Posts Tagged ‘Under the Table Books’

Be Good To Yourself

Monday, April 16th, 2018

tea is sucha comfort tw

Tea Is Sucha Comfort painting by Nolan Winkler

“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.

Work Surfaces

Monday, April 9th, 2018

pre-kindling

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s autobiography Dreaming of Lions. Near the beginning of her memoir, she tells of her time as a young woman when she and her brother and parents lived with a band of Bushmen in the Kalahari. At one point, Thomas enumerates all the possessions of a Bushman woman.

“…she owned her front and back aprons, also her leather cape and the sinew string which served as a belt, also her digging stick, two or three empty ostrich eggshells in which the people carried water, the grass stoppers for those ostrich eggshells, a leather bag, her necklace of ostrich eggshell beads, perhaps four or five hair ornaments, also a pair of leather sandals, and a tortoise shell in which she carried a sweet-smelling powder.”

Then Thomas enumerates the total possessions of a Bushman man. “He would own his leather loincloth, a leather bag, perhaps a leather cape for warmth, a pair of sandals, also a quiver, perhaps eight or nine arrows, a knife, a spear, perhaps a digging stick, and a pair of fire sticks. He also might own a necklace or some other ornament.”

For both a woman and a man, the total number of possessions was nineteen, give or take one or two. This enumeration put me in mind of when I lived as a vagabond for a few years and carried with me all my worldly possessions. I had many more than nineteen things, but certainly no more than sixty, including my clothing and shoes and survival tools and a few books. Today I am possessed of thousands of things. Thousands.

So…this morning, having put off the task for a year, I decided to clean up and organize the four work surfaces in my office/studio, also known as the Stables of Augeas. This undertaking resulted in my cleaning the entire room from floor to ceiling, and in the course of my excavations I found my good tape measure I’ve been missing for several weeks as well as two unanswered letters (shame on me), seven half-finished drawings, and five beginnings of stories. I also found so many pens, I feel abashed to have bought another box thinking I’d run out.

Yes, I agree that multiple dysfunctional work surfaces and a hyper-cluttered office/studio filled with unfinished, unanswered, unrealized things might be indicative of emotional and creative bottlenecks, and now that I have created these vast open spaces, the question does arise: how will I use this spaciousness? Could I have been avoiding the question of what to do next with my one precious creative life by engineering a physical conundrum composed of mystery heaps and jumbles of stuff obfuscating those work surfaces? Don’t be silly.

I do wonder why I kept a large bike pump on one corner of my writing desk for so many months, and why I stacked several notebooks filled with writing I’d already transcribed on top of a list of people I was planning to contact six months ago about something I felt was important at the time, but once the list was lost to view I forgot about contacting those people, and now I can’t remember why I wanted to contact them. Could this mean the something I wanted to contact them about was not really important, or might this be yet another example of self-sabotage? Oh, please.

These are just a few of the many questions that arose during the clearing process. Here are a few more. Why did I bring five old shoes from my bedroom closet into my office and put them under the table where I keep my postal scale and stamps and telephone? Why did I keep two large cardboard boxes on the left side of my drawing table for nearly a year, each box containing a single book, rather than put those books on a shelf, recycle the boxes, and give myself more room to draw?

An archaeologist generalizing about ancient Californians from the artifacts discovered in the tomb of my office might posit that the two hand-pruners found in Strata 47C on the same desk with pens and papers suggests that pruning and writing were conjoined activities in the olden days in California. A sentence fragment found in a nearby amalgam of disintegrating papers supports this hypothesis. “Pruning a fruit tree is kin to editing a passage of prose, for both words and branches…” Ah but the rest of the sentence has been lost to the exigencies of time and rot. However, the archaeologist feels confirmed in his thesis. These early Californians thought of fruit trees as living essays. Gads what a sophisticated culture!

Having conquered my interior, I stumbled forth from my revitalized creativity complex and found those same early Californians had been at work cluttering up the yard much as they had cluttered up my office. Incensed, I moved five wheelbarrow-loads of seasoned kindling into the woodshed, something I intended to do six months ago before the onset of winter but never accomplished before the rains came and so hastily covered the kindling pile with a tarp, and once a pile is covered, well, out of sight out of mind. Meanwhile, I was making more kindling to be stacked for seasoning, but then the rains came and I didn’t get much of what I cut stacked, and then the grasses started growing and engulfed the unstacked kindling, and so forth.

This is where a list might come in handy: a list of Things To Be Done Soon. I made several such lists, and before they vanished into the yawning maw of the Bermuda Triangle of my office, I’m sure I suggested to myself that I get that seasoned kindling into the woodshed and stack the new kindling before the rains came. And sure enough I found those lists when I sorted through the detritus on my work surfaces; and on three of those lists the first item was Clean The Gutters Before The Rains Come, and beside that item on one of the lists was a triumphant check mark!

new kindling stack

 

Haircuts

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

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Before the Cut photo by Marcia Sloane

“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Today, the first of April, Easter, 2018, no kidding, Marcia is giving me a haircut. The weather has turned warmish, finally, the Japanese maples are leafing out, the huckleberries have set prodigious quantities of blossoms for the second year in a row and the bumblebees are loudly pollinating those blossoms, the hummingbirds are zooming around looking for flowers and love, the mouth of Big River is teaming with harbor seals, and life she is on the upswing.

