Tilly, Molly, and Flynn photo by Todd

Harbor seals have spotted coats in shades of white, silver-gray, black, or dark brown. They grow to six feet in length and weigh up to three hundred pounds. Males are slightly larger than females. They are true crawling seals, having no external ear flaps. True seals have small flippers and move on land by flopping along on their bellies.

A few days ago I met the Golden Retrievers Tilly and Molly, and their Chihuahua-mix pal Flynn, along with their humans Sally and Robin at Big River Beach for a morning constitutional—walking for the humans, chasing tennis balls for Molly and Tilly, trotting along being sociable for Flynn.

Whilst flinging tennis balls for the retrievers, we spotted a big harbor seal in the waves offshore, the surf raucous, and to our delight, this seal dazzled us with expert body surfing, something I had not previously observed the seals doing at Big River Beach, though I have fond memories of watching harbor seals surfing the waves in Santa Cruz.

In California, harbor seal pups are born between February and April and weigh about twenty-two pounds at birth. Pups are born knowing how to swim and will sometimes ride on their mothers’ backs when tired. Pups are weaned at four weeks. Adult females usually mate and give birth every year, and may live thirty years.

I used to be a zealous body surfer, and I know the exact moment I gave up the sport. I was in my mid-twenties, living on Lighthouse Avenue in Santa Cruz back in the days when you could rent a four-bedroom house near the beach for a couple hundred dollars a month. When the weather was good, I would walk or run the four blocks to the beach just north of Lighthouse Point and body surf if the waves were good. Just south of the lighthouse is the world famous surfboarding spot Steamer Lane, where spectators can stand on the point and be incredibly close to the surfing action.

One late summer day I arrived at that oh-so-convenient beach, smiled in delight to see what looked like perfectly-formed body surfing waves, ran out into the surf, dove under a few breakers, and found myself caught in a powerful current that dragged me way out to sea as if I were floating down a fast-flowing river. By way out, I mean the people on the beach were ant-sized by the time the current released me. The water was very cold, I had no wetsuit, and I felt fairly certain I was going to drown.

I flopped onto my back and tried to swim back to shore, but I kept encountering that outflowing current. I tried to swim parallel to shore, but I was quickly growing too weak to make much headway. And then, miracle of miracles, my friend Bob Smith, who had come to the beach with me on that day, arrived on an air mattress he’d borrowed from a sunbather when he saw what was happening to me, and I clung to that air mattress and kicked with Bob, and we got to shore where I collapsed in exhausted ecstasy, so happy to still be alive.

Pacific harbor seals spend half their time on land and half in the water. They can dive to 1500 feet and stay underwater for up to forty minutes, though their average dive lasts three to seven minutes and is typically shallow. They sometimes sleep in the water. They feed on sole, flounder, cod, herring, octopus, and squid.

Harbor seals like to watch people playing Frisbee on the beach. One day at Big River Beach, I fell into an impromptu Frisbee exchange with another beachcomber, and a seal popped her head up out of the water to watch us. Then another seal popped up beside that first seal, and eventually there were four harbor seals in a little group watching the disc go back and forth between the two humans, those four beautiful heads moving synchronously from left to right, like spectators at a tennis match.

The worldwide harbor seal population is estimated to be 500,000, with 34,000 in California. They are usually found in small groups, but sometimes congregate in the hundreds.

My favorite connection to the seals at Big River Beach involves singing. Shortly after almost drowning in Santa Cruz, I started a musical combo called Kokomo. The group was composed of: Todd playing guitar and singing his original folk rocking bluesy songs, Jon playing violin and mandolin and singing harmony, and the occasional bass or dobro player noodling along with us. After Jon and I rehearsed a few of my songs, I called around to the various venues in Santa Cruz where such ragtag combos performed in the 1970s, lined up some auditions, and off we went.

Most of our auditions involved going into the prospective bar, pub, or café in the late afternoon and doing a couple tunes for the manager. The first place we auditioned was Happy’s, an upstairs bar in an alley off Pacific Avenue. When Jon and I arrived, there was a quartet of early drinkers at the bar and the bartender/manager on hand to listen. We launched into a groovy tune of mine called Should Be Better In the Morning, and when we finished, one of those early drinkers slapped a dollar bill on the bar and slurred, “For you do dat again.”

