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The Same Woman (Helen)

Every so often in his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he has known forever, though he has never seen her before. The first time this happened was in 1955 when Andrew was six-years-old, and it happened again in 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1987, 1993, 1998, 2002, and 2006.

2012. Andrew and his wife Luisa are both sixty-four, Andrew’s short brown hair mostly gray, Luisa’s long black hair showing strands of gray and white.

Writers and musicians, Andrew and Luisa have been married for twenty-five years and live in a four-bedroom house Andrew built thirty-six years ago a couple miles from the beach and ten miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Andrew has published eight collections of short stories and written several plays and screenplays with Luisa, six of them made into movies, with eight of their plays now staples of the worldwide theatre repertoire. Luisa has published two collections of short stories, a novella that was made into a movie, and two popular Children’s books.

Andrew’s son Owen is thirty and lives in Ireland with his wife Miyoshi, both of them employed by the movie producer and director Nicolas Thorsen. Owen is Thorsen’s First Assistant Director and Miyoshi is Thorsen’s cinematographer.

Luisa’s daughter Lily is also thirty. She and her daughter Jalecia, who is two-and-a-half, have lived with Andrew and Luisa since a few months before Jalecia was born, though now it would be truer to say that Jalecia lives with Andrew and Luisa, and Lily comes to visit when she has a free week or two between acting gigs, which is not often these days.

And for the last four years, Andrew and Luisa have been two of the three parents of Teo and Rosa, delightful five-year-old fraternal twins Andrew fathered with Adriana who, when she conceived Teo and Rosa, was partners with a woman named Maru.

When Adriana and Maru asked Andrew to contribute his genes to make a baby with Adriana, the plan was for Andrew and Luisa to be uncle and aunt to the progeny while Maru and Adriana would be the parents. But when the twins were nine-months-old, shockingly, Maru fell in love with another woman and shortly thereafter Adriana moved with her babies from Maru’s house in Vancouver to the other house on Luisa and Andrew’s property.

Now that Teo and Rosa are in kindergarten, and given Andrew and Luisa’s willingness to shoulder much of the parenting duties, Adriana has returned to fulltime work as a jazzercise instructor and percussionist. And for the summer months, Andrew and Luisa are the primary every-day parents of Rosa and Teo.

On a warm and sunny morning in July—Lily in New York playing the part of a psychic policewoman in a big budget thriller, Adriana booked all day at the recording studio, and Luisa needing a morning sans children to catch up on business correspondence—Andrew loads the trusty red Prius with beach supplies, secures the three children in their car seats, and drives them to nearby Lions Bay Beach for a morning of playing in the sand followed by lunch, a nap for Jalecia, and story time for Teo and Rosa until Jalecia wakes up.

There are only a few other people on the beach today as Andrew and Teo and Rosa and Jalecia trek across the sand to set up camp under their big yellow beach umbrella a hundred feet back from the incoming waves.

Umbrella planted deep, Andrew slathers the trio with sunblock and reminds Teo and Rosa not to go into the water over their knees unless he is right there with them. When everyone is sufficiently slathered, Teo and Rosa race to the water with Jalecia in pursuit and Andrew close behind.

After building three mighty sand castles to defend the coast against monsters and pirates, they toss Frisbees for twenty minutes, walk a mile south and back, and hunker down under the umbrella to have lunch.

And at the height of their picnic, an attractive middle-aged woman with shoulder-length gray hair dressed in khaki shorts and blue sweatshirt, expensive camera in hand, approaches their encampment, takes off her dark glasses, and says with a pleasing British accent, “Would you mind if I took some pictures of your children? They are my dream come true.”

“Do you mind having your pictures taken?” asks Andrew, consulting the kids who are engrossed in their almond butter and banana sandwiches.

“I don’t mind,” says Rosa, her recent growth spurt making her a few inches taller than Teo, much to Teo’s chagrin, both of them tall for five.

“I’ll show you my muscles,” says Teo, his mouth full. “After story time.”

“Wonderful,” says the woman, taking pictures of Jalecia who is about to fall asleep as she always does after chasing Teo and Rosa around for a few hours.

“Join us for cookies and lemonade?” asks Andrew, who feels certain he knows this woman from somewhere.

“Love to,” she says, coming under the umbrella and kneeling a few feet from Andrew. “I’ve seen you and your children here many times, often in the company of a beautiful woman with long black hair. We’re renting a house, my daughter and I, just a half-mile north of here and I walk this beach every day.”

“Half-mile north?” says Andrew, looking in that direction. “In the little enclave of houses just back of the dunes? I ask because I helped build three of those forty years ago.”

“Yes, in the enclave,” she says, gazing intently at him. “Ours is the one with the observation tower accessed via the spiral staircase. My daughter and I call it the crow’s nest.”

“That was the last of the three houses we built there,” he says, recalling those difficult years when his initial success as a writer lasted but briefly and he returned to carpentry to support his first wife, Owen’s mother, and Owen. “Best of the three by far.”

“It’s a wonderful house,” she says, raising her camera to capture Teo and Rosa gazing solemnly at their father. “We’ve lived there for five months now, my daughter and I, and every day we marvel at where we are. We’re from London and plan to be here another year and a half.”

“Poppy?” says Teo, continuing to gaze solemnly at his father. “Can we go see the house you built?”

“Yeah, we’ll go by there,” he says, noting the children have finished their sandwiches. “Are we ready for cookies?”

“I want a cookie,” says Jalecia, her face and hands smeared with almond butter.

“First we wash,” says Andrew, extracting a washcloth from one of his bags, dousing it with a splash of water, and deftly wiping Jalecia’s face and hands. He douses a second washcloth and gives it to Teo who cursorily wipes his face before passing the washcloth to Rosa who takes a bit more care washing her face and hands before handing the towel back to Andrew.

Cookies dispensed, Jalecia takes a bite of hers and offers the rest to the woman. “Want my cookie? I tired.”

“Thank you,” says the woman, taking the cookie. “My name is Helen. What is your name?”

“Jalecia,” she says, yawning majestically.

And with that the little girl lies down and promptly falls asleep.

“Just like me every day at three,” says Helen, laughing merrily. “The requisite nap before tea.”

“I’m Andrew, by the way,” says Andrew, certain now he has never met her before, but feeling he knows her. “And this is Rosa and Teo.”

“He’s our father,” says Rosa, pointing at Andrew, “but he’s Jalecia’s grandfather.”

“That means I lose the bet,” says Helen, looking from Rosa to Andrew. “I guessed your were the father of all three, and my daughter guessed correctly.”

“To be explained further when young ears are distracted,” says Andrew, dispensing two more cookies to the twins.

“We know what that means,” says Teo, giving Andrew a disparaging look.

“Can we tell stories now?” asks Rosa, nodding expectantly.

“Such is our tradition,” says Andrew, smiling at Helen. “You’re welcome to stay, but I warn you the stories go on for a good long time.”

“Thank you, but I should go,” she says, handing him her card. “I so appreciate the opportunity to photograph your children, and should you want to show them the inside of the magnificent house you built, please give me a call.”

When the kids are asleep that night—Jalecia in her bedroom in the big house, Teo and Rosa in their bedroom in what the children call the little house, Adriana in the living room of the little house entertaining her current love interest, a Moroccan woman named Hadiya—Luisa googles Helen Lesser photographer and learns she is a photojournalist and fine art photographer, sixty-four, and has a forty-two-year-old daughter, Diana Isaverb, a poet and painter.

“I’d love to meet them,” says Luisa, coming into the living room. “Shall we invite them for supper?”

“I think maybe we should go look at the house first,” says Andrew, sprawled on the sofa, exhausted from his long day of taking care of the kids. “I know you’ll like Helen, but something tells me we might want to meet her daughter on their home turf before we have them over here.”

“Why?” asks Luisa, sitting down to rub Andrew’s feet. “You think Diana might be crazy?”

“No, not crazy,” says Andrew, yawning. “Just… there was something about the way Helen said my daughter that made me think Diana was a child and not an adult, though Google says she’s forty-two. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Luisa, wistfully. “I have a daughter who’s still a child at thirty and gave us Jalecia to raise because she doesn’t want to stop being a child.”

“We could put our foot down,” says Andrew, loving Luisa rubbing his feet. “Demand she spend more time here.”

Luisa laughs at the absurdity of demanding anything from Lily, and Andrew laughs with her.

