Pre-recording Recording

August 27th, 2018

monster box

Monster Box photo by Marion Crombie

I wake up thinking about you, go to bed doing the same.

The monsters in my nightmares spend the whole night

whispering your name.

Long ago when I played seriously competitive playground basketball with big athletic men, one of the guys I played with was a very tall muscular man known as Tiny.

Every time I arrived at the playground and Tiny was there, he would greet me with, “Yo Todds. Where you at, my main?” Then he would lock eyes with me until I gave him a meaningful answer. “Doing okay,” or “Hanging in there,” would not suffice for Tiny. He really wanted to know what I was thinking and how I was feeling. After I gave him my answer, I would ask where he was at because I knew he was keen to tell me. Thus when Tiny and I played together, on the same team or opposing each other, we had a sense of where we both were at.

Where I’m at right now is in what I call an interim phase. How about you?

I have completed my new novel and I’m waiting for my designer graphics wizard Garth to send me the first iteration of the book formatted for printing. I will then read the book one more time as I proof the pages, we will design the cover together, and ere long the finished files will be sent to photocopy maestro Ian at ZO, the finest and only copy shop in Mendocino, and some days or weeks hence I’ll have copies of The Magic Pen to share with my small band of devoted readers.

I have written eight novels, a novella, two plays, two screenplays, and three hundred essays in the last six years, a prolific time for me, and I look forward to seeing what the astral conveyor belt delivers next.

By the way, if by some fluke you haven’t yet read my most recent novel The Recipes of Alexander Skåll, copies are still available, you can read the first two chapters on my web site to whet your appetite, and here are a few of the responses I’ve gotten to The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

“Yet another masterpiece Mr. Walton! I am not sure which I hunger for most, the Fish Taco Recipe or your amazingly, colorful and complex characters! I love them all—getting ready to read the book again (I am still hungry )…cannot get enough! Bravo!” Wendy Mull

“What a marvelous story! I’m always sorry to say good-bye to your characters.” Richard Marks

“I just finished reading The Recipes of Alexander Skåll and declare the book a masterpiece. I enjoyed the story from beginning to end and found it extremely moving…had tears in my eyes many times.” David Jouris

Meanwhile I am preparing to go into the recording studio to record thirteen songs, eleven for guitar and voice, two for piano and voice, this upcoming recording a rough draft, so to speak, with which Marcia and I and a few collaborators will be able to hear and practice additional music parts and vocal harmonies for what will eventually be the final recording.

To prepare for this pre-recording recording, I practice the songs every day, honing my playing chops as well as my vocalizing chops. I have lost a few notes at the high end of my singing range since the halcyon days of a sweet falsetto, which is no doubt why I hear female vocalists harmonizing and soloing and supplying higher notes and female tonalities on many of these songs.

In order not to drive Marcia bonkers with repeated performances of these songs, I either wait until she goes off into the world before I practice, or I go the end of the house furthest from Marcia’s office/studio and sequester myself in the resonant bathroom, which also affords me a view of a guy in the mirror playing guitar and making funny faces as he tries to hit those aforementioned high notes. Marcia says she can barely hear me back there, which empowers me to cut loose.

I also sometimes practice outside for an audience of redwoods, hummingbirds, ravens, Japanese maples, chipmunks, chard, collard greens, and sky.

I am using two guitars for the album, a small guitar with a timbre I love for the folk-song-like songs of the collection, and a full-sized guitar with wonderful overtones and neato harmonics for the jazzier tunes. I enjoy switching from one guitar to the other, their unique voices inspiring and refreshing. This is the first time in my life I’ve had two guitars. Who knew?

A few of the songs I’m going to record are ones I’ve recorded before, but I have new ideas about how I want to perform and arrange them. Several of the songs are older songs I’ve never recorded, and I like these songs so well I wonder why I didn’t record them in the days when I was doing lots of recording. And a few of the songs are newly written.

As I practice these songs, old and new, I see more and more ways they connect with each other, and I’m beginning to think of the order they will appear on the album. This is an old-fashioned outdated concept left over from the days of analog recordings and vinyl record albums, from a time when songs were not also little movies with the song as soundtrack. In those long ago days, the order of the songs on an album was an important part of the listening experience.

I do have some groovy ideas for little movies to go with my songs, but the creation of even one of those little movies may very well be beyond me.

Wasn’t gonna go to Mary’s party,

Wasn’t gonna go, I was feeling too low.

Called her up to say I wasn’t coming,

That’s when you answered the telephone.

Something in your voice caught my attention,

Something in your voice rang like a bell.

Next thing I knew I was on my way over,

Riding that bike like a bat outta hell.

Best Laid Plans

August 20th, 2018

the far fields tw

The Far Fields painting by Nolan Winkler

To accomplish your task, you must have a clear intention of what you wish to accomplish. You’ve probably heard those words or a close variant multiple times in your life. I know I have. Seems obvious, and yet I wonder if we might also truthfully say: to accomplish your task, you need only go forth with the intention of doing something and the universe will provide you with myriad opportunities to accomplish all sorts of things, and by accomplish we mean have a neato experience that may result in a tangible something like an apple pie or a pile of money or a new car, or may not result in a physically tangible something but might provide you with a valuable insight or change of heart.

Going forth with a willingness to participate in the dance of life is the primary plot device of most Sufi tales, and the recurring message of those tales is that God, the universe, is waiting for us to take action so she can react to our actions in the manner of a brilliant improvisational dance partner. No wonder I love Sufi tales.

For instance, this morning after a long bout of rewriting the latest magnum opus, I had the very clear intention of going out to the orchard to cut down a huge shrub that overshadows two of my apple trees and is growing so fast that by next year the cutting down will be a Herculean task rather than a couple hours of hard work if I do the cutting down this year.

So I get my most excellent Japanese pole saw, my most excellent Japanese loppers, my razor-sharp Japanese hand clippers, and sally forth to the orchard to peruse the massive shrub and plan the excision. The day is sunny, our first such day in nearly a week, the coastal fog heavy of late, and I am feeling strong and ready, my tools sharp, my intention clear.

I approach the shrub and discover that the several three-inches-in-diameter trunks I wish to cut are on the outside of our deer fence adjacent to the nameless dirt and gravel lane that services three of our neighbor’s houses, none of those houses visible from our house.