I only brush my hair when I happen to look in a mirror, which is not often. Thus my hair is frequently in a state of disarray, and when my hair is long I resemble a gray-haired Bozo the Clown. In the 1960s and 70s I wanted to grow my hair long enough to have a ponytail, but even when I went without a cut for four years, my hair only got about five-inches-long all around and thereafter the tips grew brittle and broke off. Nowadays I enjoy a little extra fur during the winter, and when spring has sprung, Marcia tames the tangle.

When I was a boy, my mother would take me to a barbershop every six months and a not-very-friendly man would cut off most of my hair. They called this a crew cut, though it might have been called a shaved head. I hated getting haircuts, but after a day or so of my ears feeling cold, I forgot about my hair, not being one who looked in mirrors.

While in a Bozo-the-Clown phase, as I have been for some months now, my hair elicits comments from people I know and from people I don’t know. Interestingly, nearly all these comments are complimentary, in a roundabout way. For instance, a woman coming out of the grocery store a few days ago startled at the sight of me and said, “Whoa. Great hair.” Subtext: You actually scared me a little, but I appreciate the wildness.

In the post office, a woman with hair even more topsy-turvy than mine, grinned at my coiffure and said, “Way to go.”

Marcia recently underwent a radical change in her hair style, her first major style shift since several years before we got together eleven years ago. The Marcia I married had long blonde hair that fell nearly to her waist. Indeed, she was renowned in Mendocino as the principal cellist of Symphony of the Redwoods with gorgeous long blonde hair, and as the cellist in the Mendocino Music Festival orchestra with gorgeous long blonde hair. Thus when she got most of her hair cut off last year, dozens of people came up to me at the first orchestral concert of the music festival and said one of two things. “Marcia cut her hair!” or “Where is Marcia?”

My answers were, “Yes, she did,” and “She is there with short hair.”

My haircuts, by contrast, do not prompt widespread alarm in the community. In fact, only a few people will notice that I’ve gotten the haircut I am about to get because I am not locally renowned for my hair or anything else. If I were to start wearing a suit and tie every day, some people in town would notice my wardrobe change and wonder why I no longer wore Giants sweatshirts. However, to elicit multiple comments about my hair I would have to dye my mop pink, and I think pink hair would make me look weird. Weirder.

When I lived in Berkeley, I got a haircut every six months. I would walk to Solano Avenue where, guided by chance and intuition, I would choose one of the several hair cut joints staffed by Chinese women who spoke little or no English. I would enter the joint, wait for someone to gesture at an empty barber’s chair, and say politely, “May I please have my hair cut short on the sides and leave some on top.” And then I would surrender to the gods of haircuts.

On one occasion, a young woman began cutting my hair and after a few minutes stopped to confer with another young woman who then took over cutting my hair. After a moment, this second woman stopped cutting my hair and called over an older woman who studied my hair for a moment, smiled at me and said, “You hair no lie down. Only go up when cut short. No can brush down.”

“Yes,” I said. “Is okay. Cut short on sides, leave some on top.”

And then to put them at ease, I told my favorite haircutting joke. “You know the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut?”

The three women looked at me with obvious concern and said many things to each other in Chinese.

“Two weeks,” I said, and when it was clear they didn’t understand the joke, I tried to explain why it was funny, which is never a good idea, and then I told the joke again, which caused the older woman to nod emphatically and say, “Yes, okay. You come back two weeks. Sure. We cut some man hair every week.”

Now the deed is done. Marcia worked uncharacteristically fast today, snipping and fluffing and snipping, and she seemed to enjoy the process this time, which has not always been the case.

I certainly feel lighter and more intelligent. I don’t know why getting a haircut sharpens the mind, but it does for me. Perhaps we receive vital information from the collective consciousness through our hair, and by removing the old brittle hair tips, my reception of useful data has improved. Let’s hope so.

I saved the hair that was previously attached to my head, and once I get the fire going in the woodstove this evening I will burn those detached locks in a ritualistic pagan Easter Passover rebirth ceremony, no kidding, to bid farewell to old fears and erroneous assumptions that have been holding me back from optimal appreciation of this moment.

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After the Cut photo by Marcia Sloane

Hey Baby

Monday, March 26th, 2018

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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.

Person

Monday, March 12th, 2018

sharp

sharp photo by Max Greenstreet

When I taught writing, long ago, one of the most illuminating exercises I gave my charges was to have them write a little something in First Person, and then rewrite that little something in Third Person.