So we did the tune again and the bartender said, “You free tonight?”

I said we had another gig, which was true in the sense that we had to get busy rehearsing more tunes so we could play for forty-five minutes without repeating ourselves, and voila, we had our first gig: every Thursday night at Happy’s until further notice.

Then we went to Positively Front Street, a much bigger tavern, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier, and we auditioned for Terry, the owner/manager, and a lovely young woman and a handsome young man who were Terry’s pals. We played Should Be Better In the Morning and followed that with a skanky blues called Loose Woman, and Terry said, “Friday and Saturday nights, twenty bucks plus tips, all the burgers and fries and beer you want.”

The young woman and young man introduced themselves as Mouse & Timber. They had been the Friday/Saturday night act at Positively Front Street for the previous year, but they were moving on to a casino lounge at South Lake Tahoe paying three hundred a night, plus tips, five nights a week, plus a free hotel room. Timber said, “You guys would kill at Tahoe. Come on up and we’ll get you a gig.”

We never did get up to the casino, but we eventually rehearsed twenty of my tunes along with a few Hank Williams classics and a handful of other standards for lonely drunk people, and for most of the next year we were the house band on Friday and Saturday nights at Positively Front Street and the Thursday night attraction at Happy’s.

And once I’d earned actual dollars for singing, the world would never be the same. Making money for singing is like making money for being human—which can be both wonderful and confusing, depending on, as we used to say, how together you are.

Speaking of which, there I was a couple years ago, standing on the shores of Big River, inland a couple hundred yards from where the river meets the sea, and I sang out over the smooth surface of the water and a seal popped up to have a look at me. When she heard me singing, her eyes grew wide, she dove under the water, and a moment later popped up again with two friends. Ere long there were seven seals listening to me sing my song Real Good Joe, Hank Williams’ Cheating Heart, and another song of mine called Beautiful.

And though I would like to say those seven seals especially liked my songs, the truth is, just as with the mob at Positively Front Street, they favored Hank Williams. How do I know? Oh you can just tell when your audience really locks in with you.


Cheating Heart

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)

“It’s like deja-vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

My recent essay Cheating elicited several responses from readers wishing to share more examples of cheaters in high places, cheating as an integral part of our economic and political and interweb reality, and tales of people who don’t cheat being routinely victimized by individuals and corporations who do cheat. So the word cheating was on my mind when I remembered…

Long ago in Santa Cruz, circa 1973, I fronted a jazzy folk rock group called Kokomo, and for the better part of a year we were the Friday and Saturday night band at the popular tavern Positively Front Street, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier. One of my favorite things about that gig was emerging from the smoky confines of the pub in the wee hours of morning and filling my beleaguered lungs with cool briny air as sea lions arfed to each other in the near distance and the somnolent fog horn lowed with reassuring regularity—little waves lapping the white sands of the Boardwalk beach.

In the beginning of our entrenchment at Positively Front Street we— sometimes a duo, sometimes a trio, rarely a quartet—played only my original songs, and to this day I am amazed that the owner of that commodious tavern allowed us such artistic freedom, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when the place was packed. On the other hand, he only paid us twenty dollars for four long artistically free sets (us being the entire band), plus complimentary fish and chips and burgers and beer and whatever tips we could entice from the tipsy crowd. Thus if we wanted to make more than five bucks a set it behooved us to play requests, and to that end we learned to play a handful of standards, two of which were Hank Williams songs, far and away the most requested tunes in that blessed watering hole patronized by many men and a much smaller number of brave women.

The two Hank Williams tunes we learned were Hey Good Lookin’ and Your Cheating Heart, the latter being the most requested of the two, which I found remarkable considering the song was already twenty-years-old in 1973, having been written and recorded in 1952 and released shortly after Hank’s death in 1953. The story I heard about Hank writing Your Cheating Heart is that he was driving drunk one night and musing aloud about his first wife, Audrey Williams, to his second wife, Billie Jean Jones, who was in the passenger seat writing down the lyrics as Hank sang and talked the words out to her.

