Bells, part 3, Relax

We should probably be wary of statements beginning with the pronouncement, “Never before, in the history of the world….”

Nevertheless, given our current world predicament, we might find ourselves in need of some relaxation – seemingly, like never before.

In his little book titled “How to Relax,” the monk Thich Nhat Hanh begins:

“You don’t need to set aside special time for resting and relaxing. You don’t need a special pillow or any fancy equipment. You don’t need a whole hour. In fact, now is a very good time to relax” (page 6, “How to Relax,” Parallax Press, 2015).

The same might be said for writing. You don’t need a fancy machine, a special desk or pen, or even a purpose. What you need – is a bell.

“There is tranquility, peace, and joy within us, but we have to call them forth so they can manifest. Inviting a bell to sound is one way to call forth the joy and tranquility within” (page 100).

Thick Nhat Hanh gives us a poem to remind us of the bell we want to listen for, to hear, to send out to others:

“Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,
I send my heart along with the sound of this bell.
May all the hearers awaken from forgetfulness,
and transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow” (page 100).

And we don’t need a fancy blog template or website to write. Again, nevertheless, here at The Coming of the Toads, I’ve experimented with a few of the WordPress templates over time. But what did I want, if not simply to write? This isn’t the only place, the only way, I write. I keep a pocket notebook in the left rear pocket of my pants (detail for readers in need), unlined because I like to doodle and wander. I keep a spiral notebook in a desk drawer. I started The Coming of the Toads, after a few hesitant starts, in December of 2007, and have posted something at least monthly since. Why then, lately, have I been having thoughts of ending it?

I wasn’t “inviting the bell.” Not Poe’s “the tintinabulation of the bells,” nor his “anger of the bells,” nor his “moaning and the groaning of the bells.” But the bell of the muse. I like this etymological note from Oxford: “Middle English: from Old French muser ‘meditate, waste time’, perhaps from medieval Latin musum ‘muzzle’.” Writing involves a good amount of self-muzzle, or should. First, we might want to relax. Invite the bell. Then take up the pen and notebook, or open the blog.

This is the third piece in a series on bells at The Coming of the Toads.

Bells, part 2, A Morning Caper

A half mile walk from my house up to the church, up Center Street and across the train tracks to Pine, across to Bungalow Drive and up to Holly Avenue, then up to Maryland Avenue and past the swimming pool and through Hilltop Park, and across Grand Avenue, where you could see a sliver of the ocean where the road cut through the dunes a mile off, and into the church. The morning remains a fragmented run-on I frequently recall.

But I could not see the ocean that morning, the morning of the caper of the bells, because it was still dark out. I was altar boy for the week at the 5:15 AM mass. The church was still locked. I went through the gate between the rectory and sacristy entrance of the church. But the sacristy was also locked. I didn’t see any lights on in the rectory. I did not know exactly what time it was. Dad had rousted me from bed, and I got dressed and left without a word between the two of us. I sat down on the church porch and with my back against the sacristy door, fell asleep.

I don’t know how long I’d been sleeping when the priest woke me up, unlocked the door, and in we went. I put on my cassock and filled the water and wine cruets and took them out to the table beside the altar. Meanwhile, the priest went out to unlock the doors to the church and came back in to put on his vestments, quietly saying his prayers while dressing, not a word between the two of us.

I led the way out the sacristy side door to the altar, the priest behind me bearing his chalice in two hands, stopped and backed up to allow him to pass to the center. Only the front of the church was lit with lights, the back kept dark, because there were only a few  people scattered in the front pews: a couple of nuns in full regalia, a high school student no doubt doing penance for some heinous sin, a couple of old women wearing hats and holding rosaries, and Mr. Mulligan, in for his morning pick-me-up.

The congregation rose as the priest and I walked to the altar. I took up my position at the bottom of the stairs, he climbed to the altar, and the magic show went live. The mass was still being said in Latin, and I completed the dialog with the priest with my responses in Latin, although I understood little of what I was saying. But I liked the sounds of the Latin words, like magic incantations.

There was no sermon in these early morning masses, communion went quickly with so few communicants, and the whole affair was over in 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the mood of the priest. The priest kept his back to the congregation. And while we said the prayers of the dialog, we kept our voices to a near whisper, as if afraid we might awaken the statues of the saints, and by the time of the hush that settled in at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I was sound asleep on my knees.

The priest was clicking with his thumb and finger at me, trying to get my attention. I awoke stupefied and grabbed the bells and starting ringing them. But it wasn’t time for the bells. It was time for me to get up and go to the side table and get the cruets of water and wine and carry them up the steps to the priest so he could wash his fingers and take a drink of wine. I realized my mistake, put down the bells, and carried on. The ringing of the bells at the wrong place in the ceremony must have awoken the entire congregation from their prayerful morning slumber.

I gave my bell experience to Isaac, one of Henry Killknot’s younger brothers, in “Penina’s Letters.” Henry shares Isaac’s ringing of the bells at the wrong moment to Salty, Penina, and Puck, who have driven over to Saint Gelda Church in Venice to attend Isaac’s First Holy Communion ceremony. Henry finds the story hilarious, and creates a local ruckus around their pew as he tells it to the others. Salty smiles, but Penina and Puck don’t really understand what it’s all about.

This is the second in a series of pieces on bells at The Coming of the Toads.

Bells

Manual typewriters contained a bell that rang to signal the coming of the end of a line. The typist could adjust where along the line the bell might ring. Shorter lines…Longer lines. The faster typist increased the frequency of the bells one heard. When the bell rang, the typist had but a few strokes left before reaching up with left hand to push the typewriter carriage return lever to the far right to reset the type guide at the left margin of the paper to begin a new line.

I got a new job, in a large, corporate office, flying paper airplanes. During the day, the three story building housed around 500 employees sitting at grey metal desks. There were a few managerial secretaries with typewriters. The rest of us used the typing pool. All you had to do was pick up your phone, dial the typing pool extension, and, when you heard the bell, begin dictation. Finished, you could let the piece fly, or ask that it be delivered to your desk via the office mail to proof and return to the pool or place in the outgoing mail.

There was a procedure for just about everything. New procedural bulletins arrived regularly. Some updated older bulletins or clarified procedural details. Others introduced new procedures. Sometimes, a section meeting would be devoted to reviewing a new procedure before its effective date. In short order, most procedures were memorized, but employees also stuck notes around their desks to remind themselves of key procedural steps. For procedures that never became part of routine, one referenced a procedural manual, which was an encyclopedia of procedure bulletins, collected by category and number. Employees also made notes in these manuals, and flagged the most frequently referenced pages.

The mailroom was located in the basement. The mailroom employees were also heavily burdened with procedures. The cafeteria was located on the top floor, and afforded views of the surrounding area, which included a freeway interchange. There was a patio on one side of the cafeteria, with tables with chairs and umbrellas, where one could take a coffee or sandwich and enjoy the fresh air.

There were procedures for evacuating the building, in case of emergency, initiated by the ringing of signal bells over the public address speaker system. These bells also controlled the start and end of the work day as well as the start and end of break and lunch periods. The workday started at 7:30, signaled by the single ring of a bell. Employees were expected to be seated and working at the bell; otherwise, they might be considered tardy. This was explained in the Personnel Procedure Manual. Employees took breaks in shifts, so that no section or department was ever completely idle. Morning breaks ran from 9:30 to 9:45 and from 10:00 to 10:15. A bell signaled the beginning and ending of each break. Thus four bells would ring at fifteen minute intervals. Lunch break was 45 minutes, and ran from 11:30 to 12:15 and 12:15 to 1:00. An efficient three bells sufficed. In the afternoon, four bells rang again for breaks, beginning at 2:30 and ending at 3:15. A final bell rang at 4:30 and the building quickly emptied, faster than for a fire drill.