When Todd was in his forties, nearly thirty years ago, he gave writing workshops for adults and oversaw a Creative Writing program for teenagers. One of the more helpful exercises he gave his writers was to have them write a paragraph in First Person, and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I would ask my writers to change the tense of the paragraph.

Todd is in his forties, a novelist making his living by leading writing workshops and overseeing a Creative Writing Program for teenagers. He especially enjoys asking his writers to write a paragraph in First Person and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I might ask my writers to turn their paragraph into a fairy tale.

Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea, there lived a scribbler name of Todd. A goodly fellow in his forties, his hair going every which way, Todd was not having much luck gaining patrons for his verse, so to keep food in the larder he set up shop as a teacher of writing. His teaching method was to deploy clever writing exercises that tricked his students into waxing poetic rather than staying stuck in the mundane. And by golly, his method worked.

Another related exercise was to have my writers write a brief story about someone going somewhere to get something.

Michael wakes up craving coffee and something sweet and doughy. Finding he is out of coffee beans and anything resembling a pastry, he dresses warmly and sets forth on this cold winter day for Muffins Galore, his home away from home, conveniently located just around the corner from his studio apartment.

Entering the deliciously warm little bakery, the display cases brimming with muffins and cookies and scones, the air redolent with the divine admixture of coffee fumes and just-baked bread, Michael forgets he is eighty-three, and for a long delightful moment thinks he is twenty-five again, the pretty young woman behind the counter his age peer, his life just beginning.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman—the sound of his raspy voice bringing him abruptly back to the present.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

Story written, I would ask my writers to rewrite the piece using short sentences.

Michael wakes in his lumpy bed. His studio apartment is freezing cold. January he thinks. I hate January. His back aches as usual. With a groan, he arises. “I crave coffee,” he says aloud. Michael lives alone and often talks to himself. “And something sweet and doughy.”

“Damn,” he says, finding no coffee beans in his little refrigerator.

He decides to go to the bakery around the corner from his place. Muffins Galore. He dresses slowly. Getting his socks and shoes on is his greatest challenge. Warmly attired at last, he sets forth into the wintry day.

The blessedly warm little bakery is Michael’s home away from home. He comes here two or three times every day. He sighs contentedly when he sees the display cases brimming with pastries. He breathes deeply of the coffee-scented air. For a short infinity, Michael forgets he is eighty-three. He thinks he is twenty-five again. He imagines the pretty young woman behind the counter is exactly his age. He is suffused with warmth and happiness.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman.

Hearing himself speaking, he is brought back to his present reality.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

I was put in mind of these exercises when I recently had a telling experience with the novel I’m writing, tentative title Flagon With the Dragon. I wrote the first hundred and fifty pages in First Person, Past Tense, and while reading those pages for the first time, I felt the narrator loomed so emotionally large that the other characters were insignificant by comparison, which was not what I’m ever after when I write a story or a book.

So I rewrote those pages in Third Person, Present Tense, and the several main characters were transmogrified into emotional equals (though entirely different from each other) and the story took several surprising turns that never would have happened had I stayed with First Person. What fun!

Having slowly made his way through the thick sheaf of pages of his new novel, Todd realizes his First Person narrator looms so psychically gigantic that the other characters in the novel pale by comparison. This inequality of emotional weight, so to speak, is the quantum opposite of what Todd wants for the characters in this novel, which is, or so it seems to Todd, a study in synchronized rebirth.

Whilst taking his morning constitutional, Todd has another realization about his writing. All the novels he ever sold to big mainstream publishers were First Person novels, yet he much prefers the last ten novels he’s written and failed to find publishers for, all of them Third Person novels. He concludes this is a largely irrelevant line of inquiry except for confirming his preference for writing books in Third Person.

Returning to his studio after his invigorating stroll, Todd decides to rewrite what he’s written so far of his new novel in Third Person, Present Tense—tentative title Flagon With the Dragon.

CUT TO: FIVE DAYS LATER

Todd sets down his pen and applauds the unseen forces of the universe for inspiring him to change the person and tense of his new novel so the several main characters are now on equal emotional footing, though wildly different from each other. What fun!

Used copies of Todd’s book of writing exercises, The Writer’s Path, abound online, and Todd has a small trove of new copies for sale. Email inquiries welcome.

Democracy

Monday, March 5th, 2018

headland sky by Ian of Zo

Headlands and Sky photo by Ian of Zo

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” Conan Doyle

In 1972 I was living in a twelve-person commune in Santa Cruz, part of the commune movement that sprung up spontaneously across America as the housing component of the cultural revolution known as the Sixties. And from 1968 to 1975, I was very excited to be part of that housing component and hopeful about the positive social, political, and cultural impact that widespread communal living could have on American society.

The first commune I lived in was an eight-person affair I started with a friend. I left after a year of frustration because my fellow communards were extremely reluctant to subsume their individual needs, even a little, for the betterment of the collective. We gave lip service to that idea, but aside from shared meals, it was largely every man or woman for him or her self.

