High Summer

July 31st, 2017

High Summer

High Summer photo by Todd

Woke in the middle of the night. I’ve been sleeping well lately, so I wondered why I was awake. Wide awake. And then I remembered I broke my rule about not reading any news in the evening, and I also watched a video blurb about Trump—my first Trump visitation in several weeks. I might as well have had two cups of coffee and chocolate truffles before going to bed.

I haven’t liked a President of the United States since Jimmy Carter. I am aware that Jimmy presided over lots of horrible things done by our government, but I was thrilled by his willingness to talk about the planetary environmental crisis way back in the 1970s, about how we needed to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. And then he pushed through government programs that helped accelerate the solar power revolution. He walked his talk a little.

Our presidents since Jimmy have been consistently dishonest servants of the supranational monsters who began their complete takeover of our government with the election of Ronald Reagan. All our presidents after Jimmy facilitated the transfer of wealth from those with not much to those who already have everything. They all expanded the military and continued the policy of endless war. They all knowingly presided over the killing of thousands of civilians in essentially defenseless countries. They all did nothing to address global warming, over-population, and the environmental crises threatening life on earth. They all allowed our healthcare system to deteriorate and be taken over by the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. They all played golf.

Thus when I watch coverage of Trump, I do not think, as many of my peers do, that Obama or any of our previous presidents were better than Trump. They may have been less obviously narcissistic and dishonest, but they were all hyper-dishonest narcissistic sociopaths chosen for their loyalty to the ruling elite. And whether Trump wasn’t supposed to beat Hillary or not, he hasn’t done much to distinguish himself from his predecessors except by making more noise and saying more ridiculous things.

I notice the stock market keeps going up and up and up under Trump. This tells us that the big banks and hedge fund gangsters who stole more than two trillion dollars of our money with the blessings of Obama, are happy with Trump. Obama did nothing to rein in the Ponzi schemers, but rather helped them make the world’s economic and financial situation nightmarishly worse. Trump is merely following suit.

I also notice the media and way too many members of the shameful Democratic Party are still trying to prove Trump colluded with the Russians to win the election that put him in the White House. I wonder if these dunces will keep trying to prove the Russians determined the outcome of the election until the next presidential election. Probably. As we learned from Bill Clinton and his sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the folks in power love to distract the masses with childish nonsense while they carry on their nefarious business of robbing us blind and destroying the world while they’re at it.

No wonder I woke up in the middle of the night.

In better news, a friend wrote saying it was high summer. What a fine expression. The Friday farmers market in Mendocino is in high summer mode. We have several vendors selling excellent organic high summer vegetables and fruit—the high summer days lovely and promising. The blackberry bushes of high summer hereabouts are heavily laden with berries and I have been picking berries every day for our smoothies and snacks and cookie batter.

The Mendocino Music festival has come and gone, the big tent no longer starring on the headlands, and the town is somewhat quieter in the aftermath of the annual musical happening. The two highest points of the festival for me were Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. Zowee!

We know several people who are traveling to Oregon for the solar eclipse. I will not be going to view the blotting of the sun’s light by the intervening moon, but plan to sit somewhere outside while the eclipse is happening. I want to participate without travelling far to do so. Maybe I’ll walk to the beach for the eclipse where I hope to feel the moon coming between the earth and the sun, since I won’t be able to see it.

Solar eclipses always remind me of a scene near the beginning of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court when the novel’s hero uses his foreknowledge of an impending solar eclipse to save his life and become a powerful player in King Arthur’s court for the rest of the novel—not my favorite book by Mark Twain, but a fun high summer read.

My favorite novel by Mark Twain is The Prince and the Pauper—a great book to read aloud with friends. I also love big swaths of his Joan of Arc, especially his recounting of her trial at the hands of the dastardly Catholic priests, and I love the first three-fourths of Huckleberry Finn—the ending feels false to me. And I’m a big fan of Twain’s short stories and Roughing It.

In a dream I had about a month ago I was shown the title of a novel. When I woke from the dream, I wrote the title down, waited a moment, and the novel began to pour out onto the page. I have now written five chapters of this dream novel and I think the story will continue to emerge, but I don’t know for certain.

And that’s the high summer news. Sleep well.