By procedure, the secretaries placed dust covers over their typewriters at the end of the workday.

What Goodness Knows: Ed Simon’s “Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations About Goodness”

When Mark Twain’s Huck decides to help Jim, an illegal immigrant of his time, a runaway slave, Huck believes he’ll go to hell for his goodness. Huck knows that by helping Jim escape he’ll be breaking the law. He’ll bring the wrath of local public opinion so forcefully down upon his head, this time it’ll probably fall off. He feels good, though, having sat down and thought it out and making his decision to help Jim with deliberation and good reason. Huck does not argue that he should not go to hell for helping Jim.

Central to Ed Simon’s 100 page immersion in goodness is a discussion of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It’s a little forced, but the idea is that without the betrayal, Jesus can’t save the world. One would think the Grand Master of Plots would come up with a work-around if Judas doesn’t cooperate, but we get the idea. Out of this betrayal, for which Judas knows he’ll go to hell, where his 30 pieces of silver won’t buy him much of anything, comes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. So why has Judas, over time, been treated as such a heel?

For Simon, goodness is no easy matter. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” you knew you were not going to a party. Is goodness even possible for an embodied, fallen soul? Where along the spectrum from doing good to doing nothing to breaking bad does empathy require altruistic behavior? In other words, what good is it if you don’t have some skin in the game? Simon clarifies the question in his introduction:

“Looming over my concerns is clearly the current political climate in both Europe and the United States, particularly the increasing economic disparity, the emboldening of extremism and zealotry, and especially the casual cruelty. The desire to reflect on what goodness might mean and how to be an embodied individual implicated in systems of oppression who nonetheless wishes to stand against those systems is hopefully underscored through the entire book” (8).

from Intro. to “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness,” by Ed Simon, Zero Books, 2019.

Why does it sometimes seem easier to follow evil than good? Easier to describe and to write. Good comedy is much harder to write, and more rare, than good tragedy. And why does comedy so often rely on someone else’s pain? Any discussion of good and evil falls quickly into the Western dichotomy zone, where so much bad would not have befallen you had you simply been more good. It’s not as easy as choosing right over wrong when any choice implicates others and sets forth what might quickly become a random course of events over which you just as quickly lose control. You make a good shot, but unfortunately you end up sinking the 8 ball and give away the match. Simon is aware of that, and handles it carefully:

“I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans” (14).

Goodness begins, for Simon, with compassion. But can the good one does redeem one who does not? Is there a quorum of good necessary to save those not in attendance? Why does the Black Christ keep getting whitewashed over? Simon does not go it alone in navigating his theme. What good would a totalitarian good be? What does it mean to sin for good? As Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” A little kindness for those who fail might be a good place to begin a path toward goodness.

While his Judas discussion might seem a bit forced, so too do some of Simon’s examples of evil seem extreme. They are the tabloid stories that have gone historically viral. But they are carefully placed to support the claim that evil is not a mistake. Depravity does not necessarily follow from deprivation, contrary to social studies myth:

“My Daddy beats my Mommy
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

from “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story,” 1957.

In fact, goodness might come from poverty, the road of excess not leading to Blake’s “palace of wisdom,” but to a white house of exploitation and gluttony, avarice and vainglory. The swamp might be a necessary mess.

“I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations,” Simon begins observation XXIV, “but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil” (60). Apology accepted as we read on, for by the end of his observations, I was gobsmacked by this book. It is perfectly paced and accessible to the common reader. It’s full of researched materials from antiquity to modern times, but it’s scholarly without being pedantic or smugly academic. It does not pander to a peer group. Yet it could be used as a guide toward further reading, study, caring. It contains both the sacred and the profane. It does not preach nor profess nor confess nor hide.

