Archive for the ‘Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill’ Category

The Missing Chapter

August 31, 2011

In the original manuscript of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill there was a chapter on the history of the unique little world of gardens and cottages where I was living (and live now) and the people who’d made it possible. (Judy and I own their house.) When I submitted the manuscript, my editor suggested that I delete it, and, being a first-time author, I didn’t argue. She even encouraged me to defend its inclusion. But I didn’t. A few days ago I decided to post it on my website. Here’s the link for anyone interested in reading it. It goes between the chapters “Dogen” and “Everything Changes.”


At Odds

August 27, 2011

When I was around 18 years old I found myself increasingly at odds with my country—my countrymen and countrywomen actually. By the time I was 21, things got so bad that I dropped out. Fell out, really. This is a big part of what my new book is about. I stayed underground for nearly thirty years. I occasionally get flak for “being a bum” from a certain kind of person who is troubled by The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. I don’t think I ever say it explicitly, but I was living the way I did, not because I didn’t like to work, but because I couldn’t accept the American way of life. The book and the film yanked me back into the game. For the last few years I’ve been getting back in touch with the way things work here. At first, the change was somewhat exhilarating. I’ve gone from living on roof tops and in storerooms to being a home owner. Now I find myself, once again, deeply at odds with the society I live in. I’ve had trouble posting lately because I don’t feel right about complaining all the time. But I see very little that has any value these days, and I see much that is destructive. Sometimes I think that I should write about the world that I’d like to see. Maybe I will. I want to be positive, but there’s just so little to be positive about in this particular era. I think of it as the Reagan Era. I know I’m going to write something about the economy soon, which is going to be hyper-negative. Just a warning! Meanwhile, I’m hard at work, six days a week, on Street Song.

Progress Report #67: The Forest for the Trees

August 16, 2011
Falls Creek Falls trail

A Trail in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

I’m back from my trip up north to Washington State. Judy and I spent four days in a primitive cabin (no electricity, no water) in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest that the Forest Service rents out. My family used to go to this area often, and I still love it. It’s in a thick forest—undeveloped wilderness.

Once again, I found that getting some distance from the book helped to clarify some important issues that were slowing me down. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The path keeps leading me to the answers. I’m back at work on the outline now and hope to make rapid progress.

When I got back from the cabin, I learned of an amazing coincidence. While in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest I went to visit another old cabin that my grandmother once owned. I used to spend part of every summer there. The cabin is no longer in the family, and I had some questions of the new owners. I left a note on the door asking them, if they would be so kind, to get in touch. Shortly after I got home I received an email from a woman who told me she’d found the note on the door and thought my name sounded familiar. Later that day, she started reading a book she’d picked up at the library expressly for her stay at the cabin and realized that the author of the book and the author of the note had the same name. She didn’t think much about it until she came to a passage in the book about a cabin in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest that the author used to spend his summers in. The book was, of course, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Neat, huh?


July 27, 2011

I don’t pass this along because I think it should have any special importance to anybody, but because I brought it up a few days ago. Sweetheart, Judy’s pet cockatiel of 22 years, died this afternoon. As she’s been doing for several weeks, Judy took Sweetheart to her office, and Sweetheart died there in her traveling cage. She was a trooper to the end. In one way, it was Sweetheart that brought Judy and me together. When she got Sweetheart, Judy had never owned a bird before, so she subscribed to a bird magazine to learn more about them. Before I wrote Wild Parrots, I had an article published in that magazine. Judy read it, and it interested her as a subject for a film. But at the time I wrote the article I thought I was about to move. I said so, so she didn’t bother to look me up. A few years later, when someone suggested that Judy do a film about me, she already knew what I was up to.

Sweetheart’s decline was gradual and without any major complications. She went peacefully. The house does feel different. There’s one less mind in the room now.