Medicine Birds

July 24th, 2017

hawk

Hawk pen and ink by Todd

Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, someone gave me Medicine Cards, a book and accompanying deck of cards written by Jamie Sams and David Carson, and illustrated by Angela C. Werneke. Each card features a picture of an animal or bird or insect or reptile or amphibian. For purposes of divination, the user randomly chooses cards from the deck and reads the text in the book corresponding to those cards.

Each animal represents some aspect of power in the natural world. For instance, ant medicine involves patience and trust and hard work, badger medicine is the wise use of aggression, and beaver medicine helps us pursue our goals through cooperation and planning and persistence. The text of Medicine Cards reflects the teachings of various indigenous peoples of North America regarding the physical, energetic, and spiritual attributes of forty-four non-human beings.

When I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino twelve years ago, I found myself in a world populated by most of the beings represented in the Medicine Cards, so I no longer needed to draw cards from the deck to ignite my wondering about what Nature wanted to tell me. And last week, in the course of a single day, I had three extraordinary meetings with non-human beings that gave me much food for thought.

In the morning of that remarkable day, I walked from our house to the commercial district of Mendocino—about a mile—and upon completion of my errands decided on a circuitous route home that took me through the graveyard at the south end of town. And there amidst the gravestones I came upon a magnificent Great Blue Heron, stalking gophers—the living seeking sustenance among the dead.

The Great Blue Heron is not one of the birds in the old Medicine Card deck I have, but herons represent to me the power of stillness and stealth and careful observation, three important skills that herons use to catch fish and frogs and rodents to sustain their lives and empower them to fly.

Home again, my mind filled with visions of the Great Blue Heron among the graveyard monuments, I shed my pack, drank a glass of water, and went to see how my carrots and lettuce and chard and zucchini plants were faring in the heat of day. And whilst perusing my garden, I decided to nitrogenize the soil, otherwise known as taking a piss.

Now on several occasions in my life I have been wielding a garden hose when a hummingbird arrived to drink from the cool flow of water—a most delightful happenstance. But this piss I speak of was the first I’ve taken that attracted a hummingbird thirsty enough and brave enough to take a sip of my warm salty flow.

According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, hummingbirds are bringers of joy, and I must say that this piss-drinking little beauty certainly made me smile in wonder at both her appetite and her audacity.

In the afternoon, I needed to make another trip to town and took our trusty old pickup. I turned onto Little Lake Road and was going about fifteen-miles-per-hour when a huge Red-tailed Hawk flew across my path no more than ten feet in front of the truck and only a few feet off the ground. I hit my brakes, missed the big bird by inches, and she flew away to the south. Phew! What a relief not to have killed her.

And I wondered if almost hitting a hawk meant something more than almost killing a hawk. Is life a random meaningless crapshoot? Was the universe communicating with me by sending the hawk across the road at that moment? Was the hawk telling me that death is always near, so enjoy life while we may? Was she a harbinger of a publisher calling to say she wanted to present my books to the greater world? Or was the hawk asking me to consider the question: “What’s the big hurry?”

Sams and Carson write, “Hawk may be bringing you the message that you should circle over your life and examine it from a higher perspective. From this vantage point you may be able to discern the hazards which bar you from freedom of flight.”

At dusk on that day of visitations, mammals took over the harbinger business, and a young doe with a nest in a copse of redwoods on our property brought her two fawns to the clearing outside our office windows, and we delighted in the adorable baby deer until they wandered away.

Sams and Carson write, “Deer teaches us to use the power of gentleness to touch the hearts and minds of wounded beings who are trying to keep us from Sacred Mountain.”

And let us never forget: there’s no telling what a hummingbird might do.

Four Grandmothers

July 17th, 2017

Four Grandmothers

Once upon a time there were four grandmothers who were best friends—Tamara, Myra, Amy, and Vivienne. They first met when they were young mothers with children in the same elementary school in a medium-sized town in California; and they stayed friends and kept living in that medium-sized town after their children graduated from high school.

Tamara was sixty and had five grandchildren. Her daughters lived nearby and she was daily involved in the lives of her grandchildren. She was married to Fred, her husband of forty years. Her grandchildren called her Tama.

Myra was sixty-four and had three grandchildren. She spent time with one of her grandchildren several times a week, but the other two lived across the country in Virginia. She only saw those distant two for a week at Christmas and a week during the summer. Myra was married to Arno, her third husband. Her grandchildren called her Gammy.

Amy was sixty-seven and had two grandchildren. Amy’s grandchildren lived in Seattle with their mother who was divorced from Amy’s son. Amy only saw her grandchildren for two weeks in December, but she talked to them twice a week on the phone. Amy was not married. She divorced her one and only husband when she was thirty-five. Her grandchildren called her Grandma.

Vivienne was sixty-eight and had one grandchild. This child lived with Vivienne because Vivienne’s son and daughter-in-law died in a car accident when their little girl was three. Vivienne was a widow. Her husband Jeff died the year after their son died in the car accident. Her granddaughter called her Vivi.

The four grandmothers got together as a foursome twice a week. On Wednesday evenings they went out for Chinese food, and on Sunday afternoons they gathered at Vivienne’s to drink wine and watch a movie.

On one of those Sunday afternoons, Amy brought up the news that the earth was warming so rapidly due to the burning of fossil fuels, that life, all life, would be unsustainable in the not-too-distant future. “We may have a rough old age,” she said to her friends, “but our children and grandchildren will almost certainly die terrible and premature deaths if something isn’t done to reverse the warming, and soon.”

Vivienne said, “There’s nothing we can do about it. Our government and most of the governments in the world are controlled by amoral corporations that profit from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Tamara said, “I just ignore that stuff. If I think about what’s happening to the earth and what we’re leaving our precious grandchildren, I go crazy.”

Myra said, “Don’t worry. The government and scientists will do something to solve the problems before things get too bad.”

“No they won’t,” said Amy, shaking her head. “So I’ve decided to walk to Washington D.C. and go on a hunger strike until our government takes some real substantive action to reverse global warming. If I die trying, so be it, but I’ve got to try.”

Vivienne and Myra and Tamara were stunned by what Amy proposed to do, and they didn’t believe she would actually follow through with her plan, but she did.

Amy took seven months to walk across America. By the time she got to Washington D.C. she was accompanied by eighty-seven other grandmothers, including Vivienne. They gathered in a park near the White House and began their hunger strike in early September. By mid-October there were ninety thousand grandmothers and seventy thousand grandfathers gathered in Washington D.C. participating in the protest.

Congress and the President of the United States tried to ignore the grandparents, but soon all of America and much of the world was fixated on the huge numbers of hunger-striking elders gathering in Washington and in several other large cities around the globe. These older folks demanded their governments stop spending money on war, stop giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, and start spending trillions of dollars each year converting the national energy grids and transportation systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By early December there were over two million grandparents gathered in Washington D.C. with thousands more people of all ages joining them every day. A national strike was called in support of the grandparents and most Americans ceased to participate in the economy until Congress took substantive action. Then the stock market crashed and Congress met in emergency session to pass the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Act that immediately implemented a trillion-dollar-a-year program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero within five years.

Unemployment vanished entirely, free universal healthcare became the law of the land, and the fantastic economic boom ushered in a golden age of art and literature and music and equality and organic farming and creativity and useful innovation.

Speaking about their triumph some years later, with worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases reduced to zero, Amy said, “I was never a political person, but I love my grandchildren so much I couldn’t sit by and watch their world be needlessly destroyed.”

Vivienne said, “Now that there are no more wars and income disparity is disappearing, the world economy is better than ever and there are signs the biosphere is recovering much faster than our most sophisticated computer models predicted.”

Tamara said, “The global policy of economically rewarding women for having only one or no children is paying huge dividends.”

And Myra, recently elected Governor of California, said, “Thank goodness Amy got us off our butts.”

Heat

July 10th, 2017

190moon

190 Moon diptych by Max Greenstreet

I do not do well when the temperature goes much above eighty degrees. I lived in Sacramento for fifteen years in a house without air conditioning, and though my last year there was 1995, over twenty years ago, I still cringe when I think of the summers I spent there. One of those summers we had a hundred days when the temperature surpassed a hundred degrees.

Now I live in Mendocino, a mile from the coast, and the days here are usually cool or cold, rarely warm, and almost never hot.

Today I decided to read a little news of the outside world. I learned that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is dying incredibly fast due to the fast-warming oceans. I also learned that temperatures in Las Vegas have surpassed one hundred and five degrees for several days, and such blazing hot days are expected to continue unabated in the Southwest for several more weeks. And I learned that wildfires are rampaging in California and throughout the western United States and Canada, the ferocity of these fires due to historically high temperatures and a lack of rain.

