie the Pooh is especially dear to me, literally dear, because when I was creating a book of my writing exercises The Writer’s Path with Mindy Toomay, I really wanted to use this quote in the book, and our publisher, 10-Speed before they were eaten by Random House, informed us that Disney, who now owns all things Pooh, was demanding five hundred dollars for the use of those few lines. 10-Speed was not about to cough up five hundred cents for our book, let alone five hundred dollars, so I coughed up the money, which amounted to ten per cent of my advance for the book; and I have never regretted the expenditure.

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.” Jean D’Arc

I first read this quote in Mark Twain’s novel Joan of Arc. I’ve read everything Twain wrote, and though I consider The Prince and the Pauper his finest novel, Twain considered Joan of Arc his greatest work. He spent two years in France meticulously researching his book, and he studied French for several years so he could read the transcripts of Joan’s trial in the original French with the aid of able translators. Despite Twain’s immense fame, no publisher would publish the book, so Twain published the fascinating work himself.

This quote, which comes from the transcript of Joan’s trial, speaks of a desire to be in a state of grace without needing to know whether one is in such a state. In that sense, the sentiment, when separated from the context of Joan’s trial, echoes the Buddha extolling the virtue of Not Knowing, of Beginner’s Mind—an innocent acceptance and appreciation of whatever we are experiencing.

In the context of Joan’s trial, these words are a testament to her astonishing genius, for this simple reply effectively defeated her brutal prosecutor and proved the most brilliant minds in the Catholic Church incapable of convicting her of heresy. Thus stymied, those hideous men tortured her until they imagined her anguished cries to be an admission of heresy—after which they quickly burned her at the stake.

But before they tortured her and killed her, they laid a pernicious intellectual trap for her. There was an arcane law of the Catholic Church stating that anyone claiming to be in a state of grace, or claiming not to be in a state of grace, was a heretic. So if Joan could be tricked into saying, or even implying, she believed she was or was not in a state of grace, she would be proved a heretic. Having been deprived of sleep and sufficient food for several weeks, having stood through weeks of trial in the face of legions of ghoulish priests intent on killing her, Joan, nineteen, illiterate, and knowing nothing of the complicated laws of the church was asked by the prosecutor, “Do you believe you are in a state of grace?”

As Twain describes the scene, the devious prosecutor asks this question almost as an afterthought at the end of a grueling day of interrogation. Joan gathers herself, awaits guidance from her angelic allies, and replies with quiet eloquence, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it. If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.”

In a more modern context, but in a similarly metaphysical vein, the following quote from Buckminster Fuller is a succinct description of how I believe the universe operates. I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained. 

Having shared this quote with many people, I can report that artists and poets and people who have lived unusual lives universally agree that this is how the universe operates, while everybody else says Bucky’s idea is hokum.

Here is one of my favorite Philip Whalen poems.

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

 

Meaningful Life

Monday, May 7th, 2018

sans hat

Arno photo by Todd

There is the wisdom of all-accomplishing action, in which speed does not have to be included in one’s working situation, but things fall into your pattern.” Chögyam Trungpa

In the midst of cleaning up her office a few days ago, Marcia found a Mendocino Beacon dated February 1, 2018, in which there was an obituary for Martin Knott, a fellow I got to know a couple years ago after seeing him walking around town with his dog for the last decade or so. Martin’s dog was medium-sized with the gorgeous complex coloring of an Appaloosa horse. Martin and his dog would saunter around town, the unleashed dog in the lead and Martin following way behind.

I got to know Martin because two years ago Marcia came home from shopping at Harvest Market in Mendocino and said, “Marty wanted me to tell you how much he enjoys your articles.” That was when my weekly pieces were still appearing in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Being a devoted patron of Corners of the Mouth, I rarely shopped at Harvest and didn’t know the names of any of the Harvest checkers, so I could only imagine who Marty was, and for some reason I envisioned him as a slender young man with brown hair and glasses.

Some weeks after Marcia mentioned Marty enjoying my articles, she and I were in Harvest together and she fell into conversation with a beefy, bearded, gray-haired fellow.

“Todd,” she said, “this is Marty. Marty, this is Todd.”

Marty did a double take and said, “You’re Todd Walton?” He had seen me around town many times, but it had never occurred to him that the guy with the free-range hair and the Giants sweatshirt was the writer of articles he enjoyed, just as it never occurred to me that the bearded guy huffing and puffing as he followed his dog around town was Marty who worked at Harvest and liked my articles.

Thereafter when we met on our walks, Marty and I would exchange hellos, celebrate the sun or philosophize about the fog, and go our separate ways. His obituary says he was into woodcarving, horticulture, writing, travel, sailing, and building uniquely designed sailing boats, but we never spoke of those things.

On several occasions, I saw ravens following Marty as he trudged along behind his dog, and it was not until the last time I encountered him, a few months before he died, that I discovered what made him so attractive to those big black birds.

I said to Marty, “Those ravens really love you,” and he explained he occasionally got old sausage from the butchers at Harvest Market, and as he walked around town he would fling bits of sausage to the ravens.

Another time I said to Marty, “Your dog always seems so determined to make his rounds.”

“He is determined,” said Marty, nodding. “And as you can see, he walks me.”

Since I was accustomed to not seeing Marty for long stretches of time, news of his death came as a surprise to me. I didn’t really know him, but I liked him, and I liked his dog, and I liked how their presence added to the lovely feeling of living here. So though I didn’t miss him before I knew he was gone, I miss him now and I wish we’d had a chance to talk about writing and gardening and uniquely designed sailing boats.

The obituary informed us that Marty was seventy-three when he died, a fact that prompted Marcia to say, “That’s not very old.”

So I looked up death in America and found that in 2017 the average age of death for men was seventy-seven, for women eighty. In that context Marty was not so young when he died. However, Marcia’s mother died last year on the verge of ninety-nine, and Marcia expects to live well into her nineties, too, so in that context seventy-three is, indeed, not very old. Marcia and I are both sixty-eight and many of our friends are in their seventies—and because we don’t want any of them to die, yes, seventy-three is not very old.

Then there is our neighbor Defer (pronounced Deefer), who is nearing eighty and still works as a tree feller for a redwood logging company. Every once in a while Defer will come over after he gets home from work to do some chain-sawing for us before he changes out of his work clothes. Watching Defer work is both humbling and inspiring. He is currently bucking up some big logs for us, and he gets so much accomplished in so little time, I am in awe of his skill and strength.

A few days ago, in virtually no time at all, he bucked up three big lengths of a pine trunk and made thirty-six big rounds for me to split into firewood. When he was finished, I walked with him back to his place and learned he was working full time these days dropping redwoods.

“I hope you aren’t working too hard,” I said, finding it incomprehensible that I could have ever felled giant trees fulltime, even in my muscular youth, let alone ten years from now when I’m seventy-eight.

“You know,” said Defer, smiling wryly, “I’ve never worked too hard. I work at a steady pace I can maintain with a few breaks for water and a longer break for lunch. That’s how I get it done.”

My grandmother Goody was fond of saying, “The goal is not to live as long as you can, but to live a meaningful life.”

Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. But as long as you think, ‘I am doing this,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity that appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.”

Ganapati

Ganapati photo by Todd

Mirror Neurons

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Trailers

Shadow photo by David Jouris

I was sitting in the Mendocino Taqueria waiting for my tacos when a man and woman came in, the woman carrying a three-month-old baby boy who was being fussy and crying. The woman jiggled and bounced the baby and cooed reassuringly, but the baby was not to be consoled. The man ordered their supper and went to use the bathroom, and the baby continued to fuss and whimper despite the tender cajoling of his mother.

I smiled at the woman to communicate my support for her efforts to soothe her baby, and the baby saw my smile, locked eyes with me, and stopped crying. My eyes widened and I said “Hello,” to the baby, and the baby gurgled a reply, and we continued to look at each other for a minute or two until the mother turned away, breaking the connection between her baby and me. This breakage caused the baby to start fussing and whimpering again, which caused the mother to jiggle and bounce the baby again, but the baby was not to be consoled until his mother happened to turn toward me again, and the baby subsided into fascination with me and I with him—the baby’s mother unaware of what was causing him to stop fussing.

When I say “locked eyes” what may have happened, according to recent neurological discoveries, was that the baby’s mirror neurons and my mirror neurons engaged with each other, and this engagement created what some neuroscientists call a conjoined neurological system—the sharing of our two minds.

Mirror neurons are a fairly recent discovery, and there are different kinds of mirror neurons, and there is intense debate among psychologists and neurologists about how mirror neurons work, but what I’ve read about them has made me a devout believer in conjoined neurological systems.

I’m sure you’ve had many experiences similar to my hookup with that baby boy in the taqueria, and I have no doubt that conjoined neurological systems make possible the pleasure and sense of completeness that so many new mothers experience in relation to their babies, the feelings of satisfaction that so many parents experience while relating to their children, and the phenomenon of people falling in love with each other.

I’ve had thousands of such transcendental hookups with babies, children, dogs, cats, and other humans in my life, and now that I have read multiple texts about neurobiology and mirror neurons, I am hyper-aware of how quickly these mind melds can occur when I and my fellow animals are open to such unions.

According to Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, optimal human health—mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—depends on frequent positive interpersonal brain hookups. Our brains and nervous systems—our minds—evolved specifically to interact with other brains. We are inherently cooperative animals, and when we don’t have enough interaction with other animals, our brains atrophy and die.

This is why solitary confinement in prison is so damaging to a person’s health and sanity. It is one thing to choose to be alone for a day or two or three, but to be forced into isolation with no hope of connecting healthfully and meaningfully with other people or animals or living things is truly terrible torture.

I am a social isolate, not by nature, but in response to my abusive parents who combined individual abuse of their children with aggressively disallowing my siblings and I to unite in order to weather the ongoing misery. This made it necessary for each of us to emotionally fend for ourselves, and as a result, all four of us became social isolates in our own unique ways.

When I chose to pursue writing as a career rather than becoming an actor, I was unaware that my tendency to isolate was the largest determining factor in that choice. I was not a gifted writer, but I was an excellent actor; yet after high school I chose to pursue writing instead of acting because my lifelong habit of self-isolation was too strong for me to overcome. Thus, as Gabor Maté discusses so compellingly: what began as a childhood coping mechanism became my habit, and my tendency to self-isolate, which was my salvation until I left home at seventeen, made group activities much more challenging for me than for people who grew up in families that supported and encouraged the healthy inclination to interact and cooperate and collaborate with others.

Despite my tendency to self-isolate, I have always been a person who other people, including complete strangers, feel comfortable confiding in, and I’ve often wondered why this is so. As the result of some experiments I’ve been conducting, I understand that when I interact with other people, I emanate the vibe of someone safe and enjoyable to talk to.

As the result of my reading about how our neurological system works, I know that most human brains are ready, one might even say eager, to hook up with other brains if, and this is a hugely important ­if, those other brains communicate: I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding.

Prior to my recent experiments, I must have been unconsciously emanating this message. In my experiments, I consciously think (and feel) I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding when I start up a conversation with someone in line at the bakery or I bump into someone at the post office or I engage with the checker at the grocery store.

The results have been astounding. Not only do nearly all randomly selected people open up to me as if I am a dear and trusted friend, but their bodies relax, their faces soften, and my body and face relax and soften, too. These physical and emotional changes occur so predictably in the course of our interactions, if I hadn’t read volumes of neurobiology I might think I’d stumbled on the trick of emotional hypnosis. But what I’ve learned is that humans are hardwired to connect in this way if given the opportunity.

We live in a society that produces highly defended people, defended internally and externally. But being so intensely defended is not our true nature. Our true nature, our genetic heritage, is to be closely connected—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually—with the other members of a band of people. We are designed to be part of conjoined neurological systems.

And when we meet others of our kind and we feel/hear/believe/trust that the other is friendly and wants to interact with us so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding, then our true natures are awakened.

Little Bit Of Talent

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

bfcx

“Japanese psychologists claim they have taught pigeons how to tell a Picasso from a Monet with 90 per cent accuracy. However, the birds were not able to tell a Cezanne from a Renoir.” Ivan Weiss and Lynn Mucken

If I ever regain the energy and ambition of my youth, I will create a competitive game show to air on YouTube called Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent. The show will feature people I know and people I don’t know who have no desire to become famous for doing anything, but who have little bits of talent, even possibly talents they don’t consider talents.

Contestants on Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent, or EHALBOT as the wildly popular show will come to be known, are their own judges. A contestant—there is only one per episode—will join me in my living room or at the beach or in a café or in a clearing in the forest. Here I will pepper the person with intriguing questions to discover their little bit of talent, something they won’t mind sharing with our tens of millions of viewers.

The hypothesis of EHALBOT is that everyone has talent, not only people who sing versions of pop songs just as well or maybe even a little better than the people who made those pop songs popular. Nor will the contestants on EHALBOT dance provocatively with uncanny flexibility to loud pulsating music. Nor are we looking for cynical holier-than-thou sexually crude comedians.

On EHALBOT we showcase more subtle and nuanced forms of talent, the kinds of talent everyone has a little bit of. What do I mean? Well, a contestant might whistle pleasantly, not in a jaw-dropping oh-my-God-he-sounds-just-like-a-saxophone kind of way, but quietly and mostly on key. He or she might whistle some catchy old tune he or she learned from a grandparent, and he or she might punctuate the pleasant whistling with equally pleasant humming of the tune.

Or a contestant might make neato doodles while talking about the weather or about something funny their cat did or about anything that strikes their fancy—doodles that are fun to watch appear on a piece of paper as the contestant draws them.

Or a contestant might skip along the beach in a way that makes viewers laugh with pleasure, or at least smile a little, remembering when they were kids and would just out-of-the-blue start skipping around, or if not skipping then jumping and running, simply because we all went through a time of being children because we were born and that’s what happens.

Or maybe the contestant has a knack for making mushroom and green onion omelets in a cast iron frying pan, omelets that turn out pretty well, and he or she makes one during the episode and then we sit on the deck outside my kitchen eating the omelet and making yummy sounds.

At the end of a first-round episode of EHALBOT, the contestant stands in front of a big mirror, and while one camera films the person, a second camera films the person’s reflection, and we see both the person and the reflection on a split screen. The person speaks to her reflection and talks about her little bit of talent, and when the person is done expressing herself to her reflection, the person asks her reflection if she wants to move on to the next round of the competition. If the reflection gives thumbs up, the person moves on to the next round. If the reflection gives thumbs down, the contestant is presented with an Everyone Has A Little Bit of Talent T-shirt available in a variety of colors, and thanked profusely for coming on the show.

How do you like the concept so far? I love it.

So…after thirty people get thumbs up from their reflections, those thirty are randomly paired up, which gives us fifteen dyads with little bits of talent, and these dyads are asked to give a performance combining their talents. For instance, the humming whistler might whistle and hum pleasantly to accompany the omelet maker as he makes an omelet, and then I and that dyad will share the omelet out on the deck, along with coffee and toast, and make yummy sounds, or not, depending on how well the omelet and coffee and toast turn out.

The person who skips on the beach might skip in a big circle around the doodler on the beach who is making big doodles in the sand with a stick, the doodles inspired by the roaring waves and the person skipping around.

Or maybe the whistling hummer is paired with the skipping person, and the doodler is paired with the omelet maker. Anything is possible on EHALBOT.

At the end of each of those fifteen dyadic performances, the dyads stand side-by-side in front of a large mirror and speak to their reflections, each person telling the other person’s reflection how the collaboration made them feel. These second-round mirror sessions tend to last a bit longer than the first-round mirror sessions and are often revelatory of surprising aspects of the contestants’ lives.

To move on to the next round of EHALBOT, a contestant’s reflection must again give thumbs up. If the thumbs go down, the contestant receives an EHALBOT T-shirt and profuse thanks. In some cases, one member of the dyad will give thumbs up and the other member will give thumbs down because that’s just how it goes sometimes.

In the next and penultimate round, the remaining contestants gather in my living room in the early evening for drinks and hors d’oeuvres—about twenty contestants, four videographers, yours truly, and several people who are always good to have at parties. During the drinking and eating and socializing, I will casually ask each contestant how he or she feels about the experience of being on Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent.

Those who admit to enjoying the experience are invited to the final round of the competition, while those contestants who imply through unpleasant tones of voice, hostile body language, or slurs and insults suggesting they feel their experience of coming on the show has been a waste of time, are presented with an EHALBOT T-shirt, which they may or may not want, and asked to leave.

The final round of Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent takes place the next day in my living room or on the deck if the weather is nice. The finalists and I gather in a circle with our shoulders just touching the shoulders of the persons to our rights and the shoulders of the persons to our lefts. This collective just-touchingness never fails to create a comfortable group intimacy, and when a sense of completion overcomes me, I announce, “Congratulations, you are the winners of Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent.”

Each contestant is presented with a check for a large sum of money, depending on what EHALBOT’s share of YouTube ad revenue is for the year, along with a red or black or pearly white EHALBOT kimono, an EHALBOT baseball cap, an EHALBOT omelet pan, a large sketchpad of acid-free paper, and a collection of fine-tipped pens excellent for doodling.

T-shirts courtesy of Max

Be Good To Yourself

Monday, April 16th, 2018

lunch break

Lunch Break photo by Todd

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

Twenty years ago, living in Berkeley and finding no willing publishers for my fiction, I was down to my last few shekels when I was presented with the opportunity to work for an ambitious outgoing woman as her twenty-hour-a-week secretary, editor, and ghostwriter. With my rent due and needing groceries, I took the job. The work was tedious, but the pay was good and my employer was a delightful person. I eventually wrote two books for her, each a commercial flop, though both books were beautifully published.

By the time that five-year gig ended, I had managed to publish two non-fiction works of my own, Open Body: Creating Your Own Yoga and The Writer’s Path. Alas, sales of those lovely books were minimal and I was once again running low on funds, so I put up my shingle, so to speak, as an editor-for-hire.

The phone rang frequently thereafter and over the next couple of years I edited a handful of academic theses as well as a few dreadful novels and memoirs written by people who had succumbed to the now-ubiquitous delusion that anyone can write a book without first learning to write a reasonable sentence. And then I was hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of an elderly man who had been a closeted homosexual in Georgia and Kentucky for all but the last few years of his life.

This project involved several in-person meetings with my client and hundreds of phone interviews. This dear man told me at our first meeting that he was certain his story would be a bestseller. He gave me a two-hour synopsis of his extraordinary life, and I told him what I knew to be true: “If you were famous and your story involved you being intimately involved with other famous people, a book about your life would almost surely find a publisher and be successful. Given that you are not even a tiny bit famous and you don’t know anyone famous means that it is highly unlikely any publisher will be interested in your book, even if we write a masterpiece.”

He was undaunted by that prognosis, took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant, and we agreed to work together. He was neither a writer nor a gifted storyteller, which meant I had to painstakingly interview him in order to piece together the details of his life and ferret out the most fascinating parts. Over the course of a year I wrote three drafts of his very long autobiography, which he eventually self-published and only a handful of people ever read.

Nearing the end of my labors for him, I was having dreams I knew to be heavily influenced by my client’s life; and when, several months after completing that work, the creative sector of my brain finally individuated from his, I vowed never to ghostwrite anything ever again. Ghostwriting books about tea and handkerchiefs was no great mental challenge for me, but mind melding with another person in order to write the story of their tortured life was a psychic nightmare.

And that is the preface to what I’m about to tell you.

The delightful woman for whom I worked for five years became my dear friend, and it was her habit to call me every day at precisely nine in the morning to discuss the day ahead. She called every day at nine, unfailingly, even if her day did not include working with me. When I would answer my phone, she would invariably say, “Hello. It’s only me.”

For the first few months of these daily calls, I tried to think of thoughtful and/or humorous responses to her unchanging greeting, such as, “You’re hardly an only,” or “Oh you underrate yourself,” or “What a surprise to hear from you,” or “Me who?” Eventually I settled on the simple reply: “Hello, you.” And for some reason, my saying those two words was a never-ending delight to her. Sometimes she would respond to my “Hello, you,” with a hearty laugh, sometimes with a sigh of pleasure, and sometimes she would reply, “Now everything is right with the world.”

I came to greatly appreciate this ritual of mutual acknowledgment; and all these years later, my dear friend gone now for fifteen years, I miss that daily confirmation of our appreciation for each other.

The man for whom I ghostwrote the story of his life had an answering machine message he never changed, the tag line being, “And remember, be good to yourself.”

His kindly suggestion barely registered with me the first several times I called to leave a message, and when his advice did begin to register, I felt annoyed and then resentful—the implication of his suggestion being that I wasn’t being good to myself. How dare he? So I took to holding the phone at arm’s length and pointing the speaker away from me until I heard the All Clear beep, and then I would leave my message.

But one day, whilst in the throes of an emotional crisis, I called him, got his answering machine, and rather than hold the phone away from me, I listened to his message, and when his deep Georgia-accented voice said, “And remember, be good to yourself,” I burst into tears and had a good long cry during which I realized I had once again fallen into my lifelong habit of not being good to myself, and so resolved to break that habit immediately.

And my first act of self-love was to treat myself to a cookie and coffee at Toot Sweets, the little bakery around the corner from my Berkeley digs, where, whilst grazing in that den of pastries and caffeine, I bumped into the stellar singer/songwriter Alexis Harte who I had recently met through a mutual acquaintance.

We chatted about his music and mine, and I heard myself saying I wanted to record some of my songs, something I hadn’t said to anyone in many years. Alexis informed me that he had a little recording studio behind his house where I could do some recording for a reasonable fee—at which moment I recalled my client’s tender “Be good to yourself,” and decided to take Alexis up on his offer, which was the beginning of many wonderful musical adventures.