Two days later, Andrew calls Helen to make a date to bring Luisa and the kids to see the house, Helen invites them for lunch a few days hence, Andrew accepts, and Helen says, “There’s something I need to tell you about my daughter Diana before you come. Is this a good time?”

“Yeah, fine,” says Andrew, going out on the deck overlooking the garden where Luisa and the children are picking snow peas and pulling carrots.

“I was a single mother and Diana my only child. She never knew her father. He was a charming Turk who seduced me when I was on holiday in France and I never saw him again.” She laughs self-consciously. “But that’s not the main thing I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me as much as you like,” says Andrew, loving the cadence of her speech. “I have at least another five minutes before the kids come charging in from the garden.”

“Good,” she says, clearing her throat. “So… Diana and I were extremely close until she was eighteen and took up with a much older man I didn’t approve of. We quarreled and she left and didn’t speak to me again for thirteen years, though I was aware of her because she became a fairly well-known poet and artist, and then we got to be friends again when she was in her early thirties.”

“What prompted the reunion?”

“She came to a show of my photographs,” says Helen, opening a sliding glass door and going outside, the ocean roaring faintly in the background. “Then she called and said she liked the show and wondered if I would take the author photo for her next volume of poetry, and I did, and we got close again. And then six years ago she had a child, a boy named Nathan, and two years ago when Nathan was four…”

Andrew waits for Helen to stop crying.

“Sorry,” she says, clearing her throat again. “He died in a car crash and Diana had a breakdown from which she has largely recovered, but she’s still quite dependent on me. I tell you all this because I know meeting your children will be very emotional for her, in a good way, but if you would rather not come, I completely understand. She’s a lovely person, but still fragile, so…”

“We’d love to come,” says Andrew, wanting more than ever to visit them. “Was your daughter involved in the accident?”

“No. Her ex-husband was bringing Nathan home after having him for his one weekend a month and didn’t put Nathan in the car seat and…”

“Was her ex-husband killed, too?”

“Yes,” says Helen, whispering. “I don’t think Diana would ever have recovered if that horrid man was still alive and Nathan gone.”

Having been warned multiple times by Luisa not to touch anything without first asking permission, Teo and Rosa climb out of the car and gaze in wonder at the spectacular two-story house with a fanciful observation tower rising ten feet above the peak of the roof, the ocean’s roar muted by massive sand dunes to the west of the house.

“It’s like a castle,” says Teo, running ahead of everyone to ring the doorbell—Rosa and Jalecia and Luisa and Andrew catching up to him just as the door opens and here is Helen in a blue paisley dress, and Diana, a strikingly beautiful woman with dark olive skin and black hair in a short ponytail, wearing red pedal pushers and a black T-shirt.

“Welcome,” says Helen, beaming. “You must be Luisa. This is my daughter Diana.”

“Hi,” says Diana, her eyes darting from child to child. “Come in, come in. We just took the bread and cookies out of the oven.”

Teo follows Diana and Helen into the house and stops abruptly to gawk at the immense room with a vaulted ceiling and huge windows looking out on the dunes.

You built this, Poppy?” he says, gaping at his father.

“I did,” says Andrew, entering with Jalecia holding his hand. “With Max and Rico.”

“You built a temple,” says Diana, smiling shyly at Andrew. “For those who worship the dunes.”

They dine on the big deck outside the kitchen, Diana sitting between Rosa and Luisa, Jalecia on Luisa’s lap, Teo across the table from Diana.

Helen serves lunch and explains, “I’m finally taking my sabbatical after twenty years of teaching Photography at Westminster College. We’ve wanted to come back here for thirty years, ever since Diana came with me on an assignment to take pictures of the orcas for a nature magazine and we stayed in a beach house near Nanaimo for a few days.”

“I was twelve,” says Diana, watching Teo happily devour his chicken sandwich. “But I never forgot the wonderful time we had here.”

A moment later, Luisa transfers Jalecia from her lap to Diana’s lap, and the little girl stays with Diana for the rest of the meal, Diana overjoyed to be holding her.

After lunch everyone goes up the spiral staircase to the observation tower where Rosa and Teo take turns looking through the telescope and complaining the other is hogging the telescope, and from there the party moves outside and everyone climbs to the top of the dunes from where Teo and Rosa race down to the seaside bottom and trudge back up to the top three times, Jalecia watching from her perch on Poppy’s shoulders and Helen taking pictures of the kids while Luisa and Diana return to the house to set the table for tea and cookies.

“You’ve made us very happy today,” says Helen, as she and Andrew trail Teo and Rosa and Jalecia to the house. “Thank you so much for coming.”

“Our pleasure,” says Andrew, taking her hand. “Let’s do this again soon.”

“We would love that,” she says, bowing her head and weeping.

“You’ve had a hard go,” says Andrew, resisting his impulse to embrace her. “It’s good to cry.”

“Oh we cry every day,” she says, looking up at him, her face radiant. “We flood the temple with our tears.”

After tea and cookies, Diana takes the kids to see her studio adjacent to the house, a large rectangular room with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the dunes, two large tables in the center of the room, and seven large canvases hanging on the walls, none of them yet touched with paint.

When Andrew and Luisa and Helen arrive in the studio doorway, Rosa rushes over to them and says, “Guess what? We’re going to draw and paint with Diana and make things with clay. Not today, but maybe soon.”

“I’m going to paint a gigantic spaceship,” says Teo, defiantly. “And make rockets out of clay for blowing up aliens.”

“What if the aliens are friendly?” asks Andrew, sounding concerned.

“Then we’ll invite them for lunch,” says Teo, frowning thoughtfully. “Once we find out what they like to eat.”

For the rest of the summer, every Tuesday and Thursday morning after breakfast, Andrew or Luisa drops Teo and Rosa and Jalecia off at Helen and Diana’s house to make art and play on the beach, followed by lunch, and then Andrew or Luisa picks the kids up and brings them home.

When kindergarten resumes in September, Teo and Rosa and Jalecia spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with Diana and Helen and sometimes stay for supper, sometimes not.

For Andrew and Luisa these hours without the children are golden hours of writing and music making and interacting with other adults and lolling around.

For the children, these hours with Diana and Helen are golden hours of drawing and painting and making things out of clay and playing on the beach and eating sugary things forbidden at home and being adored by the wonderful Helen and Diana.

For Helen these hours with the children are golden hours of taking pictures of the kids and reading stories to them and feeding them and being the grandmother she loves to be.

For Diana, these hours with the children are her salvation.

Once or twice a week, Helen and Diana come to Andrew and Luisa’s for supper, and when the kids have gone to bed, the adults gather in the living room to talk.

On a stormy evening in October, the kids fast asleep, Andrew and Luisa and Helen and Diana sit by the fire enjoying tea and pumpkin pie.

“Hard to believe,” says Helen, gazing into the flames, “that a year from now I’ll be in London again, teaching Photography and wishing I was here.”

“But you’ll be staying, won’t you?” asks Luisa, looking at Diana with whom she has grown very close.

“I don’t know,” says Diana, anguished. “I love it here so much, but I can’t imagine staying without Mum, so I might go back, too.”

“Or you could stay here and I’ll be back in the summer,” says Helen, smiling bravely. “But lets not think about it now. We have all winter and spring and summer again before I have to go.”

“You know, of course,” says Andrew, sounding very serious, “that you’ll have to take the kids with you.”

“They much prefer you to us,” says Luisa, sipping her tea. “They tell us every day.”

“At least twice,” says Andrew, nodding.

“Because we spoil them,” says Diana, smiling sublimely. “Because we give them candy and chocolate and aren’t the ones who make them go to bed before they want to. Because we are doting Aunty and Grandma and not Mama and Poppy.”

“We love that you spoil them,” says Luisa, getting up to put another log on the fire. “We are too overwhelmed to spoil them, and their mother… as much as we love Adriana, is like my daughter Lily and prefers her children in small doses and not all day every day.”

The humans fall silent, rain drumming on the roof.

“I’ve started writing again,” says Diana, glancing shyly at Andrew and Luisa. “First time in… three years.”

“That’s exciting,” says Luisa, resuming her place on the sofa beside Diana. “We could have a reading. Andrew just finished the rough of a new story and if we set a date he’ll feel compelled to rewrite it. You could read some poems, I could read a story, and Helen could give a slide show.”

“When you say a reading,” says Diana, anxiously, “you mean…”

“A few friends here in the living room,” says Andrew, reassuringly. “We’re introverts. Quite the opposite of our children, the older ones and the younger ones, but we do like reading for our friends.”

“Speaking of slide shows,” says Helen, pausing momentously, “I showed my publisher some of the pictures I’ve taken of Teo and Rosa and Jalecia, and they absolutely love them. So what we’re thinking, with your permission, is to make a book of photos of the kids accompanied by Diana’s poems.”

“Assuming I haven’t lost the knack,” says Diana, feeling a sudden resurgence of doubt.

“I’m sure you haven’t,” says Luisa, matter-of-factly.

“I’m sure, too,” says Andrew, nodding in agreement.

“Why are you both so sure?” asks Diana, on the verge of tears.

“Everything about you makes us sure,” says Luisa, smiling at her.

“You speak in poems, Diana,” says Andrew, raising his cup to her. “You are the knack.”

As often happens when Andrew and Luisa decide to have a party, a few friends quickly becomes more than a few, and on a cold clear night in December, forty people crowd into the living room for hors d’oeuvres and wine and beer as prelude to the show.

Andrew and Luisa open with a song, Andrew reads a funny story about a sour old man sweetened by the coming of a cat into his life, and Luisa reads a story about fishing with her grandmother when she was a girl and how her grandmother tried to teach her the facts of life by describing how pike procreate.

And lastly Diana reads a lovely narrative poem that begins with the first time she saw Teo and Rosa and Jalecia on the beach with Andrew, and ends with her arriving at Andrew and Luisa’s house to read the poem to those who are here, the body of the poem telling how making art with the children has empowered her to release the spirit of her son from the prison of her grief.

Six months later, in June of 2013, Adriana informs Luisa and Andrew she is moving to Spain with her partner Hadiya and will take Teo and Rosa with her unless Andrew and Luisa want the kids to stay with them.

Andrew and Luisa insist the kids stay with them, and in mid-July, Adriana flies away, after which Teo and Rosa move permanently into the big house.

And while Andrew makes needed repairs to the little house before they have the interior repainted, Luisa informs several friends that she and Andrew are looking for someone wonderful to live in the little house and help with cooking and cleaning and shopping and taking care of the children.

Two weeks after Adriana flies away, Andrew goes to pick up the kids at Helen and Diana’s and finds Diana waiting for him in the driveway.

“Feels like I’ve been out here for hours waiting for you,” she says, laughing anxiously. “The watched pot and all that, only in this case I watched the road.”

“What’s going on?” he asks urgently. “Kids okay?”

“Yeah, there fine. They’re with Mum in the kitchen.” She fights her tears. “I want to live in the little house, Andrew, and help take care of the kids.”

“We thought you were going back to England with Helen,” he says, opening his arms to her. “That’s the only reason we didn’t ask you.”

“If I can live with you and Luisa and the kids,” she says, stepping into his embrace, “then I won’t need to go back. It was living alone I was afraid of.”

Helen stays with Diana in the little house for the last week of August before she flies back to London, and during that week she takes another thousand pictures of the children.

On the beach the day before she is to leave, Helen stands with Andrew watching the kids playing in the shallows.

“I will miss the children,” says Helen, raising her camera to capture Rosa holding Jalecia’s hand as a gentle wave breaks against their bodies—Teo much further out than the girls, the water above his waist. “But I will miss you most of all.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” he says, keeping his eyes on the children. “Very much.”

“I’m glad to know you’ll miss me,” she says, lowering her camera to gaze at him. “Having missed you all my life.”

“You mean someone like me?” he asks, looking at her.

“No,” she says, raising her camera and taking picture after picture of his face. “Specifically you.”

 fin

One Last Time

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We Might Be Friends

end of something

Volume of Greenstreet photo by Todd

Paul Windsor, late fifties, bespectacled, his longish gray hair turning white, is sitting at his customary corner table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.

Something causes him to look up from reading Kate Greenstreet’s The End of Something, and his eyes are drawn to the woman with silvery hair who just took her place at the end of the short line of customers. He wonders what made him look up from the poem he was reading. Was it the words I thought we might be friends or something about this woman at the end of the line? Or both.

Paul’s wife Elisha, her long reddish brown hair in a ponytail, and Alexandra, Paul and Elisha’s seventeen-year-old daughter, her shoulder-length reddish brown hair tinted with purple, are working behind the counter, both of them wearing white dress shirts and black jeans; and this woman at the end of the line is wearing a long gray skirt and a peach-colored sweater.

He can only see the woman’s backside, but her posture and shape are familiar to him, and when she looks to her right and he glimpses her profile, he realizes this is Maureen, his first wife whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in thirty-two years.

His immediate impulse is to sneak out of the café before Maureen can recognize him, but the impulse passes and he closes his eyes and remembers the moment he met her—the opening night of a group show at the Hawkins Gallery in San Jose. His friend George had four paintings in the show and Paul was there out of loyalty to George. Maureen was gallery hopping with her friend Lisa who knew George and came to give George a congratulatory hug. George introduced Lisa to Paul, and Lisa gave Paul a hug, too. Then Lisa said, “This is my amazing friend Maureen,” and Paul and asked, “What’s so amazing about you?” And Maureen said, “Take me home and I’ll show you.”

Paul opens his eyes and sees Maureen at the counter talking to Elisha; and he feels gut punched, which is how he felt every time Maureen confessed her latest infidelity to him. They married a month after they met, separated after a year, divorced a few months after that.

Maureen pays for her bag of pastries and turns to leave; and Paul sees her face clearly for the first time and realizes this is not Maureen.

He puts down The End of Something, opens his notebook, and writes Maureen was constantly unfaithful because deceiving me made life more exciting for her. She never expressed the slightest interest in my writing or music, yet I invited her to live with me, married her, went deep into debt buying her a new car and expensive clothing and taking her out to trendy restaurants. Why did I do that when I knew from the beginning she cared nothing for me? Was it because she was beautiful and I never thought a beautiful woman would ever want to be with me?

The café door opens and the woman who is not Maureen enters again. She buys a cup of coffee and a cinnamon swirl and looks for a place to sit—all the seats taken except one at Paul’s table.

“Would you mind if I sit with you?” she asks, her voice identical to Maureen’s voice.

“No, please,” he says, thinking maybe this is Maureen transformed by thirty more years of life.

“Thank you,” she says, sitting down with a weary sigh. “I tried to get my daughter and her friend to come in, but they have no interest in leaving the car.” She shrugs. “We’re driving to Portland via the coast because it’s so beautiful, right? But they won’t get out of the fucking car. Pardon my French.”

“How old is your daughter?” asks Paul, imagining a surly teenager.

“Thirty,” says the woman, nodding dolefully. “Going on twelve. My fault. Should have kicked her out long ago, but…” She glances at The End of Something. “That any good? Mystery?”

“Poetry,” says Paul, certain now the woman is not Maureen.

“Wow,” says the woman, wistfully. “Poetry. Boy does that take me back.”

“To where and when?” asks Paul, wondering why he thought this woman was Maureen, when she is nothing like Maureen.

“To Santa Cruz a million years ago when I used to get really stoned and read Emily Dickinson.” She smiles, remembering. “Heaven.”

“Would you like me to read you one of these poems?”

“Here?” she says, glancing around the room. “Now?”

“Yeah,” says Paul, laughing. “My wife is the manager and she encourages the out-loud reading of poetry.”

“Okay,” says the woman, blushing. “But tell me your name first.”

“Paul Windsor,” he says, loving that she blushed at the thought of being read to by a stranger in a café. “What’s your name?”

“Victoria,” she says, taking off her sweater and revealing a shimmering sleeveless red shirt and tattooed arms—mermaids and unicorns—and a necklace of turquoise stones.

“I did not expect tattoos,” says Paul, gazing in wonder at her.

“Oh I used to be a super hippy,” she says, remembering those halcyon days. “Before I got pregnant and had to get real.” She winks at him. “You know what I mean.”

“Not sure I do,” he says, imagining her as a young woman smoking a joint and reading Emily Dickinson, the words amazing her.

“Yes, you do,” she says, bitterly. “To pay the bills. When mommy and daddy wouldn’t anymore. Right?”

“Right,” he says, nodding. “I see what you mean.”

“Is the poem sad?” she asks, biting her lower lip. “The one you want to read me?”