So I exit the orchard through a gate in the deer fence and head down the nameless lane where in the distance I espy my neighbor Dave stretching a tape measure across the dirt and gravel track. I walk fifty feet beyond the shrub I intend to cut down, greet Dave, and learn he is building a fence along his property line and wants to make sure he is siting the fence far enough back from the lane.

We agree he’s doing a boffo job, his siting perfecto, and I look back the way I came and see a massive blob of redwood boughs sticking out from a gang of redwoods on our property, the blob hanging way too low over the lane, an obstacle to large delivery trucks, and I am reminded I’ve been intending to have this blob of boughs removed for several years now, but assumed I could not do the job myself because the boughs are attached to the trunks of the redwoods higher than I thought I and my hand tools could reach.

But today, for some reason, armed with my most excellent pole saw that can be extended to twenty-feet in length, and with Dave’s encouragement, I decide to attack the blob. A few cuts along, Dave departs for the golf course, and I realize I could use the help of my marvelous pole lopper, which I fetch. After an hour of sawing and lopping, I have excised the blob and created a great mass of fallen boughs now blocking the lane.

At which moment, unbidden, Marcia arrives and helps me haul the boughs to our driveway for dismemberment into kindling for our wood stove and green waste for the county compost pile. Whilst hauling the boughs, Marcia studies the lane and discerns three large manzanita branches emanating from our property and invading the air space quite low over the lane and threatening telephone wires. So I decapitate those branches and whilst decapitating them discover the Doug Fir I noted growing amidst the manzanita two years ago that was then a scrawny six-feet-tall and is now a robust eighteen-feet-tall and promising to be thirty-feet-tall next year. So I cut the fir down, too.

Following a water and snack break, I spend a couple hours converting the redwood boughs and fir tree into kindling and green waste, and as of this writing the troublesome shrub is still standing.

One Sufi-tale ending to this story might be that at dusk, in search of huckleberries, I return to the orchard and hear the most beautiful singing I have ever heard. I look around the orchard to discover the source of the song, and there in the shrub I intended to cut down is a large nest made of many small redwood boughs, and in the nest are three golden baby birds singing like angels, newly hatched golden baby angel birds who never would have hatched from their eggs had I carried out my intention to cut down the shrub.

As I listen to the angelic singing, I realize Dave was not really Dave, but a spirit being disguised as Dave sent to protect the eggs of the golden birds, and I also discover that when lopping the redwood boughs, I unknowingly lopped in half a terrible dark-skinned viper that might have one day killed me or Marcia or both of us, and surely would have eaten the eggs containing the golden birds. I eventually make a really cool belt out of the viper’s skin.

Another possible Sufi-tale ending might be that I return to the orchard the next day to cut down the troublesome shrub and find a powerful goddess disguised as an old woman sitting in the shade of the shrub. Grateful for the shade and plums and blackberries she’s helped herself to, she grants me three wishes. I choose wisely and my wishes set in motion a swift reversal of global warming and human over-population, while ushering in a renaissance in literature and cinema.

Even so, I still plan to cut the troublesome shrub down because I want my apple trees to thrive. But I’ll wait a few days to do the deed, which will give the baby golden angel birds time to fledge and fly away.

behold the blue, tw

Behold the Blue painting by Nolan Winkler

Lyrics

August 13th, 2018

09AUGnewplace

new place diptych by Max (click on image to enlarge)

So I was in the post office a few days ago mailing a package to North Salem, New York, and the clerk helping me was not Lara or Robin, our beloved regulars, but a substitute, a tall slender woman with gorgeous teeth and dark blonde hair piled high on her head.

She put my little package on the scale, typed in the address, frowned, and said, “You’ve either got the wrong town for that zip or the wrong zip for that town.” And I thought What a great lyric. Perhaps the chorus to a song about love going in the wrong direction or being only half right. But which half? Or maybe the song isn’t about love, but about figuring out what parts of ourselves to keep and what parts to let go of, a song about finding a new place to come from, creating a new vision of who and what we are in the world.

“Shall we assume you got the town right?” she asked, arching an impressive eyebrow as she typed in the town name. “That zip is…” And she gave me the zip code for North Salem.

“I got this address off his web site,” I said, appreciating her use of “shall we assume” rather than “do you want to assume”. Shall we assume meant we were in this together, guessing together, being right or wrong together. I felt grateful to her for sharing the responsibility with me for choosing the town over the zip.

My profuse thanks seemed to both please and annoy her—she was pleased to be thanked and annoyed I had taken so long at the window that a line was now snaking out the door where no line had been before I got there.

I need to backtrack a little here and mention that when I first stepped up to the counter and smiled at the substitute, not only was there was no line, but the first thing I said to her was, “I’ve never seen you here before. Are you real?”

She was somewhat taken aback by my question, but quickly recovered her aplomb and retorted, “Oh I’m real. Subbing today. I usually work at Little River.”

I said other silly things, the kind of absurdist ironic comedic things I say to Robin and Lara when they handle my postal needs, and as I was walking away from the substitute, I felt a pang of remorse for having been something of a smartass to this perfectly nice person who was just trying to do her job in a place where she didn’t usually work.

Happily my remorse was not long-lived and I returned to musing about her impromptu lyric: You’ve either got the wrong town for that zip or the wrong zip for that town.

I find the word that clunky. Sometimes we can’t avoid using that, but if we can, we should. This rule applies to prose, poetry, lyrics, letters to friends, letters to the editor, and grocery lists. Avoid using that whenever plausible. Ditto the word it. Its are a scourge upon the written page. In my opinion, its are far worse than thats because thats actually sometimes serve important grammatical purposes, whereas its are usually obfuscating and annoying and misleading. These are, of course, merely my opinions about its and thats. You may love its and thats and use them constantly. Fine. Be that way.

So…with the elimination of thats in mind, how about You’ve either got the wrong zip for the right town or the right zip for the wrong town.

Or we could drop the contraction of you have and get down with You either got the wrong zip for the right town, or the wrong town for the right zip.

Is this a Motown song? Country? Hip hop? Sondheim? Salsa? You choose.

No matter the genre, these lines beg for subsequent lines to rhyme with them and add layers of humor, irony, nuance, poignancy, piquancy, and a certain je ne sais quoi to the unfolding song. Aye there’s the rub. A certain je ne sais quoi. These things don’t grow on trees, you know. They can’t be bought from je ne sais quoi web sites. Je ne sais quoi must be unearthed from the inner recesses of the lyricist’s mind and brain and spirit, as diamonds must be mined and potatoes must be dug.

Another thing: just because a clever lyric falls into our mental purview doesn’t mean we have to write a song using said found lyric. (See Found Poetry) Just because you find a twenty-dollar bill doesn’t mean you have to immediately buy something, items of food or a scarf or new colored pencils, though why not? We might just appreciate the lyric as a passing run of words tickling our poetical songwriting synapses, fleeting amusement, momentary respite from the usual blither.

And this is where I got to regarding You’ve either got the wrong zip for the right town or the right zip for the wrong town. My poetical synapses had been tickled, but I wasn’t greatly inspired to use the line in a song. If you would like to use this lyric or a variation thereof, please do.

So…having written the preceding 875 words, I decided to celebrate by going to the Mendocino Farmers Market where I scored a dozen fabulous heirloom tomatoes and the first small-farm watermelon of the season, brought to the coast from the hotter inland climes, along with a coastal-grown cauliflower of such majesty and perfection I was torn between eating the blessed thing or placing the white majesty on a pedestal to admire until rot ensued. Eating won out over admiration and she was refrigerated.

I got home from the farmers market and here was an email from Max bearing his neato diptych with which I prefaced this article, the words accompanying the visuals reading: I am trying to locate a new place to come from. The place I came from isn’t working anymore.

I know. Right? How could I not try mixing those words with the substitute postal clerk’s impromptu lyrics? Here is what I’ve got so far. Imagine these words sung by Bill Withers with a groove reminiscent of his “Use Me”.

I got the wrong town for the right zip,

I said the right zip for the wrong town,

Place I came from ain’t working no more

Need a new place to come from now

Dream Songs

August 6th, 2018

Dream Songs

Basketball Guitar photo by Todd

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

For two consecutive mornings recently I woke from dreams in which I was playing basketball and sinking improbable shots. Having had basketball dreams since I started playing basketball when I was twelve, what I found most interesting about these recent basketball dreams was that I was making shots instead of missing. In most of my previous basketball dreams, the ball would almost go in, but not quite.

In the first of these recent basketball dreams, I am in a professional basketball training facility, standing at mid-court watching pro ball players shooting around at one end of the court. A ball comes to me and I hold it for a moment and think about shooting, but instead of shooting I pass the ball to one of the enormous pros. I then turn away from the pros and go to the other end of the court where a few non-pro players are shooting around. I take a few shots and make them all, and as I continue to shoot, the court starts to change into a store with aisles of shelves. I am in one of those aisles about thirty feet from the hoop when I confidently launch a shot that swishes through cleanly. Feeling marvelous, I look around for a witness and see a boy running by.

“Did you see that shot I just made?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says with little enthusiasm. “Awesome.”

The second basketball dream takes place in a vegetable garden connected to a basketball court in a high school gymnasium. I am standing amidst the vegetables with a tall wooden archway looming between me and the faraway hoop. I fling the ball over the arch and watch with delight as the ball falls from on high and passes cleanly through the hoop. I make a second such shot, which prompts the approach of a woman who is concerned I might be interfering in a high school game I shouldn’t be involved in.

Where are Freud and Jung when we need them?

In other subconscious news, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I just wrote my first new guitar song and found the process delightful and mysterious. I call this subconscious news because a large part of songwriting for me has to do with seeding the brain/body/spirit consortium with ideas for melodies and story lines and then seeing what the consortium comes up with over time.

Which is also to say, I think most dreams are the consortium’s attempts to create symbolic movies out of what we’re dealing with in our lives, both in the immediate sense and in the longer arcs of experience that compose our lives. The blueprints for these symbolic creations, I believe, are the ingrained ways we think and feel about ourselves.

I also think some dreams are clairvoyant communications from other people; that we actually co-dream and thereby receive information about each other via the astral plane.

So. After much noodling around, I found the chord and rhythm pattern for my new song, and then for several nights in a row I played the pattern multiple times before going to bed. I woke the following mornings to intriguing images and phrases and memories, gifts of the subconscious, and I would then try fitting those gifts to the chord and rhythm pattern of the song.

The recurring tonalities of those morning gifts were humor, nostalgia, playfulness, joy, and melancholy.

So check this out.  A few nights ago I went to bed feeling confident the song, You Say Yes, was done and ready to be sung a hundred times to get it well-learned before I record it. I was smiling as I went to sleep, happy with my new tune, and the next morning I woke to the song playing in my head and…

The lyrics were in Present Tense.

I’d written those lines and worked them dozens of times in Past Tense.

I jumped out of bed, ran to my office, picked up my guitar, sat down with the lyric sheet, and sang the song in Present Tense, and every previously-not-exactly-right syllabic relationship was magnifique.

Man oh man. Woman oh woman. What a kick.

Another of the songs I’ll be recording along with You Say Yes is a song I wrote in my early twenties when I was crashing in my friend Scott’s squalid apartment in New York City, one of the few songs from long ago I still play, a ballad called Agnes June.

Scott was studying composition at the Manhattan School of Music, and through Scott I met several aspiring composers, one of them Hans, a jocular German fellow lavishly supported by his socialist government to study abroad, his particular interest opera. When Hans learned that I played the guitar and wrote songs, he asked to hear some of them, and after I performed a few tunes for him he asked if I would be interested in writing words for a series of operatic lieder he wanted to compose for a talented soprano he was working with.

“If I use your lyrics,” he said, gesturing expansively, “I will pay you a hundred dollars per song.”

I was flattered, felt entirely over-matched, but was desperate for money and agreed to give it a try. Hans was delighted. We had three meetings at groovy cafés where Hans footed the bill for much-appreciated meals. At one of those meetings, we were joined by Neta, the Swedish soprano. She, too, was being nicely supported by her socialist government to study abroad, and we had a lively discussion about the kinds of lyrics they were hoping I would write for them.

“Sorrow,” said Hans, smiling ecstatically. “Youthful sorrow.”

“But joyful,” said Neta, nodding emphatically. “Joyful sorrow.”

“The poignant juxtaposition of joy and sorrow,” said Hans, tapping the table. “Bitter and sweet, tragic and comic.”

“The moodiness of youth,” said Neta, sighing. “You know how when we were teenagers we could go from ecstasy to misery in a heartbeat? That sort of thing.”

“We want the listener to smile and weep,” said Hans, beckoning the waitress to bring him another beer. “Cry and laugh.”

I spent several days sitting on various park benches working on lyrics for Hans and Neta—Scott’s apartment too depressing—and then presented Hans with the words for seven songs. He said he would get back to me, and a few days later he took me to lunch and said, “I like all your lyrics, love two of these, but Neta was hoping for something more free form. These are intriguing story songs, but not modern. Not contemporary. These are ballads from another time. They ask for beautiful melodies, but atonality and abstraction are in vogue now. I should have been more explicit. I apologize. You obviously worked very hard. I would like to give you a hundred dollars.”

I foolishly turned down the money, stowed the sheets of lyrics in my guitar case, left New York not long after, and carried on with my vagabond life for a while longer before settling into hippie life in Santa Cruz.

When I got a new guitar and a new guitar case, I was transferring stuff from the old case to the new case and came upon the lyrics I’d written for Hans. Most of the songs struck me as trying-too-hard junk, but the one called Agnes June sang to me as I read the words.

All these decades later, I understand Agnes June as a story from my life at that time, disguised as a classic ballad—sorrowful and joyful.

I was married in the snow to a girl named Agnes June.

We loved all through the year, under sun and under moon.

She could sing like an angel, like a birdie, too.

When the sky was gray, Agnes Junes would sing the blues.

Sleep

July 29th, 2018

oasis tw

Oasis painting by Nolan Winkler

Ten days ago I woke at eight in the morning feeling utterly exhausted, as if instead of sleeping I had walked fifty miles while arguing with a series of neurotic sidekicks. I was so tired I could barely get out of bed. I nearly fell asleep in the shower. In the kitchen, debating whether to have eggs or granola, I closed my eyes, drowsed, and dreamt I was in my high school cafeteria, waiting in line to buy a snack. When I failed to make sense of anything in my office, I went back to bed and slept for an hour.

When I got up from that hour of sleep, I was still so tired I thought I must be coming down with some sort of bug, except I had no symptoms other than exhaustion. I thought I’d make myself a cup of coffee, and that’s when the light bulb went on in my brain, and the voice of my brain proclaimed, “Your adrenals are exhausted. Game over. Again.”

Let me explain. I was not a coffee drinker until I was in my thirties, and from the outset my body/mind/spirit told me, “This is not a good idea. A sip of java now and then might be okay, but cups of coffee every day? Don’t do it.”

But I came to crave the emotional lift, that easy antidote to mild depression and ennui, and so began my on-again off-again love affair with coffee—a tug of war that has continued for more than thirty years. In the context of my history with coffee, I see now that my recent bout with extreme exhaustion resulted from months of overriding my body’s impulse to take a nap by having a jolt of java, then staying up too late and sleeping poorly, only to repeat the pattern the next day.

Having now gone ten days without coffee or black tea or any sort of caffeine, except what is contained in a tiny bit of chocolate, my energy has increased and my mood swings have become less dramatic. And I’ve been thinking about why I have such a hard time allowing myself to rest when I get tired.

The first time I saw an adult taking a daytime nap was on a summer weekend when I was seven. Having been up since dawn running around throwing balls and riding my bike and climbing trees and chasing other kids, it was late afternoon when I came charging into our house and found my father asleep on the living room sofa, snoring loudly. I was so shocked to see him sleeping in broad daylight, I ran to the kitchen and asked my mother if my father was ill.

“No,” she said, drinking a martini while making supper. “He had a hard week. He’s just tired.”

My father? Tired in the middle of the day? I tiptoed back to the living room and watched his chest rising and falling, his snores reverberating through the house. Imagine a grown man sleeping during the day. The mind boggled.

So yesterday I told my pal Lenny about what’s been going on with me vis-à-vis sleeping and napping, and Lenny, who is several years younger than I said, “Oh man, I nap anywhere and everywhere. I totally depend on naps to keep me sane and healthy. I love sleeping on the floor in a patch of sunlight or on the ground outside on a warm day. Let old mother earth heal me. I judge sofas by how good they are for napping. When I walk into a room, the first thing I look for is a good place to lie down. Without naps, I would be a wreck, a zombie, a beaten down loser. With naps I’m a debonair man-about-town with a twinkle in my eye and a deep abiding love for all living things. Naps are my elixir. I say sleep as much as you possibly can. Sleep is the fountain of youth.”

The National Sleep Foundation web site has this to say about napping.

“More than 85% of mammalian species are poly-phasic sleepers, meaning that they sleep for short periods throughout the day. Humans are part of the minority of monophasic sleepers, meaning that our days are divided into two distinct periods, one for sleep and one for wakefulness. It is not clear that this is the natural sleep pattern of humans. Young children and elderly persons nap, for example, and napping is a very important aspect of many cultures.

“As a nation, the United States appears to be becoming more and more sleep deprived. And it may be our busy lifestyle that keeps us from napping. While naps do not necessarily make up for inadequate or poor quality nighttime sleep, a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance. Nappers are in good company: Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and George W. Bush are known to have valued an afternoon nap.”

I don’t know if I’d call that good company, but I would certainly call it white male company.

In any case, I am henceforth going to think of myself as a poly-phasic sleeper who cannot healthfully drink coffee. You may be a monophasic sleeper who happily drinks five cups of coffee a day with no ill effects. If that is so, I’m a wee bit jealous of you because I know of no other buzz quite so zingy neato as the zooming liftoff into ineffable happiness, however short-lived, I used to get from a good cup of joe.

I wonder if I could develop the discipline to have but one cup of coffee a year, on Christmas or my birthday or the Summer Solstice or March 17. Just one little cup? I doubt it. I have tried to limit myself to a once-a-week latte, but that inevitably leads to craving more of the same the next day. No, in the long run it is a far far better thing I do to stick to nettle tea and tulsi tea and rooibos tea and apple juice and water with a twist of lemon, and only the very occasional teensy weensy taste of Marcia’s morning java.

Terrible Chairs

July 23rd, 2018

Four Brits and a Yank

Four Brits and a Yank photo by Todd (click on photo to see larger)

“There are some terrible chairs in the world,” said Ruth, Abi’s sister, as we were enjoying afternoon tea on the deck in the blessed fulgent sunshine.

“That’s a great line,” I exclaimed, jumping up to get pen and paper. “I must write it down.”

Ruth and her partner Jeff were visiting from England, staying for a week at the Mendocino Hotel and watching Abi perform with the Mendocino Music Festival orchestra. Abi stays with us when she comes to the coast from Forestville to play the annual festival, she and Marcia among the local players filling out the cello section. Ruth had never seen Abi perform on her cello, so this was a big deal for both sisters—Ruth nearing sixty, Abi fifty-three and a longtime California resident.

There were six of us having fruit salad and cheese and crackers and tea, Abi, Jeff, Ruth, and Marion the Brits, Marcia and Todd the Yanks.

We got on the subject of words and figures of speech specific to England shortly after Ruth told us about meeting people in Mendocino who, when they heard Jeff and Ruth’s British accents, felt the need to apologize for our president.

Lest we sink into group despair, I changed the subject by saying to Ruth and Jeff, “Marion recently used the word chuntering in an email to me. We don’t have that word in American English as far as I know. Do you use it, too?”

They said they did. One might say, “The washing machine was chuntering along.” But one might also say, “He was often chuntering to himself about one thing or another.” So there was not a set meaning to chuntering, but the four Brits knew what chuntering meant by the context in which it was used.

Then Marion asked Ruth and Jeff, “Do you ever use the expression scurryfunging?”

Ruth and Jeff didn’t know that one, and Abi suggested it might be specific to Oxford where Marion hails from.

“What does it mean?” Marcia wondered.

“When you’ve got guests arriving any minute and the place isn’t presentable,” explained Marion, “you do some scurryfunging to give the place a semblance of order.”

“Scurryfunging,” I said, writing it down. “Hurried house cleaning and putting things away before the guests arrive.”

This talk of words specific to British English put me in mind of one of the most enjoyable editing jobs I ever had. I was hired by a publisher to help them bring out the first American edition of a massive English gardening book, a classic in the field that had been revised and reissued several times in England over the past hundred years. The editor who hired me had taken one of my writing workshops and knew me as both a competent writer and a zealous gardener.

My job was to carefully read the massive tome and note any words or expressions I thought should be replaced by American equivalents to make the book less confusing for American readers. I would be working with a British editor who knew oodles of gardening terminology.

I found hundreds of words in that encyclopedic tome that needed translating to American English, and this charming British editor and I had three long telephone conversations during which we went through my list and came up with appropriate replacement words for the originals. Being a hopeless mimic, after a few minutes on the phone with this learned fellow, I had a British accent rahther like his.

So the British say green fly, Americans say aphid.

Americans say hand clippers, the British say secateurs.

The British use the word turf for what Americans mean by sod. The Brits use sod to mean soil, not the grass attached to the soil.

In other linguistic news, I’ve been having fun employing the expression I know. Right? in my recent communications with my pal Max. If you were a teenager or adult in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, you probably knew people who used this response…all the time. Here is my initial exchange with Max that inspired me to trot out the old expression.

Todd: Abi has agreed to teach me how to make my own granola, something I’ve always wanted to do.

Max: I’m amazed you’ve never made your own granola. A funny little hole in your history—soon to be filled.

Todd: I know. Right?

I’m fairly certain I know. Right? pre-dates, yet is somehow connected to, the ubiquitous phenomenon in America of teenagers and young adults, predominantly females, who make every sentence into a question?

“I went shopping yesterday? At Whole Foods? And I wanted to get bananas? But they were out of the organic ones? And I was just devastated?”

I know. Right?

I mentioned I know. Right? to Marion, and she was quite familiar with that particular expression.

“It’s not at all defensive,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s just a British thing, but if someone said, ‘I’m amazed you never learned to make your own granola,’ the British reply would probably be something like, ‘Well, I didn’t have time to learn. I was busy with more important things.’ Whereas, saying ‘I know. Right?’ is to nicely agree.”

Which is true, but what used to bother me about the expression was that the initial confidence implied by I know felt diminished by Right? as if the confidence was false.

Max pointed out that the correct reply to I know. Right? is Right!

But I always bridled at making that reply because I wanted to say, “Oh stop equivocating,” only I never said that because I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.

right

We had so much fun at tea with Jeff and Ruth and Abi and Marion, we did a bit of scurryfunging and had them over for Sunday brunch; and as I was giving Abi a copy of my book Calliope of Hope because she had very much enjoyed The Recipes of Alexander Skåll, she asked, “What is a calliope?”

I was surprised she didn’t know what a calliope was, being a pianist and cellist and whatnot. Then Jeff joined us, and he, too, didn’t know what a calliope was, which surprised me anew. The Brits apparently don’t use the word calliope.

So I described a calliope as best I could and Jeff said, “Oh…like a barrel organ, only bigger.”

Centered Gull

July 16th, 2018

gull capture

Gull Capture photo by Todd

In the novel I’m writing, one of my characters says, “I don’t believe in luck.” She doesn’t explain why she doesn’t believe in luck, but by the time I wrote those words down, I was several hundred hours into writing the novel and I understood why she didn’t believe in luck. Or why she didn’t think she believed in luck.

But the thing about luck is similar to the thing about love. Is there an indisputable definition of luck? By that I mean, what exactly is luck? Are we talking about fate? Karma? Random chance? My character doesn’t believe in luck, but she does believe in karma, or her definition of karma, which may be different than your definition of karma or the Dalai Lama’s definition of karma.

The difference between karma and luck is tricky because the two ideas can be easily conflated, as in “we make our own luck,” which might be a definition of karma.

Maybe what my character meant by luck was dumb luck, which would be luck we haven’t made ourselves, but luck that simply befalls us. Pure chance. But if there is no such thing as luck, then what seems to simply befall us may actually be the result of karma or something else.

I had an experience recently that was captured in the photo I posted at the beginning of this article. If the photo of which I speak is not attached to the version of this article you’re reading, I will tell you it is a photo of a rock outcropping on the coast a couple miles south of Mendocino, an outcropping that becomes a little island at high tide. The day is sunny, the water deeply blue, and in the sky above the iconic outcropping, perfectly centered, is a sea gull winging swiftly by.