Is happiness necessary to goodness? Studies over the last two decades have shown Americans are not a happy bunch. Could it be that’s because we are not sufficiently good to be really happy? Simon anticipates rebuttal. Each observation carries forward naturally and thematically. He’s not without contradictions. We learn of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. We meet, if we’ve not already, the poet Jack Gilbert. Kempe says, “Wheresoever God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day” (80). But if God is in your soul, why does it need protecting, protection from what? Protection from the world He created for you? Is that how religion came to be such a protection racket? Meanwhile, we’ve Jack Gilbert telling us “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants” (78). Then why didn’t God make life more enjoyable, the cynic responds. But Simon stops the merry-go-round: “We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human” (78).

Simon’s human examples of goodness are not so tabloid as his examples of evil. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Flannery O’Connor, from Augustine through Judas to Margaret Edson’s W;t, to Kempe and Nietzsche and on to Fr Mychal, 911’s “Victim 0001,” whose last act of love signalled that God does not hate us, we learn, if nothing else, why we are given goodness.

Simon has written a good book. We learn about the things that make poetry: kindness, fellowship, pencils. “Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to ‘accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,'” Simon says, the “ruthless furnace” bit coming from Jack Gilbert (79). Simon’s last observation, number XXXVI, is a brilliant, modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, a way to think about goodness.

Coast Road Trip: Adage and Algae

The idea, now an adage, that a picture is worth a thousand words, seems to have come from early 20th Century advertising strategies. A picture might be worth more than a thousand words to an illiterate shopper, and advertising must be short and quick and hit hard enough to leave a brand image on the brain. The problem now for advertisers might be there are too many pictures. We are now uploading upwards of 2 billion photos daily to the Internet. If the early 1900’s advertising adage is true, that’s two trillion words, daily. It’s easy to see why a writer struggling to reach a goal of 500 words a day might resort to posting a pic or two. Or simply trade the blog in for an Instagram account. Digitized images are the algae of the Internet.

Mural in Harbor Zone, Crescent City, CA. Photo by Susan.

Coast Road Trip: Double Back

A reader of the Toads writes:

“Hi Joe,  I have been reading your travel posts . They seem familiar like maybe I’ve seen them before . The photos are recent , though , so I must be wrong about that.”

personal correspondence

That is precisely the problem with writing, with, indeed, life, the feeling we’ve been here before, Déjà vu, been there – done that. Yet we continue to imagine our future, awake and asleep, waiting for something new.

“I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home”

“I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” Bob Dylan, from John Wesley Harding, 1968.

“Make it new,” Ezra Pound said, over and over again. But if you make it too new, who will recognize it?

HAMM: Go and get the oilcan.
CLOV: What for?
HAMM: To oil the castors.
CLOV: I oiled them yesterday.
HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!
CLOV (violently): That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.
(Pause.)

“Endgame,” Samuel Beckett, 1957.

A Google search of “Yaquina Head Lighthouse” will bring up over 300,000 results (in .78 seconds, no less). Click on “images,” and you’ll see more than 500 pics of the lighthouse. Nevertheless, I now double back and offer readers of the Toads these entirely original never seen before pics of the lighthouse, freshly taken about a month ago:

Coast Road Trip: Sans Pics

A perspicacious reader asked why I haven’t posted any pics from the road trip. I’m working on moving toward a new kind of blog, more like the one I started, back in December of 2007, which contained no pics, just short bursts of writing pleasure. I had in mind the kind of posts the venerable E. B. White wrote in the early New Yorker.

“From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

“Eighty-Five from the Archive: E. B. White,” by Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.

Not that I ever achieved anything everyone might call, “not lousy.” In any case, I drifted away, or off, and into a kind of academic stream, where I imagined I might augment my adjunct work at the time. And I tried to bring some attention to the books I was working on, both reading and writing. Then I began to work-in more slant, though never totally “false,” and found the proverbial bottom of the barrel when I started putting up some poetry. And I recently considered retiring The Coming of the Toads, leaving it to sink to the bottom of the archive abyss of the Internet, where some future crab scuttling along might find a few morsels to criticize.