I also learned that a single medium-sized tree in good health has the cooling power of ten large air conditioners running twenty hours a day.

Buckminster Fuller suggested in his book Critical Path, published in 1981, two years before Fuller died, that the only way human society might survive the coming ecological apocalypse was through a computer-organized and computer-facilitated global government dedicated to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth. In his imagining of this future, the dying Great Barrier Reef, out-of-control wildfires, and soaring global temperatures would trigger responses by the global community that would immediately identify and take action to eliminate the causes of these disasters.

Reading the latest articles about the dying Great Barrier Reef and how helpless people feel they are to eliminate the causes of the swiftly warming oceans, I am reminded that Fuller was keenly aware that a global government dedicated to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth might never come to be.

In related news, the Mendocino Music Festival is underway once more, and my wife Marcia is playing cello in the festival orchestra as she has every year since the festival began thirty-one years ago. We are housing another of the orchestra’s cellists, Abigail Summers, and I am helping Sally Fletcher, the boss of food and drink for the festival events, when she has something easy for me to do.

On Saturday afternoon I walked to town and listened to the Calder Quartet perform Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Opus 13 in the big tent on the headlands. I love Mendelssohn, and this performance of his quartet was, as we used to say in the 60s, astral. I did not stay for the Beethoven, wanting to steep in the after tones of Mendelssohn as I walked home. Wow. What marvelous things humans are capable of creating.

Last night I attended the first orchestra concert of the festival, and as I watched the superb orchestra perform Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, I was reminded that humanity could dedicate our collective energies to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth, and we would succeed magnificently in doing so. We have the genius, the creativity, and the ability to work together to accomplish incredibly complicated and difficult tasks. Why don’t we?

And why, I wondered aloud to Marcia as we were celebrating after the concert, do we allow small groups of highly unimaginative, greedy, non-geniuses to run our governments and destroy the planet? If we can send humans to the moon and bring them home safely, and we can compose and perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s astounding Scheherazade, why don’t we elect brilliant and creative leaders to do what needs to be done to save the biosphere?

The answer seems to be that humans, collectively, are no longer cognizant of the impact of what they do today on the state of things in the future. In Critical Path, Fuller tells of a great hall built at a university in England in the 1500s. The builders were aware that the massive oak beams used to construct the hall would need replacing four hundred years in the future, and to that end they planted a large oak grove on the campus that they accurately calculated would provide the requisite replacement lumber four centuries in the future.

He also tells of the fabulous seaworthy sailing boats, junks, built in Thailand for thousands of years, and how the teak used in the construction of these junks is first aged for twenty-five years in fresh water, then twenty-five years in brackish water, and finally for fifty years in salt water, before being milled for the building of the junks. Thus the sellers of this seaworthy wood to the builders of the boats were the great great grandchildren of those who originally harvested the trees and began their aging processes, which meant that those waterproof teak providers were economically dependent on the actions of their ancestors.

Therefore when people argue that our collective inability to do anything about the dying reefs and rising temperatures and our moronic governments is the result of human nature, I say, “No, I don’t think our inability is the result of human nature. I think our inability comes from a learned unwillingness to share, combined with a relatively new phenomenon: a lack of connection to the past and to the future.”

The good news is that the Mendocino Music Festival will continue for another week, with more glorious music for us to hear—the collective genius of humans on display to inspire us.

Found Stuff

July 3rd, 2017

168three

168 three diptych by Max Greenstreet

Wandering through town today, mobs of tourists here for the long Fourth of July weekend, a man hailed me and said, “Do you know what time it is?”

I looked at the watch I have affixed to my basket and told him the time: 11:47. He then looked at his smart phone, smiled, turned to his wife and said, “You win the bet.”  And then they walked away.

“Excuse me?” I said, calling after the man and his wife. “What was the bet?”

The man turned to me and said, “She bet you’d have the correct time, I bet you wouldn’t.”

“What a curious bet,” I said, half-frowning and half-smiling at the man and his wife. “I wonder why she…”

But then they walked away, so I said no more.

Now as it happens, the watch on my basket is one I found on the ground while walking to town a few years ago. Perfectly good watch, rather old, but keeps perfect time and is just the thing to have affixed to my basket.