“No,” he says, opening the book. “Not sad.”

69. BLACK SNOW

I thought we might be friends. Or we were friends but

who we turned out to be was disappointing.

 

She walks to the corner of the field. One of those cold

bright days you remember from childhood.

 

The past, nothing.

New people, nothing.

 

She sees him but she doesn’t know him.

She’s wearing his coat.

Victoria purses her lips and says, “I like that poem.” She sighs. “A lot. Would you read it again, please?”

He reads the poem again, slower this time.

She nods. “I feel like that all the time now. Like I’m outside what’s going on. Like when I’m driving my daughter and her friend and they’re plugged into their phones and I look out at the hills and the sky and the clouds and the ocean and I think how beautiful it is, and they’re not even aware of it, and I’m just driving through it, driving them through it to some motel on the way to some hotel in Portland where they’ll go to some dance club and take Ecstasy and then we’ll drive back to Palo Alto the fast ugly way. For what? Like the poem says. The past, nothing. New people, nothing. Why do I live like this? It’s like I’m only half-alive. I should sell everything and get a place around here. Near the wild ocean. Have a garden and a cat and volunteer somewhere. Help people. I’ve got enough money. Let my daughter take care of herself, though I don’t think she can.”

A silence falls between them.

Victoria tears off a big chunk of her cinnamon swirl, dips the chunk in her coffee, and puts the drenched chunk in her mouth, her eyelids fluttering with pleasure at the marriage of bitter and sweet.

fin

Kate Greenstreet reading her poem 69. Black Snow

Todd reading his poem Why Now?

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The End of Something

TEOS

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I just got my copy of Kate Greenstreet’s newest book of poems The End of Something. Wow. What a marvelous book. Not only are the poems songful and clear and provocative, as in thought/feeling-provoking, but the book itself is a most pleasing objet d’art with beguiling design touches and a splendiferous presentation of the poems, the line-spacing wonderfully spacious, the fonts exactly right, the book small yet not small—an insightful chronicle writ in a language we know but have never used this way.

As I read Ms. Greenstreet’s opus, images from my past rise from the depths; and the next thing I know I’m returning to the present here by the fire, many minutes having ticked away while I slipped and slid down various memory lanes—proof to me of how excellent her poetry.

 

From  80. WHAT TO DO WITH THE WILL TO BELIEVE

Whatever happened to divine

discontent? Longing

as the basis of self-discipline.

Fifteen years ago. I am fifty-three, walking the labyrinth embedded in the plaza outside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The woman I am involved with is twenty feet ahead of me on the mystic coil. She is often displeased with me and emotionally unavailable: two big obstacles to the continuance of our relationship.

A woman comes out of the cathedral, walks down a short flight of stairs, and approaches the labyrinth. She moves without a hint of fear in her gait and posture, her glossy brown hair falling to her shoulders, her skin olive brown—Spanish comes to mind, though she might be Greek or Ashkenazi.

She is wearing a dress that does not become her, a drab brown tube falling to just below her knees, the short sleeves all wrong, yet she takes my breath away. She reaches the threshold of the labyrinth just as I reach the center, our eyes meet, and we stand unmoving, locked in a powerful psychic embrace that tells me we were born to spend our lives together; and I can hardly keep from shouting “It’s you!”

Now the woman I’m involved with says, “We should get going. They’re expecting us.”

And my soul mate, rather than enter the labyrinth, smiles wistfully and walks away, while I, rather than run after her, turn to my girlfriend and say, “Okee doke.”

 

From  91. I SAW MYSELF NAKED BY MISTAKE

To know the longitude and latitude

with certainty, amidst erasure

of landmarks.

I am twenty-six. I have come to New York from Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper. Having recently sold a few short stories to national magazines—a huge breakthrough for me—I’ve come to New York to meet the editors who bought my stories.

From childhood until this moment in my life, I have always had an excellent sense of direction. On backpack trips in the Sierras, sans compass, I was unerringly correct about which direction was which. And in towns and cities where I lived, my sense of direction was invariably accurate.

I enter the subway in Greenwich Village, go down a flight of stairs, pass through the turnstile, go down another flight of stairs, and catch the A Train to Times Square to purchase half-price tickets to a play. I get a little turned around coming up out of the ground at 42nd Street, but find the ticket booth and head underground again to catch the A Train to West 86th.

I board the train, and one stop along realize I’m going in the opposite direction I want to go, so I get off the train, exit the underground, re-enter the underground, and after some confusion catch the A Train heading for West 86th. When I get to West 86th and emerge from the underground, I set out for what I am sure is West 83rd, only to reach West 87th and have to turn around.

And ever since then, whenever I am in unfamiliar territory, I have difficulty synching up my sense of direction with reality.

 

From  39. WHAT FALLS FROM THE SKY

That the truth means

what is going to happen. Or

what I must do.

I am fifteen. I just informed my parents I don’t want to take any more pre-med advanced science courses at my high school. I want to take Drama and Ceramics. My sisters have gone to college. My younger brother and my mother have gone to bed. I am alone with my father in the living room. He is very drunk, standing ten feet away from me, yelling at me, his face deformed by fury and hatred. He says my decision to drop Science and take Drama and Art proves I am a quitter phony loser fake pathetic useless coward copout. My sensory system begins to shut down. I can hear him shouting and I can feel the energy of his fury, but his words are indistinct.

I will not remember this event until twelve years later when I become so ill I almost die. My illness manifests a few months after selling my first novel for a small advance to a major New York publisher. I am twenty-seven, living in a rat-infested house in a dangerous part of Seattle—a house I cannot afford to keep warm during the winter, so I am always cold.

The symptoms of my illness are limbs so heavy I have difficulty moving, exhaustion, inability to sleep, no appetite, fevers, chills, and a persistent cough.

After a month of suffering, I go to a doctor. He runs a battery of tests and can find nothing wrong with me. Three more weeks pass. I am cadaverous now. My throat aches from coughing. Every time I begin to drift off to sleep, I have a coughing fit and wake up.

I go to the doctor again. More tests. Nothing. He recommends I see a psychotherapist. I go home and sit on my bed and consider calling my parents to ask them for money so I can go to a therapist.

Sitting on my bed, I hallucinate a second Todd sitting a few feet away from me, and we have a conversation.

Todd 2: So you’re sick, but they can’t find anything wrong with you. How strange.

Todd: I’m more than sick. I’m dying.

Todd 2: How come?

Todd: I have no idea.

Todd 2: Well…what’s been going on in your life?

Todd: What do you mean? I’ve been terribly sick for two months. I can barely move, barely get out of bed. Nothing else is going on. Nothing else can go on.

Todd 2: What about your novel? Aren’t you about to publish your first novel?

Todd: I have to finish the rewrite, but I’m too weak. I have to get well first, only it doesn’t look like I’m going to.

Todd 2: But isn’t it amazing? You sold a novel! To Doubleday! You must be thrilled. Dream come true. Right?

Todd: I guess so.

Todd 2: You guess so? You don’t sound very thrilled or proud or happy about selling a novel to major publisher. And I notice when you tell people and they get excited, you say the book probably won’t sell. Why do you do that?

Todd: I don’t. I’m happy about the book.

Todd 2: No, you’re not. You’re ashamed, aren’t you?

Todd: No. I’m…I’m glad.

Todd 2: You don’t sound glad. You sound ashamed.

Now a movie screen appears in the air above me, and on the movie screen is my father, his face deformed by fury and hatred, calling me a quitter phony loser fake pathetic useless coward copout.

I shout at the movie, “Get out of my body! Get out of my mind! I banish you. Be gone.”

Now the scene on the screen dissolves and another scene appears—my father snarling, “We gave you everything and you pissed your life away.”

“Get out of my body! Get out of my mind! I banish you. Be gone.”

And for hours and hours memories of being denigrated by my father and mother and teachers and girlfriends and friends appear on the screen and I keep shouting at those memories to be gone from me.

At last I fall asleep and slumber without waking for nineteen hours. When I open my eyes, though I am weak as a baby, my illness is gone.

 

47. ALL OUR BONES

 

All our bones, and the mountains.

 

Mountains always in the distance.

It’s called completion.

 

I want us to tell people.

                                   

Kate Greenstreet

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Know Your Audience

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

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Paterson Jarmusch

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

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

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

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

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

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

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

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

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Pomp & Circumstance

 

sextant

Sextant drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Been one of those weeks where every conversation with all kinds of different kinds of people began with talk of the drought and the state of our personal water supplies, and from there we spun off into discussions of the swiftly changing reality of what it is to be human on this little planet that used to seem so vast.