The lyrics to Your Cheating Heart as I sang them (slightly different than the official lyrics) are as follows:

Your cheating heart will make you weep

You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep

But sleep won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll walk around and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

Your cheating heart will pine some day

You’ll crave the love that you threw away

But love won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll toss and turn and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

I think what makes these simple lyrics so meaningful to so many people is that Hank not only speaks of his ex-lover’s heart, but of his own. You’ll walk the floor the way I do makes it clear that the craving and pining go both ways; the sorrow shared.

When we played Positively Front Street we installed a gigantic glass tip jar on a high stool on the little stage with us, a jar we would prime with coins and a few dollar bills to make it clear what we wanted from our audience. And several times a night, some guy or gal would stagger or sashay up to the stage and shout over the din, “Play Cheatin’ Heart!” and drop a buck in the jar; and if we hadn’t just played that tune, we would play her again, and our violinist would wring out a heart wrenching solo to bring a few more coins to the tip jar.

Hey Good Lookin’ never failed to get people dancing in their seats or up and dancing to the bar, so we would play that sweetly sexy tune whenever we wanted to brighten the mood and give folks something familiar to balance all my original tunes they hadn’t heard before unless they were regulars.

One of my songs, Loose Woman, was much loved by the Positively Front Street crowd, and we got requests and tips for Loose Woman several times a night. The chorus of that skanky ballad became a sing-along anthem for the love-starved denizens of that beer-drenched dive:

I’m hooked up with a loose woman

A loose woman’s all right with me

She don’t like my songs or my jokes or my dreaming

But she gives me all her love for free

I don’t care what she don’t like

What she don’t like don’t hurt me

Just so long as she’s a loo-loose woman

And gives me all her love for free

But the biggest tip we got—ten smackers every Friday and Saturday night—came to us from the same man; and when I think back to the dozens of times we enacted the little drama I am about to describe, I marvel at how easily I was ensnared in such an odd ritual by the lure of big (relatively speaking) money.

Rodney was an effeminate middle-aged man who rarely missed our shows at Positively Front Street. After every set, as we headed for the bar to whet our whistles, Rodney would come close and whisper, “Please, please, please won’t you play Puff the Magic Dragon?” For our first few weekends of playing the joint, I fended him off by saying we only did original material, but after we felt compelled to learn those Hank Williams tunes and a few other songs by other people, I resorted to saying, “Well, gosh, Rodney, I don’t think Puff really goes with the tone of our show.”

But Rodney persisted, and one Friday night he dangled a ten-dollar bill (my rent was due) and said, “Oh, Todd, please play Puff. Pretty please.”

Wanting that money, I replied, “Tomorrow night, Rodney. Just for you.”

So the next evening on our way to the gig, my mandolin player asked me, “Do you even know how to play Puff the Magic Dragon?”

“Not really,” I said, feeling cornered. “Do you?”

“Easy,” he said, grinning at me. “But the rowdy boys aren’t gonna like that sissy stuff. Prepare to get booed.”

“We’ll play it for Rodney between sets,” I said, thinking fast. “Back in the Pong room.”

Pong, electronic ping pong, was one of the very first video games, ever, and there was a dark little alcove behind the stage where the Pong game lived, twenty-five cents a game, and that is where every Friday and Saturday night for the better part of a year we performed Puff the Magic Dragon for Rodney, playing and singing very quietly so the tough guys and rowdies out front wouldn’t hear us—Rodney singing falsetto on the chorus—so we could make an extra ten dollars, which was a good deal of money to the likes of us in 1973.

And there was one night we sang Puff the Magic Dragon for everyone to hear, that being the last night we played Positively Front Street, our resignation precipitated by the owner of that marvelous tavern making an impossible demand on our artistic freedom such that I had no choice but to give up our lucrative (relatively speaking) gig.

Unaware of what was about to befall us, we arrived a half-hour before show time as was our custom to eat fish and chips and have a couple beers before taking the stage. The bartender said the owner wanted to see me upstairs in his office, so I took the stairs two at a time thinking maybe we were finally going to get a raise.

“Here’s the thing, Todd,” said the owner, smiling painfully. “You know I love your music, and I especially love your voice, but I cannot stand the way the other guys in your group sing. So…I will double your salary if you do the singing and your buddies keep their mouths shut. Deal?”