This encounter with the rude man from out of town got me thinking of other things I’ve found, including so many pairs of dark glasses that we have a small basket full of them to lend to visitors who lost or forgot theirs or for us to use when we misplace the current pair we’re using. My favorite sunglasses are ultra-comfortable and highly effective and stylish in a pleasingly understated way and no doubt cost their previous owner, the person who left them on the beach, a pretty penny.

Then there is my big orange and black hammer, a most excellent tool I found on the street in Berkeley. I was riding my bicycle and saw the lovely thing lying in the middle of the road. I often found tools in the road while riding my bicycle around Berkeley and Sacramento. Excellent tools. I have a very good crescent wrench and two screw drivers and an expensive wood chisel I found while riding my bike. People drop things and other people pick them up.

I also have lots of rocks I’ve found. I used to be an avid collector of rocks and driftwood, and I still occasionally bring home a stone or a hunk of sculptured wood, but I am no longer the avid collector I once was. My newest stone is not quite as big as a walnut, perfectly egg-shaped, and pale gray. I found the beauty on the beach at Elk a couple weeks ago, and now this stone egg is one of my two carrying stones—one in each of the front pockets of my pants.

I very much doubt that the man who bet his wife I would have the wrong time is a collector of stones or carries stones in his pockets. I also suspect he would not be much interested in hearing about my relationship to stones, which I find fascinating. As it happens, most people I know do not find my relationship to stones even a little bit interesting. However, other people who collect stones and carry one or more of them in their pockets love hearing about my relationship to stones because my story is kin to their stories about their relationships to stones.

One day I was buying groceries at Corners and I fished in my pocket for dimes and pennies and came up with a handful of coins and one of my carrying stones, a roundish orange brown thing also not quite as big as a walnut. The checker, a woman with curly brown hair wearing a turquoise scarf said, “Nice stone,” and then fished into her pocket and brought forth a similar-sized stone, dark brown.

Lots of people carry or wear small crystals, but non-crystal stone carriers are a different sort and tend to be people I instantly relate to. We share an understanding that can’t really be put into words about non-crystal stones, especially the ones we choose to pick up and carry for a time. We are not opposed to crystals. We probably have crystals, too, at home, but this affinity we have for non-crystals…well, ineffable.

Anyway, I like to tell people who also carry stones (and those who reveal themselves to be interested in that sort of thing) that having been a stone carrier since I was a little boy—though no one else I knew while I was growing up did such a thing—I was thrilled when I read a passage in a book called Wisdom & Power, wherein the Lakota holy man Fool’s Crow said he was a stone carrier (non-crystal) and that there were some people who needed to carry stones in their pockets to be fully healthy and happy. He said these kinds of people understood, perhaps without understanding how or why they understood, that the stones connected them directly to Great Spirit.

When I tell other stone carriers this story, you should see the smiles on their faces. Having their mostly secret habit validated by a genius holy man is some of the best news a stone carrier can ever get.

And then there are cats. Nearly all the cats I’ve ever had, and I’ve had lots of cats, found me, which seems like the flip side of finding something but is really the same thing. Those stones, in truth, found me. They called out in the way stones call out, “Hey, I see you. Here I am.” And you look down, and here is the stone, either alone on the sand or in a big mob of other stones, but something makes it stand out for you, and you reach down and pick the stone up and the energy of Great Spirit flows into you from the stone and you know, without knowing how you know, that this stone is going to travel with you for a while.

Playing for Capra Redux

June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

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

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tender Fearless

June 19th, 2017

Tender fearless

Rose In Morning Light photo by Todd

The following is a revamped version of Falling Behind, an article I first published in 2011. I was moved to revisit this article while listening to a piano tune of mine on YouTube called What Comes Around.

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing success was turning steeply downward, my humorless Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages. Most of the people who called me seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change them lest they go mad. Thus I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days, which habit caused my regular callers to complain I was erasing good messages before their friends got to hear them.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral existed. I’m speaking about a time before the ascendancy of the interweb, which was not very long ago, but now seems prehistoric. And I tell you, if by some miracle I could remember that message and put it on YouTube today accompanied by a movie of a woman walking on the beach with her dog, or a movie of three cute kids making cookies from scratch, or a movie of a man reading a book with a cat on his lap (with my piano music as soundtrack)—I have no doubt the message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from hundreds of millions of hits and links and apps and downloads and streams and billions of pennies such prodigious sharing and streaming would bring me.

Sadly or ironically or luckily, I only remember the feeling of that once-in-a-lifetime message, not the words. The feeling was one of deep contentment—of thoroughly enjoying the moment. I recall the day was sunny and warm, my office flooded with light, and I remember being massaged from head to toe by the feeling—the knowing—that simply being alive was a profoundly fulfilling adventure.

Within a few days of recording my message, the phone was ringing off the hook. Many of my friends called multiple times so their friends could have a listen, and then I started getting calls from people I did not know, people who had heard about the message from friends of my friends. And over the next few weeks I got hundreds of calls from all over America and around the world—people calling to hear my outgoing message and leave responses.

A poet called from Germany, and after hearing my message, he recited a poem by Rilke, first in German, then in English—something about the coming of spring.

People partying somewhere in England called, and when the beep sounded, those Brits applauded and shouted “Bravo!”

An elderly woman called from Seattle and said, “I see why my daughter wanted me to hear your message. I can’t stop smiling. I’m going to call again and then tell my friends to call you.”

A man from Scotland left a long friendly-sounding message ostensibly in English, but no matter how many times I listened to his enchanting spiel, I could not understand him.

A bunch of children called, and when the beep sounded, they laughed and giggled—one kid shouting, “You a silly poo poo!”

A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated for me: “I adore what you say and want to have your child.”

I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words made people laugh and cry and rejoice; and many callers responded with impromptu continuations of the message—addenda full of love and humor and gratitude. That message was an elixir, a soothing salve, and some sort of answer to the question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger on my answering machine for a month until one day I got a call from a friend who had heard the message one too many times and asked me to please make a new one. So without a thought for posterity, I hit the Record button, improvised a new greeting, and thereby erased the greatest outgoing answering-machine message I’ve ever made.

I only heard the message one time, and that was immediately after I recorded it and checked to make sure it sounded okay.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

Fast-forward thirty-four years. My wife Marcia and I both have web sites where we display our wares and talents to entice people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs a chamber music camp for beginning adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her camp and sells her CDs and gives away sheet music of her compositions. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD downloaded and streamed by thousands of people every month. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to her customers.

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell handsome coil-bound copies of my many books that publishers, so far, are indifferent to. Thankfully, several dozen people love my self-published books, so I persevere. I also sell my five CDs of original piano music, two CDs of original songs I recorded with Marcia, story CDs, birthday cards, postcards, and notecards of my zany drawings. Visitors to my web site can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) and read articles on my blog. In contrast to Marcia’s ongoing deluge of listeners, I am not so besieged—my creations purchased, on average, by three people a month—three insightful unique magnificent people.

And, yes, my experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering-machine message, as well as a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse that have befallen me over the course of my life, keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again.

Oh I wish I could remember those remarkable words that inspired so many people to call and leave such lovely messages. I remember the tone, a tender fearlessness—but the words elude me.

Wild Animals

June 12th, 2017

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night 72

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night painting by Nolan Winkler

“Of all the lessons I have learned from the natural world, the most compelling is this: thousands of different kinds of us are here, doing what we must to meet our basic needs. Our methods are different, but our object is the same.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

There has been much news lately, locally and around the state, about mountain lions eating cats and dogs. How local? This morning we got word from a neighbor (a hundred yards away) that a trio of big pumas had just emerged from the forest and strolled across her driveway.

A new report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reveals the stomach contents of 83 mountain lions were composed largely of cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals. And of the lions examined, only 5 per cent had eaten deer.

When my sister lived in Los Angeles in the 1980s, she had two big beautiful cats. When those cats were three-years-old, my sister witnessed a huge hawk snatch one them off her patio; and a few days later she watched the other cat killed by a coyote twenty feet from her house.

Which is to say, not only mountain lions eat cats and dogs.

“Few animals are as capable or resourceful as pumas or have been as successful. Even today, after having been exterminated throughout much of their former range, pumas are returning in eastern Canada and New England, where their habits seem to differ somewhat from the habits of western pumas in that they are even more shy.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Yesterday was a day filled with sightings of wild animals. In the morning, I was sitting on the deck on the south side of our house, enjoying the long-awaited sun, when up through a knothole, about ten feet away from me, came a glossy brown-and-tan snake, three-feet long. She slid along the deck and down into our vegetable garden, and when I stood up to see where the snake was going, she made an abrupt U-turn and slithered back under the deck. I think she was a Coast Patch-nosed snake, but she might have been a garter snake.

