Monday, July 02, 2012


      He brushed back the flakes of a jelly doughnut from the sides of his mouth and said while licking his lips, “So tell me again what you’re trying to say or do with this poster? It is a poster, right? This is not some sort of spooky cult thing?”
                    I sat up straight in my chair and replied, “Mr. Antonelli.”
                    He immediately stopped me by waving both his coffee and his doughnut and said, “Joe, please call me Joe.”
                    Feeling a little more relaxed I continued. “Ok, well Joe, I’m trying to entice you and of course your wonderful poster shop to possibly carrying my Pythagorean Monochord poster. I’m very proud of this work and I can assure you, Joe, that you will be the only store on Columbus Street to have such an esoteric item for sale.”
                    Joe put his doughnut down, placed his hand on his chin, and gave my poster a once-over and said, “Yeah, I know you’re trying to get my interest in your product but words like Diapente Materialis and Diattessaron Formalis somewhat confuse me. And this funny-looking instrument being turned by a hand coming out of a cloud, could anyone besides you know what this is all about? Yeah, I know, this New Age thing is popular and we are in San Francisco but I’m not quite on board with your creation. How will anyone figure all this out?”
                    “Oh well, Joe, that will be very simple as I’ve written a three-page epistle explaining what all the terms mean. See, it’s right here, and each copy is held neatly together by a little blue ribbon, and there’s no extra charge, none at all. All one has to do is read my small treatise to understand that terms like Diapason Materialis, Diapente Formalis, and Diatessaron Materialis refer to the octave, the fourth, and the fifth. They are both musical terms and the relationships of the planets to one another. For example, Diapason Materialis or Proportia Dupla is the celestial octave that extends from the Earth to the Sun. However, when one gets past the Sun the octaves, fourths, and fifths go from Materialis (as in our material universe) to Formalis as they are now in the realm of spiritual or speculative realities.”
                    Joe continued consuming his doughnut, sighed a gentle sigh, took a sip of coffee, and said, “Ok kid, tell me in just one sentence what this is about.”
                    I was ready for that and quickly responded, “It’s about the mystical construction and manipulation of the universe based on Pythagorean principals.”
                    Joe once again moved his head in a sort of questioning arc and answered, “You know kid, I love the universe as much as any man can, but why would anyone choose to buy this over Farrah Fawcett in a tight bathing suit or Lynda Carter showing a lot of, you know, of what men like to look at?”
                    I then sat in a lightly stunned silence and reflected upon my undertaking.

                    What Joe couldn’t see was how inspired I was when I first opened Robert Fludd’s work Utriusque Cosmi Historia and made the connection between the ancient Pythagorean monochord and the mountain dulcimer. Shortly after this moment of illumination I took a copy of Mr. Fludd’s illustration to a graphics house, where I had the image expanded and then printed on 17 x 22 parchment paper. After I picked up my 500 posters I hired my friend Peter to airbrush 100 of them. We ran a clothesline on my deck in Felton and pinned them up and painted them all in an assembly line fashion. First we sprayed on all the yellow, then the blue, and so on. As we watched them all come into fruition we were convinced that thousands of people would treasure this ancient image in their homes. We were certain that our creation was a large step forward from mood rings and pyramid hats, both of which seemed to be very popular in the early 1980s.
                    Joe offered me a maple-iced glazed and said, “ So did you draw this?”
                    Smiling and looking up at the ceiling I humbly replied, “Oh no, this is the work of Robert Fludd,” as I reached out for his sweet offering.
                    Joe’s eyes lit up and he said, “Fludd, Fludd—was he some kind of beat poet here in the city back say some twenty years ago? He hung out with Ferlinghetti, right?”
                    With a mouth full of jelly and sugar I immediately replied, “No, he was a Renaissance man from the 17th century,” while blowing little flakes of sugar and pastry in front of my face. “Fludd was a really interesting guy. He was a Christian, an alchemist, a Rosicrucian, a Paracelsian, and in 1598 he received an M.A. in medicine from St. John’s College, Oxford.”
                    Joe continued to nod his head and said, “I’m almost afraid to ask what a Paracelsian is. Should I?”
                    Swallowing the rest of my sweet sinker I responded, “Well, Paracelsus was like Fludd, a philosopher of esoteric knowledge. He’s credited with the creation of laudanum and was an early practitioner in the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. Truly a fascinating individual.”
                    Trying his best to stay with me Joe reached for a dulce de leche and before placing it in his mouth he gently asked, “Did he smoke the same stuff as his buddy Fludd?”
                    I raised my hands to my chest and laughed with Joe and said, “Hey, you never know what these free thinkers will do.”
                    As Joe was pouring himself another cup of coffee he looked at me and said, “So tell me kid, when you’re not running around San Francisco trying to sell posters about heavenly geometry, what do you do?”
                    Feeling somewhat relaxed with a change of subject I replied, “Well I write musical instruction books on the mountain dulcimer.”
                     Joe consumed the reminder of his dulce de leche and replied, “What’s that?”
                    Leaning over to collect a few blueberry cake doughnut holes I answered, “Oh, it looks a lot like the instrument that the hand of Apollo in my poster is turning except it has more strings.”
                    Joe closed his eyes and replied, “Please don’t take offense at this, Neal, and I mean no disrespect, but why is it I’ve never heard of anything that you do?”
                    That last statement from Joe gave me a great sense of gravity. Maybe my girlfriend was right (I thought) when she mentioned to me that trying to market a poster about the modes, the planets, and human behavior might not be a viable way to make a living. This, coupled with my other job, which was dressing up in tights, a feathered hat, and pantaloons to sell dulcimers, rumble pots, and psalteries at the Renaissance Faire, did not inspire her to have a lot of faith in my future as a wage earner. Though my beloved might have had a point, the whole Pythagorean thing seemed quite logical to me.
                    From his work on the seven-string harp and his knowledge of mathematics, Pythagoras expounded the theory that the seven planets were in the same proportion to each other as to the seven notes of the then-known musical scale. The planets, he said, revolve in perfect circles upon invisible spheres. The harmony emitted by the interval and spacing of these planets produces a concordant sound, known to the properly initiated as the Music of the Spheres. The mountain dulcimer is played in modes and thus I found an even greater spiritual connection between all this ancient knowledge and my humble folk instrument of choice.
                    As a special bonus I had written instructions (included in my epistle) on how to play the five-note melody featured in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a provocative pentatonic riff, which (when played correctly), enabled interstellar communication between Earthly beings and their heavenly cousins. Second-Third-First-Octave-Fifth (Do-do-do-do-do).
                     It didn’t seem complicated at all, but as I sat opposite Mr. Antonelli I could feel that my career selling esoteric posters of the cosmos based on 16th-century knowledge was quickly coming to an end.
                    It all seemed so promising when I started out that morning. I rolled up the California coast armed with the knowledge of the ancients, 500 newly printed Pythagorean posters and a heart full of inspiration. I sold two to a store on Geary and then after nine polite refusals in a row I decided to go to the mega poster store on Columbus Street, where I was currently receiving the truth from above, delivered by one Mr. Joseph Antonelli.
                    “So listen, Neal, are there places that people, say, like yourself go? You know, maybe you should be selling these to folks who play that thing, what do you call it, the doorchemer?”
                    I nodded a small sad nod and replied, “Yes, that’s a good idea, but most dulcimer players don’t share my interest in this whole musical cosmos thing, and then most people into cosmology don’t really play the dulcimer, so I’m sort of stuck, I guess.”
                    Joe smiled and reached out and put his arm on my shoulder, “Hey kid, let me unstuck you a bit. I sell posters of Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Brando, you know, movie stars, beautiful women, handsome men. I have to level with you, Neal, in all my years here on Columbus Street no one has asked for this Mondochordo Pythagorinio thing you got here. I guess the closest print would be the poster with all the stars and the arrow pointing to the words “you are here.”
                    I slowly nodded in agreement as I began to let go of my fantasy of becoming a New Age poster mogul.
                    “So tell me, Neal, how many of these did you print up?”
                    I took a deep breath and replied, “Oh, around 500.”
                    Pouring himself another cup of coffee, Joe said, “And how many do you have left?”
                    I sheepishly answered, “Oh, 498.”
                    “Ah kid, let me have 3, so now you just have 495 to go.” I insisted he take 6 for the price of 3, but he politely refused.
                    He patted me on the shoulder as I was leaving and said, “Hey kid, at least you gave it a shot. Don’t ever give up, and don’t worry, you’ll figure it out. You’re a gamer, kid—just keep trying and I’m sure it will all work out for you. Here, take a nice glazed sour cream doughnut for the ride home.”
                    It was a beautiful ride down the coast that evening. I stopped to look at the Seven Sisters and saw a shooting star.
                    That night as I lay in my bed I dreamed a dream of all the muses—Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, Erato, Clio, Thalia, and Polyhymnia singing to their respective planets. And there reaching out from the clouds and tuning the string of the monochord to the voices of the heavenly muses was Mr. Antonelli, and in his other hand was a chocolate cream donut glazed with stars.

Neal Hellman