Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas for the Birds

Every year about this time, big flocks of robins descend on our cotoneaster bushes to eat the orange berries. Somehow the word spreads that the berries are ripe or perhaps even fermented. It is impossible to have a gloomy thought, with all the soaring, diving, jostling, chirping and sheer birdy exuberance going on just outside the window. Four or five birds at a time gorge on the berries while others wait in the nearby trees for their turn.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Christmas Story

Lambros, a thin little boy, was our downstairs neighbor when we first went to the Farm School in northern Greece. He lived with his parents and little brother in a two-room apartment like ours. In the winter, his mother closed all the doors and the family lived in the front room, where there was the tiniest imaginable wood stove. She kept the pine floors scoured with caustic soda so that they were smooth and almost white.

There were four pallets in the room during the winter. "My husband and I do not sleep together," the mother explained to me. "We cannot afford more children."

When Lambros brought home a bad grade, his mother spanked him, outside, so all the neighbors could see and hear. In those days, this was not considered child abuse. "I told you to bring me an 'A'," she would shout. She believed his entire future depended on his doing well in school, and she may have been right.

One Christmas Day, I wrapped a small toy,  took it downstairs, and knocked at Lambros' door. "There!" his mother shouted as she snatched the gift from my hand. "I told you, Lambros, that Santa Claus would be coming! You see, he took your gift to the neighbor by mistake!" And Lambros' skinny little face lit up as he held out both hands for the present.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Babette's Feast

It wasn't easy, trying to assemble a mince pie this year. Joy of Cooking had a recipe which made 20 pies and called for four pounds of chopped beef or ox heart and two pounds of beef suet, clearly not what we wanted. A search of several stores finally produced a small jar of  Crosse and Blackwell mincemeat, barely enough to fill the pie shell, and when the top crust went over this ungenerous filling, it sank, split and cracked.

Babette's Feast was a movie about a woman whose art was cooking. When she won a large amount of money, she spent all of it buying ingredients for a fabulous meal. When someone said to her "But now you don't have any money", she replied  "An artist is never poor."

I told this story to my dear departed painter friend Howard once and it made him cry. I thought of it when I looked at the ruined pie I had hoped would cheer Nicodemus up. Holly patches of red and green pastry seemed a possibility. The power went off and then back on while the pie was baking, and after two hours, I was surprised to see that the oven was still cold, the pie unbaked. 

I guess I am some kind of artist, though I don't know what kind. I do know that I hardly ever feel poor, no matter what my finances look like.  Nicodemus was ecstatic about the pie.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


When Nicodemus is gilding one of his icons, there are little flecks of gold everywhere, in his hair and beard, on the table, floating around.  Long before the word meant a picture on a computer, since more than 15 centuries ago, icons have been venerated in Eastern Orthodox churches all over the world and in the homes of Orthodox people.

Copying an existing icon is not bad form; in fact, the Christian saints are pictured in certain stylized and typical ways which most hagiographers or icon painters observe. Saint Peter always has white curly hair, for instance, whereas Paul is bald, with a little tuft of hair above his brow line.

I asked Nicodemus to outline the steps in painting an icon in the Byzantine style.
1. Select a piece of poplar, wide and thick and not too hard, making sure it is flat. Miter four separate pieces of lath and glue to the board to form a frame.
2. Sand the wood, starting with coarse sandpaper and progressing to Number 1500 grit.
3. Begin primer coats with a coat of gelatin, marble dust and water, with five or six thick coats and then five or six coats of thinner gesso. Sand to a mirror surface (some painters put a fabric layer down before the last coats.)
4. Trace your picture and scribe all the lines into the gesso so they will be visible during painting and gilding.
5. Use masking fluid around the edge of images.
6. Paint six coats of clay bole onto the area to be gilded and sand to a mirror finish. Glair, the froth of egg white, is added to the bole to strengthen it.
7. For water gilding, paint ethel alcohol over a small area, cut a half piece of gold leaf onto a piece of leather and apply to icon with a gilder's brush, dropping it onto the wet spot.
8. Gild up to the scribed, masked area. Press gold leaf to make sure it is bedded in.
9. Burnish the gold with an agate, rubbing vigorously over the nearly dry gold leaf.
10. Faulting: Re-gild missed places, burnish to a perfect shine and dry.
11. Remove masking fluid for a sharp edge to the painted figure.
12. Paint face, hands, etc., dark, using the petit lac method, and do a dark first coat for clothing.
13. Apply the first level of lights and reinstate features from scribed areas with a fine brush.

The painting then proceeds from dark to light, using natural minerals mixed with egg yolk and distilled water. The edges of the frame are painted with maroon or cadmium red. Letters which tell the subject or the name of the saint are painted with oxgall onto the gold and then finished with egg tempera.

The little madonna was one of Nicodemus' first icons, and it remains my favorite. The pose is called "eleiousa" or "the merciful", and the child is looking out toward the angels who are holding a cross and a spear, the instruments of his martyrdom. The mother is worried, as mothers tend to be, but the child is only interested and curious.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Night of Lights

Last night: We are blocking all the cars in a full parking lot, emergency blinkers on, flat tire, trying to phone Triple-A on a cell phone we never use, and I am supposed to accompany the community chorus in fifteen minutes, using a toy piano which works on flashlight batteries. Through the door to the little mall courtyard where the music is supposed to happen, we can see belly dancers in somewhat middle-eastern costumes and bangles, and an angel walking on stilts. I believe in parking gods, so I asked for help. Within 13 minutes, not only one, but THREE parking places appeared and the AAA truck had come and changed the tire. We  picked up the music stand, the toy piano, and the scores, set up in the mall and started playing as the chorale began to sing with their lovely pure voices. Joy to the world!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Song of Survival

The community chorus for which I play the piano has a number of very senior citizens as well as young folk who like to sing. I have to sit down to play the piano, of course, but there are singers who have to sit down because they can't really stand, at least not for very long. Some of them walk with canes, and some have to take the very slow chair lift up to the second-story hall where we rehearse.

One of the things they are practicing for a program next week is a medley of Christmas songs from the documentary film, "Song of Survival", whose story was also told in a commercial film called "Paradise Road".

During World War II, in 1942, two women interned in a concentration camp in Sumatra wrote out in pencil, on scraps of paper, whatever music they could remember--orchestra music, piano pieces, hymns-- and taught the women prisoners to sing them in a four-part chorus.  Some of the women were so weak from malnutrition that they could not stand; they were barefoot and dressed in rags, plagued with tropical sores. Still they sang until more than half of them had died. The survivors said the music gave them the strength to go on.

In 1980, the original pencilled manuscripts were given to Stanford University; they were transcribed, performed by the Peninsula Women's Chorus, and then published in 2000.

The women in our community chorus, especially the very senior citizens, are singing these pieces with special beauty and fervor. These women are not prisoners. They wear nice clothes and are not malnourished, but many of them suffer from  various medical problems and physical limitations. They have their own reasons for feeling the Song of Survival very deeply. One of the women told me that when she sings this music, she usually has to sing it through her tears.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tofu Turkey

My tofu turkey has passed into myth; nobody who was there or who heard about it will ever let me forget it. Briefly, it took all day to make and it tasted like oatmeal. A slightly more successful vegetarian turkey was the spaghetti squash with chestnut stuffing and a sweet potato head. One year when I was living alone, I ate plain white rice and drank sage tea, feeling terribly sanctimonious because lots of people in the world would be grateful to have just that on the day we call Thanksgiving. It was not very satisfying, and I'm sure I had a cheese sandwich later in the day. Another Thanksgiving, I got on a train going to Seattle and skipped Thanksgiving altogether, though I felt grateful for a lot of things. This year we are going to a restaurant, just Nicodemus and me. Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, and gratitude is our compass. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bus Log: July 15, 1971--A Tender Heart

(I'll resume the bus log in the new year. This will be the last log entry until after the holidays; meanwhile, we'll be in present time for a while.)