E. B. White’s idea of the short, personal essay (note the importance of that comma) has been replaced in many blogs by the personal pic essay, with and without words, the latter like Beckett’s short play, “Act Without Words.” And I suspect more reading is done on phones these days than when I started The Coming of the Toads on a desktop computer back in ’07, and the phone and other smaller size formats encourage changes in aspect ratios of screen, pics, and writing. And thinking about that, I decided to remove this blog’s header pic, begin writing with a minimum of pics altogether, returning to the short, personal note or comment type essay. I even thought of a new tagline for the title space: The Coming of the Toads: No links, No likes, No comments. I know that sounds a bit anti-social, but what I’m aiming for is clarity, simplicity – a clean, well-lighted blog.

Besides, I don’t get many comments or likes, and many that I do get appear to be from spam and bots, and I lost all the pics I took on our recent trip, mistakenly thinking I had backed up my phone photos to Google Photos when I had not, in the meantime deleting all the photos from my phone, then crashing my Instagram account trying to retrieve what I had at least saved there. Seems poetic justice for an anti-social attitude.

Having at this point already exceeded my target word limit, not to mention having probably lost my target audience, those interested in hearing more about the Road Trip, I give you this portfolio of road trip pics, all taken by my sister Barbara and Susan as I was trying on the lighthouse keeper’s uniform jacket at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, north of Newport, trying to strike poses I imagined a lighthouse keeper might have aimed at were he the subject of a live, on the job photo shoot:

Note: Comments On for this post. Have fun!

Coast Road Trip: Cork Tree and Whale

We followed Dry Creek Road into the country northwest of Healdsburg to Lake Sonoma. Along the way, wineries, carefully cultivated vineyards, acre after acre of grapes. We stopped at the Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Dry Creek Valley, a snazzy estate with an “Italianate” villa with views of the valley and vineyards and with exuberant gardens, where we found a cork tree, this one some 50 years old, though they can age to 300 years, and one doesn’t want to start harvesting cork from their bark until they reach 50 years of age. The bark looked like cork, folds of it, and felt like cork, a hard sponge. The trunk was 4 or 5 feet wide.

I was reminded of the cork tree later when back in Depoe Bay, Oregon, we saw a whale, just off shore, bending in vertical dives, showing its back and sides, along the edge of the cliff just north of the harbor entrance. It was probably a gray whale. It was certainly alluring, and we watched for it a long time, and it came up every 10 minutes or so.

The smaller, less manicured wineries or vineyards, off hardpack dirt and gravel roads, with small wood buildings and just a few workers going about their chores – these we preferred to the larger, commercial estates.

Lake Sonoma is partially created with an earth dam over the valley, and we climbed up to the top of Rockpile Road and the bridge viewpoint where from a 3 story observation deck built with thick but old and now weathered timber, parts missing, we learned we were in feral pig country. Wine and pigs. What a life.

Sign posted above Sonoma Lake
Snazzy Ferrari-Carano Vineyards.
Cork tree.
Bark of cork tree.
Villa.

 

Coast Road Trip: Lighthouse Logbooks

At the end of the watch, the lighthouse keeper would record by hand in the lighthouse logbook activities. The lighthouse might have received visitors. An assistant had harvested herbs and onions from the garden. Someone passed away. A winter storm broke 14 windows. A dense fog cast the light in shade for most of the day. New coats of paint were finished on the window trim of the living quarters. Little Jack broke a toe climbing on the rocks down in the cove while trying to catch crabs.

Each entry in the logbooks seems akin to a kind of postcard travelers rarely send these days, a detail picture or drawing of the area on one side, a brief note on the other with updated narrative and description of activities.

We came across what looks to be a large sponge whale bone at low tide around the south end of the cove.