So I was excited to join a commune with much more collectivity built into an operating system that quite effectively served twelve members and our many guests. I planted a huge vegetable garden and organized the eager volunteer gardeners, we shopped and cooked and cleaned collectively, and the entire group met once a week to discuss practical and emotional problems.

I felt there were a few duds in the dozen, but overall the communal living experience was economical, ecological, healthy, and emotionally satisfying. Four heterosexual couples and four singles, two straight, two gay, composed our twelve, and my only secret complaint was that most of my fellow communards were not particularly creative.

After a year and a half in that commune, my girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up, and our dyadic divide coincided with two members of the commune moving out, thus creating two vacancies to be filled through our well-established selection process. Our commune was famously successful in Santa Cruz, we were right on the beach, and we had dozens of people applying for those two spots on the roster.

Eventually we winnowed the applicant pool down to four finalists, three men and one woman. One of the men was Ted, twenty-five, boyishly handsome, charming, a fine musician and actor, a graduate student at the university, and one of the most brilliant, funny, interesting people I’d ever met. The other two men were boorish stoners and I was baffled every time either of them made the next cut. The woman, Tina, was twenty-four, a zealous gardener, poet, yogini, dancer, professional cook, and bright and funny.

I assumed we would immediately and unanimously elect Ted and Tina, and I was so excited about them joining the collective that I kicked off our final group discussion before we voted by extolling their many virtues and speaking of Ted wanting to host a Drama night and Tina wanting to help me expand the garden and lead a daily yoga session.

To my horror, only one of the five women in our commune voted for Tina, and only one other man joined me in voting for Ted. All the women voted for Ted, and all the men voted for Tina, but since eight votes were required to win a place in the commune, Ted and Tina were not invited to join, while the two boorish stoners got the nod. Two weeks later, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of town.

But before I moved away, I spoke privately to each of the men who voted against Ted, and I spoke privately to each of the women who voted against Tina; and I asked them why they voted against such wonderful people and for such boorish dopes?

Three of the women admitted to being threatened by Tina’s charm and talent, and especially by how much the men liked her. One of the women said she felt Tina was too good to be true and didn’t trust her. One of the men said Ted was “hyper”, another of the men said Ted was “too intellectual”, and the third male dissenter said he was intimidated by Ted’s talent and by his girlfriend’s attraction to Ted.

Thinking about that turning point in my life—I might have written a hit song with Ted and married Tina and had three kids and moved to Denmark—I am reminded of when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. In a large national poll conducted a month before the election, seven out of ten American men said they would rather have a beer and hang out with George than with Al, and in that election 75% of all male voters, Democrats and Republicans, voted for George, and 75% of all female voters voted for Al.

And that reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Blazing Saddles when Gene Wilder is explaining to Cleavon Little why the townsfolk won’t accept an African American as their sheriff.

“What did you expect?” says Gene to Cleavon. “A welcome sign? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.”

And that reminds me of a recent and shocking study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found only 8% of high school seniors across America today identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, while 57% say tax protests caused the Civil War. How can this be? And isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon exists throughout the United States, not in isolated areas of the former Confederacy.

I am often chided by friends for being a conspiracy theorist, so I will not elucidate my theory about how and why one of the most important historical facts in American history is not properly taught in our schools. I will say that this monstrous educational lapse cannot, in my opinion, be accidental. Who would be best served by misleading entire generations of Americans about the cause of the Civil War?

And that reminds me of when I watched Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan prior to the 1980 Presidential election, the last Presidential debate I ever watched. I howled with delight as Jimmy made a fool of Ronald at every turn in the debate, and I danced out of my house overjoyed that Jimmy would soon be re-elected, only to read the next day that multiple polls revealed well over 90% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, felt Ronald easily won the debate.

Which is why, conspiracy theories aside, it didn’t surprise me even a little bit when Donald Trump was elected President of these United States.

Olden Days

Monday, February 26th, 2018

still I'm still here

Still I’m Still Here painting by Nolan Winkler 

A friend recently (2018) sent me an article about a small vacant lot zoned for a single-family dwelling in Palo Alto, California, just a little plot of land, selling for seven million dollars. In another article about a housing development the San Francisco Giants are financing in San Francisco near their ballpark, the big excitement about the project is that 40% of the 1300 units of housing will be rented to working-class families only earning 80-150 thousand dollars a year.

Hmm. I have never been a big fan of science fiction. As a teenager I enjoyed I, Robot and a few other classics, but in general sci-fi has never been my cup of tea. For one thing, we can’t go faster than the speed of light, so we’re stuck here. Why can’t we just accept that and fully embrace the here and now and figure out how to live sustainably on this planet instead of dreaming about going to other planets we will never get to? For another thing, who can relate to a reality in which a family with an annual income of 150 thousand dollars is thought to be working class? In that reality would a homeless person be pulling down fifty grand a year?

In any case, these nutty financial figures got me thinking about my youth in Palo Alto and San Francisco, when seven million dollars would have bought you two hundred nice houses and their lots in Palo Alto, and a hundred grand a year would have made you filthy rich in San Francisco. Yes, I know, inflation and all that, but not really. According to our government, and you’ll know this if you depend on Social Security income as I do, there is no inflation to speak of and hasn’t been any inflation for the last decade. (Oh, that’s right. They don’t count food prices or rent or much of anything in their calculations. I wonder why not.)

When I attended Woodside High School, my pals Rico and David and I put out a mimeographed counter-culture magazine called Lyceum. We had several dozen subscribers and sold copies at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, and when, after eight issues, we folded up shop because David and I were going off to college and we’d run out of things to say, Rico reported we had amassed a profit of eighty dollars. We decided to celebrate by taking three lovely young women for a day and evening of fun in San Francisco.

The year was 1967, the month was June. Our budget was eighty dollars. For the six of us. The three writer editors dressed as wannabe North Beach poets, the three lucky women, under the command of my girlfriend, wore saris. By the end of our long day, the gals would regret that clothing choice. We took the train from Menlo Park to San Francisco, took the bus from there to Chinatown, and after a splendid meal in a Chinese restaurant, we wandered around for a few hours shopping for volumes of poetry and gaudy scarves.

Exhausted by our wandering, we had lattes and biscotti at Caffe Trieste in North Beach and then went for all we could eat supper at the Spaghetti Factory. Well-stuffed, we waddled across North Beach and saw The Committee perform. And though I didn’t understand most of what those witty people said or why the audience found them so riotously funny, I felt sophisticated and worldly and adult and hip. Then we caught a bus back to the train station and rode home triumphantly out of money, our eighty dollars covering everything the six of us did and saw and consumed on that day.

Over the ensuing fifty years, I have only twice earned more than a hundred thousand dollars in a year, my average annual income being in the fifteen to twenty thousand dollar range, some years less, rarely more. I have scraped by, so to speak, yet whilst scraping by I lived in a beautiful room in a big house right on the beach in Santa Cruz and my rent was thirty-five dollars a month, and I lived in a lovely house in Ashland, Oregon, my rent sixty dollars a month. And fairly recently I lived in a nice house in a quiet neighborhood in Berkeley before the erasure of rent control ended the era of reasonable rents. And Rico lived for many years in a prime location in San Francisco and paid 270 a month for a spacious two-bedroom flat.

When I dropped out of college in 1969, I didn’t worry about money, though I had almost no money. The reason I didn’t worry was that in those days it took very little effort to earn enough money to rent a room and buy enough food to eat, and by very little effort I mean a few hours a day earning a couple bucks an hour covered my expenses. A visit to the doctor was ten bucks, and if he or she prescribed antibiotics, a few dollars more. For some years I made my living playing the guitar and singing in taverns and cafes. Ten bucks and a hearty meal and free beer plus tips amounting to another ten bucks all for a few hours of strumming and singing. Three such gigs a week meant I was making around sixty dollars a week. I was rolling in dough!

I was able to pursue my writing and music because things, the necessities of a decent life, did not cost much. Money was important, but not all important. Today, however, when a loaf of bread is seven dollars and brown rice is $2.50 a pound, and when we visited Portland and saw vast armies of homeless people living in the streets, and when I stand in line at the grocery store and watch the high school kids spending ten dollars for a bottle of pop and a bag of chips and a candy bar and my friend’s daughter pays 1200 a month for space in a house in Berkeley she shares with five other people, I wonder what the young Todd I used to be would do in today’s world to survive and still be able to work at writing and composing music.

I have no idea what I would do if I was twenty today and embarking on my life as an artist. Everything I did in my life was predicated on being able to live on next to nothing. I travelled by hitchhiking or bus, I never went to Europe, I rarely ate at restaurants, I didn’t own a car or have health insurance. I just got by. And that was enough for me so long as I had time to make my art. But what if I hadn’t been able to live on next to nothing. What would I have done?

Recipes of Alexander Skåll

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

th_recipesofalexa-257

I am very happy to present here the first two chapters of my new novel The Recipes of Alexander Skåll. In a nutshell: Andrea Valeraine, a French photojournalist, has been searching for the legendary chef Alexander Skåll for over a decade, though many people think Alexander is dead. When Andrea finally locates the elusive chef, he agrees to meet with her on one condition: that she not reveal his whereabouts to anyone. The Recipes of Alexander Skåll is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California—a comedy drama love story rife with cooking and drinking and eating and philosophizing and picture taking and personal transformation. Handsome coil-bound copies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered by the author, may be purchased via my web site.

September 27

Whereabouts

Dear Alexander Skåll,

Hans Ryder gave me your mailing address and said he would contact you on my behalf. My name is Andrea Valeraine. I hope you will allow me to photograph and interview you in your kitchen and garden. Over the last eleven years, I have photographed and interviewed forty master chefs, seventeen of whom will appear with you in my book to be published by Tantamount Press.

I understand you do not like to be photographed. I hope you will make an exception in my case. I will only use photographs of you that meet your approval. I hope to visit you in October when it is convenient for you.

Andrea Valeraine

*

Dear Ms. Valeraine,

I’m only responding to your note so you will know Hans followed through on his promise to contact me on your behalf. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I cherish my privacy and do not wish to be included among your chefs. I’m sure your book will be a success without me.

Evasively Yours,

Alexander

*

Dear Alexander,

I understand your reticence. I, too, cherish my privacy. Having interviewed many chefs, I think you may underestimate your importance in the pantheon of famous chefs of the last half-century. Your whereabouts will not be divulged in my book. For that matter, we could write that you live in Canada or Europe now, not in California. Thus your appearance in the book will enhance your privacy.

Andrea

*

Clever Andrea,

I can assure you I am of no importance as a chef or anything else. My celebrity results from the bizarre nature of our culture, a mass psychosis that creates deities out of people who step in buckets of shit and come out smelling like roses. Not that I smell like a rose. More like a sachet of bitter herbs.

However, I like the idea of your book throwing the crazies off my trail. Let us connect at Harmony Books & Luthier in Fort Orford on October 22 at 1 PM. The north coast of California can be quite chilly and rainy in late October so I suggest you dress warmly and be prepared for rain.

If Hans can come with you, I would love to see the old idiot again.

Alex

*

Alex!

Thank you so much. As you know, Hans rarely leaves his apartment now, but I will implore him to come with me.

Gratefully,

Andrea

 

October 22 

History Of Sex

Twenty-five years ago, Harmony Books was the cultural epicenter of Fort Orford, a town on the far north coast of California. Today Harmony Books is two bookcases in a luthier shop—a few hundred vestigial volumes of poetry and fiction—and the legendary bookshop next door to the luthier has been replaced by three shops: pizza parlor, hair salon, and marijuana dispensary.

Twenty years ago, the luthier shop employed three luthiers. Today there is only one luthier in Fort Orford: Harmon Green, fifty-eight, six-feet-tall, his longish brown hair going gray, his handsome face detailed with smile wrinkles and lines of sorrow.

Wearing brown trousers and a faded red T-shirt—Harmony Books writ across the chest—Harmon sits on a cushioned stool at his large worktable putting new frets on a seventy-year-old Gibson guitar, his close-up vision enhanced by green-framed magnifying glasses.

The little bronze bell atop the front door jingles and Harmon removes his glasses to inspect his visitor—a woman, long-limbed and graceful, her reddish-brown shoulder-length hair touched with gray, her eyes bluish green, her lips voluptuous—her face expressionless. She is wearing a purple parka over a black turtleneck, gray trousers, brown walking shoes, and she is carrying a gray canvas camera bag.

“Excuse me,” she says, her accent French. “I’m hoping to meet someone here. Do you mind if I wait?”

“Not at all,” says Harmon, glad of the company. “You will find either armchair comfortable, the blue somewhat firmer than the green, there are books of poems and stories to peruse if you are so inclined, or you may chat with the luthier who is, incredible as this may seem, capable of conversation while he works.”

“My name is Andrea,” she says, smiling ever so slightly as she approaches the large worktable on which two guitars, a ukulele, and a violin are in various stages of repair. “Andrea Valeraine.”

“Harmon,” he says, receiving her attention as a kiss. “Harmon Green. Welcome to Fort Orford.”

“I am a photographer,” she says, admiring the ensemble of instruments and tools spread out on the big table. “Would you mind if I take pictures while you work?”

“I don’t mind,” he says, though he does a little. “I am often photographed by tourists. Must be something irresistible about a scruffy fellow engaged in pre-industrial handwork.” He chuckles at his self-description. “May I offer you a cup of coffee? Tea? Cocoa? Wine?”

She fishes her phone out of her camera bag and checks the time—12:37. “I would love some coffee. Thank you.”

Harmon rises with his characteristic ease, and Andrea is alarmed to feel sexually aroused, a feeling she has kept at bay for many years.

“Please make yourself at home,” says Harmon, gesturing to the entire store before he disappears behind the large shoji screen that divides the room.

“Merci,” she says, moving to the front of the store where she takes off her parka, settles into the blue armchair, and tells herself she is not attracted to this man but merely excited about the prospect of finally meeting Alexander Skåll.

Perusing the books on the shelves, she is pleased to see several volumes published by Tantamount Press, her publisher. Now she startles at the name Harmon Green on the spine of a slender volume from Tantamount, removes the book from the shelf, and cringes at the title—History of Sex.

Despite her aversion to the title, she opens to a random page.

 

calling

Comfortable together in their aftermath she says I never

come the first time with a new partner. But I came so hard

with you. Maybe you’re the one I’ve been waiting for.

Next day he calls her madly in love and she says

I made a mistake. Don’t ever call me again.

His heart aches for days until one morning she calls to say

Am I crazy? Get over here you wonderful guy.

Astride him she shouts God you are the best, the best ever!