I was still tingling from my snake sighting when two bright yellow birds came zooming into the yard and began rummaging around in the ferns and berry bushes adjacent to our deck. I assumed these birds were goldfinches, but when I perused my bird book, the Wilson’s warbler became a suspect, too. What fabulous energy these little birds have.

Hours later, walking home from town, as I climbed the steep stretch of Little Lake Road just east of Highway One, a large skunk approached, walking down the hill with great determination, oblivious to me and the passing cars. Knowing skunks have poor eyesight and excellent hearing, I said loudly, “Hello cutie,” and the skunk reacted by raising his tale as he continued his downhill march. So I gave him a wide berth, he lowered his tail, and when he was another twenty feet down the hill, he left the road and entered the woods.

“Well-meaning human vegetarians notwithstanding, cats must eat animal protein or they slowly decline and eventually starve. Not for them the comfortable middle ground, eating meat one day and berries the next, and no carrion either. Fresh meat killed by themselves or by their mothers is virtually the only item on the feline menu.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was forty-two, I became a vegan. Feeling poorly after a year on my vegan regimen, I went to an acupuncturist, she took my pulses, looked at my tongue, inquired about how I was feeling physically and emotionally, and opined that I would benefit greatly from the introduction of animal protein into my diet—fish and eggs if I was opposed to eating the flesh of warm-blooded animals.

But I was determined to stick to veganism and did so for another two years. My strength and stamina, as well as my tolerance for cold temperatures, diminished profoundly under the reign of veganism, though I made every effort to eat the proper combinations of foods and sufficient quantities to sustain me healthfully.

Then I blew out my knee. While convalescing and making little progress in healing, I consulted a dietician and an acupuncturist, and they both urged me to add animal protein to my diet, though not necessarily dairy products. Desperate to heal my knee and regain my strength, I added chicken and fish and eggs to my diet. And literally overnight I felt stronger and warmer and happier than I had felt in many years.

Nowadays, two or three times a week, I eat locally caught fish or locally raised chicken, and very occasionally pork from a local farm. We eat eggs we buy from our neighbor, and three or four days a week we are vegetarians, though not vegan. I have a gluten-free diet and do not eat dairy products. I find this diet sustaining and in no way a hardship, especially now that I have access to excellent locally made organic gluten-free bread.

We recently visited friends who raise two pigs a year from which they make pork chops and pork ribs and pork sausage. At supper I asked our hosts if they ever get emotionally attached to their pigs. They said they loved their pigs, petted them, bathed them, talked to them, brought them special treats, and killed and ate them with gratitude. I said I didn’t think I could do that—kill an animal I was emotionally attached to. Our friends said they were not sentimental people, and the meat of animals treated well tastes much better than the meat of animals treated poorly.

“The fact is, the important thing about big cats and small cats is not that they are different but that they are the same. And like so many other truths about cats, their sameness is due to their diet and their hunting.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I remember reading an article years ago about an exceedingly wealthy couple in Manhattan who invited a famous Chinese artist and his wife to dine with them in the wealthy couple’s spectacular apartment high above the city. When the Chinese guests were seated in the million-dollar living room, eating scrumptious hors d’oeuvres and sipping expensive wine, into the living room sauntered the wealthy couple’s cat, a magnificent blue gray behemoth.

Seeing the cat, the Chinese artist nodded appreciatively and said, “How good of you to purchase such a delicacy for our supper. We are deeply honored. Thank you.”

Of Apples and Accordions

June 5th, 2017

Thinking of You

Thinking of You by Todd

“Around 50 to 65 million years ago, the apple ancestor separated from its Rosaceae cousins on the evolutionary pathway.” Dr. Roger Hellens

Long before there were humans, there were apples. More recently, as in right now, for the first time since I moved to Mendocino twelve years ago, the local apple crop is minimalist, and some orchards hereabouts have set no apples at all. Last year was an epic apple year, and this year the blackberries and huckleberries are promising massive fruit deliveries; but the wonky weather, the cold persisting after blossoming—something—blocked the fruiting of many of our local apple trees.