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

You might have missed the news, or simply not given a hoot, that Stephen Hawking recently announced there are no black holes. Thus thousands of astronomers, physicists, science teachers, and graduate students are in various stages of shock that the foundation of their careers has been decreed by Mr. Black Hole himself to be a misconception, and that their decades of work have been about what isn’t there, and that billions of dollars spent on black hole-related research was essentially a big waste of money, not to mention time and space. Oops.

What made Hawking’s proclamation especially interesting to me was that the widespread foundational scientific belief in the existence of black holes was apparently not scientific at all, but mere conjecture. Hawking and his influential colleagues have abruptly changed their minds, so everyone else (including millions of people who ponied up the cash to buy Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) better change their minds, too, or risk…what? Not agreeing with the emperor who now blithely admits he wasn’t wearing any clothes, though he kind of thought he was, sort of? This is science? You betcha. Remember: medical doctors all over our scientific nation used to prescribe cigarettes to ameliorate symptoms of anxiety. Oops.

I hunted up Hawking’s explanation for why he and the entire scientific community were wrong about black holes, and I present his explanation here for your enjoyment. For extra fun, I suggest you imagine John Cleese and Eric Idle of Monty Python impersonating balding scientists taking turns presenting this blatantly self-contradictory proclamation—also pure conjecture if not outright balderdash.

“The absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes, in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are however apparent horizons that persist for a period of time. This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field. It will also mean that the CFT on the boundary of anti de Sitter space will be dual to the whole anti de Sitter space, and not merely the region outside the horizon.

“The no hair theorems imply that in a gravitational collapse the space outside the event horizon will approach the metric of a Kerr solution. However inside the event horizon, the metric and matter fields will be classically chaotic. It is the approximation of this chaotic metric by a smooth Kerr metric that is responsible for the information loss in gravitational collapse. The chaotic collapsed object will radiate deterministically but chaotically. It will be like weather forecasting on Earth. That is unitary, but chaotic, so there is effective information loss. One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

Songs nowadays are no longer songs as I used to think of songs being songs. That is to say, the things I still call songs can be listened to with my eyes closed. But the popular songs of today, the Grammy winners and the songs on all the charts of today’s music must be seen in order to be properly heard? Songs today, not the ones we oldsters think of as songs, but the new ones the youngsters live by, are inextricably bound to little movies for which music is soundtrack, and most of these soundtracks are composed of many layers of synthesized sonic noise underpinned by mechanically generated rhythm tracks designed to support the visuals comprising the little movies.

“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter: second, telling other people to do so.” Bertrand Russell

I like that definition of work: altering the position of matter. I would add that for some position altering of matter one earns money, and for some position altering of matter one does not earn money; and there are two kinds of money: regular money and gig money.

Gig money is worth much more than regular money. I used to think the added buying power of gig money had something to do with black holes, but now that black holes no longer exist, perhaps the extra buying power is attributable to anti de Sitter space, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think the extraordinary nature of gig money is alchemical. Now before you climb on your scientific high horse and declare alchemy a pile of mystical infantile wishful thinking black hole rabbit poop, feast your eyes on the following from Smithsonian Magazine: “There is growing evidence that alchemists seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the world in interesting ways and reported genuine results. And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note, including Sir Isaac Newton and Lavoisier.”

What do I mean by gig money? The word gig has come to mean job in today’s world. “I have a regular nine-to-five gig for a software company, but my main thing is recording random street sounds and turning them into rhythm tracks,” is common parlance today, but a gig used to mean a performance, usually of jazz or poetry, made with the hope of possibly making some money from the performance, but maybe not making any money. It is this maybe/maybe not making money aspect of a gig that endows gig money with its alchemical mystical extra-potent power. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum or nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum. You choose.

For instance, one night I made forty bucks for reading my short stories and telling jokes in a used bookstore in Sacramento, the audience unexpectedly large, the donations jar overflowing. With that gig money I bought groceries for the entire week, went out for Mexican food twice, bought new guitar strings and three pairs of pants at the Salvation Army, and still had money left over. So I bought a pile of Russell Hoban novels at the used bookstore, gave ten bucks to a friend, bought my sweetheart some flowers, and splurged on three goldfish for the backyard pond, and I still had money left over. And if I hadn’t gone and cultivated negative thoughts about an annoying person who was just doing the best he could, I might still have that gig money because thoughts are actions and the karmic wheel rolls on ceaselessly. Which is why we should always endeavor to be kind and generous even when we’re just sitting still with our eyes closed listening to songs.

 “There are two kinds of fools: one says, ‘This is old, therefore it is good’; the other says, ‘This is new, therefore it is better.’” W.R. Inge

Currently in the throes of rewriting my new novel, I am carving up my printed-out pages with red ink flowing from a pen held in my hand attached to my arm and directed by my brain far from the madding computer and text on a screen. Writing longhand and editing longhand are considered by most writers under the age of fifty, and even by many writers over fifty, to be antiquated practices inferior to doing everything on the screen from start to finish. I beg to differ, but who cares if I can tell by reading a few paragraphs of a novel or short story whether the author composed his or her words longhand or on a computer? That doesn’t mean one way of writing is better than the other, but it does prove (to my satisfaction) that there is a qualitative difference between those two ways of writing, and I find the quality of one of those ways vastly superior to the other. But that’s just me. And speaking of black holes, here is a recently crafted paragraph from my new novel.

In the near distance Donald sees the sign known to every alcoholic and pool player for a hundred miles around, a gigantic square of blinking neon, pink and green and blue, spelling Hotsy Totsy, a misleading moniker if there ever was one. Home to three pool tables, a long bar, seventeen bar stools, six warped plywood booths, two hideous bathrooms, and a juke box full of rock music from the 1960’s and 70’s—nothing after 1975—Hotsy Totsy is a low-ceilinged beer-soaked bunker presided over by the bald and portly Hell’s Angel Calvin Jensen, owner, bartender, bouncer and popcorn maker, popcorn and peanuts the primary foodstuffs available at Hotsy Totsy.

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The Source

 The Source Cropped

Snail Mail photo by Yogini Lena

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“The fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” Vincent Van Gogh

Every now and again I will come across an article or a documentary or a book about an artist no one ever heard of until that artist died and it was discovered she left behind paintings or drawings or sculptures or musical compositions or novels or poems or mathematical equations or architectural designs hailed by some authority or another as works of towering genius. This kind of art is nowadays referred to as Outsider Art, which I think is a silly name for the work of artists who are anonymous while they’re alive, either by choice or through the exigencies of fate, since that definition includes nearly all the artists there have ever been or ever will be—outsiders.

And just what are these creative people outside of? This is a good time of year to be asking that question, as we are in the thick of the annual awards season, when members of our tiny cultural elite give each other awards for being members of the tiny cultural elite that jealously guard and control the spigots of what most people in our culture watch and read and listen to. Those who win Oscars and Pulitzers and Golden Globes and Grammys and Emmys and Tony’s and MacArthurs are the visible insiders, and they owe their memberships in that exclusive club to the less visible but much more powerful members of the ruling elite. Everyone else is an outsider.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve known many writers and artists and musicians in my sixty-four years of stumbling around, and though I cannot prove scientifically with double binding cross lateral placebo control group studies what I am about to aver, I know this to be absolutely true: insiders imitate, outsiders innovate. Which is not to say innovators don’t become insiders—they do. And then, no matter how hard they resist the ferocious forces governing the inside, they become imitators of themselves or imitators of other insiders—the only cure a return to the outside.