Next day he leaves a love poem on her answering machine

and when she doesn’t call him back he goes to her house

and she growls Go away. Don’t ever call me again.

For weeks every sound murders him

until one morning he wakes to her

leaving a message on his answering machine:

Ready to go again?

 

Andrea reads calling a second time and finishes just as Harmon emerges from behind the screen with two steaming mugs.

“Would you like your coffee way over there?” he asks, sounding sad about her being so far from him. “Or will you join me at my table?”

“I will join you,” she says, bringing History of Sex and her camera bag to the worktable and sitting on the chair closest to Harmon.

“I guessed you’d like yours black,” he says, pleased she chose the chair nearest to him. “Yes?”

“What else did you guess about me?” she asks, sipping her coffee and humming a note of approval.

“You are French, not Swiss,” he says, setting his coffee down. “You are fifty-two, six years younger than I, you’ve lived in North America for a long time, in a city, you are a successful photographer, currently single, the wedding band a ruse to dissuade suitors, and you just read one of my poems and did not dislike it. I wonder which one. Old poems. Haven’t read them in twenty years. Maybe I’ll read them again now that you’ve awakened the book. You may have that copy if you’d like.”

“Merci,” she says, reddening ever so slightly. “I hope you will sign it for me. I didn’t like the title at first, but now I do. And I agree, we do awaken books when we read them, just as we awaken paintings and photos when we look at them.”

“Instruments, too,” he says, indicating the wall decorated with violins, guitars, ukuleles, and one intriguing tenor balalaika. “They love to be touched and played.”

“How did you know those things about me?” she asks, frowning. “You are correct, but…how did you know?”

“I don’t know how I knew,” he says, shrugging. “Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve had a knack for guessing people’s ages and birthplaces and other things about them, the information arriving in my brain once I get a good look at them and hear them speak.”

“Are you always right?” she asks, this talent fascinating to her.

“Pretty much always, yes.” He frowns and nods. “Strange, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think so,” she says, liking him very much. “You are just highly intuitive and extremely intelligent, and this is one of your gifts.”

“Yeah,” he says, his frown turning to a smile. “A gift.”

A pleasant silence falls.

Harmon puts on his magnifying glasses and resumes his work.

Andrea gets out her camera, stands up, and takes several pictures of the worktable.

Now she frames Harmon in the center of her viewfinder and asks quietly, “What are we striving for?”

“Do you mean why are we striving?” he asks, looking up at her, his magnified eyes frog-like. “Or do you mean…what are we striving to accomplish?”

“Mostly I mean why are we striving. But also what are we trying to accomplish?”

“You go first,” he says, comically arching an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” she says, laughing at his funny face. “That’s why I asked you.”

“Ah,” he says, removing his glasses and setting them beside the old Gibson. “We strive because we are habituated to striving and because there’s a certain joy in striving. We strive to get money for food and shelter and warmth for ourselves and those we love.”

She lowers her camera and says, “I’m tired of striving.”

“Well to quote my old pal Tyler Gray,” says Harmon, thinking of his friend who died some years ago, “a little striving goes a long way.”

“I don’t know how to strive just a little,” she says, thinking of Alexander Skåll and the completion of her book. “I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people.”

“Somehow I knew that,” he says, his eyes narrowing. “There’s nothing tentative about you.”

She sits downs and says, “No one has ever said anything like that to me before. Why would you say such a thing?”

“Because that’s how you strike me.” He gazes at her, unafraid. “You seem undisguised and wonderfully calm and very sure of why you’re here.”

“But now I’m not so sure,” she says, meeting his gaze. “I thought I was meeting someone else here, but now I think…” She takes a deep breath. “Maybe I came here to meet you.”

“Ah, but who am I?” He laughs self-consciously. “No need to answer that.”

“Oh but I want to. You are someone I’ve longed to meet. Someone…a man…who will be my good friend for the rest of my life.”

“Case in point,” he says, folding his arms. “Nothing tentative about you.”

“But you are not so sure if you want to be my friend,” she says, giving him a comical smile. “You who know so many things about other people so quickly.”

“I’m sure I like you,” he says, enjoying the intimacy of their exchange. “I’m just not in the habit of entertaining rest-of-my-life scenarios with people I’ve known for less than ten minutes.”

“Nor am I,” she says seriously. “I have never in my life been so forward with anyone, man or woman. But I feel powerless not to say these things to you.”

“Yet you are so obviously powerful,” he says, matching her seriousness. “Not to mention frighteningly attractive.”

“I am not attractive,” she says, looking away. “Nor am I powerful. If I were powerful…”

The bell above the door jingles and a young Mexican woman enters the shop—red parka, blue jeans, long black hair in a ponytail—a singular beauty.

“Hola hija,” says Harmon, raising his mug. “Come meet the enchanting Andrea Valeraine. Andrea, my daughter Dolores, known far and wide as Dolly.”

“Hola Dolly,” says Andrea, reddening at Harmon’s flattery.

“Hola,” she says, smiling shyly. “I came to bring you to Alex.”