Last year our own seven not-very-big apple trees produced more fruit than Marcia and I could greedily consume. We canned several big batches of spicy applesauce, gave bags of apples to friends and horses, made gallons of apple juice, kept big boxes full of apples that lasted until January, and refrigerated several dozen apples, too, with some lasting until May. But today I counted but a couple dozen apples on the trees in our orchard, so we will have to go begging or buying apples this year. Darn.

 “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Kurt Vonnegut

I was trying to remember the name of a certain apple and resorted to a favorite book I got at a yard sale in Berkeley twenty years ago: Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, subtitle: an inventory of Nursery Catalogs Listing All Fruit, Berry and Nut Varieties available By Mail Order in the Unites States. My paperback edition came out circa 1989, and a quick search of the interweb shows there have been subsequent editions with web sites added to the information. The Inventory, however, seems to be out-of-print, with used copies going for hundreds of dollars. My copy, albeit out-of-date and falling apart, cost me a dime and has provided me with many hours of delightful reading.

Trusting the editors of the Inventory won’t mind, here are a few tasty tidbits from their goodly tome.

PEARMAIN, WHITE WINTER (Winter Pearmain) — Oldest known English apple; dates back to 1200 A.D. Medium to nearly large, round to oval, light greenish fruit turning pale yellow with numerous dots. Fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy flesh. Pleasantly rich, aromatic flavor. Fine quality, all-purpose apple. Excellent keeper. Tree is a healthy, vigorous grower; bears regularly and heavily. Splendid vitality; widely adaptable. Excellent pollinator. Old favorite dessert apple of the Middle West in early 1800s. Today is grown primarily in warm winter areas where its low chilling requirement renders it one of the few possible apples there. Ripens in late October.

Wow. I have never knowingly eaten such an apple, but reading about the White Winter Pearmain makes me want to plant seven White Winter Pearmain trees and eat hundreds of White Winter Pearmain apples every year.

POMME ROYALE (Dyer)—Greenish yellow fruit usually covered with veins of russet. Fine, highly spicy flavor. Believed to be an old French variety brought to Rhode Island by some Huguenot settlers who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Introduced in 1685.

Fleeing France in 1685. What shall we take to the New World? Cats, of course, to quell the rats. Favorite vegetable seeds. Pumpkins and rutabagas? And, of course, Pomme Royale rootstock so we can grow our trees and harvest apples from which we will make the hooch that has gotten us through hard times for generations, while from those same sacred orbs we will make our famous spicy Huguenot apple pies.

SCARLET CROFTON —Small to medium, flattish fruit. Orange-yellow with brilliant scarlet flush, sometimes solid scarlet, always overlaid with singular network of russet veins and conspicuous dots. Crisp, juicy flesh. Old Irish apple from County Sligo grown since Elizabethan times. Brought to general notice by John Robertson, famous Kilkenny pomologist and nurseryman. Introduced [to America] in 1819.

Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a famous Kilkenny pomologist bringing apples and intriguing short stories to general notice. I wonder how John Roberston went about bringing things to notice. Did he have a wide correspondence with other pomologists? Did he wander around Ireland giving talks and preaching the gospel according to apples? Did he have a column in a popular Irish newspaper?

Or was there a large board affixed to the south-facing wall of the Kilkenny Post Office known as the General Notice Board upon which John Roberston posted articles about apples as well as compelling short stories with endings that could be interpreted any number of ways, so the people of Kilkenny were forever discussing John Robertson’s stories over apple crumble and tea? No wonder the man was so famous!

So…I was in the middle of writing this article when I took a walk into town, the town of Mendocino in County Mendocino, and in our post office box (I’m not making this up) there was a letter to me from Ireland writ by the marvelous accordion player and composer Karen Tweed, and included in the missive was a handout informing her many admirers of what she’s up to these days. And front and center in the handout (which is no doubt the very kind of thing John Roberston posted on the General Notice Board at the Kilkenny Post Office) was the following:

New & fruity project all about apples. Karen TWEED (accordion)—Karen STREET (accordion/saxophone) & Fiona TALKINGTON (voice) explore fact, myth & magic through music, cider, crumbles, poetry & spells…

Karen Tweed Update

Paterson Jarmusch

May 29th, 2017

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.