Now here’s the thing. When I stopped to photograph the outcropping and the ocean and the sky, I was in no hurry. Yet something made me hurriedly fumble my little camera out of my pocket. And I distinctly remember thinking, “Why am I hurriedly fumbling my camera out of my pocket? This is weird. What’s going on?” I remember not having a solid grip on the camera as my hand swung up and framed the outcropping and my finger grazed the shutter button before I was consciously ready to take the picture, which is something I never do because I prefer sharply-focused pictures to blurry pictures and I like being conscious of what I’m aiming at when I depress the shutter button.

But this time, everything I never do was done, seemingly involuntarily, as if I was being used by the unseen forces of the universe as a kind of robot Mars Rover to take the picture, only I wasn’t on Mars; I was on earth a couple miles south of Mendocino.

When I got home and downloaded the day’s photos from my camera onto my computer, here was the picture of the outcropping and the ocean and the sky, the only photo of the outcropping I took that day, and in the center of the photo was a gull winging swiftly by. I did not crop the photo. The gull centered himself at the moment the shutter clicked, and he was going mighty fast, the gull. I know he was going mighty fast because when he winged by during that spastic picture-taking moment, I was barely aware of something flying by. Only when I saw the picture on my computer screen did I learn of the perfectly centered gull.

Was that luck? Karma? Fate? The hand of God? The tentacle of a minor deity? And why me? Why that picture?

One answer might be that this frantic fumbling picture-taking resulted in this portrait of a gull and the outcropping and the ocean and the sky so I would be sufficiently moved by both the photo and the experience of taking the photo that I would write about what happened and share my writing so that you or someone else would read about this unusual moment and be moved to do something that causes ripples in the time space continuum and accomplishes something or many things the Universe wants accomplished.

Another answer might be: life is a series of random experiences signifying nothing but what some humans (me) egoistically want to imbue with a deeper meaning that isn’t really there.

Buckminster Fuller wrote extensively about precession, which he defined as the right-angled unintentional effects of a direct action. He has two favorite examples of precession, one involving dropping a stone into a still pond, the other a bee probing a flower to get nectar.

The direct action of dropping the stone into a still pond results in the expected result of a concussive splash. The precessional unintentional effects of dropping the stone into a pond are ripples caused by the initial impact of the stone. Bucky assumed the dropper of the stone was after the splash and not the ripples, or maybe Bucky wasn’t concerned about the dropper’s intentions because this is such a neato illustration of the right-angled effects of an intended action.

The direct action of the bee probing the flower to get nectar results in the bee getting nectar, and the precessional effect of the bee probing the flower is that the flower gets pollinated. Bucky assumed the bee didn’t know or care about pollination and just wanted that nectar. Not being a bee, I don’t know if that’s true. In any case, the action of going after nectar does result in pollination, which ultimately results in more flowers, fruit, and life as we know it on earth.

Precession, however, doesn’t obviously explain why I acted so uncharacteristically when I snapped the picture of the centered gull, but it might explain the effects of my sharing this article, though I will never know what most of those effects are, if there are any.

Even if you, for instance, were moved by this article to take a picture of the view out your window and snapped the shutter just as a rabbit hopped by, a species of rabbit thought to be extinct, and you not only became famous for the picture and thus your life was changed forever, but proof of the existence of this incredibly rare rabbit resulted in a huge swath of land being saved from rapacious developers, and you told me about this, I still would never know about the thousands of other events that might spring, directly or indirectly, from people reading this article and seeing the photo of the centered gull.

Or maybe there won’t be any precessional effects from this article. Maybe this is but fleeting evidence of one human’s attempt to communicate thoughts and feelings that sprang from his experience of taking a picture of a gull centered in the sky above a coastal outcropping.

Only time will tell; and when time does tell, who knows if anyone will be listening; and if someone is listening, will they understand what time is saying?

Critters

July 9th, 2018

Ganesh's Bowl

Ganesh’s Bowl photo by Todd

Two years ago our big gray cat Django got hit by a car and died, and we were sad for a time and thought about getting a couple of kittens, but we didn’t. Then some months after Django died, I was having a cup of tea in the dining room and looked out the window and saw a gang of chickadees foraging in the ferns and flowers just fifteen feet away from me, and I realized that when Django was alive, those birds would never have foraged there.

Fast forward to a few mornings ago: I was sitting on the deck watching a mob of chickadees and finches and tits rampaging in the nearby shrubbery, when along came an alligator lizard, a beautiful being Django would have toyed with and killed. But instead of dying a terrible death, the lizard paused to look at me and show me his shiny new skin before he moved off into the ferns to hunt for insects.

The next day I saw a gorgeous garter snake slither through the vegetable patch, and I knew Django would have killed him, too.

Then yesterday I stepped out of my office to play guitar in the morning sun and our resident chipmunk scampered along the deck to have a drink of water from the white bowl in front of the statue of Ganesh, a bowl we keep filled with water for the many birds and critters who share this land with us. Having slaked his thirst, the chipmunk found a lovely old weed going to seed, and while I strummed and sang, the chipmunk dined—a most enjoyable tête-à-tête that never would have happened were Django still with us.

If we had a cat or a dog, the mother skunk and her adorable baby would not come to drink from Ganesh’s bowl as they do at dusk every day, and a dog would keep the deer away, too, the deer we love to watch from our office windows—fawns appearing with their mothers throughout the summer.

And though I’d like to have a cat and a dog, for now I will forego that pleasure because I so enjoy having all these wild critters close at hand.

I recently caught a glimpse of a fox trotting through the woods on his way to our orchard, and I was thrilled to see the splendid fellow. We named our place Fox Hollow after the mother fox and her kits who entertained us so grandly for the first two years we lived here.

We might have called our place Ravenswood for the many ravens who live hereabouts. I recently had a long conversation with a raven. He cawed three times; I cawed three times. He cawed twice; I cawed twice. He cawed four times; I cawed four times. Then there was a pause, so I cawed twice, and he cawed twice. Then I cawed four times, and he cawed four times. Then I cawed but once, and he cawed but once. I fell silent and he cawed three times, so I cawed three times. This might have gone on indefinitely, but I was getting hoarse, so I quit. I’m not sure what we were talking about, but we certainly agreed on how many times to caw, which I consider a great achievement in inter-species communication.

We are also situated directly below the flight path of a robust population of wild pigeons and a pair of regal Red-tailed hawks. And we have vultures and possums and a big silver gray squirrel and gophers and…

In Django’s absence our neighbor’s big tabby has commandeered the orchard at the far southwest corner of our property, the gophers of special interest to her. I dissuade her from coming any nearer to our house because I don’t want her assuming Django’s role visa-à-vis the chipmunk and lizards and snakes and birds and the big silver gray squirrel. However, a dent in the orchard gopher population would not be a bad thing.

Speaking of critters, here at the start of July, the local population of mosquitoes is exploding, so much so that working outside of late has been a continuous swat fest, but that should change as summer progresses and the ground becomes perilously dry. Meanwhile, the swallows and bats are thrilled with the abundance of the little biting buggers.

female trio

And then there are human critters, a fascinating species, especially the colorful and emotive females. The music festival is underway, so Abi and Marion, both British female human musicians, have joined Marcia, the resident American female human musician, in our little neck of the woods, and the three of them are great fun to observe and interact with.

Human females, for my taste, are much more interesting than human males, at least the human males abounding in America; but then I’ve always been keen on humans who share their feelings and laugh easily and like to talk about food and dreams and what they just realized about themselves and life and so forth. Then, too, I spent the first several years of my life enthralled with my two older sisters until they grew weary of me and became less enthralling. But by then my admiration for more than the physical potentialities of female humans was well established and continues to this day.

Maybe human males in other cultures are not as stiff and stoic and emotionally guarded and narrow-minded as most American male humans are. I don’t know. What I do know is that emotional openness and generosity and curiosity about other people has everything to do with nurture and not much to do with nature. I say this because I am fortunate to know a handful of American male humans who enjoy sharing their feelings and laugh easily and like to talk about food and dreams and what they just realized about themselves and life and so forth.

Unfortunately, most of these unusual male humans don’t live around here; but at least we know each other, so we do not feel as bereft as we might otherwise.

Ah, I see our chipmunk is ensconced in the big flowerpot on the deck and has some sort of snack in hand. Maybe he’d like to hear a song while he eats.

Summertime

July 2nd, 2018

summertime

Summertime photo by Todd

Marcia and I walked into town via the beach on Saturday, the most summery day of the 2018 Mendocino summer so far, warm and sunny with only a slight breeze blowing in from the ocean. We live a mile inland, and it was already quite warm by Mendocino standards, mid-seventies, when we set off for the coast at 10:30 in the morning. Halfway to the ocean, the air was much cooler—upper fifties.

Judging by the millions of blossoms we saw along our way, this will be an epic year for blackberries and huckleberries, and we are already seeing irrefutable proof of a super duper apple harvest. This is also the time of year when we avail ourselves of the Fort Bragg Fruit Group and buy lugs of peaches and nectarines trucked in from the warmer climes and sold at 1980s prices.

After a brief sojourn on Big River Beach, otherwise known as Dogs Galore, we climbed the stairs to the headlands trail that carried us through lush stands of wild pink roses to the Presbyterian church and Preston Hall wherein the music festival chorus was rehearsing their part for the festival finale: John Rutter’s Magnificat.

The big music festival tent was standing majestically on the headlands opposite the Mendocino Hotel, the fanciful tent always adding an ineffable classiness to the little town. Marcia and the local cello and viola players have been rehearsing at our house two days a week and will soon join the superb out-of-town players rounding out the festival orchestra.

And, of course, the town was jammed with tourists from all over the world, mobs of people ambling along the few streets of the town, looking for stuff to eat and things to buy. The character of the town changes significantly in the summer, when most locals run their errands in the morning before the place is awash in visitors, and many locals avoid the town entirely on weekends. These are the months when local businesses make their largest profits, and we are grateful for the infusions of cash into the local economy, however bizarre the outsider energy.

What do I mean by outsider energy? Well, first of all, outsiders tend to drive crazy fast in town compared to locals. Considering the town is traversable in every direction in about a minute if you’re going five miles an hour, driving thirty on a two-block street to nowhere strikes me as bizarre. However, if one is accustomed to the madcap traffic of Santa Monica or San Francisco, I suppose speeding becomes one’s habit, so…

Outsiders these days also tend to be hyper phone-centric. By that I mean, they do not, in general, look around so much as they look into their phones to learn where to go and what to do. This may help them find their way in a big city, but in Mendocino phone gazing misses the point of being here, which is to look around at the sky and ocean and old buildings and roses on the headlands and other human beings. There really isn’t much else to do, once you’ve had something to eat and bought a thing or two.

Home again, exhausted from our longish trek, I espied the big healthy young doe and her two fast-growing fawns munching greens on the fringes of the forest. The two other much smaller fawns we’ve been keeping tabs on have not made an appearance lately, though we have seen their elderly mother foraging without them, which makes me think her fawns did not survive.

In other summertime news, I am four hundred pages into my latest novel, and I’m experiencing the necessary delusion that I’m writing another masterwork. I say necessary delusion because, delusion or not, it is necessary to think I’ve written something marvelous or I would not continue slogging away for hours every day for months and years if I thought the opus was poo poo.

The long days of summer are especially good for me when it comes to working on a novel because my writing energy only lasts five or six hours a day, and in the winter, five hours of writing eats up a large fraction of the daylight hours, whereas in June, five hours of writing still leaves hours and hours of daylight for walking around and chopping wood and watering the apple trees and going to town.

Summertime is also good for playing the guitar outside. I like to walk around barefoot and give concerts to the surrounding forest and the curious ravens who sometimes make sounds like castanets to accompany my playing. You think I’m kidding? I have one song I used to perform as a slow ballad, but when the ravens started making their castanet sounds during the song, I was inspired to pick up the pace, which resulted in a peppy “Malagueña”-meets-“Smooth Operator” tune I’m sure will become a viral hit, speaking of delusional. I’ll let you know when the song is available for downloading, streaming, and implanting in your prefrontal cortex.