Still here at Sutton Lake, fetching two-gallon containers of water about twice a day. I made a gigantic dinner of spaghetti with sprout and jerky sauce, a salad, and a layer cake of sorts done in the frying pan. 

The cake caused us some trauma. I was snuffling around eating onion and drinking alka-seltzer all day, plotting to feed the ever-hungry kids so that they'd stop snacking and thought the cake would do it...but Nonda tripped and dropped it on the way to the picnic table. I wept. Subsequently we had to go pull Nonda out of the bushes, where he was weeping himself and was being feasted upon by a giant mosquito. I forget that he's still tender-hearted, even though he looks like a big strapping bruiser. "All that work," he kept saying sorrowfully. We ate that cake anyway, every crumb, and nobody was hungry for a while afterward.

Anna and I each had a good sponge bath. Here's how you do it. Spread your towel in front of the stove. Put down the washbowl and fill it up with hot water from the kettle. Soap your face, ears, neck and arms. Rinse the washcloth and wipe off the soap. Then soap and rinse your trunk, then legs. Then put your feet in the hot water while you do your fingernails; then give yourself a pedicure, toss out the water, dry the bowl, and dry yourself.

A danced and did her yoga exercises while we played the piano tonight. The hammers are getting very loose and will need some repair before long, but the tuning isn't off too badly yet.

(Here's a scrap of video showing the usual piggyback procedure.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bus Log: July 14, 1971--Happy Birthday XIII

Our Eugene friend Steve and family pulled in to Number 12, right next to our campsite, and set up their tent. We then froze to death all together despite burning tons of driftwood and eating hearty soup. We're still cold here in our new campsite, but being cold in a scenic place does have its advantages. Tuesday noon, the 13th, we had an early birthday party for Nonda.We put Sue's antique gold-colored tablecloth on the picnic table and I made a halva pudding over the open fire with almonds, pumpkin seed and orange-flavored frosting.Vince arranged the candles into a Roman numeral 13. We all made birthday cards and gave N the bush pants, frisbee and whirligig we had stashed away.

We traded Vince for Steve's little boy before they left, since Vince wanted to do some work on the farm to get money for a pocket knife. Finally we pulled 25 miles down the road to Sutton Lake, where there is an ocean breeze, sunshine and an immense meadow right next to our berth. Patches had sneaked out at the first place we stopped, a few hundred yards up the road, but when the boys went back, they found her, standing on the picnic table, looking for us.

Our spending for the second ten days went down a hundred dollars, to $144 for everything. I have a cold.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bus Log July 10, 1971: A Perdicerment

(Vince's entry)

Bus Log: July 9 and 10, 1971--Drying Out

We used our neighbor Scheilein's raincoat gift to cover the tools and bookcases which we offloaded to lighten the beached side of the bus. Another neighbor, Mr. Sandem, had given us a saber which we didn't think we'd need, but we used it to cut through the brush, trying to see just how badly we were stuck. We were glad not to have to use other gifts, the snakebite kit, lube gun and flares.

We swept, dried out several changes of clothing, and put a pot of beans on the wood stove. J and N have hitchhiked to town to get some emergency stores. Anna found a re plastic mustache somewhere and put it on during the hubbub yesterday. "Can I wear this and go to the boys' bathroom?" she asked.

A nifty camper with a canoe ad a kayak on top went off the road today and we pulled them out with our old cable.

We changed spaces, to Number 13, a private place with wonderful greenery on all sides, the creek below, huge moss-covered trees and a table and tent site down below the parking place. I made cheese with powdered milk and rennet. We kept the fire going all day to dry out the continually wet clothing. Patches the cat gorged on some hamburger J brought back from town and got the hiccups. We had hamburgers and black bean soup for dinner, but the Coleman stove had to be refilled in the middle of the cooking.

Saturday, July 10, 1971

J got up and started the fire this morning. I washed the breakfast pots in the creek while Patches stalked bugs on the creek banks, so well camouflaged with her tortoise-shell coloring that only her grey-green eyes were visible at times. J and the kids have gone to gather driftwood for the fire, and I am cleaning and fiddling around. We identified (using the plant book and Stalking the Wild Asparagus) the berries on the bushes all around us as western thimble berries and white mulberries.

I made up Anna's nest with its sleeping bag, the cloth snake we made her while cutting down foam rubber for the mattresses, her Raggedy Ann, a beanbag frog Steve gave her.

Policeman Number Four told J and N how to hitchhike safely yesterday. They say he was very pleasant.

I am patching my jeans. Ed is gathering white mulberries, Nonda is reading Robinson Crusoe, which we put aside last night in favor of The Jungle Book for bedtime reading. Vince is making a beautiful landscape on a board, using shells and leather scraps. J just invented a page holder for piano music out of a coat hanger.

To cut the wood for the bookcase, he took the pieces up to the park toilet, which has the only electrical outlet here. He plugged in the power saw and quickly cut the pieces, gathered everything up and came back to the bus, leaving a trail of sawdust. Someone is going to think a blond man with a heavy beard really needed a shave.

Later: N and J brought back four little brook trout for dinner. I'm glad we bought a 50-pound bag of brown rice, since that seems to be the staple of our diet. Patches ate the fish heads with relish. The bus seems empty and spacious with Vince and Ed camping out on the beach. I covered some of the books in vinyl. Anna fell asleep right after supper, but Nonda stayed up to play the piano and read by lantern light.

When I had a scrub, I found a patch of mosquito bites or poison oak on the skin under one of the holes in my jeans. I am pleased to report that both knees needed patching, but not the seat.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bus Log: July 8, 1971, After the Rescue

It is 11:05 P.M., and everybody but me is asleep as the rain patters down on our metal bus roof, collects in the gutters and rolls off without even splashing the windows.

As Vince noted, we were rescued as all the other campers in the park stood around, watching helpfully. One camper noted that he had been in the same predicament many times when his ships ran aground in the Navy. During the high stress, V and Anna wisely chose, like cats, to sleep through it. We were beached from 3 P.M. to about 7:30. One camper offered us his place and we accepted gratefully. We built a big fire in the wood stove, got out of all our wet clothes and hung them to dry in the stairwell. We had a gigantic supper of macaroni and cheese with asparagus. We drank hot chocolate and saved the last peach for J. We tried the television in vain, sang a little at the piano, talked about how surreal the whole thing was. Vince did the dishes.

Now we're ready for a week of no adventure at all. If we hadn't gotten out of the ditch, we were going (we decided, out of the rain, with full stomachs, on level ground) to lower the other three wheels, declare ourselves a national monument and sell tickets at a dollar apiece to see the great underground bus. We considered selling the bus to the Museum of Modern Art as an environmental sculpture. Anna drew her own version of the AAA rescue.

(We are grateful to Mario Marino in New York City, a video archiving expert, for restoring most of a post-rescue movie, which had been transferred from 1971 film to videotape, where it mildewed and degraded.)

Bus Log: July 8, 1971--The Second Disaster

We are sitting in our poor beached bus at a 30-degree angle to keep out of the rain (all of us sitting on the high side) while J is somewhere out there, trying to find a way to contact AAA. A nice young bearded man named Bob drove him somewhere toward the highway. Anna is freaking out very badly and bit Eddie.

5:30 P.M. He's still not back. V and Anna have fallen asleep. There is this strange wide-eyed wild child who keeps appearing from the woods and watching us. He has yellow hair and is wearing some strange kind of fur boots, turned up at the toes and embroidered on top. Just now he appeared again, trilling like a bird, barefoot.

(Entry by Vince)

10:00. We didn't wake up till 10 o'clock. Anna is awake as always. We left camp at 2:00. One mile up the road Rock Creek. Everything looked fine but at the turn around slide, sloosh, EEEEEEEEEEEE,cracccck. We're stuck, we're tearing the pavement like paper. After time J got a ride to Florence but after finding that who he called wasn't triple AAA, the man who drove him was gone. He had to walk back. JF think to himself well I'm wet, There is what I need, a garbage bag. So he cut a hole in the top and emptyed it before he put it on. Then someone gave him a ride back to the bus. Then a ranger gave him a ride to a phone he called triple AAA, and triple AAA came, the ranger drove him back and triple AAA pulled us out. And that will teach us a lesson.

