(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2012)
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Henry David Thoreau
The calendar says it is springtime, but the temperature and relentless rain say winter continues apace, this being the second year in a row that a very wet March will save Mendocino and Northern California from terrible drought. Yes, we are starved for sunlight and the woodpile is shrinking at an alarming rate, but the ongoing deluge bodes well for salmon and redwoods and huckleberries and forest frogs, so we shall not complain.
On Sunday we attended a gathering at the home of a recently deceased friend of Marcia’s, his children and grandchildren and ex-wives and friends filling his moldy old house and spilling outside to honor his memory. I was impressed by his large collection of paperback books from the 1950’s and 60’s, many of them stuck to various shelves and to each other with the mysterious glue of time. When I pulled on a volume of Kazantzakis, the book broke into several pieces, ditto a Kerouac tome, so thereafter I contented myself with reading the spines and forming an impression of the person from the books he read.
But I was most impressed by the dust that coated everything in the house and gathered in drifts in corners and indentations—dust as a measure of many years passing wherein the man left large parts of his life untouched. And I have been thinking about this dust ever since and seeing it on the surfaces of things at our house, particularly on books we will almost surely never look at again.
So on Tuesday, housebound by the pouring rain, I emerged from my den to find Marcia confronting several shelves of CDs and books in the living room, shelves of things we still love and things we once loved and things we never loved but kept because someone gave them to us or because we couldn’t think where else to put them. Now, however, inspired by the dead man’s dust and the coming of spring, we emptied the shelves, mopped up the dust, and put back only those books and recordings we wanted to keep for the next leg of our journey. The rest we will give away and never think about again.
“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin
In 1971, having only recently learned to play the guitar, I felt certain that if I could convince a record producer at Columbia or Warner Brothers to listen to me sing my jazzy folk songs I would be the next big thing—James Taylor meets Bob Dylan meets Carlos Jobim—or so I fantasized. A highly impressionable teen growing up in the San Francisco Folk Rock scene of the 1960’s, I watched dozens of obscure musicians vault from garage bands and cafés onto the world stage and saw no reason why I couldn’t achieve the same kind of success. Yes, I was delusional, but without delusions I never would have done most of the things I tried to do.
I found, however, that my ears and psyche could not tolerate Really Loud Music, so Acoustic Folk Rock became my genre. The record companies were in Los Angeles, so that’s where I went, my Aunt Dolly providing a base of operations for me in the living room of her cluttered home. For money I sought work as a gardener, papering Dolly’s neighborhood with flyers and receiving an unexpected response that created a whole new career trajectory for me.
“I don’t need a gardener,” said a woman most definitely from New York and certainly Jewish. “But I’ve got a garage full of stuff I need to sort through and my back is not so good, so…”
Elaine had a two-car garage packed to the rafters with boxes of books, clothing, barbells, golf clubs, photographs, paintings, suitcases, furniture—tons of stuff she and her deceased husband had been stacking in there and forgetting about for thirty years. Now she wanted to go through everything and see if there was anything she wanted to keep. I would carry her things out into the light of day and she would decide what would stay and what would go and what would come into the house to live with her. She paid me two-fifty-an-hour plus lunch, and I could keep anything she didn’t want.
On my second day of working for Elaine, an elderly British fellow stopped by, chatted with Elaine, and then asked me if I might do the same kind of work for him, only in his case it was an attic he wanted to explore. “More of a crawl space, actually,” he said, bowing politely. “Accessible by ladder. What’s wanted is a strong back and good balance. To bring things down and take them back up. Boxes of books mostly. Rugs. And I’m not sure what else.”
So began two months of helping elderly people sort through piles of stuff in their garages and attics and spare bedrooms, with my evenings devoted to recording songs on a neighbor’s reel-to-reel tape recorder pursuant to my becoming a rich and famous troubadour. My most profitable find in those two months of excavation was a mint condition Danny Kaye album, a massive book-like thing containing eight 78-rpm records, each in a separate sleeve. I made a trip to a famous used record store in downtown Los Angeles and sold Danny for sixty dollars! I probably could have gotten more, but sixty was a fortune to me.
The work was one part schlepping and five parts listening to the oldsters tell stories about their various things. Some people wanted to throw everything away, others were more interested in discovering what they had kept. Everyone I worked for was a unique individual, yet to me there was a sameness to everybody’s stuff, and a sameness to their feelings about the stuff—regret and annoyance larded with nostalgia. So I vowed never to accumulate more than I could carry with me on a train, even when I became famous and wealthy. So much for vows we make at twenty-two.
Miracle of miracles, I did actually talk my way into a meeting with a record producer at Columbia, a kindly longhaired guy with gold records on the walls of his office who listened patiently to three of my songs before stopping the tape player and saying, “You’ve got a beautiful voice. What say we stay in touch and see how you’re doing a couple years from now? I wish I could sign you, but you’re just learning, you know? No offense, but you need time to develop your talent. Maybe start a group. Imagine some guy with a really rough voice harmonizing with your sweet tenor. Could be great. Think about it. You’ve got potential. And I’m not just saying that.”
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Joseph Campbell
Fast-forward forty years to Todd and Marcia creating stuff we hope people will buy from us—CDs, books, and note cards—Marcia vastly more successful than I, and with far fewer products. Her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation sells like hotcakes, whereas my creations…well, let us just say that as I peruse the many boxes in my office full of my creations that hardly sell, I, too, experience regret and annoyance, but not larded with nostalgia. No, my regret and annoyance are larded with amazement at the audacity (delusion?) of hope.