The tide is so low this week we are able to view sea life in all three zones: periwinkles in the splash; a sunflower star with 24 arms and a yard across in the terror zone; masses of mussels on the big rocks in the high-tide zone, and acorn barnacles.

Purple shore crabs had Aunt Hilly jumping about in her own crazy crab dance. While she yelled and blamed all of us for bringing her down to the beach to her ruin like the anti-social pelagic cormorant. She caught the bottom of her dress on a sharp rock and it ripped all the way up to her waist and she screamed and let out a bark like a seal.

Last night my lady’s malady nearly got the best of me.

A square built like Healdsburg’s, a one block square, shade tree filled park – with a gazebo bandstand – invites postcard writing.

John invited us to the outdoor Healdsburg High graduation ceremony, but we declined, opting instead for a visit to the square. Plaza Street, across Healdsburg Avenue, turns into a pedestrian walkway leading to Hotel Healdsburg, where we were headed for some happy hour jazz. I was expecting something built out of redwood around 1901; instead, we found ourselves ensconced underdressed in a modern stylish structure established, the entrance sign had announced, in 2001. No jazz, either, as we settled in to the sveldt sofas at tables in the sunken bar area. In front of a closed grand piano stood a young girl with a guitar and harmonica singing indie and classic folk songs. She was good, too. So while John was marching to pomp and circumstance in the heat and robe regalia across the sun drenched graduation field, we drank a cool beer in the posh, AC’d room of the hotel bar, listening to folk songs.

to be continued: this is part seven in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.

Coast Road Trip: High Water Marks

Healdsburg turned on the heat for our arrival and stay, the temperature in the 90’s. My brother’s house stayed cool though under his big California Oak trees, and we slept with the windows open and ceiling fans running. John, old surfer and teacher that he is, always awakes early. I got up early, refreshed but with that feeling you get after awaking in someone else’s bed and for a moment don’t remember where you are. No one else seemed up and about, so I took off walking. I walked to the high school and across the baseball fields. I stood at home plate, taking a couple of high and outside fastballs. Then a curve aimed at my belt broke slow in my zone over the plate and I belted it out to left center, an in the park home run, though I walked the bases, and after touching home declined the interviews with the excuse I had to get back to John’s place.

John and I drove out to Jimtown Store, east of the Russian River, which half circles Healdsburg, for some coffee. A small bridge crosses the river, the road falls suddenly like the Pike roller coaster at Long Beach, a panoramic view of a wine valley flashes, and you’re on the valley floor heading east.

Seems everywhere we went around Healdsburg a former student of John’s said hello. John was just awarded teacher of the year for this past session, but the tall fellow working the Jimtown store today was a former field and track star who quickly recognized his former coach.

I was eight and a half years old when my brother John was born, the fifth in a family of ten kids, the first to be born in California. I was in the front yard playing when Dad walked Mom out to our 1956 Ford wagon, parked in the driveway on Mariposa, to tootle off to the hospital. Mom was never in labor for more than a couple of hours. Some girls have all the luck.

At Jimtown we drank some ice coffee and climbed back into John’s rig and headed back to Healdsburg. Grapes growing here, there, and everywhere. Some old, some newly planted. Up hills, down into valleys. And where no grapes, oaks, a few redwoods still, pines. Bay, willow, maple. Grasses, yarrow. Shrubs. Wineries. At a crossroads signs pointing this way and that to this or that winery. Not by bread alone. Bread and red, white, and rose.

Near the Russian River to the northeast of Healdsburg, John pulled over near an old barn off the side of the road and pointed out the high water marks folks had painted on the siding over the years. Historic floods. Several years where we were now standing we would have been more than 20 feet under water. The homemade historical markers seemed more dramatic and effectively sobering about man’s indifference to nature than the new tsunami signs we’d seen up north near the ocean on Highway 101.

to be continued: this is part six in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.