“So impossible

The odds against it

Too high and yet

We must feel free to do with it

Whatever we can, for laughs

or for serious” Philip Whalen

Once upon a time a long time ago I’m minding around sitting my own business when I get a call from Crazy Cat, and I mean in-and-out-of-mental-hospitals-on-a-semi-regular-basis Crazy Cat, and he says, “Tawd, I got this space, man, a big space, a huge space, a magic space, a miracle, you’ll see, and I want to put on a show, you know, poets and musicians, and Larry and Lisa said they’ll paint a huge like backdrop of stars and unicorns and shit with glow-in-black-light paint, and Tim said he can light the place like Las Vegas, you know, neon tubes and spotlights and sparklers, and Twilby said he’ll do the sound with those same gigantic speakers he used for the famous concert he did at the Esquire, and Margot is jazzed out of her mind about running some modern dance between the readers, and Eric and Gino and Jessica said they’d play music all fuckin’ night, and the only thing is…I kinda already told everybody you were doing the show, and they said if you were doing the show they would definitely do it, too, and so I kinda already printed up the posters and put them up around town and put your name at the top so…”

Now I had told this Flipped Out Feline if he ever did this kind of thing to me again I would not only boycott the show, I would call every peep he used my name to con (because I am known hereabouts to have a verifiable fan base numbering well over three) and blow the whistle on his crazy ass…but for some unforeseen undoubtedly mystical reason at that particular moment on that particular day I was feeling especially outside of everything including myself, you know, and feeling gruesomely grim about the dearth of original anything in our kicked-to-shit culture, and I was longing for some kind of zany collaborative improvisational happening to lift my suicidal gloom, so I say to Crazy Cat, “Okay, I’ll do it, you sneaky lunatic, but we have to meet right now and put a stop to you promising every cock and pussy you meet star billing on a roster that by now may number in the dozens.”

I take a quick shower and dress in artfully stained blue jeans and a Ludwig Von Hendrix T-shirt (pink with red lettering) and try not to think about the last time this psycho duped me into headlining a happening in an underground garage we absolutely packed with hundreds of peeps ready to partake of the random ferment of artists chosen by dumb luck to strut their stuff when Crazy Cat took the stage before anybody else had a chance, and he snarled so ingloriously for such a murderously long time about the genius of his penis and his intimate relationship (on the astral plane) with Kerouac and Ginsberg and Marilyn Monroe that those hundreds ran away like someone had set the place on fire with noxious gas.

And if not for the intercession of Crazy Cat’s insanely cute intelligent gorgeously ultra-reasonable girlfriend Kitty (why was she with that maniac?) I would have slugged that crazy jerk just so I could say, “And then I slugged that crazy jerk!” But Kitty purred me out of my violent impulse with paragraphs of libido-tickling innuendo and actually made a viable case that Crazy Cat’s garage-emptying diatribe might have been culturally significant, however immeasurable, and there was no telling what kind of poetry and music and new thinking his outburst inspired (subtext: please imagine sex with me, frequently and deeply satisfyingly, okay? Okay!)

So we meet at the Big Buzz Bistro, Crazy Cat unshaven, unwashed, and ugly as sin, Kitty clothed in a pleasingly prurient purple paisley cleavage-celebrating dress clinging to her every glorious curve, and we drink lattes out of huge green bowls and get so high I’m sure the barista must have spiked my java with at least cocaine and maybe opium, and with Kitty taking notes in a gigantic sketchpad full of superb Renoir-like nudes she’s drawn of men and women and women and women, her postmodern handwriting maddeningly abstract yet entirely readable, we design the show and I have Crazy Cat sign in blood that he will perform dead last and I retain the right to kill him before during and after the show for any reason whatsoever and he waives his right to haunt me in perpetuity etc.

Then we go to the huge old warehouse that Crazy Cat scored for the happening, a former hotrod hangar smelling vaguely of motor oil and not so vaguely of wino piss and we walk around in a state of wonder, for truly this is the Sistine Cavern of the Forgotten Grandchildren of the Lost Beatnik Tribes of Brooklyn, and we are Diaghilev and Barnum and Colette imagining the divine transformation with a soundtrack by Miles and Cannonball and Satie, and I envision the baby grand bathed in a baby blue spotlight as I appear in a baby turquoise T-shirt and baggy black corduroys and red ballet slippers, adjusting the piano bench to fit my tush while a big silver potato of a microphone descends from the rafters on a silver chain glittering in the soft white spot that frames the poets I accompany with quietly tasty noodling.

And after weeks of honing the unhonable, the mythic night of nights finally arrives as fierce winds howl and shake the roof of the old hangar mobbed with ugly beautiful young old hip square white black brown stoned drunk straight lucid sad happy crazy good souls yearning for even just a phrase of inspired something to hang onto as they make their way through yet another tomorrow on the battlefield of what who where why how will we find our way to love? And will she be waiting? How will he know me? How will I know her? Etc. And most important: will we be brave enough to fight through those bloody roadblocks of self-doubt and dare to say to whomsoever it may concern, “You! Yes you! Wanna dance?”

Afterwards in the wreckage of whatever we did, our collective heart dancing to an irresistible bossa nova beat, scores of peeps hurrying home to get laid with the fantabulous energy of what just transpired, and with our ideas of the possible expanded way beyond our ideas of the possible, Kitty more beautiful than (name your favorite goddess) is packing up her flashlights and ukulele and harmonica and tambourine and masks of comedy and tragedy and making ready to leave with Crazy Cat though I know she’s gotta love me more, I ask her, “Why you going home with him and not with me?”

To which she replies in a husky honeyed voice that makes me love dizzy every time she speaks, “Because he’s the one puts on these shows, honey pie sugar pea cute boy piano guy. He puts on these shows with nothing but chutzpah. From nothing came the universe. From nothing came you. From nothing came me. He is the gritty unwashed source, I his sorceress. Mazel tov! See you in your dreams.”

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Shameless Self-Promotion

wildgardener2

Wild Gardener Black painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world—unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.” e.e. cummings

In those long ago days when I was invited to read from my novels in bookstores and libraries, and for college audiences and writers groups, I was frequently asked if I had any helpful advice for people who wanted to become writers and make their livings from writing. This was before the advent of personal computers and digital everything, before people began writing with their thumbs on phones, and before a new myth conquered the collective psyche. That new myth goes something like this: Writing novels is easy. Anyone can write a novel without any practice and without ever having written a short story or even a viable paragraph. Just do it! And then publish your novel online and…voila!

Myths take hold and become established because they reflect a strong collective belief or wish. The myth that writing a novel is easy reflects a strong collective desire for everything to be easy. The suggestion by e.e. cummings that even just beginning to master the art of writing a good poem may take many years of practice, is the quantum opposite of the new myth about how easy it is to write poetry and fiction. After all, poems are just stacks of lines of words, right? So say today’s college academics and snake oil merchants making millions running the thousands of Creative Writing MFA programs now extant in America, programs wherein the only requirement for getting an MFA is enough money to pay the exorbitant tuition.

How hard can stacking lines of words be, especially now that the latest vogue in academic poetics is for those stacks of lines of words to not make the least bit of sense—literal, symbolic, or otherwise. Indeed, making sense is now considered a bad thing by academic poetry professors. Logic and meaning and connectivity are clearly signs of enslavement to something or other and must be avoided at all costs. Strike out any combination of words that might be construed to possibly make some sort of sense. Embrace the random whatever. Okay! Let’s get stacking.

Contrast the new anybody-can-do-anything-with-ease myth with cummings suggesting, “If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.” Ten or fifteen years of hard work? Nobody gonna buy that app.

In any case, way back when I was presenting my published works to a public still abiding by the old myth that it takes years of practice and persistence to possibly succeed as a writer or an artist, I was forever being asked for advice about how to proceed on the artist’s path. After several bumbling attempts to give helpful answers, I settled on the following. “I have two words of advice for anyone who wants to be a writer or an artist in our society, and those two words are low overhead. The less time you must spend making money to pay for rent and food, the more time you will have, as cummings put it, to fight and work and feel your way to the beginnings of mastery.”

Ah but mastery of the art form is only part of the struggle if an artist hopes to make money from his or her creations. And it is on this trying-to-make-money-from-art leg of the artist’s journey when most artists give up their quests, for this is the part of the process largely controlled by others. This is the part of the journey when the artist learns the painful truth that making money from art in America has little or nothing to do with art and everything to do with selling one’s self.

How ironic! Having worked with hundreds of writers as a teacher and editor, and having known hundreds of artists, I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of writers and artists in our society are introverts, many of them extremely introverted and painfully shy. Yet nearly all the successful artists and writers in America, as measured by the amount of money made from their creations, are extroverts. Indeed, all the most commercially successful of my former students and clients are minimally talented, while none of the several brilliant writers I worked with has had any commercial success to speak of.

This was not always the case. American literature and music and art prior to the advent of television and mass media and the corporate takeover of culture, was peopled with many painfully shy introverts represented by savvy extroverted agents and publishers who recognized the value of those oddballs’ genius.

So what? What’s wrong with most of today’s popular authors being beautiful and handsome and sexy and coming off well on talk shows and infomercials? Sure their books aren’t very good, but some of the books are kind of okay. Aren’t they? And besides, who cares about making money from art now that anybody can publish his or her book online and no one will stop him or her. That’s great, isn’t it? Artistic freedom from the tyranny of corporate lap dogs. Power to the people. A global creative renaissance via YouTube and podcasts and cyber sharing! Right on!

Yes! Nowadays anyone can publish anything and record anything and draw anything and say anything and film anything and offer those anythings to the world. And I’ve studied many of the ways people do that kind of sharing and I think that’s…yeah, exactly. Okay. But because I am a painfully shy introverted techno doofus detached from all cyber social network sites, as well as being an old-fashioned diehard three-dimensionalite, and because shameless self-promotion is a necessity for the cottage-industry artist of our time to eke out a living amidst the new electronic digital smartphone e-everything reality, I offer the following for you to reject or embrace or ignore or respond to.

Shameless Self-Promotion Presents

Todd’s New Stuff For You and To Give As Gifts

Helloooo out there wherever you are. I’ve got two new creations for you to possibly buy along with lots of somewhat older goodies you may wish to consider buying. If you’ve never bought anything of mine, that’s okay. Please don’t let that stop you from doing something you’ve never done before. I hope you’ll buy multiple things from me and in so doing support the arts and stir the synergetic pot and be happily surprised at how good my books and music are. This my hope.

I just got my shipment of Incongroovity, my fourth piano-centric CD, and I’m selling this entrancing album for a mere ten bucks. I still call them albums and array the tracks to be listened to as an album, though the new norm of perception is random individual track downloads, and you can do the download thing with Incongroovity, too, from iTunes and CD Baby etc. But you might love the original art I made to package the disc. Talk about a neato stocking stuffer. This is it. Nine groovacious piano instrumentals, one song Real Good Joe (a stirring tune about coffee and love) and two evocative and sensual poems set to piano music.

And I just picked up my second batch of my novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror from Zo, Mendocino’s premiere copy shop. Illustrated by the author, each handsome comb-bound copy is individually and extravagantly signed and numbered by the author. Oasis Tales of the Conjuror is the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in creative and harmonious ways. The stories are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival. Only seventeen (17) bucks a copy, you may want to get several because…why not? To further whet your appetite, you can read the first three chapters of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror at Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.

At this same web site you can listen gratis to big chunks of audio versions of Todd’s novels and short stories, sample music from Todd’s music CDs, peruse his art, and buy books and cards and music with a credit card or email Todd to arrange to pay with check or cash. And no matter how many of these wonderful creations you buy, shipping is only five bucks. Such a deal!

So there it is, my shameless self-promotion for 2013—my response to the new digital age. I may be out of step, out of time, out of gas, and out to lunch, but as I climbed the steep hill from the village yesterday, my knapsack full of the next twenty copies of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, I felt some invisible power lift my pack so the load did not weigh too heavily upon me. And as I began to flag on the home stretch and to doubt the wisdom of my seemingly retrograde strategy, there came a delicious tail wind that propelled me onward.

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Connections

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

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

The stock market was way up yesterday on news that Bank of America announced that he (being a gigantic person according to the Supreme Court) plans to cut sixteen thousand jobs by Christmas. How nice. What a fine and humane time to fire sixteen thousand people in order to increase quarterly profits for a quarter or two.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

So I was in the hardware store buying screws and varnish and masking tape and grout and glue, and having a laugh with the fellow helping me find things (about the trials and tribulations and triumphs and compromises of fixing things), when a couple entered the store and my Super Wealthy People alarm went off. That is to say, having grown up in Atherton, a town that is not really a town but an enclave for super wealthy people and those who serve them, a shiver passes through me when one or more of these folks comes near, and then I try to get away as fast as I can.

The woman was elegant and beautiful and perfectly coiffed and wearing a gray silk dress and a strand of fat white pearls and these amazingly svelte red leather boots, an ensemble that probably cost as much as most people’s cars, and the man was wearing a shirt and trousers I would more likely frame and put on the wall than wear. As is the habit of many super wealthy people, the woman walked up to the fellow helping me find things and began speaking to him as if I did not exist and he and I were not already having a conversation, because as far as this beautiful wealthy woman was concerned I was invisible.

“I know you probably don’t carry the kind of thing we’re looking for,” she said to the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. Then she laughed in a sophisticated sort of way and added, “This being Mendocino and all, but…we’re looking for poison. To kill weeds.”

“Oh, we’ve got poison for killing weeds,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. “What kind of weeds are you wanting to kill?”

“They have it,” she said, turning to her husband who was peering into his phone and frowning gravely. “Tell him what we want it for.”

“We have a place here,” said her husband, flourishing his phone like a baton. “About a mile south of here. We only get up here a few times a year and there are these weeds that grow in the gravel driveway. We have them pulled, but then they come back. We want to kill them for good. Do you have a poison that will do that?”

Another fellow who helps me find things in the hardware store beckoned to me and I moved away from the Super Wealthy people to pay for my purchases and make my escape, but not until I heard the fellow who had previously been helping me say to the super wealthy people, “Well, I don’t know that anything will kill weeds forever. Even the strongest poison eventually dissipates.”

“Oh,” said the woman, pouting in a sophisticated sort of way, “but it’s so annoying to turn into our driveway and find those weeds there again.”

“Well,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me, “you could always pave the driveway. Weeds don’t grow through asphalt.”

“But we like the gravel,” said the woman. “The rustic feeling of the tires crunching on the gravel.”

“How about something that would last five years?” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “Or three? We could have someone apply it every three years.”

“There’s only two things that money can’t buy—that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.” Guy Clark

I was thinking about those super wealthy people and the poison they wanted to buy as I was reading about the suddenly vanishing Greenland ice sheet, a shocking turn of events that even the most savvy of ice sheet scientists hadn’t expected to happen for some decades, if ever. And now the ice is gone. The ramifications of this astonishing disappearance can hardly be imagined, but oceans rising and catastrophic weather events are certainly to be expected; and there is nothing to be done about this unfolding disaster in the short term except to fasten our seatbelts, so to speak. In the long term, we can stop burning fossil fuels and, it seems to me, stop using poison to kill weeds in gravel driveways.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m no more environmentally responsible than those weed killing wealthy people. After all, I drive a little truck that runs on gasoline and I turn on myriad electric lights to banish the darkness, and I use a computer and buy clothes made in China. And, in truth, people of all economic classes in America use poison to kill weeds. We all contribute to the sum total synergy wreaking havoc on the natural world, and we all have the opportunity to lessen our contributions, if only we will.

In related news, the net worth of the four hundred richest Americans grew by thirteen percent in the past year to 1.7 trillion dollars, while twenty-eight states report large increases in unemployment. Hmm. The stock market goes up when corporations fire lots of people, and the four hundred richest Americans, philanthropists all, I’m sure, keep getting richer and richer, and at an accelerating pace, just as the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating pace.

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

I learned about the phenomenon of ephemeralization from reading Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which Bucky defines in his stream-of-consciousness way as “the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed.” An illustration of this would be that the first moderately successful computer was the size of a huge office building and nowadays our little personal computers are thousands of times faster and more efficient and sophisticated than that original behemoth.

Bucky believed that ephemeralization would ultimately provide humanity with everything we needed to live successfully on spaceship earth without our needing to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. He also believed that computers and the worldwide interweb could provide the means for a shift in global awareness that would bring an end to war and overpopulation and the mistreatment of women and children and the needless destruction of the environment. Alas, computers and the worldwide interweb have not saved us, nor have they slowed our ravenous gobbling of the forests and oceans and mountains. Indeed, as our computers have gotten smaller and faster, the poor have gotten more plentiful and the richest four hundred people…

 “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Many years ago I ran the Creative Writing program at the California State Summer School for the Arts, my students talented teens, one of whom, a sassy eighteen-year-old vixen, presented me with the book of poems Rain by William Carpenter, and said, “I want to have this man’s child.”

I read the book that night and found his poems as exciting as great short stories. I then wrote to Bill Carpenter and he and I eventually became pen pals. I told him that I was using his poems to inspire my young charges, and that certain of his poems seemed to help unlock their creative flow. Here is one of those poems that came to mind as I was writing this essay.

THE ECUADORIAN SAILORS

The Ecuadorian sailors arrive in Bucksport.

They stare at the American girls who stand

on the oil wharf in shorts and halters, eating

pistachio ice cream in the long Maine afternoons

as the sun drops behind the refinery. Evenings,

the Ecuadorians gather on deck. From the town hall

you can hear their slow, passionate music

as one of the officers, immaculately dressed,

sings something about love, about a man murdered,

a woman stolen in the night. The Bucksport girls

throw daisies to the Ecuadorians, who place them

behind their ears, and the officer sings about

a flower blooming in a forgotten place. The next

morning, the girls wear yellow flowers between

their breasts, but the sailors do not see them.

They want to shop in the American stores. They move

through Bucksport talking rapidly. Soon they find

Laverdiere’s Discount Drug Store, where you can buy

anything. A line of Ecuadorian sailors streams

from the ship down Main Street to Laverdiere’s.

Another line returns, carrying brown paper bags.

Where the two meet, they talk and touch fingers

like ants describing the source of food and pleasure.

Some have small bags with radios and calculators,

others have large mysterious bags. Two of them

carry a color television while a third holds the

rabbit-ear antenna and tells them where not to step.

One solitary man carries a red snow shovel, as if,

when he brings the shovel home to Ecuador, it

will snow in his village for the first time since

the Pleistocene. When Laverdiere’s closes, girls

come to the ship with long dresses and daisies

plaited in their hair. The air fills with music

from guitars, with emotions like red and blue rain-

forest parrots that no one in Bucksport has ever seen.

Each Ecuadorian sailor invites a girl to dance

and speaks to her in Spanish, which she understands

fluently, like a lost native language, like words

uttered by eloquent red parrots in a country where

it is always afternoon. At night, among the oil tanks,

the girls all become women. They go to their houses

before dawn, but they are not the same, they have

new languages, new bodies, they have grown darker

and will wear flowers forever between their breasts,

even when the sailors have returned to Ecuador, even

when they marry and take their clothes off for the

first time in a lighted room, the flowers will be there

like indelible tattoos. Their husbands will grow silent

as winter, but it will not matter, they will teach

their children three or four words of Spanish, a song

about red parrots crying in a place of sunlight where

it never snows, and where the heart is everything.

William Carpenter

 

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Kyoto Amore

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“But a whole school of lady koto players

Best kimono and Japanese hairdo

Perform on tatami platform underneath falling blossoms”

Philip Whalen

I’ll never forget the night in 1989 when we danced at Melarkey’s on Broadway in Sacramento, dancing for joy because in a free and fair election, for the first and only time in history, the majority voted to shut down an active nuclear power plant. And only a handful of people know that Ben Davis started the whole thing, and I, in the beginning, helped him keep the ball rolling.

Ben, an eccentric, stubborn, self-educated advocate for the public good, first tried to shut down the Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Facility by single-handedly taking SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) to court for not having an adequate emergency evacuation plan in the event of a catastrophe such as the multiple catastrophes ongoing in Japan today. The courts wouldn’t oblige Ben for the usual putrid reasons (putrid as in corrupt), though Ben had more than ample proof that SMUD, for all intents and purposes, had no evacuation plan at all.

Failing to overcome the entrenched putrescence of California’s so-called legal system, Ben thought he would get a proposition on the ballot and encourage the people of Sacramento to shut the plant down, since SMUD was a public utility owned by we, the people. With zeal and naiveté, (and before the advent of the internet) Ben and I thought we would use a pyramid scheme of friends to get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot; and that is what we set out to do. Joining us in our endeavor were two others, Martha Ann Blackman and Melinda Brown. Ben wrote the ballot initiative and had a lawyer friend help him get the wording right, we had a couple strategy sessions at my house, and then we alerted the media.

When an article about us appeared in the Sacramento Bee, and we got a bit of radio coverage, all hell broke loose. To make a very long story short, our little organization was quickly joined and taken over by professional environmental peeps who got all the credit for getting an initiative on the ballot, passing the initiative, and shutting down the power plant. But I know that Ben Davis started the whole thing and got none of the credit. So what else is new? The important thing is that we, the people, shut down a piece-of-crap nuclear power plant that almost surely would have partially or entirely melted down by now and irradiated most of northern California had it been allowed to stay in operation.

How can I say such a thing? Because after I joined forces with Ben, I did a ton of research and learned more than I ever wanted to know about nuclear power plants, Rancho Seco in particular. And by the way, Rancho Seco is still home to piles of nuclear fuel rods that will remain murderously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Those cancerous rods sit in that massive mausoleum of human stupidity because, oops, there’s no safe place on earth to store them.

Buckminster Fuller pointed out that Nature knew exactly how far from humans and other living things to site a nuclear facility: 93 million miles. He also suggested the only safe way to dispose of nuclear waste was to deliver that waste to our sun (93 million miles away) where said waste would be harmlessly incinerated. However, getting the poisonous radioactive guck to the sun without blowing up the planet in the process is seriously problematic, so forget about it. Instead, we must swiftly end all the needless wars, carefully dismantle every last nuclear power plant on earth, and spend the next half-million years safeguarding the poisonous guck and never making another drop of it.

“Autumn comes now triumph chrysanthemum harvest

Moon burnished persimmon plumed Suzuki grass

The spirit perishes when the season turns.”

Philip Whalen

Sick with sorrow about the devastation in Japan, I am also furious that amoral corporations in collusion with amoral governments have poisoned and continue to poison the planet with radioactive waste. The media coverage of the nuclear crisis in Japan has been, to me, most remarkable for the enormity of the lies and misinformation spewed forth by the offices of propaganda. The truth, alas, is in the isotopes, and they have been unleashed in quantities the nuclear overlords will never admit to. The next time you hear someone say nuclear power is safe, please know that they are either extremely stupid, morbidly ignorant, or insane.

“We have going to change it all.” Philip Whalen

When I was twelve, my mother went back to college to get a master’s degree in education. To replace her on the home front, she hired Doris Ishigawa to clean our house, do our laundry, and be on hand when my little brother came home from school. Never was our funky old house so deeply cleaned as when Doris cleaned it. The previously perpetually filthy windows became so clear the house seemed wholly new and better—flooded with light. Doris introduced us to salmon and bass sashimi, fresh-caught by her husband. She created exquisite flower arrangements using flowers and twigs and grasses she found in our largely neglected garden. She was, as I recall her, gentle and generous and kind.

When Doris died of a stroke some years later (she was in her fifties when she died) her obituary revealed that she and her husband, prior to World War II, had been wealthy, successful, and revered members of their community. However, while the Ishigawa’s were incarcerated in an American concentration camp for the crime of being Japanese, their house and land and money and possessions were stolen from them by opportunistic crooks. And when our putrescent legal system negated the Ishigawa’s attempts to reclaim their stolen property, Doris became a cleaning lady, her husband a gardener; none of which I had known about because Doris never once spoke of her ordeal.

Gauzy emerald

goldfinch music

pleasure & delight

Philip Whalen

I have been punctuating this article with snippets from poems by Philip Whalen because he was a great lover of Japan, lived in Kyoto in the late 1960’s, and is one of my favorite poets. Whalen wrote funny lyrical insightful poems while in Japan, and thereafter about Japan. I experienced a profound transformation of how I saw myself in the world when I heard Whalen read his poetry in 1966, and I became a devoted reader of his work. I possess a handwritten note from him giving me permission to use one of his poems to begin my novel Ruby & Spear, and every now and then I’ll get the note out and feel amazed and grateful to see Philip’s scrawl. Here is the poem.

LATE AFTERNOON

I’m coming down from a walk to the top of Twin Peaks

A sparrowhawk balanced in a headwind suddenly dives off it:

An answer to my question of this morning

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, nearly eight-hundred pages, was published in 2007 by Wesleyan University Press, and though I had read most of Whalen’s poems several times before, I devoured every word in that fat volume from first poem to last, inspired anew by Whalen’s originality and musicality.

In my anguish about Japan and the madness of nuclear power—which I know is your anguish, too—I hear Whalen exhorting us to pay special attention to the present moment, to the joy and sorrow and miracle and mystery and humor and pathos of Now; for the past no longer exists, nor has the future yet arrived, so to dwell persistently in either is to miss the boat, miss the point, miss the present—to not receive the gift.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

Philip Whalen