Andrea gasps. “He sent you?”

“Yes,” says Dolly, glancing at her father. “He sent me.”

Thinking

Monday, February 5th, 2018

jennysletter

Perception pen and ink by Todd

Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Which is the English translation of the French “Je pense, donc je suis.” Which is Descarte’s translation of the Latin, Cogito ergo sum.

I remember the first time I thought about my existence being a matter of thinking I existed, and feeling a bit confused. I was twelve. What if I stopped thinking I existed, would I stop existing?

Lately I’ve become convinced by reading books about neurobiology and being in therapy again after eons of not being in therapy that: I sometimes feel how I think I feel, and sometimes I feel fine because I’m not thinking; but I’m not sure I exist because I think I exist.

Several times in my life I’ve been rushed to hospital emergency rooms in cars and ambulances, and whilst en route and feeling my life force ebbing, I felt I existed because my body was alive and if my body stopped being alive I wouldn’t exist. I’m alive, therefore I’m alive.

About two years ago, due to a nasty run-in with some incompetent medical doctors, I began to experience panic attacks for the first time in my life. If you’ve never had a full-blown panic attack, trust me, you don’t want to have one, not even just to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had one of those.” I would describe a panic attack to you, but such a thing is beyond the power of words to describe. I might say: Imagine you are hurtling on a plank down a steep hill toward jagged rocks and your body is vibrating so tremendously you feel you may explode before you hit the jagged rocks, and that would not be the half of it.

The idea that: I think I’m having a panic attack, therefore I am having a panic attack, might be true, but doesn’t help much in the midst of a panic attack. Or maybe it does help. Or could help. Maybe if one could convince one’s self that the panic attack is merely a figment of thinking, and one could stop thinking in that way, then the panic would subside. That is how drugs made to quell panic attacks work. They interfere with the brain thinking we’re panicking, so we stop panicking.

Anyway, I’ve been having all sorts of helpful feelings and experiences and shifts in self-perception as a result of therapy, and I’ve actually gone some months without too much anxiety impinging on my life. So when visitations from the old anxiety tendrils began anew recently, I was not thrilled.

I wrote to my therapist: Last night, first time in a long time, my anxiety returned. Dreadful feeling, like the return of someone I really don’t like and hoped never to see again suddenly walking into my house. I was physically exhausted, so I knew that had something to do with my vulnerability to feelings of anxiety. At one point, I felt so angry about my ongoing anxiety, I shouted, “Get out of my life. Let me be happy. Just get out of my life.” And I was greatly relieved, a kind of mini-rage release. I couldn’t bring to mind parents or abusive people from my past. It was more a feeling of being victimized by the idea that for some reason it is not okay for me to have a happy healthy life.

My therapist wrote back, and I paraphrase: “This actually sounds very ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) to me and I want to say, “So, what’s the problem?” Yes, you have a habit or a propensity for anxiety.

“Stop narrating your mood. Feelings come and go like the tide. Let them move through you without judgment. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! Perhaps you want the narrator to get out of your life?

“I understand it is not a pleasant feeling. Stop fighting with it, though, because that just gives it more power over you. Do you check the weather as much as you check your mood and feelings? Do you try to control the weather? Do you judge it? Your feelings are your own atmospheric experience. Let them be what they are and keep on living and Being!

“Who are you? What are you without the narrative? Who is aware of the anxiety? What is the experience of the experiencer? Put your awareness on itself and let everything else take care of itself. Make sense?”

I was reminded by those words from my therapist of a time twenty years ago when I was going through great physical difficulties, and I went to a body worker and she would be working on my shoulder or my hip, and the pain would be tremendous, and I would inform her of my pain, and she would say, “Stay with the pain. Go into it. Really try to experience everything that composes the pain. Really stay focused on that pain.”

And if I put my awareness on the pain, by golly, the pain would either go away or jump to another part of my body, which amazed me and made me wonder: what is pain?

Twenty years later, I regularly go to a superb acupressurist who invariably discovers blockages in my meridians and unblocks them so that for a few days at least I feel vastly improved compared to how I felt before she manipulated those points of interest.

The truth is, I would benefit greatly from a thorough massage every few days, weekly acupressure, weekly psychotherapy, and a sauna every day during the winter and twice weekly during the summer. Who wouldn’t benefit from that regimen of healing help? Who has that kind of money?

I remember during an anti-war demonstration long ago, a speaker reported calculations made by smart people at a renowned university that for the same amount of money the United States spent every year building weapons and waging needless wars, every person in America could afford a full-body massage every few days, weekly acupuncture treatments, weekly psychotherapy, free healthcare, free education from nursery school through graduate school, free food, and so much more. Every American. And if you don’t think creating a system providing such goodies for everyone would cure our social and economic and emotional ills, you and I would not be in agreement.

How’s this for a variation on the basic Descartes? I receive vast amounts of physical and emotional tenderness and approval and love, therefore I am happy and not at all anxious, and I want the same for everyone else.