Speaking of chopping wood, summer is the season for seasoning firewood, and by seasoning I mean drying the wood through and through for fall and winter fires in our woodstove, fires that make the long winters tolerable and even delightful, though not quite as delightful as long summer days when the blackberries are ripening and the apples are swelling and I can walk around barefoot outside singing to the redwoods and inspiring castanet sounds from ravens.

Summertime for me is also about baseball. I listen to my Giants on a little silver Sony transistor radio, Jon Miller my favorite announcer of all time, his sidekicks Dave Flemming and Duane Kuiper excellent play-by-play guys, too. I chop wood and pull weeds when listening to day games, and I do dishes and yoga when listening to night games.

We have just reached the halfway point of the baseball season, and for the first time since we won the World Series in 2014, I think we could win it all this year. We’re that good. However, and it’s a huge however given the predilections of our manager, we must radically recast our end-of-game pitching scenario by getting rid of Strickland, who is currently out with an injury, and we must demote Melancon and Dyson to unimportant situational pitching. Watson should pitch the eighth as often as possible and Will Smith should close.

Do I think management will heed my imperatives? Not likely. But the summer is long and hope springs eternal until we are mathematically eliminated.

Rebirth

June 25th, 2018

lunch break

Outside My Office Window

A few weeks ago, the large four-year-old doe with a nest in a remote corner of our property sauntered by the house followed by her two fawns—our first glimpse of her babies. Nature makes baby mammals extra cute for some reason, or humans think baby mammals are cute for some reason. In any case, the baby deer struck me as ultra-cute. And small. I marveled at their smallness.

Then at dusk a few days later, I looked up from my desk and saw two fawns running by, only they seemed much smaller and cuter than I remembered them being. These were micro fawns. Or was I mistaken? Were these the same fawns appearing smaller in the last light of day, or different fawns? And were they cuter or just smaller? Is cuteness a function of smallness?

Another day passed, the young doe paraded by, and coming along behind her were two enormous fawns, enormous compared to those micro fawns I thought I’d seen. And then that afternoon, the mystery was solved. The oldest doe hereabouts, a deer at least nine-years-old with a badly deformed mouth, trudged by followed by those two micro fawns, and I realized that their smallness and ultra-cuteness were probably due to the old doe not being as viable a mother as the big healthy young doe, which means these tiny fawns might not make it through the summer for lack of nourishment and being easy prey for predators.

But maybe the micro fawns will survive the summer and winter and mature into small deer who live for ten or twelve years until the natural ends of their lives, just as there are small humans and small banana slugs and small heads of lettuce and small carrots. Sometimes things come out smaller than the same kinds of things that come out larger.

In any case, we currently have four super cute fawns gamboling around the property these days, and every time I see them, I marvel at their cuteness and their obvious delight in being alive.

getting the drop

Speaking of rebirth, we recently had a visit from the piano technician Michael Hagen. He came all the way from Rohnert Park to Mendocino and spent thirteen hours over two days regulating and voicing the fifty-year-old grand piano we bought from our friend Carolyn. I spent most of those thirteen hours watching Michael work on the piano, and I marveled at his mastery of the complex process. The result of his mastery, which I am tempted to call wizardry, is the rebirth of our piano.

When I first sat down to play our newly regulated and expertly voiced beauty, I was wholly unprepared for how easy she was to play and how gorgeous she sounded. The keys no longer impinged on each other, the overly bright jangly tones were gone, and gone was the resistance to my light touch. I stopped playing after just a few minutes because my brain was having a hard time reconciling this mellow nuanced instrument with the obstreperous old cranky thing I’d been trying to get used to.

earth is round

In other rebirth news, to celebrate the Summer Solstice, I walked to town via Big River Beach and found the beach completely different than it was just a few days before the solstice. Well, not completely. The far inland reaches of the sand will remain unchanged until next winter’s storm surfs reach those inland expanses and shift the many massive logs around, carry some logs away, and add new ones to the collection.

But the bulk of the beach was transformed. This is the glorious nature of our beach—a swiftly flowing tidal river conspiring with the high and low tides to reshape millions of tons of sand every twenty-four hours—a creative fun fest for the forces of nature. As of today, the river has carved two distinct routes to the sea, this split of the outflow and inflow causing all sorts of new shifts in the sand mass—a brand new landscape every day.

Speaking of brand new, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I find myself playing several seriously groovy songs I wrote long ago and never recorded, and I’m so curious about why I didn’t record these groovalicious tunes when I was so zealously recording songs ten years ago.

My current theory is that I didn’t record these catchy tunes because the time was not right. Is the time right now? Or has the window of viability closed for my songs composed in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s? Isn’t a great song or book or movie or play timeless? Maybe not. Maybe there is Art of the Moment and Art For A Generation and Art To Last Three Generations and Art To Last A Thousand Years.

What if artists are merely pawns of the unseen creative forces of universe? What if these groovy songs were given to me to record, but only when the universe wants them recorded? What if the universe is waiting for me to be whoever I am at the moment of the recording, if that recording ever happens? Why do we do the things we do when we do them?

Speaking of when we do things, we recently watched the movie Big Night again, one of my all-time favorite movies, and not having seen Big Night since 2006, I worried the opus might have fallen into the Art of the Moment category and would fail to pass the test of time.

But I’m happy to report that for my taste Big Night is better and more pertinent today than it was when it came out in 1996. To say they don’t make movies like Big Night in America anymore is a humongous understatement. This is a classic European film made by Americans in America—the pace, the dialogue, and the unfolding of the story and relationships languid and lovely and astute and complex—a rare dramatic comedy.

When I lived in Berkeley circa 2001, I was introduced to a woman at a party, we liked each other immediately, and when a fellow came by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres—scallops in mint sauce—we each took one. Delighted by the delicious comestible, I couldn’t help referencing a scene from Big Night by saying with my best Italian accent, “That was so good, I have to kill myself.”

“My favorite movie,” said the woman, gasping in delight. “I’ve watched Big Night dozens of times with my kids. We know every line by heart. We act out the scenes when we cook dinner and breakfast. And next year we’re going to Italy on our Big Night tour.”

“A Big Night tour? What’s the itinerary?”

“Bologna, of course,” she said, her eyes aglow. “Where the food is so good you have to kill yourself, Rome, and…”

I don’t remember what else she said, but I will never forget her wild joy.