The Difficulties of the Zen Waterfall

April 25, 2011

I still get e-mail—almost every day—from people who have just discovered the parrot movie. The movie has “legs,” and it’s gratifying that it continues to touch people. Those who write often want to ask about or comment on the part of the film that Judy and I call the “Zen waterfall sequence.” That’s where I talk about the death of Tupelo and how her death helped me to come to terms with some ideas that, up to that point, I hadn’t understood very well. I say:

There’s a story that Suzuki Roshi told. He was the Zen master at the Zen Center here in San Francisco. He went to Yosemite and saw a big waterfall coming over a cliff. It’s one river at the top of the cliff, but as it falls, the river breaks up into all these individual droplets. And then it hits the bottom of the cliff, and it’s one river again. We’re all one river ‘till we hit this cliff. That distance between the top of the cliff and the bottom of the cliff is our life. And all the individual little droplets think they really are individual little droplets until they hit the bottom, and then they’re gone. But that droplet doesn’t lose anything. It gains. It gains the rest of the river.

This was, for me, the heart of the experience, the heart of what I learned from the parrots. A lot of people find that story very comforting. It makes death seem graceful and easy. But lately I’ve been thinking about another angle to the story that needs to be brought out. It’s actually something that Suzuki Roshi dealt with in his original telling, but that I didn’t go into, namely: While it may be easy for a drop of water to give up its individual existence, it’s much more difficult for a human being.

A graceful death depends on one’s ability to let go gracefully. That’s difficult nowadays. Modern life makes it difficult. We have so many distractions to keep us from an awareness of death. We’re encouraged to put everything we have into this life—work hard, get rich, buy stuff, have fun, be a success. The striving and competitiveness create strong psychological attachments that are extremely difficult to sever. It’s hard to let go easily and gracefully when you’ve invested your entire being into this plane. This is where the terror of death comes from. I think most people tell themselves that there’s no reason to dwell on death, that it’s morbid and fruitless to do so. But it’s important how we die, and the only way we can be actually be unafraid at the time of death is by being prepared for it. And to prepare for it, we need to seek out a different kind of education than the one we get going about our daily lives in this culture, in this time.

A Surprising Encounter

February 12, 2011

Yesterday, Judy and I were in Brisbane, a small suburban community south of San Francisco. It was a beautiful day, so beautiful that I decided to stay outside and catch some sun while Judy went into her friend’s house to take care of some film business. I was leaning up against the car, passing time, when I heard faintly in the deep background a familiar sound: the squawking of several cherry-headed conures. That seemed a little far-fetched, and for a moment I assumed that I was mistaking something else for the parrots. Then I remembered that two or three years ago some flock members had been seen in Brisbane, which is eight and a half miles south of Telegraph Hill (as the crow flies). I kept hearing them, and they were getting louder. Suddenly I heard the sound they make when they leap into flight. Twelve of them flew directly overhead and then disappeared.

They’ve been expanding their territory over the years, but there aren’t so many—just 200 or so—that they’re as common as sparrows. It amazed me to bump into them so far from where I’ve always seen them. I’ve been down with a miserable cold, but they made me smile again.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

January 5, 2011

For the last week or so, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, has been playing on the tube. I was aware that it was going to be on, but I’ve been focused on my new book, Street Song, so only “vaguely aware.” It took me a little by surprise when I suddenly began receiving a torrent of e-mails about the film. I’ve tried to keep up with them, but they’ve finally overwhelmed me. I hope to get around to answering them all eventually, but for the time being it’s impossible.

When we started the film, my hope was simply to have a visual record of the experience before I had to move on. It is extremely gratifying that the film, which depicts events that happened 11 and 12 years ago, and was released into theaters six years ago, has such “legs.” Both Judy and I thought it was good, but we both knew, too, that you can’t presume that a project will succeed based on its quality alone. So many other factors come into play. In fact, Parrots had an extremely difficult time breaking into the film festival circuit. The gate keepers there tend to be postmodernists who have little use for this kind of movie. But it did well on the art house circuit. It was one of the last to succeed there before the circuit essentially shut down. And it’s done well on DVD, Netflix, iTunes, and PBS.

People often ask, “Which came first, the book or the film?” I was already working on the book when I met Judy. Both projects were done entirely separate from one another. My book is not the same as the film. It covers the full six years of the experience and goes into aspects and individual parrot friends of mine that the film never touches upon. My book did get somewhat buried by the film. More people watch movies than read books, and a lot of people assume that, because they have the same title, the book is simply a rehashing of the movie, which it isn’t. They are complementary, but not the same. (Others assume the film was based on the book, which it wasn’t.) In the film, I’m shown taking photos of the birds, and it is implied that I see a possibility of making a living from my photos. In reality, we had both agreed that it would cheapen the film if we used it to advertise the book, so the photos were meant to symbolize me beginning to make a creative living out of my experience. This is the advertisement!

P. S. After posting this I went for a ride on my bike. I stopped at the Warming Hut, a small cafe/bookstore out by the Golden Gate Bridge, and saw that the paperback, unbeknownst to me, has just gone into a tenth printing.

Progress Report #29 and a Parrot Update

May 28, 2010

I’ve finished my second pass though the second draft’s Chapter Fourteen, “The Wanderer.” Now onto Chapter Fifteen. I don’t have a working title for it yet. That’s moot, though. This is going to be a long chapter, and I’m reasonably certain that these long chapters are going to be broken down into short ones in the third and final draft. This chapter deals with an incredibly intense four-month period in early 1974. I’m laying the foundations for life after music. Now that I’m ensconced in North Beach, I start meeting some interesting as well as some scary bohemians; I have a profoundly unsettling experience at a Bob Dylan concert; and I keep getting closer—although I don’t know it yet—to the day where I’m forced to move out onto the streets.

I struck gold yesterday. I was looking up some innocuous little detail on the Internet and stumbled upon an incredibly rich vein of information on the time and place—North Beach (San Francisco) in 1974—that I’m gearing up to write about.

For those following this: It’s quite clear now that the eggs underneath the bed are infertile. But Big Bird and Parker haven’t given up on them yet. They sit on them all day long and come out only to eat. They’re in a completely different state than we usually see them in. They are absolutely devoted to those eggs. They run out and attack our feet whenever we walk too close to the bed. We have to leave our shoes on at all times.

A Big Surprise

May 12, 2010
In the Nest

Parker (l) and Big Bird (r) under the bed

For the last seven years, Judy and I have been taking care of two birds from the wild parrot flock who have injuries. We’ve always assumed that both birds, Parker and Big Bird, were male. Every spring, Big Bird goes under our bed and stays there nearly all day long, tearing up the jute carpet. We’ve assumed he’s preparing a nest for a female, should one happen to pass by. He did it again this year, but this time “he” laid three eggs. For the first time, Parker, who is badly crippled, has joined Big Bird under the bed. If Parker is a male, there is some chance, of course, that the eggs are fertile. But we doubt he’s coordinated enough to mate. (They will lay eggs that have not been fertilized.) We’re waiting to see. It’s fascinating to watch the intense devotion these two have toward the eggs. They never leave them for more than a few minutes and only to eat. They also make a kind of purring sound while sitting on them.

Back from Winnipeg

October 27, 2009

I just got back from the Gimme Some Truth documentary film festival in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and I’m still coffee-free. Judy and I were invited to present the “Wild Parrot” film and do Q & A after—once again. It’s remarkable and pleasing to see how lasting the film has been. We enjoyed our stay in Winnipeg. The downtown area is unique and has a peculiar beauty. All the Canadians wanted to know what the hell is wrong with us Americans that we have such fear of government health care. Contrary to what the conservatives here say, the Canadians are quite happy with it.

I’ve found that my energy is much better without coffee than it was with coffee. All I’d been getting out of coffee was maintenance—keeping the monkey off my back. I have no craving for it and I feel better throughout the day. I don’t think quitting will slow my work down at all. I feel that I’ll be able to sustain longer writing sessions. No crashes.