At camp we stay warm in the bus getting ready to eat dinner. Dinner time well goodby and good night.

Entry by Eddie:

Joe got up because he heard the theme from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that Mom played on the piano. We guys went to the beach. Joe gets a walking stick, I get a walking stick, Vince gets a walking stick and so does Nonda. When we get back I am frightened to find that Anna has taken off toward the beach after us. She goes farther than she can walk. Mom carries her two miles back to the bus. We take off for another campsite. We come around Number Six, thinking there is enough room, but bumpbumpbump we're in a ditch. Joe goes to town in a jeep and the guy comes back with news.

"I left him there."

To Joe's surprise, he found that the place where he was left was no longer AAA. Joe hitchhiked back. The ranger gave him a ride to a phone and back. Joe called AAA and I and Vince went to sleep. I slept through the whole towing and I woke up in a new camp ground. It was raining but hot because of everyone's hot air and the potbelly stove.

Bus Log: July 7, 1971, Part 2

We are parked at a campground in Florence, Oregon, sitting around a warm fire in the hot-belly stoved, as Anna calls it. The homemade stove polish smells like popcorn. We unpacked clothes and for dinner we had a huge potful of potato soup and double servings of chocolate pudding. The big lantern finished its wick, so we are using the bus dome lights, the small lantern, and candles for reading and writing.

A little later still (by JF): The drive up to Oregon was pleasant to the eye and peaceful for the soul, except of course for our brake failure. Our hostess was a bit taken aback to see eight visitors (Suz and By having arrived before us to surprise us), but things settled down. Steve and I saw the most beautiful sunrise together this morning and then he took me into the woods to show me his chapel.

The kids seem to be having a pretty good time, a little chaotic at times, but they're also very helpful. Everyone does his chores with only a minimum of grumbling. We're going to try to turn out some crafts pieces to sell at the fair in Eugene when we get back.

A little later (by MB): We had what we thought was an ingenious three-part mattress complex which hooked together with velcro and used a mattress pad, sheets, five blankets and two pillows. The kids, coming toward the front door from their bunks in the rear of the bus, would walk on us, and the whole contraption had to be assembled in the evening and taken down and put away in the morning. Way too much trouble.

Two ladies from two sites nearby came over to admire the bus, one of them a former school bus driver from North Hollywood, one a truck driving grandma from Santa Barbara. They knew about down-gearing on steep grades. They were very shy; wanted to come in, but wouldn't really come any farther than the front steps. Later one of them brought us a map of the Oregon parks system.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bus Log: July 7, 1971--Green stuff and black stuff

Here are our accounts after ten days on the road.
Checking account: $585.00
Savings:                     500.00
Cash:                             78.00

Bus tune-up                 43.07
Fuel, repair                 46.28
Food, ice                      74.81
Laundry                         2.10
 (inc. allowances)      16.80
Medical                       21.00
 (inc. household)       30.12

That black stuff that sometimes gets all over the bottom of pans or on the inside of the potbelly stove door makes a good stove black. Iron stoves and lanterns rust and lose their luster, so they need an occasional polishing. You squeeze the oil from an orange or a lemon and wipe the black pot with it. After you do the stove, you can polish dark furniture, but test it before light-colored fabric comes near it. You could add a drop of kerosene, but you'd have to let it dry before using the stove. Finally, the polishing cloth makes a good fire starter.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Bus Log: July 6, 1971. Totems

Yesterday I made bread and there were about 16 people for dinner on the bus. We had our first bus meeting, discussing (alarming) spending, assorted grievances, aims, etc. It was good. Today I have the children in the park while J works on the bus at the Wildflower Garage, putting back the newly-turned brake drums. We bought N a frisbee and some bush pants for his upcoming birthday. Patches got her first distemper shot on the way here and was so traumatized that I had to button her into the bib of my Oshkoshes to calm her down.

I keep meaning to write about the bus totems. So many people are represented by gifts and tools that sometimes it seems as if they're all traveling with us. Our neighbor whose water and power we used for renovating the bus gave us a yellow railroad lantern. The last thing out of the house and onto the bus was a set of wind chimes my cousin C gave me. They shake and jingle when ws take off, dock, jump around. P. gave us a brass figurehead he got in Africa, a scary object which he assured us would keep away the demons. The shopping bag L crocheted is in constant use for hauling.

Among our other tools and treasures are a mortar and pestle, a copper pitcher and pieces of the Mediterranean-blue rug from Greece, a blackboard/folding screen from BW, a gold crocheted tablecloth and a device for making sprouts from Suz, a skillet from By, "Smiles", a piece of 1936 sheet music from Alma, a neighbor, the movie camera from the radio friends in Salinas, and the little television from W and J.

We have two huge old medicinal herb books from C, a candle from S, a rice-paper folding book for writing on, several books included in the library list, GS's lucky ring, and much more. Arl sent us off with lettuce, and someone else gave us strawberries from the San Francisco farmers' market.

We have N's drum stand from his teacher, Mr. Smith. The Coleman stove from my mother. The great old kerosene lantern from the W. family. A sewing basket from Brenda. And much, much more, of course.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bus Log: July 4, 1971

Dozens of people and dogs showed up at S's farm, most of them perching on the bus. At noon, all the children were hungry, so I made a huge salad. A man who has his own garage in Eugene showed up just in time to mastermind the examination of the bus brakes. For dinner, we had the usual brown rice with dandelion greens, with garden corn from our hostess and a salad from our host.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bus Log: July 3, 1971

The kids went fishing today and we went into Eugene to exchange the bolt breaker which, manned by J and his friend S, didn't loosen the wheel bolts but rather bent itself into a graceful ellipse. We stopped at a crafts fair and bought a bundle of yarrow sticks, organic apples, an avocado, and a beanbag frog for Anna. She kept finding these beautiful fountains to wade in. There was a playground in the Eugene mall with sawdust and a wooden castle. We all investigated that for a while and then drove back in S's truck with the replacement tool, stopping for a box of cherries. The three boys were all sunburned and hadn't had so much as a nibble at fishing.

The new tool didn't work either, so now J has taken the bus into town to have the nuts or bolts or lugs or whatever they are cracked by a mechanic. I am making beans after a much-needed wash for Anna and me.

Bus Log: July 2, 1971

Near Eugene, Oregon, we were parked right next to a holly tree, so that leaves and green berries pressed against the windows like curtains. At sunset, the tree began to fill up with roosting black chickens. Bright and early the next morning, the rooster crowed us awake.

By and Suz were there, waiting for us, having once again driven from southern California back to San Francisco and on to Eugene, to surprise us. Last night we made dinner for eight on the bus. By and Suz slept on the bench and floor. We served breakfast to 11 or 12 people, coffee and oatmeal, pretty good for our pump-up Coleman stove and modest facilities.

Bus Log: July 1, 1971--Sheer Terror!

Just past the Oregon border, we noticed a strange smell. Eventually, we pulled over at a rest area, lost our brakes entirely, foot brakes, emergency air brakes, everything. With some expert maneuvering by J, we went over a curb, which reduced the speed somewhat, and finally we came to a stop half in the parking lot and half in a meadow, about a foot in front of a sign which said "Fasten Your Seat Belts".

We still had the entire mountain to get down without brakes, which made us, well, very nervous. J tried unsuccessfully to make a phone call at an information booth in the rest area.

Once they had cooled off, the brakes seemed to work. We're now progressing very cautiously at about 20 miles per hour toward Medford, where we can find out what happened.

Finally we decided that those signs saying "Trucks Use Low Gear" had a practical reason: To avoid overheating of the brakes. We are continuing on to Eugene, where we can have the brakes examined.

Bus Log: July 1, 1971

I sat up until 3:15 last night but awoke refreshed, in a frame of mind Anna calls Lo Lo Lo. We thought at first that she was writing Ol Ol Ol, but then we noticed she was writing from right to left. We are stopped at a wide airy truck stop in view of Mount Shasta. "It looks like a picture of a mountain," Anna said, and then she drew it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bus Log: June 30, Part 2

What we spent: Groceries ($9.00), ice (.40), Ed allowance (.50) on June 26. Lunch, $7.00, tape, .40, snacks 1.20, doctor visit for V, $18, medicine for Ed, $3.00, ice, .40 on June 28. Gas, 31 gallon fill-up, $10 on June 29. The bus is getting 5 2/3 miles per gallon.

We've come up  with a few novelties which work out well, changing from soap to biodegradable detergent, from beds to sleeping bags. Storing grocery dry goods in bags helps keep things in place during transit.

Policeman Number 3 stopped us on the highway because we didn't cancel the turn signal (it doesn't self-cancel). He started to be nasty, but changed his mind when he saw the children and the piano.

Bus Log: June 27-30, 1971

Salinas and Monterey: Our San Francisco friends By, Michael, Michael, Suz and Bill all made the trip separately to welcome us! A polite constable visited us this morning, knocked and said he had had a complaint and that zoning laws forbade camping in the city...but that he'd overlook it since J said we'd be leaving tonight or early tomorrow morning.

We visited our radio friends at KLRB and were interviewed about the bus and the dead whale the kids found on the beach. B played "Good Day, Sunshine" for us. We had lunch on the beach at Carmel. Afterward, I took Ed and Vince with their rashes to a local doctor at the suggestion of a pharmacist. Both got some kind of high-powered shots.

We were in B's house talking when his son Mike dragged in from bed to announce that someone was banging on the bus windows, flashing lights and trying to get in. It turned out to be policeman Number Two, who had had a second complaint about the hippies camped on K Street from some neighborhood grouch. We offered to move on, but he suggested just pulling into the driveway, which we did.

We left at about 5:30 the next morning. Tonight, June 30, we are camped at Gregory in the Shasta Park region after a sweltering day and furious fishing, swimming, hiking, etc., by all the kids. It tickled us to get a 50% discount because of our Golden Eagle passport, saving a dollar.

We were awakened this morning by a big flock of curious black and white cows, since J had pulled into a country road late last night while the rest of us were asleep.

Yesterday was our check-up and chore day in San Francisco, doing among other things all the soggy sandy laundry caused by the kids' falling into the ocean innumerable times. We got the tiny television repaired so that it now works off the bus battery whenever anybody's interested in watching it, which isn't too often.

We took Ed to the doctor, who decided that the rash was a contact dermatitis, possibly caused by playing in grass at the lighthouse which had been sprayed with  some kind of weed killer. The diagnosis was made because the only place he DIDN'T have the rash was under a band-aid on his arm. We bought sunglasses, bus gear, pastry, had the bus tuned up at International Harvester, got some movie film for the camera Bob, our radio friend, had insisted we borrow.

The main holding tank had to be drained for the first time tonight, which is six days from departure. We've been running about a day and a half to two days on the toilet tank before it needs emptying. Fresh water (40 gallons) lasts almost two days, even with hair washing and sponge baths.

The  kerosene lanterns and Coleman stove are still going strong on their original fuel after six days, which seems especially good for the stove, considering that it's used about a half hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner every day. We are all doing stuff like washing hands with wet washcloths and in containers, rather than pumping water like mad. Everything is staying amazingly clean and orderly, much tighter and even more convenient than in a house, and certainly more satisfying in its way. Everybody pitches in with the chores.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bus Log: June 26, 1971

After baths, dinner, sleeping warm, and a bright blaze in the wood stove just from burning trash, everybody feels considerably finer.

Patches, our bowlegged tortoiseshell kitten, is washing herself for the third time as I write (en route to Salinas on Route One.) The three boys are playing Alphabet. We had some trouble starting the bus, but are now cruising at 55, fairly quietly.

Last night the kids talked tensely in their sleep when they finally got to sleep. We found A and Patches curled up together in A's bunk, our daughter atop her orange-and-violet tie-dyed sleeping bag, face down, bottom up, just like the cat except for her wild gold thistle hair and white long johns.

(The original bus log has a very long, detailed story of the genealogy of Patche.)  The story ends this way: The day before our departure, BL, N's friend who hopped backward on the shakedown trip, was delighted to learn that his mother would let him keep Victoria, the white kitten with a victory sign on its head. And the remaining kitten, as Papa Manx and his lady gambol on the green back at Winfield Street, is our Patches, who has her father's long hair and tolerant disposition.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

June 25, 1971, Part 2

Exhausted. Moved out. Couldn't have done it without the friends. The landlord showed up to get the keys and tried with only middling success to be nice. We pulled out. The cat freaked out, we forgot to put water in the chemical toilet, N and A were bratty. The little television went up on a poof of smoke, the stove blazed and burned the dinner. Two blocks away from the house, we went over the curb at the gas station and the icebox turned over and spilled milk all over everything. The kids found a dead whale and a sick sea lion on the beach. 

But now that everybody but me is peacefully asleep and the surf at Half Moon Bay pounds and the candles and lanterns flicker, I think we may have succeeded after all in whatever it was we set out to do.

Bus mileage 41,765.  Gas fill-up $6.50, groceries, $6.50, newspaper, .15, allowance for V (a friend of the boys) $1.00, N allowance, $1.00. Water tank full; still using previously purchased cookstove fuel and ice and vegetables from home.

Bus Log: June 25, 1971

Bus Log: June 19, 1971

We held a big christening party for the bus and all the neighbors came. We read a rather long proclamation with frequent use of the word "Whereas". We raised a Sunshine flag (the mosaic carpeting inside the bus featured a sunburst right in the middle of the ceiling.) We broke a bottle of sparkling burgundy over the front bumper. The neighbor who let us use her power and water to make all the repairs got to cut the ribbon over the door. Our friend S laid a cornerstone on the front step.  Someone sowed a sunflower seed in the entrance, and one of the youngsters spilled the first milk on the rug.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bus Log: June 15, 1971

We had another huge garage sale where hundreds of things got exchanged, sold, given away with delight all around. Canning jars, plants, and shelves went free to the Food Conspiracy, the washer and television to a neighbor, bookshelves to young couples, clogs, dresses, etc., to people who wanted them, a trowel to a man who accepted it without a word and then walked away, tiny things to little kids, paintings to people who liked them, a guitar exchanged for a Japanese radio.

Today JF is touching up the paint on the bus. The scotch-soaked barrel which provided all the free drinks has been sawed into a kind of bathtub or chair or something.

These are the books (besides the Calvert School books, which are furnished by the school) we decided to take along.

1. Revised Standard New Testament
2. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
3. Zen in the Art of Archery
4. Jung: Psychology and Religion
5. Gandhi (children's biography)
6. Book of the Hopi
7. The Tarot
8. The I Ching
9. Yoga and Health
10.  Wood, Concentration
11. Yogananda, Meditations
12. Speak Truth to Power (Quaker pamphlet)
13. The Pilgrim's Progress
14. Bhagavad Gita
15. King James Bible
16. Mishra's Fundamentals of Yoga
17. Elytis, Prosanatolismoi (poetry)
18. Simone Weil, The Iliad (Quaker book)
19. The Light Around the Body (Robert Bly, poetry)
20. Fifteen American Poets
21. Wordsworth
22. Gitanjali, Tagore
23. Six Poets of Modern Greece
24. A Guide to (Music) Listening
25. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary
26. Fitzgerald translation, The Odyssey
27. Geology textbook
28. The Sea (Time/Life book)
29. Life
30. Stonehenge Decoded
31. Solar Biology
32. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
33. The Atom and Beyond, Smith
34. Geographic Star Chart
35. The Universe of Doctor Einstein
36. Adler, How Life Began
37. Asimov, The Universe
38. Man in Space
39. Physics for Everybody
40. Merck Manual (medical)
41. Smaller Classical Dictionary
42. The Golden Bough
43. Aeschylus, Prometheus, etc.
44. Tarn, Alexander the Great
45. Plato, The Last Days of Socrates
46. Herodotus, The Histories
47. Man Before History
48. Erikson, Childhood and Society
49. Harbrace (English) Handbook
50. Pirandello, Plays
51. Edible and Useful Plants
52. Western Birds
53. Stalking the Wild Asparagus
54. Siddhartha, Hesse
55. Milne, When We Were Very Young
56. Robinson Crusoe
57. Stuart Little
58. Berne, Group Treatment
59. Worlds in Collision
60. Morning of the Magician
61. The Once and Future King
62. Kipling, The Jungle Book
63. Modern Spoken Greek
64. Greek Dictionary
65. Automotive Encyclopedia
66. Origami book
67. Macramé
68. Living on the Earth
69. How To Live On Nothing
70. Typewriting book
71. The Times World Atlas
72. Crafts book

Only 28 of these 72 got any use. In addition to this library, we had star charts, AAA maps, various music books, the Rand McNally Campground and Trailer Park Guide, and the Whole Earth Catalog.

Bus Log: June 6, 1971

Somehow I skipped the description of buying the little 77-key Lyon piano and transporting it home in a rented truck. A tiny little thing, almost the size of the one in the classic film Casablanca, it had no metal harp inside and thus was lightweight and just right for bolting to the side 0f the bus. The kids rode with it in the back of the truck and gave spontaneous concerts on the way back to Winfield Street.

In June, E's piano teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music said it was time for him to give his first recital, and that we could have it at our house. By that time, however, the piano was in the bus, not the house. We pulled the bus down to a nice level parking place and E, age six and a half,  all dressed up with jacket, shirt and tie, gave his recital for friends and neighbors.

Here is what he played: "Linden Tree" by Schubert, "A Tisket, a Tasket" and "On the Bridge at Avignon", traditional tunes; a Quadrille by Haydn, "Three Blind Mice" and "Sourwood Mountain", traditional tunes, "Dixie", and Beethoven's Turkish March and Russian Song in A Minor.

Bus Log: June 2, 1971

JF, trying to calm my fears of driving around in a 35-foot-long vehicle, draws and describes driving a 15-foot truck with a 40-foot trailer in downtown Los Angeles, to Reno, down ravines, in U-turns in small towns. After those stories, our bus didn't seem quite so long.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bus Log: May 31, 1971

(By JF)
Bus sluggish on grades--slows to 20 MPH in third gear on 30 degree hill. Must check when we get back to the city. We've decided to teach the boys map reading at earliest opportunity. Without some engine adjustment we'll have to plan a low-altitude trip cross country. No sweat, though. If we take our time and dig the goings-on outside the windows, we shall be very content. Noticed a slight crack in the pot-belly stove last night. It doesn't seem to affect its functioning, however. I guess we'll keep it. The sink stopped up today. We may have to put in a larger hose. The toilet is functioning just great. It's beginning to look as if we'll have to empty it every day, though, and I think we should initiate alternate cleaning duty--soon!

(By MB)
I'm divinely happy today, doing just what I love to do. The drawing is of the flowers on the table in front of me. We saw a brown snake with a stripe down his back while picking the wild iris.

Back in San Francisco. BL helped us unload. Great malaise. Why? Change? The unknown? We finally got liability insurance on the bus, we're trying to make arrangements for the cat, packing up and making bus stationery. The bus is due for a lube at International Harvester tomorrow. The sink problem was due to coffee grounds!

Bus Log, May 30, 1971

(By JF)
Awoke refreshed after an uneventful night--uneventful in reality but certainly adventurous and exciting in imagination! No bears ate us. No rednecks shot us. No madmen committed mayhem. I think we shall most happily survive.

(By MB)
When we returned to Castle Rock in the morning, the ranger wouldn't let us drain the sink water. Later in the morning, we headed back for Half Moon Bay, dug a big hole near the eucalyptus trees and drained the holding tanks. We visited our friends there and looked over the farm. N's friend BL, who was accompanying us on the shakedown cruise, stepped on a nail and N got a thorn in his finger. Appropriate first aid was applied.

We looked at an old grist mill and a lovely rushing stream, Purisima Creek, which had banks of flowers and mint growing all alongside it.

We left some time in the afternoon and wandered around through crowded state beaches, etc., until we came to this paradise, Pigeon Point, south of Half Moon Bay, a lighthouse which works, no toll, dozens of varieties of wildflowers and blackberries on a gentle slope down to the ocean. We slept warm and calmly.

Mental photographs:  ET, then JF, washing themselves by lamplight in the basin at the wash stand. BL reciting something called "Throw it out the window" by candlelight, with me accompanying on the piano. The sun setting over the ocean at 8:30 in a golden blaze. NT, embarrassed, trying to avoid three pretty young girls. ACW curled up with her teddy bar and her fabric boa constrictor, sound asleep in her tie-dyed sleeping bag. A line full of socks drying near the wood stove. NT chopping wood. BL jumping around in his sleeping bag. NT ran all the way back from the lighthouse, and BL hopped backward on one foot for a quarter mile, hoping for a five dollar prize, but having to be content with a dollar.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bus Log, May 29, 1971 (by JF)

Left bright and early--for us (9:30). Drove down the coast to Half Moon Bay..not a very exciting place, so we drove on looking for greener pastures. South to Santa Cruz, then north on Highway 9 to Big Basin State Park. Learned to our dismay that, this being Memorial Day weekend, all parks were booked solid. Meandered around mountain road looking for a good place to stop. The bus handles very well and is surprisingly easy to control on curves. Did notice with all the uphill driving she began to heat up. But no problem arose. We finally found a nice place to park and went hiking some into the woods, everyone excited to be amongst the trees. Pooped, we hiked back out, ACW falling asleep on my back; played for a while and then had an elegant dinner. Some time after dinner and more playing, a Ranger with cold eyes and matching heart informed us that we couldn't park there overnight. It was dusk by this time, so we just pulled down the road a piece and parked. With a nice warm fire and some popcorn, we sat around and swapped gory tales and then turned in.

Bus Log: May 2, 1971

We decided always to eat at the table, politely (N eats European style). We made our own napkin rings so we can use cloth napkins and save the trees. At night we made long superbus cards for Mother's Day and cut up the old contact sheets for pictures.

May 28, 1971

Tomorrow we're going on a shakedown cruise with N's friend BL. It is bothering me that we can't seem to get any liability insurance on the bus at reasonable rates. On the one hand, I think it is wrong to project responsibility into financial terms, but on the other hand, insurance does ease one's mind.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Log of the Odyssey of Number 18

September, 1970:  We bought a wonderful yellow bus on a sealed bid to the Tracy School District. After sending in our bid for $601, we changed it on impulse to $700. The next highest bid was $650. JF's friend Charles drove him to Tracy and JF drove the yellow bus home, getting stuck in the Bay Bridge toll booth briefly. He parked the bus on Winfield Street. I couldn't even look at it. It was too much bus to fit into my mind, 35 feet long, 14 feet wide, seven tons heavy. I was sure THEY would come and haul it away as a public nuisance until I realized the implications of trying to tow a seven-ton vehicle.

Finally we parked the bus around the corner, on double-width Esmeralda Street, where the children wouldn't have to cross a street to reach it, and we began to make it ours. Over a period of nine months we gradually moved out of the house and onto the bus. We had the seats hauled away, carpeted the walls, ceiling and floor with collages and mosaics of rug scraps a nearby carpet layer saved for us. JF built in bunks, kitchen, toilet. We added refinements such as a piano and a wash stand and a wood stove, using our friendly neighbor Schielein's water and power.

An oak barrel we bought, thinking to use it as a bath tub, proved to be saturated with some kind of strong spirits. We put a little hot water in the tub, sloshed it around and let it sit a few days, and suddenly we had free cocktails when we were exhausted from working on the bus. The neighborhood never complained about the loss of three parking places and were so generally helpful and cheerful that we gave them a big party on the bus before we went on our first shakedown cruise.

