Less Is More, More Or Less

This absurdist Zen koan of a question was asked of me by Steve Shelly, a friend who I met when I was going to school in France. Steve was from Red Bluff, California, a small town near the top of California’s enormous 400 mile long San Joaquin valley, surrounded by mountains on three sides. At the top of the valley is Mount Shasta, a 14,000 foot volcanic peak that looks like a snow capped version of Mount Fuji towering on the skyline to the north. Closer to Red Bluff to the east is Mount Lassen, a 10,500 foot cinder cone that last erupted from 1914 – 1917. To the west are the Klamath and Siskiyou ranges, topping out at over 9,000 feet. For many months of every year it is cold in the winter and in the mountains simultaneously.

Mount Shasta in Winter • Photo by MMB

This was a favorite punny phrase often uttered by one of my fellow graduate students when I was getting my Master’s degree in print making in San Francisco. His second favorite saying was “Someday my prints will come.”

Teton Storm • Granite Mountains • Photo by MMB

Rob Willson shouted this phrase, inventing a new word (bizarre plus exotic) after watching members of the Flying Karamozov Brothers juggling troupe roller skating and juggling bowling pins simultaneously next to the Victorian era Conservatory of Flowers glass greenhouse in Golden Gate park in 1976.

Conservatory of Flowers • Golden Gate Park

Rob Willson and Baby Bob at The Bizotic Gazebo – Built by Rob and me

I had just met with my new Chinese acupuncturist who had asked me what pains and problems had brought me in to get treatment from her. I was part way through telling her what my doctors and physical therapist had told me after looking at my spinal x-rays. They had informed me that I had a pinched nerve between my 4th and 5th lumbar vertebra which I was in the process of telling her about when she shouted “No! No! No! No! Doctors know nothing! Doctors stupid! Your Chi is blocked!” 

She had a unique series of treatments to restore my Chi (the essential life force). She had a large rectangular bright red box that had the Great Wall of China enamelled on each side of it which had 20 wires emanating from the top of the box. She attached the wires to 20 needles which she inserted into my back. She then flipped a couple of switches on the machine which sent pulsating shocks into each of the needles. As I writhed in pain she asked me how much shock value I could tolerate, cautioning me that the more I could endure the more quickly I would be healed. I had her dial the voltage back a bit and watched her go out of the room to deal with other patients. After half an hour of shocking treatment, the red machine suddenly began to loudly play “The East is Red,” the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China, which was the audible sign for her to return from her other well needled patients to flip off the electric shocks and remove the needles. In spite of her efforts my Chi remained blocked until I undertook a long course of yoga, physical therapy, daily exercise and Prolotherapy, an injection-based treatment regimen.

I had a much more positive experience with acupuncture in 2017 after I had a hemorrhagic stroke and was hospitalized for five weeks. I was offered the chance to try Dr. Ming Qing Zhu’s Chinese scalp acupuncture, administered by the wise and wonderful Julia Kao who had studied with Dr. Zhu. After ten sessions over eight weeks I was almost back to my pre-stroke mental and physical capabilities, far better than many of the patients I had seen in conventional western treatment facilities who were confined to wheelchairs or had ongoing issues that the medical community charitably calls “deficits.”  Julia and her magic needles and treatments unblocked my Chi! 

Having a near death experience quickly focuses one on what one wants to do and accomplish in whatever time remains. Life is a precious gift and the clock of living is always ticking.

Unblocking Chi

Lucky Farr said this to me, commenting on the poor moral character of one of his neighbors in Buckhannon, West Virginia. Lucky was one of the more prosperous inhabitants of Upshur County, though I never learned exactly how he made a living. He always had mason jars of moonshine hidden behind hay bales in his barn which he would offer surreptitious sips of to me and my friend Tommy when he was showing us his cows and pigs while the women folk were in the house sewing quilts and drinking sweetened iced tea. Lucky said that they were having a “Stitch and Bitch Session” and that we were better off in the barn with the “Shine” and the animals.

Moonshiners at work

This rumination on being an artistic explorer experiencing things freshly at the speed of light before anyone else could, was suggested to me by a friend as we entered a darkened movie heater.  At the same time I was wondering if it was ethical to shout ”Theater” in a Crowded Fire.

His theory was that if we sat close to the front, the refracted light off of the screen would enter our eyes a fraction of a second before it bounced to the rear of the theater where everyone else would see it, and we would more freshly grasp the meaning and the actions of the scenes and actors before anyone else in the theater, could, giving us a cognitive and aesthetic boost over the rest of the crowd.