Well, I wasn’t about to tell my buddies they couldn’t sing with me. Half the fun of playing four hours of music in a smoky tavern was playing and singing together, fueling off each other, trying out new harmonies, playing the fast songs slow and the slow songs fast. And I sure wasn’t going to tell my partners that our patron hated their voices but loved mine. Never.

So I said to the owner, “I’m very sorry, my friend. This gig has been a godsend and a rent payer and I will be forever grateful to you for giving us this opportunity to hone our chops, and I think it fair to say that your business has not suffered from our playing here, but I cannot tell my pals to keep their mouths shut. It would be cruel and mean and they would hate me forever, so…I guess tonight will be our last show here.”

“Okay,” he said, pointing at me in his friendly way. “But if you change your mind, the gig is yours. Fifty bucks a night.”

And you know what? When we sang Puff the Magic Dragon that night for the whole mob of rowdies and tough guys and brave women and college kids and tourists, every last one of them sang along, and our tip jar overflowed, and Rodney was moved to tears, which just goes to show you how little any of us knew about anything. And at song’s end the audience let out such a roar that the owner came down the stairs to see what the hell was going on, and when I saw him gazing in wonder at the happy mob, I turned to my buddies and said, “Let’s finish with Cheatin’ Heart,” which we did, and it brought the house down.


The Manure Chronicles, Part One


Rabbit Manure Garlic Mulch photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” Hank Williams

Sandy calls to say she’s gotten permission to harvest rabbit manure from her friend’s rabbit barn. So I load my wheelbarrow and a big shovel into my little old pickup and head for Fort Bragg. A sunny spring morning, the angry winds of the past few days in abeyance, I roll along the Comptche-Ukiah Road at forty miles per and try to remember if over the decades of gathering manure for my various gardens, I have ever scored more than a baggy of rabbit manure. Horse, mule, cow, sheep, goat, chicken…but never a truckload of rabbit poop, until today.

At the intersection of Little Lake Road and Highway One, I pull over to pick up two scruffy humans, their formidable backpacks, and three large dogs. Before I can announce how far I’m going, the humans and dogs scramble into the back of the pickup and hunker down around my big blue wheelbarrow, a smile on every face. I roll down my window and say, “I’m going to Fort Bragg. Please keep a good hold on your dogs.”

To which the taller human rejoins, “No worries, man. No worries.”

And I think to myself No worries. Why not? Sure. Let’s go with that.

As we near the new roundabout at Simpson Lane, one of the humans taps on my window to let me know, I think, that they want to disembark. Blessedly, I navigate the roundabout without incident and pull off to the side of the road, expecting humans and dogs to jump out with the same zeal and alacrity with which they jumped in, but both species remain onboard. I roll down my window and ask, “Is this not where you wished to get out?”

“Sorry, man,” says the shorter of the humans. “Can we have a minute to figure something out?”

“Sure,” I say, being free of worries and in no great hurry.

The humans confer for a moment—a fine moment full of cars and trucks and buses rumbling by on the ribbon of highway (cue the Woody Guthrie.)

“Can you drop us at the post office?” asks the taller human.

So on we trundle, I and my cargo of humans and happy dogs; and I am reminded of my favorite Sufi tales, the ones in which God speaks to a person stuck in some quandary or another and tells that person to go forth into the world, to stop fretting and fly the coop, to go on a quest, or at the very least take a long walk, and in so doing the person becomes available for interactions and experiences he or she never would have had staying home; and through these interactions and experiences, the person’s quandary is transformed into a deeper appreciation of the miracle of life.

“We have been God-like in our planned breeding of our domesticated plants and animals, but we have been rabbit-like in our unplanned breeding of ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee

We arrive at the rabbit barn, an L-shaped windowless building containing some sixty cages, each wire cage containing a single white rabbit. The rows of large square cages sit atop platforms some three feet above the ground, rabbit poop falling freely down through the spacious weave of wire into earthen troughs we find heaped with hundreds of thousands of grape-sized pellets, some freshly dropped, some several weeks old. Concrete walkways crisscross the room and are hosed off several times a day. Florescent lights give the room the feel of a factory, and that’s what this is, a rabbit growing factory, the end product being slaughtered and dressed rabbits for the restaurant trade.

Indeed, rabbits are being butchered just around the corner from where we are busily filling my wheelbarrow with rabbit manure, the rabbits in the cages near us sitting quietly, eating and defecating and waiting to die. There are no flies in here, no life really, other than the white rabbits and the man around the corner killing the rabbits and skinning them and dressing them, and Sandy and Todd, eager gardeners glad to be getting so much good shit for free.

I return home with my pickup brimming with rabbit pellets, Sandy having needed only enough to dress her two small raised beds; and the first thing I do with my bounty is mulch my burgeoning garlic. When I water down my beds, the thousands of silver gray pellets glisten in the sun, my garlic appearing to be growing in pea gravel.

But as I wheel my wheelbarrow back and forth from truck to garden, and the pile of pretty pellets grows into a goodly pyramid atop the patch of ground that last year yielded a bushel of potatoes, I keep thinking of those white rabbits, small, medium, and large, growing inexorably to the size of slaughter. They never know sunlight or grass or sex, never stand on terra firma, and never even enjoy movement because their feet are forever pressing down against the subtly cutting wire.

And thinking of what I imagine to be the constant sorrow of those rabbits, I find I am less happy about this manure than I am about the manure I bring home from Kathy Mooney’s corral, her magnificent horse Paloma so well-loved, the apples she eats from my hand becoming the manure I dig into my soil. Yes, Paloma’s crap seems imbued with love, and…I don’t eat horses.

“A lovely horse is always an experience…an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.” Beryl Markham

When I lived in Sacramento I had a huge backyard vegetable and flower and herb garden, and for three of the fifteen years I tended that soil, my manure came from a champion pony (a breed, not a young horse), a slender white pony too small to be ridden by adult humans, though children could ride her and she pulled some sort of cart in her performances. This horse had won so many trophies and ribbons in competitions all over America that her owner had dedicated a gigantic room in his house solely for the exhibition of the pony’s myriad prizes, as well as dozens of framed photographs of the pony adorned with victory wreaths and standing with her owner as he accepted trophies on her behalf.

I always went to the pony ranch with my friend Doug because he knew the pony’s owner, I’m not sure how, and because Doug had access to a pickup truck. Those were the days when I did not own a vehicle and so depended on the kindness of friends. We’d get a truckload for Doug and a truckload for me, an excellent blend of horse manure and sawdust, nicely aged in a spacious old barn so the rich mixture was not disempowered by hard winter rains.

The only drawback to this source of manure was that every time we went to get our loads, we had to pay obeisance to the horse’s owner, an elderly fellow with a terrible case of logorrhea, by going with him into the vast trophy room where he would tell us his champion pony’s life story, beginning with lengthy biographies of the pony’s champion father and champion mother, which biographies set the stage for a riveting account of the pony’s birth and her remarkable childhood full of startling exhibitions of her extraordinary intelligence and innate talent leading to her first triumphs as a young adult pony doing whatever such ponies do to win whatever they win, and moving along to stirring tales of her multiple and consecutive championships at state and national levels, culminating with her tour of England and France where she was hailed by the pony people of those nations as a visiting god.

Then we would go out to the champion pony’s barn adjacent to the barn wherein was piled the poop we sought, and we would have a look at the champion and feed her sugar and scratch her muzzle, and her owner would command her to do things, and she would bow and paw and spin around and sit on her haunches like a polar bear. Amazing knee-slapping wow kind of stuff.

Finally, before this verbal blitzkrieg of a man would let us get on with our shoveling, he would ask us each to think of a number between one and ten, and to look into the pony’s eyes as we thought about our number. And then the pony would paw the ground as many times as it took to paw the number she thought we were thinking.

Now the first time I went through this lengthy rigmarole to get the manure, I found the ordeal tolerable and even kind of interesting, though an hour and a half seemed excessive to me. But the second time through was pure torture, and the third time I had to excuse myself when the old fellow began to recount the pony’s remarkable childhood. I hurried to the bathroom where I stayed for as long as I could, humming to drown out the sound of the blitzkrieg’s voice while leafing through an excellent collection of vintage Playboys. And the following year I got my manure somewhere else.

No, the pony did not correctly guess the number I was thinking. I was thinking four all three times, and she always guessed seven. Then again, Doug was always thinking seven, and she always guessed seven, so maybe Doug’s thought waves threw her off when it came to guessing my number. I dunno.

Coming soon: The Manure Chronicles, Part Two.