We broke a bottle of champagne over the front bumper and headed out for high adventure.

What It Cost: September, 1970

Bus price: $700
Battery: $65
Toilet: $30
Water tank: $15
Dump (benches) $20
Paint: $40
Lumber: $35.75
Cement solvent: $60
Range hood: $6.00
Icebox/oven: $43.73
Wood stove: $55.00
Curtains: $18.96
Bathtub: $10
Sink/pipes $28.43
Fog light, switches,
 weatherstripping: $30
Rebuilt starter: $40
Upholstery fabric: $3.00
Battery cables: $7.92
International Harvester service: $13.46
Misc. nuts, bolts, parts, tools $92.77
Tools: 2 circular saws, circuit tester,
 sander attachment, small tools $25
Piano $350
Truck rental $80 (to deliver piano)
Motor scooter $150
Scooter title, license, etc. $2.00
Calvert School $300
Gas, oil $30
Paint $5.00
Pipe, sealer for stove $11.00
Gas $14. 50
Coleman fuel $1.69
Lamp fuel $1.50
Gas $9.16
Groceries $3.50
Ice .60
Liability insurance $57
Jack $25.09
More tools $20
Lumber $5.95
International Harvester $1.50
Television gear

...Which brought our initial spending to about $2508.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

An Odyssey

In 1971,  when gasoline was about 35 cents a gallon, our family of two adults and three children, aged four, ten and thirteen, set off on a mobile adventure in home schooling.

The best teaching, (as well as the best writing, the best art) we thought, would be showing rather than telling. We wanted to live in a closed system together, to live with limited resources, and to study Bricolage and Kyriology. When I went to my college Webster, these words were not there, but Bricolage is the art of making do with what you have, and Kyriology is the study of important things.

We bought an old 35-foot school bus at auction and fitted it out with mostly recycled materials. When we left San Francisco, the bus had bunks, a piano, a wood stove, a 50-gallon fresh water tank and holding tank for grey water. It had a chemical toilet, a pump-up Coleman stove and an ice box. We carefully selected a library, facts only, no opinion. We signed up for the Calvert School, which offers a correspondence course which can be conducted by parents and mailed in.

The children helped navigate, budget, keep a journal, deal responsibly with water and waste disposal. We had many adventures, not all of them pleasant. At the end of the trip, the children were only too glad to return to public school (one of them was put ahead six months) and I was only too glad not to have to cook brown rice any more. The Bus Trip furnished material for many school essays.

Thirty-seven years later, one Bus Trip alumnus is an architect dealing with green design and construction; the other is a high school principal. Between them, they have five children and five degrees, with a Ph.D on the horizon. Each has been married for more than 25 years.

The pages to come are the Log of the Odyssey of Number Eighteen.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Writ Wrong

     An old saw from Journalism classes:
The cub reporter wrote something like "Despite predictions of rain, God smiled on the open-air assembly of..."
     The editor returned the story with a comment. "Forget open-air assembly. Interview God."

     When I was a cub reporter, I wrote "As the ship approached New York harbor, American Field Service scholars watched the sun rise behind the statue of liberty."
     My copy was returned to me with a terse statement from the editor:  "The sun rises in the east."

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Nicodemus is his confirmation name. He chose it because there is a Nicodemus in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. There is something very monk-like about the man, though for most of his adult life he has dealt with the very secular world of public schools and musical groups.

He can spend hours on end doing repetitive tasks, carving, sanding, scraping, painting, sawing, varnishing, not to mention daily practice on his instrument and on what he calls his "stuff", which involves sitting quietly. He is also very good at just sitting in a chair, especially if the chair is in a sunny place. You would not know he was the same person as the little boy who fired stink bombs at the neighbors and almost blew himself up, trying to make a diamond.

I thought he would love the monastery at the thousand-year-old community in northern Greece. It took many documents and late-night telephone calls to set up the visit. Then it was a ten-hour flight to London, another four hours to Athens, four hours on the train to Thessaloniki, an hour and a half by bus to Ouranopolis, a 20-minute boat ride on the rapide to the Chalkidhiki peninsula, and finally about an hour in an old van over dirt roads to Vatopedi monastery. I only accompanied him on the first half of the trip. Women, beardless boys and even female animals--except for hens--are not allowed on Mount Athos.

Food and lodging are free at the open monasteries, once you have done all the paperwork and received what amounts to a passport, since the mountain, like the Vatican, is autonomous. Nicodemus found the welcome warm, the bed soft, the food good, the monks friendly. The whole place had a wonderful sweet smell, he said.

His roommate, who had been there before, urged Nicodemus to have a nap as soon as he arrived and to turn in soon after dinner. The monks, employees and guests sat at long tables and were served fish, rice, bread, and a glass of wine. Scripture was read throughout the meal, and everyone had to finish in exactly 12 minutes.

At three in the morning, a monk woke everyone for church, beating on a big block of wood. Church lasted six hours, during which everyone but the feeblest and most ancient monks stood and knelt. There was a brief break before the next service was to begin. Nicodemus went back to his room, gathered up his things, and headed for town. It was more church than he had reckoned on.

"A successful prayer lasts about as long as a song. Four minutes," he said. "What do you do for the rest of the time?" Still, he thinks it was a life-changing experience, going to Mount Athos. He has done paintings of the monastery. He might go again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll, whose daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle often seems like a sane voice crying in the wilderness, has just won the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Jon Carroll is a singular writer, but I think he's probably a singular human being as well, one you would like to know in person. His political essays cut so close to the bone that you wish he were a presidential advisor. Other times, he waxes as poetic as Robert Burns with his wee mousies and wee lousies, except that with Jon it is more likely to be kitten follies or household ironies. I think Jon Carroll has a high regard for Truth, a slippery commodity, one which is harder than you'd think to pin down in words.

There are good writers you wouldn't want to know. One famous critic and novelist deals so much with suburban east-coast hanky-panky that I wonder if he has any other interests. Some writers show themselves to be such tornados that it would be difficult to be in the same room with them. Would you really want to meet Steve Martin or Woody Allen ? They both write for the New Yorker, in case you've only seen them on the screen. Other writers reveal themselves as just nasty or egocentric or reclusive or crazy. Sometimes you know that the best part of the person is his or her writing; there wouldn't be much left for social acquaintance.

But the person you sense behind Jon Carroll's writing is decent, funny, right-minded, a husband and grandfather, a person whose eyes are always open and whose intelligence is an open system.  Anybody would want to know someone like that. He also answers his e-mail.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Updating the Resume

I just applied for a job at the Athens News. That's right, Athens, Greece. The newspaper, which has a weekly on-line edition, advertised for a freelance reporter or writer with a native knowledge of English. Yeah, yeah, that's me.

I'm sure they have in mind someone who lives in that city, but I am tired of practicing and washing dishes and, besides, the Athens News owes me, since the only time I ever got fired, it was they who fired me. It was unfair, and the reason they gave would be grounds for serious complaints today. In those days, however, nobody thought much about it. I got another job, teaching English, and kept it for as long as I lived in Athens.

The Athens News fired me from my part-time job when they found out I was pregnant (which tells you how long ago it was, since my son turned 50 in July). They said the print shop where I worked was in a bad part of town and only had one toilet, and I was the only woman there, and pregnant women went to the bathroom all the time and they couldn't be responsible for a pregnant woman. (I never did see the inside of that bathroom.) (Maybe just as well.)

It was, while it lasted, one of the most interesting jobs I ever had. I was a copy editor/proofreader, dealing mostly with news agency copy in French, Greek and English. There were only two of us. Since both my French and my Greek were pretty rudimentary at the time, I mostly edited wire copy. I indicated  punctuation, paragraphs and capitalization; the stories came over the teletype in capital letters. The other fellow dealt with headlines and layout.

All I remember about the other fellow was that he once remade a front page because a late-breaking news story came in which had to do with the balance of power. Then as now, the balance of power overruled everything else in importance.

We worked at night, later than the buses ran. Nobody had a car, so I had to take a taxi home to Philothei, a suburb of Athens. Fortunately, taxis were cheap. One night the neighbors near the print shop complained about the noise of the presses, and the printers had to load the locked leaden pages onto barrows and push them to another press with more tolerant neighbors. Apparently this happened every once in a while, because they knew right where to steer their barrows. I stood at the hazy window and watched the printers wheel away into the night.

I guess it was a pretty small operation. The Athens News is bigger now, and up to date. I read things in the Athens News which don't even make it to the BBC for a week or two. I hope they answer my letter. Maybe they'll hire me, just to even things out. Allow me this one delusion, and I'll cheerfully go back to Mozart and the dishes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bread and Music

I learned to make bread before I learned to boil water. It is my primary cooking skill, built on the experience of many failures. I made mud pies as a child, and as a bride of 19, I baked my first loaf of tsoureki, the Greek Easter bread, which looked like a big brown clover leaf with a red egg in the middle. The recipe failed to mention that you were supposed to roll out and braid the three sections of dough.

Bread-making is satisfying on many levels, especially the part where you knead the dough. I whale the dickens out of the raw dough, because the more you beat it, the better it is. There are all sorts of bread rituals such as "proving" the yeast, though I have yet to find any supermarket yeast which does not foam up in warm water with a bit of sugar in it. 

The Tassajara bakers advocate making a paste before adding most of the flour, and this does seem to strengthen the leavening power of the yeast, but I doubt that the folk traditions of punching the dough down exactly three times or putting a man's garment on top of the towel covering the dough make much difference.

My piano teacher, Robert Sheldon, and I wrote quite a few songs together. He would take my lyric and make it into music. The main difference between lyrics and poetry is that the words must be subject to the music, rather than containing the music within themselves. 

The Kneading Chant below was one of Ten Pastoral Songs. Sheldon's music actually sounded like the rhythmic kneading of bread, and at the end of the song, the harmony sat down, like the words of the lyric. I still don't understand how he worked this bit of magic.

Kneading Chant

Green is the wheat
when it springs from the field.
Green goes to brown in the sun of the summer.
Brown goes to white in the press of the millstone.
Flour, draw the water;
leaven, draw air.
I beat the dough just as fierce as I'm able
and we all eat the bread
at my grandmother's table.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Mozart Effect

There was a time when everyone seemed to be trying to prove that Mozart made you smarter. Tests were done, books were published, newborns were sent home from the hospital (or so I heard) with recordings of Mozart.

Mozart and I are daily companions right now. I am scheduled to pay his piano concerto in C, Köchel 467, with our small local orchestra in three months. It's about 55 pages of music, much of it solo, as concerti are.

Let me say here that I am no virtuosa. However, the orchestra raises money for music scholarships and we can't afford to pay a soloist. I am a regular member of the orchestra, but so far the only concerto I have played was one written for toy piano, at a children's concert. I am dependable, however, and fairly competent. It's not going to be Arthur Rubenstein or Alfred Brendel, but hopefully it will be something more than mere notes or Notes-art, as my teacher used to call it.

There is also the tricky problem of the missing cadenzas, the show-off parts of concerti which may be written by the composer or someone else. "Whose cadenzas are you using?" people ask. Mozart wrote three concerti in 1785 and performed K. 457 without a single rehearsal, the copyist's ink barely dry on the manuscript. He improvised the cadenzas and never bothered to write them down. There are two places in the concerto for cadenzas and at least two others known as re-entry fermatas where the pianist must come up with something worth listening to on his or her own.

Brendel, famous for his Mozart playing, says "I think (the player) will be more deserving if he makes a rigorous selection of versions (of cadenzas) he has improvised at home, rather than risking everything on the platform by trying to play Mozart as though he were Mozart." So, in addition to practicing, I am listening to various players' cadenzas and working out which ones I might be able to use.

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born in Salzburg on Jan. 27, 1756. He was Wolfie to his friends and Amadeus or God-love to playwrights and movie makers who came up with fictional works which at once enchanted and misinformed viewers. The first time I saw the film "Amadeus", people sobbed audibly through the credits, which were accompanied by the "Lacrimosa" (tears) of Mozart's unfinished Requiem. Even though the film was not biographically accurate, the music--of course--was transcendent.

Mozart was not just a goofy genius with a fright wig and a silly guffaw. He may have been the greatest artistic genius ever born. He was a son, a brother, a husband, a father. By all accounts, he was generous, kindly, not egotistical, though certainly he was aware of the magnitude of his own gifts. He died in 1791, some say of typhoid, others say of kidney disease or an undiagnosed skull fracture. He left behind a staggering amount of music, up to 500 major works, and bits and scraps of Mozart are still turning up.

Working on the concerto, I do battle with: Laziness, Delusion ("Hey, that was pretty good!"), the temptation to fake rather than learn, the Wall of Resistance, physical limitations (sluggish reflexes and poor eyesight), mental limitations ("I yam what I yam", as Popeye said.)

So Mozart isn't necessarily making me smarter, but across the gulf of almost 250 years, he certainly is making me a better person.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Enchanted Cottage

The Enchanted Cottage, as my predecessor Howard called it, is a hundred-year-old 600 square-foot redwood house in the middle of a 5,000 square-foot lot rimmed by huge old cypress trees. Ravens live in the trees, which drop their round cones, needles and branches on the roof, sometimes with disastrous results. Howard never knew that the cottage had a name inspired by a minor 19th century composer, or that the cottage was intended for a musician or painter in what the town founder hoped would become an artist's colony.

With two adults and a cat living and working in the cottage, it is an ongoing battle to keep some kind of order. There isn't enough room for everything, especially with a grand piano in the living room. The refrigerator is outside, on the porch. There is one closet, about four feet wide. We have to move the furniture to get to the books and electric plugs. We can seat six at the table, but they can't get out until everybody else moves. The plumbing, installed in 1936, has frequent problems.

There is no garage. Instead, there is a ramshackle out-building which we call a studio because Howard, a painter, called it that. It is stuffed with everything which doesn't fit in the house, and Nicodemus practices and teaches cello out there in a clear patch with two chairs near the wood stove.

The house is a pain in the neck. Completely inconvenient, cold, inadequate, uncomfortable, with property taxes equal to a  good month's joint income. On the other hand, we can see the mountain and the ocean out the window. When the fog lifts, we can drag the telescope out and see the moons of Jupiter. We can practice as much as we like without disturbing the neighbors. We can make jam from the blackberries. We are visited by hawks, robins, phoebes, hummingbirds, squirrels, skunks, raccoons and neighborhood cats.

Yesterday, Nicodemus and I were walking around in the yard (because you can't walk around side by side in the house). "You know, we would never be able to leave this place," he said.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Ursula, who taught me to drive, became a Buddhist nun and a follower of the Dalai Lama, whom she called H. H. (for His Holiness). She went to live in Dharamsala and sent me a drawing which I copied and attached to a door. It shows a little monk at nine stages of his life. There is a Y-crossroads at the ninth stage, where he may return to the beginning, carrying his torch, or go on to the tenth state, Liberation.

In a recent interview on television, H. H. spoke of a problem which would have to be left for the next generation. "My generation is getting ready to say Bye-Bye", he said with perfect good humor, equanimity and confidence.

H. H. and I are the same age, and I have no good humor, equanimity or confidence at the prospect of saying Bye-Bye, whether to a shirt I like or, heaven forbid, to an adored pet, much less to a cherished friend or family member. Not that we have a choice in most cases.

Staggering under the weight of such musings, Nicodemus and I took a day off. We drove away from the fog, ate things which are not good for you at a pub, bought frivolous art supplies which we don't really need, picked wild pincushion flowers, and bought ourselves matching khaki caps at the army surplus store.

Just as if we had all the time in the world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mimi, Jubilate

Today is Mimi's tenth birthday. She was born Sept. 3, 1998 at the Sonoma animal shelter and was moved in April to the San Francisco SPCA Maddie Center, where we adopted her. She survived a perilous kittenhood, climbing on the roof despite all the barriers we put up. At one point, she was kept from a hundred-foot fall by a sponge mop held at quaking arm's length. Now, more than middle-aged and weighing 20 pounds despite her low-calorie kibble, she does well to jump on a chair. Her godfather (yes, she has a godfather), after reading "Jubilate Mimi" in Half Moon Bay Memories, wrote a piano Capriccio and Sarabande in her honor. The title of the article and the piano piece comes from Christopher Smart's transcendental poem to his cat, Jeffrey, "Jubilate Agno".

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I have been ploughing through Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey, looking for the part on the Sirens, whose song was irresistible. Odysseus or Ulysses had all his sailors stop up their ears so that they could not hear the siren song, and he had himself tied to the mast of his ship so that he could hear it but not move toward it. What could the sirens sing about which would be irresistible? Fame, fortune, eternal youth, a second chance?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Talking Bridge

I am retiring the nom de plume Talking Bridge, which requires entirely too much explanation. Briefly, I always wanted to be some kind of translator, whether in words, music or teaching. For a while, our family thought we had a Cherokee ancestor, but we never could prove it. My older son has a stronger claim to his Lakota name, Plays the Earth. Ask him to tell you about it some time.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Miss Ella

I was eating a piece of crabapple bread (yes, crabapples again) when suddenly I thought of Miss Ella, my kindergarten teacher in Leitchfield, Kentucky. Miss Ella taught me left from right, taught me how to plant a garden and brush my teeth. I learned to read, sitting in Miss Ella's lap. I remember vividly when I pointed to a "W" and she sounded out "Wagon" and suddenly all the letters formed words and the words made a story.

We planted a garden while we were acting out the story of the Little Red Hen, who asks everyone to help her, but winds up doing everything herself. At the end of the story, she eats the bread (made from wheat, made from grain she planted) all by herself. Was the lesson self-sufficiency, or something else?

I never even knew Miss Ella's last name until by chance (if you believe in chance) an Internet contact sent me her obituary last year. I learned that Miss Ella was known for her frugality, growing gardens, raising chickens, and teaching five-year-olds. I suppose that next to my family, she must have been the most important person in my life, and yet I never had any contact with her after that one year.

It may not be much consolation to schoolteachers to realize that they're a bit like gravity in the lives of their students. If I could thank Miss Ella right now, I would.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Naked Ladies

It's the season of Naked Ladies where I live. Their pink faces appear alongside the road and in almost every yard. Since the gophers tend to move the bulbs around, one never knows where they might appear in August. When I try to transplant the bulbs, they die. The Ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) want to do what they want to do, where they want to do it.  It is not just delicacy which makes my mother call them Surprise Lilies. If you pamper them in any way,  they will not bloom. They have no leaves at all right now--that's why they're called naked--but after the pink trumpet-shaped blooms die away, the greenery will come out and last until spring...if you leave it alone.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Keeping On Keeping On

The distance from the little town of Marathon to Athens is exactly 26.2 miles. I watched my son finish that run in November of 2002 with the music of  Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire" playing over the audio system in the stadium. The runners were carrying olive branches. I actually elbowed somebody so I could get a picture of my son finishing the marathon with the Parthenon in the background. I pressed and kept the part of that olive branch he gave me.

Watching the Beijing Olympics marathons on television this week told me a great deal about keeping on keeping on. Unless you yourself ran a marathon backwards so that you could see the other runners, you would never get this kind of documentation of a long-distance race. The runners' eyes are far away. They don't even seem to be running very fast. Sometimes they are companionable, passing water bottles back and forth, trotting side by side. They don't even seem very competitive until the very end of the race, though they quickly separate into a lead pack and a chase pack.

 After months or even years of training, experimentation, trials, injuries, recoveries, timing, after carbo-loading, hydrating, choosing the right shoes and hoping for a cool day, they go through a two to four hour drama with hardly any idea of how it will come out. It is dangerous, too. Although my son assured me that the original historic marathon runner did not really die, someone did die at this year's San Francisco marathon. Many of the runners at the Olympics did not finish the race. There were ambulances. Glycogen depletion can make the muscles stop functioning entirely. Once the runner reaches this point, there is nothing he or she can do but stop. An important part of preparation seems to be estimating how much food and water and what kind will provide just enough energy for the particular temperature and track involved in the run.

Because the runners have special chips in their shoes, it is sometimes possible to follow the progress of a particular runner at your computer, miles away. I have had some bad moments when I was watching the computer screen to see how my son was doing in the Boston marathon...and then results abruptly stopped appearing.

All kinds of things happen to marathoners. Their toenails might come off. A friend told me of a woman marathoner who just gave up trying to keep toenails and started polishing her naked toes. Their nipples are abraded by their shirts. They throw up. They get diarrhea. Salt cakes on their bodies. They strain and pull important tendons and muscles. They get foot injuries and joint problems and shin splints and stress fractures.  Some runners limp to the finish line. It may take days to recover from a marathon.

On the other hand, there are statistics showing that runners tend to live longer and stay healthy longer than non-runners. They have slow, powerful heartbeats and lean animal bodies.

In Beijing, the Kenyan front-runner jogged along easily for 20 miles and than ran as if he were being pursued by wild animals, setting a new world record of two hours, six minutes and a few seconds. Kenyans almost always win marathons, though a Romanian woman got the gold medal in the women's race. 

Why do they do it? Olympians, of course, are there to win, to break records, to make their country proud, to get fame and glory and lots of money endorsing products. But local non-Olympic marathons are another matter entirely. Marathon prizes are provided by hundreds and thousands of the slowest runners, who pay a fee to enter the race without a hope of winning it.  "I get my best ideas when I'm running," my son says. "Once you get the machine going, you are absolutely free."

I can almost imagine what this is like. For two hours or more, the runners are like birds riding the thermals, watching the scenery, correcting their pace, thinking their thoughts, eating their power bars, accepting an orange slice or a water bottle from the cheering people who line the route.  Look at their faces. Until the final push, the faces of distance runners are as placid and serene as those of Zen masters.

Someone interviewed a 91-year-old man who ran the classic marathon in Greece in 2002. It took him a very long time. He managed to walk or run almost the entire course, but had to be hauled across the finish line by his friends. "Why did you do it?" the interviewer asked. And the old fellow answered "Why, for love, of course."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Thought Forms and Poetry

The poem which won a school contest back in the Stone Age was almost certainly a rephrasing of a lullaby my mother sang, "Baby's boat's a silver moon". In college, mostly because my boyfriend was French-Canadian, I wrote a few things in French and my French teacher gave them to the Orange and White, the school newspaper.

After that, poetry became a kind of shorthand for me. Working and raising a family, I didn't have the time to unburden myself with anything longer than a poem, but I could jot down an image between chores or while riding a bus or subway.

Once I had an unforgettable dream: I was in a kind of museum of Thought Forms, a large hall with all kinds of structures like sculptures, but made from some unknown material. "This is pure thought", my guide said. "One form can be translated many ways. It can be a mathematical equation, a social system, a piece of music, a painting. You are looking at the essence of these things, but they may be interpreted an infinite number of ways."

Poetry is almost always Metaphor (from the Greek metapherein, to transfer) or Allegory (allegorein, to speak figuratively); that's the nature of language which makes it more of a miracle for someone to "get it" as for someone to emit it.

I have scribbled out about 13 collections of poetry (11 of them unpublished and two self-published) with maybe 50 related poems in each.  Some of the early stuff is pretty embarrassing. It makes me think of Mike Keeley's comment "It is clear that you are a poet, but what kind of poet remains to be seen." All this writing may be sheer self-indulgence, but I figure that whichever way we choose to express ourselves, there are skills which must be acquired and craft which must be practiced. As you see, I practice all the time. Maybe too much.