Front row seats

Chuck, a black musician and a friend of a friend said this to me the only time I ever met him, describing how he was spending his weekend furlough from San Quentin prison. (The “40” was a 40 ounce stout malt liquor bottle). Chuck was in prison for attacking and robbing a young man in rural Foothill Park to supply his heroin habit.

The 40 was on the floor

As my mother shouted out these words she slammed her fist down on the table, catapulting her fork into the air and sending it flying across the table and hitting me in the eye. Ironically, I was the only one of her four children that she was not angry with at that moment.

My mother was under a lot of stress as my father had a date with God and had moved to Rome, to hobnob with the Pope for three months, leaving her alone at home in California with four children and accidentally administering blinding injustice to an innocent son. My father had been appointed by the Presbyterian Church to be an official observer of the Vatican Council in 1964 and was living in a pensione near St. Peter’s cathedral in the Vatican City where the council was being held.

The stress on my mother had been mounting and she would suddenly start crying from the pressure of holding the family together on her own. My most feared words from her at that point was the helpless phrase “I can’t cope anymore!” I was overjoyed when my father finally came home from his autumn in Heaven on Earth and equilibrium returned to the family.

Largest Fork • Springfield, Missouri

Vatican Council 1964

After our excursions to the metropolitan Art Museum in New York City, when I was a child, my grandmother and I would often go to the Horn & Hardart Automat for lunch. The Automat was an art deco styled restaurant and was the first American fast food chain. At the Automat the food was displayed behind chrome plated, hinged windows. We diners would insert the required number of coins (mostly nickels) into the machines and then lift a window, hinged at the top, and remove the meal, usually wrapped in waxed paper. We would then take the meal to one of dozens of tables and sit down together to eat lunch. The machines were replenished with food from the kitchen behind the walls of windows. At one point there were 40 Automats in New York. Both of my grandparents loved the Automat. It was a modern miracle they could not have imagined in their 19th century childhoods in New Brunswick, New Jersey and the small Erie Canal village of Sprakers, New York.

8th Avenue Automat, New York

My Stanford art professor, Jim Johnson, was trembling with rage when he read this directive from Lorenz Eitner, then the head of the Stanford art department. Jim was on the verge of tears and read Dr. Eitner’s  directive from on high verbatim to my painting class, as it instructed painting professors to tell their student artists to not let any drops of their paint or turpentine fall onto the bright shining hardwood floors in the new art department studios in the spring of 1972.

It was a classic example of the difference between art historians and the people who actually make art – Those who know and appreciate how art is in truth created, and those who see it decades or hundreds of years later in museums or books, and have no real appreciation for the artist’s struggle, or how art is actually made. 

Jim Johnson later slowly went blind, the cruelest fate possible for a visual artist.

Jackson Pollock’s studio floor

This  hateful vitriolic comment was delivered to me on the social media app NextDoor, when I posted a neighborhood-wide alarm that Henry Tu, a developer, had bought the property behind my house and had received permission from the Mountain View Forestry Department to cut down a magnificent 100 foot tall, century old redwood tree that was 4 feet wide at the base.  Another Libertarian on NextDoor suggested that I just dig up the tree and plant it somewhere else. Mr. Tu somehow had gotten permission to remove the tree in early August of 2021, in spite of the city’s Heritage Tree ordinance which was enacted to preserve the urban forest and keep trees exactly like this on from being cut down.

Thus began a three month campaign to save the tree, in which myself and three other like minded conservationists banded together to oppose Mr. Tu’s ecologically barbaric plan of action. We were able to stop the immediate killing of the tree by filing an appeal and finally had a hearing in December of 2021, in which the four of us made remote Covid-era presentations via Zoom to five members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Division. Our main speaker, who also owned a house next door to the tree, was living in Switzerland for the year and was able to present a brilliant ten minute slide show from her office near Geneva. Zoom to the rescue! Henry Tu gave a pathetic presentation emphasizing windows in his newly purchased 100 year old house that did not close easily, blaming the tree’s roots and demanding permission to cut down the tree to solve the problem. The rest of us gave three minute talks in favor of saving the mighty redwood.

Moments later the Parks and Rec members each gave us their verdicts.  We had triumphed by a vote of five to zero against the Eco-Barbarian, and the tree was safe for two more years. 

Giant Redwood Trees • Albert Bierstadt

This was my final thought in a minimalist conversation with my friend Paul on the shores of Pahoa Island in the middle of super saline Mono Lake, a maximally minimalist landscape if ever there was one, centered  more or less in the balanced equality of austere high desert and mountain ecosystems.

Mono Lake • Pahoa Island is in the center of the lake

Some maximally minimal music by Michael Nyman from the movie “The Piano”: