Underlying Problem

April 9th, 2014

For Underlying problem

Globular Warming photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2014)

“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.” Bill Watterson

I walk to town most every day rather than drive my truck for the same reason I decided in 1967 to create a life for myself independent of automobiles, something I’ve managed to do for most of the last forty-seven years. And my reason for eschewing cars as much as possible had and has to do with my awareness of the destructive nature of auto-centric gas-using systems of transportation, housing and economics, and by destructive I mean earth-killing, and by earth-killing I mean the death of the planet.

Many people share my awareness that cars are bad for children and other living things, as those famous posters of the Sixties summed up our collective antipathy to War, but most people I know do not walk to town or live largely independent of automobiles. Why should they? Our systems of transportation, housing and economics were designed to accommodate automobiles first and foremost, so to not use a car is highly inconvenient, and by highly inconvenient I mean impossible if one is in any sort of hurry, which most of us are.

The United Nations just released their first big global climate report since 2007, and one of the maps included in the report shows areas of the world circa 2050 where agriculture will either be out of the question or still possible. According to this map, when I am scheduled to be one-hundred-years-old, only Canada, Scandinavia and parts of Russia might still be habitable and arable, assuming there is air left to breathe, a bold assumption. The rest of the globe, including all but a few acres in the United States of America, will be too hot and too dry to grow anything. Is there a way to reverse the probability of this prediction coming true? Yes. There is one way. Everyone on earth needs to start walking to town most days and living independently of automobiles. Are we ready to do that?

 “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Mark Twain

In related news, I just read a hysterical (and I don’t mean funny) article about the state governments of New York and New Jersey studying the feasibility of constructing artificial islands off their coasts to blunt the destructive force of storm surges similar to those caused by Hurricane Sandy. Climatologists are 100% certain more hurricanes at least as powerful as Sandy are coming soon, so folks in the governments of New Jersey and New York are seriously considering spending many billions of dollars and burning jillions of gallons of fossil fuels to rip up thousands of acres of land to procure the dirt and rocks to create islands off the New Jersey and New York coasts to, you know, blunt the storm surges.

The denial of the underlying problem by these wannabe island builders seems laughable to me, and by laughable I mean sad. And, yes, there are days when I want to flag down my friends who drive their cars to and from the village multiple times a day to get their mail and buy potato chips and meet friends for coffee, and I want to say, ‘Please. Don’t build artificial islands. Just stop driving so fucking much!” But my friends wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about, and they would resent my holier-than-thou attitude, so I do not flag them down and shout incomprehensible things. Instead, I wave to them as they zoom back and forth between their houses and the village in our globe-heating mammoths known as cars.

 “We live in a world of denial, and we don’t know what the truth is anymore.” Javier Bardem

I can honestly say that mostly walking and rarely driving doesn’t make me feel holier than anyone. I don’t walk to feel holy, though I do enjoy how life unfolds at the speed of walking. I walk more than drive because the population of Kittiwakes in the Orkney and Shetland Islands has plummeted eighty-seven (87) per cent since 2000 and those once plentiful birds may soon vanish entirely. Imagine all the sea gulls suddenly disappearing from the coast of California. Why are the Kittiwakes vanishing? Well, the sandeel (a kind of small fish, not an eel) is the main food for most of the seabirds of the North Sea, and sandeels are vanishing as plankton thereabouts disappear, plankton being what the sandeels eat so they can proliferate and be eaten by the Kittiwakes. And plankton are disappearing around the Orkneys and the Shetlands because of climate change caused by humans burning fossil fuels.

The bird lovers of England and Scotland are terribly concerned, of course, that Kittiwakes may soon go the way of the dodo, but there’s nothing they can do about the Kittiwake Crisis because the vanishing is caused by billions of people the world over driving cars instead of walking or taking the bus etc. The Orkney and Shetland bird lovers are hoping to create artificial sanctuaries for the vanishing birds, except the birds aren’t disappearing from lack of places to live and breed. They are dying from climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“I have a very highly developed sense of denial.” Gwyneth Paltrow

Looking at that United Nations climate map of how the world is going to be circa 2050, it occurs to me that if I was twenty-five or even thirty-five instead of sixty-five, I might consider moving to Canada (where they really don’t want me) and getting some land way up in the northern regions that are currently next to unlivable, but in another twenty years might be positively Californian. Of course, in another twenty years, if things go as the United Nations is predicting, hoards of desperate people will be heading for those swiftly dwindling cooler climes, so maybe moving to Canada isn’t a better idea than staying here and mostly walking to town.

Speaking of walking to town, I was in Corners of the Mouth a few days ago buying some edible ballast for my knapsack, and when I got to the bulk grains, my jaw dropped because the price for long grain brown rice, a main staple at our house, had jumped in one week from $1.85 per pound to $2.35 per pound. Knowing that 800,000 acres (so far) of California farmland previously under cultivation are being left fallow this year due to the drought, I’ve been expecting increases in food prices, but not thirty per cent in one week. Rice, I should note, is a main ingredient in many food items, including the gluten-free bread I depend on. Which is to say, be prepared to do some gasping at the grocery store in the months ahead.

“Security is when everything is settled, when nothing can happen to you; security is the denial of life.” Germaine Greer

In the 1960’s, when I first got religion about what fossil fuel burning was doing and would do to the earth, I preached with fervor to friends and neighbors and relatives about the virtues of not driving and not traveling in jets, and how we needed to work together (what a concept) to create car-free lifestyles and solar and wind-powered energy systems. My fervor, however, seemed to mostly piss people off, and soon thereafter most of my hippie colleagues bought big cars and drove off into various sunsets. Our short-lived utopian dreams and schemes—based on the principle of Take No More Than We Give—went the way of the dodo.

I continued to live without a car, which was not terribly difficult when I lived in cities with decent public transit in those halcyon days when roomy Greyhound buses made daily stops in towns large and small everywhere in America. But as the bus and train systems disintegrated, I started renting cars to go on the few long trips I took each year and confirmed that absolutely everything in America is designed for the use of automobiles, and nothing else.

Oh I would love to blame evil people and evil corporations and corrupt governments and criminal bankers for the dire situation we find ourselves in today but evil corrupt criminals are not the problem. No, the underlying problem is…

Long ago there was a little band of humans wandering the earth looking for things to eat. Human existence was, at best, a few short years of uninterrupted grubbing for tubers and killing little mammals, with a few fleeting moments of sex to produce more humans. At worst, human existence was being attacked by someone trying to get your scrap of dried rat meat, and then being eaten by a tiger.

One day the little band of humans came upon a pile of grape-sized golden orbs. Not knowing what the orbs were, but hoping they were food, the strongest human in the band made the weakest human eat one of the orbs. Upon swallowing the orb, the weakest human became highly intelligent and could fly like a bird. So everybody else in the band ate an orb, and they all became intelligent and could fly like birds. And every time they felt the need to boost their intelligence and flying abilities, they would eat more of the golden orbs.

Just when it began to dawn on the humans that they might want to use their higher intelligence and flying abilities to create a better future for themselves and their children, they ate the last of the golden orbs. Shortly thereafter, their intelligence and ability to fly went the way of the dodo, and they resumed wandering the earth looking for things to eat and killing each other and being eaten by tigers.

They were human beings and could not overcome the underlying problem—their essential nature.

Finishing Things

April 2nd, 2014

Bound By Certain Forces Nolan Winkler Oil on Canvas

Bound By Certain Forces oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2014)

“The human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” Theodor Adorno

In his famous essay on parenting, Punishment Versus Discipline, Bruno Bettelheim wrote that children do what their parents do, not what their parents say to do. My father, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was a big fan of Bettelheim, but he did not heed Bruno’s advice in rearing my siblings and me. On the contrary, my father rigorously did the opposite of what he said we should do, and the results were as Bettelheim predicted: we ignored most of what my father said and imitated many of his repeated actions. My mother also modeled behavior that contradicted her spoken directives, and we generally imitated her behavior rather than the dictates of her speeches. Thus we were initially formed.

My father loved to talk about things he was going to do, and once in a great while he would start something, but only rarely finish what he started. I made several determined efforts in my teens not to follow in my father’s footsteps, especially when it came to the completion of tasks, and thought I had succeeded in not imitating my father in this regard, but later discovered I had followed his example in many ways.

Because school was easy for me, one of the ways I imitated my father that escaped my attention and the attention of my teachers was my reluctance to complete tests and homework. I would answer eight of ten questions on a quiz, and three-fourths of the questions on big tests, but never all the questions. I rarely completed my math homework or essays for English, but I still managed to get B and C grades, my teachers would tell my mother I needed to make more of an effort, and life went on.

By the time I took (and didn’t finish) the SAT exam my senior year of high school pursuant to going to college, I was aware of my quirk of not finishing school things and told myself it was because tests and essays and homework were stupid and irrelevant and I was so smart I didn’t need to finish things. But the truth was I could not finish things, and I didn’t know why.

A few years after dropping out of college—speaking of not finishing things—I thought I’d try to get a job with the United State Postal Service. Two-thirds of the way through their employee exam, I suddenly couldn’t breathe, and my only recourse was to rush out of the building without finishing the test. I remember getting home and explaining to my girlfriend that I hadn’t finished the test because “I just wasn’t into it,” though many years later in therapy I saw my failure to complete the postal exam as part of a larger pattern of not being able to finish things I started.

“If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both fucked.” George Carlin

When I was in my early twenties, I went to work for a man who had no trouble finishing what he started. I will never forget the day, early in our friendship, when this man and his four children and I took our sandwiches and drinks outside for an impromptu picnic and one of the kids said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a picnic table like that big one in the park with the benches and top all connected?”

And moments after finishing our lunch, we were building that table. Three hours later we were sitting at that beautiful six-person table drinking lemonade. The tools had been cleaned and put away, the sawdust swept up and added to the compost pile, and one of my boss’s children was sitting at the brand new table doing her homework. Making that picnic table was nothing out of the ordinary in the life of my boss and his family, but for me it was a cataclysmic event and the beginning of my transformation into someone who finishes what he starts.

For you see, my father spoke of building that very same table from the time I was a little boy until I left home at eighteen. He doodled countless sketches of that table over the years, and when I was twelve he and I went to buy the wood for such a table only to have him declare the people running the lumberyard crooks, so the project went no further. And now, with joy and ease, this confident man and his children and I had made this handsome sturdy table that would serve them wonderfully well for the rest of their lives. That which had been an impossible dream for my entire childhood and teenage years turned out to be no big deal.

“Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” E.B.White

I am in the midst of creating a multi-volume work of fiction under the primary title Ida’s Place, and I am currently birthing Book Two. A couple days ago on Big River Beach, I found a comfortable perch on a driftwood log, watched a line of seventeen pelicans glide northward over the sparkling water, and then I commenced to write. After I covered a few pages with hopeful scrawl, I read what I’d written and realized my epic had jumped ahead to Book Three or possibly Book Four.

I gazed toward Japan and said, “I’m onto your tricks. Back off. First we finish Book Two, and then you may bring me Book Three. Not before. Agreed?”

Two ravens materialized in the proscenium of my vision and performed a breathtaking aerial pas de deux before winging away to the south, a performance I took as Universe and Subconscious acquiescing to my request.

When I was in my late twenties, over and over again, just as I was about to finish writing a book or play, my psyche would be invaded by a fantastically compelling idea for a new novel or play, and I would put aside the nearly completed work because this new thing was just too thrilling not to pursue. And there came a moment when every surface of my hovel was stacked with the pages of four nearly completed novels and two nearly completed plays…and when a fifth novel began to speak itself I finally realized what was going on: I was a prisoner of the imperative Never Finish Anything.

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.” Marshall McLuhan

When I was in my mid-thirties I visited my parents at the house where I lived from six to eighteen, and my mother begged me to finish something my father had started building several years before—a small deck adjacent to their redwood hot tub. Soaking in that tub was one of my mother’s few unmitigated pleasures, and the unfinished deck was a minefield of accidents waiting to happen to anyone getting in and out of the tub, especially at night. So I informed my father that I was going to compete the job, and he huffed and puffed and said he would go to the hardware store later that day and get the things we needed.

My father’s tone of voice implied he had no intention of going to the hardware store, so I said I would be happy to get whatever was needed and do the job without him. Having built several decks by then, I calculated the work, including a trip to the hardware store, would take about two hours. My father then suddenly remembered he already had everything we needed to complete the job, and we got to work.

After an hour of my father telling me I didn’t know what I was doing, he said, “That’s enough. Let’s have a drink. I’ll finish this after you leave. You didn’t come home to work, did you?”

And I looked at him and said, “But all we have left to do is screw down these last few boards and put up a railing along the side there. I’m enjoying this and I want to finish in time for Mom’s evening soak.”

“Oh, I see what you’re doing,” he said, sneering at me. “You want be the hero, don’t you? Save the day.”

“Right, Dad,” I said, mystified as always by his contempt for me. “I want to be the hero and save the day.”

Off The Map

March 26th, 2014

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com

Ida’s Place—Book One

March 19th, 2014

idas-place-cover

Ida’s Place cover drawing by Todd

(This article and these first two chapters of Ida’s Place—Book One: Return appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

About a year ago I began writing a novel entitled Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, the first of what I intend to be at least a trio of connected novels. My other twenty novels, published and unpublished, are single volume works, though I did write a sequel to Under The Table Books entitled The Resurrection of Lord Bellmaster, though that as yet unpublished sequel, was born long after Under The Table Books had stood alone for many years.

Before I read the first fourteen volumes of the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, the only multi-volume fictional works I had ever read and enjoyed were The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. While reading the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency books, I became intrigued by the idea of writing a series of connected novels, and so I began my latest opus with the conscious intention of following the first book with at least two more.

To my amazement, the realization that I need not tie up every important loose end in a single volume was fantastically liberating. More characters than I had ever dared introduce in a single volume began to arrive and take up residency on my pages, with subplots and interconnections growing as profusely as well-watered zucchini in rich soil during a hot summer. And with the stricture of Finality gone the way of the dodo, Ida’s Place—Book One: Return was born.

As it happens, Ida’s Place is set in the mythic California coastal town of Big River, the weekly paper there the Big River Advertiser, otherwise known as the BRA, the editor none other than the jocular Anderson Bruce. In Book One, Anderson only makes a cameo, but there’s no telling what may happen in Book Two. Comb-bound photocopies of Book One: Return, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available exclusively from yours truly via my web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Here for your enjoyment, are the first two chapters of my newborn opus.

1. Little Things

On a cold day in October, a strong ocean breeze rattling the windows, two-year-old Ida Kaminsky, her dark brown hair in pigtails, sat on the living room sofa in her pink pajamas with a hardbound copy of Treasure Island open on her lap. Ida’s mother Alice, a gorgeous brunette with sparkling green eyes, stood on the threshold between the kitchen and the living room watching her tiny daughter turn the pages of the big old book. She assumed Ida was looking for pictures because Ida loved making up stories to go along with the illustrations in her children’s books.

“Sweetheart,” said Alice, approaching her daughter, “I don’t think that book has any pictures. Shall I get you one that does?”

“But I like this story,” said Ida, who had begun to speak in complete sentences when she was nine months old. “About Long John Silver.”

Alice had never read Treasure Island to Ida and wondered how her baby girl had learned the name Long John Silver. Ida’s brother Howard could barely read, though he was eight, and Walter, Alice’s husband, had never read anything to Ida.

“When did you hear this story before?” asked Alice, sitting beside her daughter.

“I hear it now,” said Ida, looking at the page. “Down went Poo with a cry that rang high into the night.” Ida looked at Alice and made a sad face. “Poo is blind.”

Alice gently took the book from her daughter and studied the page and saw that Ida had read the name Pew as Poo, but otherwise had pronounced all the words correctly and in the order they were written.

“When did you learn to read, honey?” asked Alice, handing the book back to Ida. “Who showed you how?”

“I look at those little things,” said Ida, touching one of the words, “and you tell me the story.”

“You hear me say the words?” asked Alice, holding her breath.

“Yes,” said Ida, nodding. “I hear you, Mama.”

“Let’s try some other books,” said Alice, going to the bookshelf and choosing Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Kerouac’s On the Road.

Having determined that Ida could read anything, no matter how strange or difficult, Alice called the University of California in Berkeley and was referred to a professor who was supposedly an expert on such phenomena, and he agreed to do an assessment of Ida. But when the professor, a taciturn fellow, gave Ida a few simple tests, the little girl didn’t seem to be able to read at all.

“I’m afraid, Mrs. Kaminsky,” sneered the professor, “you have fallen prey to delusions of grandeur. Parents often do.”

As they drove home to Big River, Alice asked Ida, “Why wouldn’t you read for the man, my darling?”

“No voice talked,” said Ida, shaking her head. “I looked at the word things, but I couldn’t hear you.”

“Did you like that man?” asked Alice, recalling the professor’s sneer.

“No,” said Ida, shaking her head. “He scared me.”

So Alice, who believed in signs from the universe, interpreted their encounter with the unpleasant academic as a portent of what might happen if she were to make a commotion about her daughter’s remarkable ability, and thereafter kept her discoveries of Ida’s extraordinary talents to herself.

*

Extremely myopic, Ida got her first pair of glasses when she was four-years-old, and though she said she loved her new glasses, she was forever taking them off and putting them on and taking them off and putting them on again.

After a few days of this incessant taking off and putting on, Alice asked Ida, “Sweetheart, is there something wrong with your new glasses?”

“Well,” said Ida, never wanting to disappoint her mother, “they certainly help me see everything much clearer now, but they don’t let me see the colored clouds around people and Sophie and Mike and Elmer and flowers and things.”

Sophie was their big gray cat, Mike and Elmer the family dachshunds.

“Colored clouds?” asked Alice, smiling curiously at her ever-surprising daughter. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” said Ida, taking off her glasses to see her mother’s misty golden outline, “the color floating around you.”

At which moment, Howard came rushing in from outside to get a drink of water. A gangly clumsy boy diagnosed as moderately autistic, Howard was digging a hole in the backyard he hoped would one day be a tunnel going all the way to the ocean a quarter-mile away, hence he was filthy.

“Does Howard have color floating around him?” asked Alice, afraid her daughter might be suffering from something more serious than nearsightedness.

“Howie has dark blue,” said Ida, watching her brother lean over the sink to gulp water from the faucet. “Yours is gold, Mama. Elmer has yellow, Mike has green, and Sophie has yellow, too, unless she’s mad at another cat and then she has red.”

“What about Walter?” asked Alice, wincing as Howard slammed the door on his way out to resume digging.

“Papa doesn’t have any color,” said Ida, slowly shaking her head. “I don’t know why, but he doesn’t.”

“And when you put your glasses on, the colored clouds go away?”

“Yes,” said Ida, putting her glasses on. “But I still love them because they make everything so clear.”

2. Golden Buddha

“At first I no want rent Ida,” says Duyi Ling, telling Ralph Canterbury, his brother-in-law, about leasing three-fourths of the Ling building to Ida Kaminsky who intends to open a bakery and coffee house there. “She say have two maybe three big oven for make many muffin and bread. I think maybe too much competition for me. No want competition next door.”

Duyi, sixty-nine, short and chubby and entirely bald, and Ralph, seventy-two, tall and lean with a full head of silver gray hair, are sitting at a table for six in the otherwise empty dining room of Golden Buddha. The late June sun is shining through just-washed windows into the large square room with yellow walls, lime green ceiling, blue linoleum floor and seating for seventy people. Golden Buddha is the only Chinese restaurant in Big River, a coastal town with an official population of 4,789, a hundred and eighty miles north of San Francisco and a hundred miles from the nearest freeway.

Open seven-days-a-week for lunch and dinner, closed from three to five in the afternoon, Golden Buddha has been in operation for thirty-six years, the extensive menu immutable, the food consistently superb. The time is now four in the afternoon and Ralph has come to help string (actually destring) snow peas in preparation for the Friday night dinner rush. Duyi is always at the restaurant save for those few hours late at night when he goes home to sleep, his house two blocks away.

“Why did you change your mind?” asks Ralph, an English teacher at Big River High, the only high school in Big River. Descended from Philadelphia Brahmin, Ralph has been married to Duyi’s sister Far for twenty-five years and very much enjoys being part of a large family that is entirely Chinese save for Ralph.

Duyi sips his lukewarm tea and explains, “Ida say, ‘Please no worry Mr. Ling. We no compete. My people come for muffin and coffee, go you lunch and dinner.’” He chuckles recalling his meeting with Ida. “She thirty-one but look teenager. Have so long brown hair and so pretty face behind so big glasses. You see her?”

“Oh, I know Ida very well,” says Ralph, smiling at memories of the delightful wunderkind. “I was her teacher for two years when she was in high school here before she went off to conquer Harvard. Beyond brilliant. But I haven’t seen her in…gosh…at least ten years.”

“So,” says Duyi, not sure what conquer Harvard and beyond brilliant mean, “I say her, ‘You no open lunch and dinner? How you make money?’ She say, ‘Yes, I open lunch but no open dinner and no compete you. Sell muffin and coffee and bread and kind food you no make. Send people you for best Chinese.’”

“I seem to recall,” says Ralph, tapping his fingertips together, “that Ida and her family ate here all the time, didn’t they?”

“Yes, she come here when little girl many time with so pretty mother and crazy brother and fat father.” Duyi frowns sadly as he recalls Ida and her mother deciding what to order—the crazy brother ripping his napkin into hundreds of tiny pieces, the fat father never once looking at the menu. “And when older she come here with giant boy Donald and drink much tea and talk very excited.”

“The odd couple,” says Ralph, remembering the huge boy with orange red hair and brilliant green eyes holding hands with the little girl with long brown hair and shining brown eyes behind oversized glasses—holding hands as they walked home from school. “She so brilliant, he the rock of Gibraltar.”

“But I think maybe she too much competition for me,” says Duyi, nodding anxiously. “So I make rent very high. First and last and big deposit for maybe damage. I think scare her away, but she say okay. Want pay for whole year. I say, ‘Whole year? What if you big competition for me? Better three month at time.”

“Fear not,” says Ralph, smiling as Duyi’s wife Jiahui approaches with a silver platter heaped high with snow peas. “She’ll bring you loads of business. People will flock to Ida’s for coffee and muffins, they’ll smell your fabulous food and…”

“Wife say same,” says Duyi, glancing furtively at Jiahui before checking his cell phone to see how the stock market closed. “I not so sure.”

“I listen from kitchen when he talk to her,” says Jiahui, fifty-two, lovely and slender, dressed for work in black slacks, black shoes, white dress shirt and gold bow tie, her black hair stylishly short. “So I come here and say to Ida, ‘What kind muffin you make?’ She say, ‘All kind. Blueberry, banana, chocolate chip, pumpkin. Also kind for people allergic wheat. Also many kind bread and cookie. Also best coffee in whole world.’” Jiahui laughs in delight. “She so confident. And all kind coffee drink, too.”

“Sounds marvelous,” says Ralph, thrilled by the prospect of an excellent coffee house and bakery right here in Big River.

“I bring you fresh hot tea,” says Jiahui, winking at Ralph and hurrying away.

Duyi begins to swiftly string the snow peas. “So…wife say Ida, ‘We can put Golden Buddha menu in your place?’ Ida say, ‘Oh, yes. Right next cash register. We send many people you.’ Wife say, ‘Okay. We rent you. Only not so high as husband say. Half so much.’”

“You have a shrewd wife,” says Ralph, picking up his first snow pea. “You won’t regret this, Duyi. Ida has always been a powerful people magnet.”

“I think Ida happy now,” says Duyi, with a humble shrug. “She so pretty smile. Jiahui happy, too. I think she want Ida muffin and best coffee.”

“But are you happy, my friend?” asks Ralph, smiling wistfully at his dour brother-in-law.

Duyi shakes his head. “I want happy, but afraid Ida bad competition for me.”

*

Learn more about Ida’s Place and read the first three chapters.

The New Yorker

March 12th, 2014

redwood rounds

 Redwood Rounds photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris

Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.

After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.

Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.

“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger

When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”

Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.

Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White

The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”

The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.

“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff

Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.

Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?

“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon

As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.

Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?

No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor.  Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.

“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan

When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.

“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”

“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.

Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

 

 

How Much Do You Love Him?

March 5th, 2014

How Much Do You Love Him?

Django on Marcia’s Lap

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“The story of cats is the story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our cat Django is a very large and handsome gray cat, or as our veterinarian said politely, “Shall we call him obese?”

“But he hasn’t gained any weight for several years,” we hastened to explain. “He’s holding steady at twenty pounds and a little.”

The good doctor of cats and dogs was not greatly impressed by our feat of maintaining the status quo of Django’s enormity. We had rushed our twelve-year-old kitty to the one and only veterinarian office in the village of Mendocino because he was in severe distress, which turned out to be the result of urinary tract and kidney difficulties that could, sooner than later, lead to his death if we don’t start feeding him special expensive food or unless, as our vet explained, Django undergoes an operation to eliminate the problem entirely by turning him into a female in regard to how he urinates.

“How much do you love him?” said our vet, smiling sympathetically. “Such an operation costs around fifteen hundred dollars. The better diet and shedding some weight should do the trick for some years, though if he is blocked again, then short of surgery we would have to catheterize and hospitalize him for three days, after which he could have another episode, so cost can become an issue for some people.”

“That would be us,” I said, not entirely comfortable with equating the willingness to spend money and love, but I knew our vet was trying to be clear and up front about how much various procedures cost, and we appreciated his candor.

In any case, the vet bill certainly gave us pause, pun intended. For the emergency visit, urine analysis, blood analysis, antibiotic injection, painkiller injection, ten cans of special food, and kitty litter so we could keep the big fatso inside for a couple days while he recovered from his ordeal, our cost was three hundred and forty-two dollars. How much do we love our cat? That much. So far.

Then there is the problem of Django’s broken tooth. “Extractions of this nature,” said our vet, “can run from five hundred to a thousand dollars. If you don’t have the tooth removed, infection may ensue resulting in abscess, in which case dental work would be imperative or…” How much do we love this cat?

“A veterinarian and cat specialist, Dr. Richard Thoma, trying to locate a cat’s purr with a stethoscope, found that the sound was equally loud all over.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was a landscaper forty years ago, I lived in a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house on the outskirts of Medford Oregon. My boss and his wife grew up on farms in Kansas and considered cats semi-wild animals to be tolerated around their two-acre homestead because the cats kept the rodent population in check. Every year or two, when the resident cat population became overly robust, my boss would gather up all but the best hunters and the most elusive cats and drown them.

I thought about this matter-of-fact drowning of kittens and cats as Marcia handed her credit card to the vey nice receptionist at our excellent village veterinarian clinic, and I thought of a photo essay I saw recently of cat meat vendors in China selling both live and butchered cats to eager shoppers in an open air market. And though I have no desire to drown or eat Django, that’s where my thoughts wandered when I thought of three hundred and forty-two dollars suddenly disappearing from our bank account, with further Django-related expenses looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

“People who have both dogs and cats can verify the statement: when called, the common response of dogs is to come, and of cats is to answer.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

That afternoon in the post office, I fell into conversation with a friend who responded to my emotional account of the Django crisis by telling me the story of her parents’ beloved and also impressively heavyset cat Hercules, who suffered from the identical malady Django suffers from, with costs of dealing with such urinary kidney problems eventually outstripping her parents’ devotion to the cat.

“It was that really cold wet winter a few years ago, and their roof was leaking badly, towels and buckets catching drips everywhere, the roofers supposed to come that afternoon, and there they were standing in the examining room looking down at big old Hercules sitting on the table with the vet petting the sweet old thing and waiting for them to choose between a dry house and the cat.”

“Even being fed by a person must seem like old times to a cat, because of the person’s manner of delivering food. A person characteristically puts down a dish of food and moves away from it, offering plenty of space, which invites the cat to approach and eat. In the same way, a hunting mother cat puts down the dead bird she has brought, backing away from it to show that she will not compete for the carcass and that her kitten can approach.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Save for a few brief stretches in my life—sixty-four years and counting—I’ve always had a cat or two and they’ve had me. Their personalities and propensities have been as varied as those of humans, and their intelligence quotas have been variable, too, ranging from clairvoyant geniuses to barely functional idiots. And until today, I never spent more than a few dollars on veterinary care for any of my cats, largely because I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t partnered with someone willing to spend hundreds of dollars to keep a cat alive. Most of my cats lived long and healthy lives, but one died young from feline leukemia, three were hit by cars, and one was snatched by a coyote. My sister’s beautiful young cat was plucked from her terrace by a hawk.

Thinking back and remembering Chubs and Girly Girl and Suzy Cat and Boy Boy and Bucky and Pele and Juju, I realize that part of their collective appeal was that they were largely independent from me and didn’t need much more than sufficient food and warmth and occasional shows of affection. They did not, in fact, cost hardly anything considering all the pleasure and help they gave me, and if they had cost very much, I would not have so blithely taken them on as one does with cats when one is in the habit of having them and being had by them.

“Long ago, around the southern shores of the Mediterranean, little African wildcats took shelter in people’s dwelling places, probably finding the supply of mice and rats and the escape from heavy rains much to their liking. There they stayed. Perhaps they even liked the warmth of people’s fires. The earliest cat known is from Jericho (now Israel) nine thousand years ago when one of the few amenities that people had that might attract a cat was fire.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our mighty federal government grants me six hundred and eighty-four dollars a month from Social Security, and we just gave exactly half that amount to our veterinarian to save Django’s life. Two weeks ago our healthcare insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross, seeing that I will turn sixty-five in seven months and Marcia will turn sixty-five in a year, decided to jack up our insurance rates nearly three hundred dollars a month to extract as much more money from us as they possibly can before we graduate to Medicare.

So to save a little money, we made the leap to Obamacare, and lo it came to pass that under the new healthcare system we will be covered by, wouldn’t you know it, Anthem Blue Cross and pay them a little more than the usurious sum we were paying them before they jacked up our rates to ever more dizzying heights, except under Obamacare our deductible is so high it would be laughable if it were not obscene.

Meanwhile, Django is lolling by the fire, fully recovered from his painful ordeal and blissfully unaware that if we hadn’t spent a big wad of cash, he would probably be looking for a dark place to curl up and die.

I rub his ample belly and say, “Hang in there, Django. Another seven months and I’ll be getting Medicare, otherwise known as Single Payer, which is what everyone in America would have if not for the crooks running our government. Then we’ll have a bit more money should you need some help and we decide we love you enough.”

Ida’s Place

March 3rd, 2014

idas-place-cover

(Ida’s Place Cover drawing by Todd)

Dear Friends and Readers of My Blog,

It is my great pleasure to announce the birth of my new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, the first volume of what I intend to be a quartet of contemporary novels set in and around Ida’s Place, a bakery café in the mythic yet very real coastal town of Big River in far northern California.

Here is the link to the Ida’s Place page on my web site where you can

1. learn more about the novel

2. read the first three chapters

3. perhaps purchase the goodly tome, each copy signed and artistically numbered by yours truly.

I would be grateful if you would share the news with any of your friends who are hungry for good new fiction.

Best to you!

Todd

 

Shakespeare

February 26th, 2014

Shakespeare PC Map (todd)

 ©  1998 David Jouris/Hold the Mustard

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“I know not, sir, whether Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but if he did not, it seems to me that he missed the opportunity of his life.” James M. Barrie

A year ago we took possession of a spanking new paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the large handsome tome coming our way in a manner worthy of Shakespeare, and by that I mean in the way of the Bard’s zanier comedies in which complicated circumstantial chaos ends well—lovers united, villains chastised, parents pleased, gods appeased, and fools revealed to be wise. I should add that I never would have bought this book due to my limited financial reserves, thus it was only through cosmic largesse that the goodly tome became ours.

Here is the story. Our friend David Jouris, charming Berkeley eccentric, peripatetic photographer of dance companies, and indefatigable collector of quotations, is also the author of two unusual atlases of North America entitled All Over The Map and All Over the Map Again. These two delightful volumes are composed of thirty-three and thirty-four thematic maps featuring towns that really exist, accompanied by fascinating stories about the origins of some of the more intriguing town names. Among my favorites are an Optimistic map showing towns such as What Cheer, Windfall and Sublime, and a Pessimistic map showing such towns as Troublesome, Gripe, Last Chance and Bitter Springs. There are Theatrical, Dancing, Armed & Dangerous, Utopian, Literary, Animal, Musical, Eccentric, Egotistical, Numerical, Sporting, Lovers’, Saintly, and Mythical maps, to name a few, and most importantly, for the purpose of this tale, a Shakespearean map featuring such towns as Desdemona Texas, Rialto California and Romeo Colorado.

Some years before 10-Speed Press published David’s atlases, he brought out several of his thematic maps as black and white postcards under the aegis of his Hold the Mustard postcard line, and these map cards were deemed so groovy by the Library of Congress that several of David’s thematic maps were blown up huge and displayed in the Library of Congress lobby in Washington D.C. Then one day, two years after All Over The Map Again was published, and for reasons cloaked in mystery, David asked me if I thought he should bring out a color postcard of his Shakespearean map. The mystery is: why would David ask my advice when he unfailingly does whatever he wants regardless of what anybody else thinks? But not only did David ask my opinion about the Shakespearean postcard, he heeded my enthusiastic prediction that such a card would be a huge success, and he proceeded to publish the beautiful thing, thus making possible the comedy of errors I am recounting here.

Despite the ensuing (and mystifying) commercial failure of David’s Shakespearean postcard, I am ever happy to have this card on hand for sending to friends and to use as the self-addressed stamped postcard I include with my plays when I submit them to theater companies hither and yon. Shakespeare, it seems to me, is a most appropriate messenger for the ongoing and unanimous (so far) rejection of my plays.

Then one day David made a startling discovery: Oxford University Press was featuring his Shakespearean map in recent editions of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the striking half-page reproduction captioned with, “This 1998 novelty postcard, which assumes a thorough familiarity with the Shakespeare canon, attests to the continuing presence of Shakespeare in American popular culture.”

Perhaps due to their excitement at finding such an ideal illustration, the editors at Oxford University Press neglected to secure the rights to use David’s creation for their book and thus had not recompensed him. Conveniently for David, the Oxford numbskulls published his map with © DAVID JOURIS/HOLD THE MUSTARD prominently displayed across northern Mexico, and thus were not only caught with damn spots on their hands, but with their spotted hands deep in the cookie jar.

Following relatively civil negotiations, the Brits agreed to pay David a paltry sum along with two copies of the hardback edition and two copies of the paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, one of those paperbacks my reward for convincing David to manufacture the blessed card in the first place. And for the past year the good book has gone largely unread by moi until two weeks ago when, having finally completed the novel I’ve been madly writing for a year, I thought I’d try reading something I didn’t write, and possibly something I hadn’t read before.

So one tempestuous night, the fire crackling, the kettle burbling, I began to read that encyclopedia of Shakespearean factoids, and found the contents fascinating, entertaining, and scrumptious food for thought—may the gods of improbable probability be thanked for this gift. Here are a few brief selections from the tome.

acting, Elizabethan. The Elizabethan word for what we call acting was ‘playing’, and the word ‘acting’ was reserved for the gesticulations of an orator.

acting profession, Elizabethan and Jacobean. The Elizabethan word for an actor was ‘player’ and there were three classes: the sharer, the hired man, and the apprentice. The nucleus of the company was the sharers, typically between four and ten men, who were named on the patent which gave them the authority to perform and which identified their aristocratic patron.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), actor, playwright, poet, theatre administrator, and landowner; baptized, probably by John Bretchgirdle, in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on Wednesday, 26 April 1564, the third child and first son of John Shakespeare and his wife Mary.

Oxfordian theory, a term for what has since the mid-20th century been the most visible strand in the Authorship Controversy, the claim that Shakespeare’s works were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).

“And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.

Therefore they thought it good you hear a play

And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,

Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.”

            from The Taming of the Shrew

While there is no debate that William Shakespeare was involved in the theatrical world of London, there has been much and continuous speculation for five hundred years about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays, any of them, attributed to William Shakespeare. Now that I have gobbled The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, which prompted me to re-read The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet, I have my own theory about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.

Those who argue that Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have writ the plays attributed to him ask: how could a man reputed to be one of the most prolific and learned writers in history not leave behind even a scrap of his plays and poetry in his own handwriting? Not a shred, not a line, not a tattered fragment of a tiny piece of a page in Shakespeare’s own hand survived even into the latter stages of his relatively short life, a time when various publishers and their agents were searching for such fragments from which to publish the plays! Why does Shakespeare’s last will and testament contain no directives regarding his plays and sonnets, or any mention of his writing at all, yet makes a fuss about who gets his second-best bed?

How could Shakespeare, at the height of his fame and influence, become so completely divorced from the London theatre scene, of which he was supposedly a massive pillar, and carry on with the wholly non-theatrical business ventures in Stratford-upon-Avon that apparently occupied him for his entire life? Why are there so few (virtually none) first or even secondhand descriptions of, or anecdotes about, Shakespeare, the actual person, by any of his contemporaries, literary or otherwise? And how can we explain that several of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy and nearly all his tragedies are set among royals and aristocrats, though Shakespeare never went abroad, his education was minimal, his children were illiterate, and the social milieu he occupied was that of the merchant class? From whence came his uncanny understanding of the ways and workings and subtleties of royalty, let alone his intimate knowledge of their histories?

What is irrefutable about the plays attributed to Shakespeare is that in the absence of original manuscripts, the extant texts are, without exception, collages of versions of those plays remembered by various actors who supposedly acted in those plays, which versions were written down and edited by several different men and different groups of men, and these written-down versions were then futzed with until deemed Close Enough by yet other men who then published the plays. The First Folio, entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies—the foundational texts—was published in 1623, and the Second Folio was published ten years later, for which the editors made…wait for it…several hundred changes to the text of the First Folio. Several hundred! What were these changes based on? No one knows.

Along with the third and fourth and possibly fifth-hand nature of the “original” plays, is the undeniable fact that virtually every production of these plays, both in Shakespeare’s time and for centuries thereafter, and continuing to this day, employ scripts that are either edited, rewritten or wholly reimagined versions of the so-called originals. Thus the plays of Shakespeare, whoever wrote them, have never been static works and have always been treated as foundational forms to be modified and interpreted by directors who, like jazz musicians, knowingly improvise on popular standards and feel perfectly justified in doing so.

My theory runs thusly: William Shakespeare, a savvy business guy, travels to London to do business, buys his way into an ambitious company of actors, and quickly figures out that the better and more timely the plays a troupe has the exclusive rights to perform, the more successful that troupe will be, which success can lead to royal dispensation to build and own theaters and profit handsomely therefrom. A shrewd dude with a good ear for dialogue, William collaborates with a few talented writers on an early success or two, among them The Taming of the Shrew, and thereafter becomes a literary fence, so to speak, through which numerous writers—struggling actors, aristocrats wishing to remain anonymous, and talented provincials having flings at glory—benefit from the public perception that their plays were written by the hottest playwright in town.

The facts, such as they are, do not contradict my theory that Shakespeare was a superlative merchant of ghost writers or possibly the front man for a syndicate of play brokers, which would explain the wide-ranging stylistic variations in his plays, the comedies perhaps worked over by the Elizabethan equivalent of the gang of comics who wrote for the late great Sid Caesar—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen—the tragedies composed by brilliant and frustrated royals—latter day Gore Vidals—or persons associated with royalty.

Self-Loving

February 19th, 2014

When Your Heart Is Strong crayon on monotype:paper Nolan WInkler

When Your Heart Is Strong drawing by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” David Packard

A friend of mine went to graduate school at Yale in theater management and marketing where his favorite professor was forever reminding his students: “For every hundred queries you send out, you can count on one response. This won’t necessarily be a positive response, but at least it will be a response.”

As a writer and musician who for many years fished, so to speak, in the smallest tributaries of the mainstream before experiencing a few years of success on the cultural Mississippi, as it were, of New York and Hollywood, only to return to the hinterlands where I have continued to cast my line for the past thirty years, I have sent out thousands of queries, stories, songs, novels, plays, screenplays, and music CDs to agents, publishers, producers, directors, DJs, magazine editors, and people randomly selected from the phone book, and in my experience the professor’s estimate of one response per hundred submissions is right on the money.

I was one of those young writers who, for fun and incentive, once papered the four walls of my rented room (from floor to ceiling) with form rejection letters from The New Yorker and Esquire and The Atlantic and Playboy and dozens of other magazines large and small—the collage of hundreds of colored rectangles strikingly beautiful, though the cumulative negativity of the verbiage writ on those disingenuous notes (we carefully considered, we’re very sorry) eventually caused me to burn them all in a bonfire of rage against the machine and in hope of exorcising the demons of self-doubt.

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Nowadays, as a sometimes self-publishing author and musician, I frequently encounter disdain and contempt from all sorts of people for manufacturing my own work. Yes, Mark Twain self-published most of his novels, and countless other revered writers and artists self-published, self-promoted, and self-sold, but the dominant cultural myth remains that self-manufacturing books or musical recordings is pathetic and disgraceful, especially for someone no longer in kindergarten.

This anti-self-publishing sentiment is especially true among people over fifty who were not raised on YouTube, though many people under fifty also make a clear distinction between an artist who brings out his or her own creations and the artist who manages to sell himself, literally, to a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Is this not a form of cultural idiocy? And from whence does this antipathy to marketing our own creations come from?

“This self-love is the instrument of our preservation; it resembles the provision for the perpetuity of mankind: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and we must conceal it.” Voltaire

So there’s Voltaire, the keen observer of social mores, three hundred and fifty years ago warning against public displays of self-appreciation, regardless of the emotional importance of such self-positivity, thus confirming that self-negation as cultural norm is nothing new. And who in our steep-sided pyramidal society and pyramidal economic system benefits most from this bizarre idea that it is shameful and wrong for a free lance artist to manufacture her own art and then alert the world that her art is for sale?

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” Seth Godin

A Seattle publisher recently reissued my novel Inside Moves in a handsome paperback edition after the good book had been out-of-print for over thirty years, and dozens of people who had previously snickered and snorted in derision at my self-published works wrote and called to congratulate me, a few of these brainwashed peeps actually saying things like, “Must be great to have a real book in the stores again.” How bizarre! I was going to say how fucking bizarre, but that would be crude.

 “Self-love is a big part of golf.” Lewis Black

Nine times. Think of the Beatles song Revolution 9 with that annoying voice in the background intoning interminably “Number Nine, Number Nine.” Recent marketing research indicates that busy publishers, editors, DJs, and other persons bombarded with press releases and poems and screenplays and songs and cries of “Look at me jumping!” by millions of Baby Roos (see Winnie-the-Pooh) need to be loudly informed about something nine times, on average, for the thing to penetrate their overloaded cerebrums and get them to take notice. Oy vey. Such postage and envelopes and mailers for the struggling artist!

Speaking of postage, over the last seven years I have sent out rafts of copies of my four piano CDs and the two music CDs Marcia and I made together, these rafts going to radio stations around the country, with one response for every hundred submissions a close approximation of my success rate, whether that means actual airplay for Incongroovity or Mystery Inventions or a terse: Go Away! We Only Play Music Recorded By Famous People.

I hasten to add that these are not large radio stations I apply to, but small ones kin to our own KZYX whereon you will be lucky, indeed, to hear our music, though not for lack of my sending them our CDs. Jamie Roberts, bless him, occasionally plays my recorded fiction, and Joel Cohen has played a few cuts of my piano music—local exposure a special thrill for us. The good people at KMUD are so stoutly unified in their indifference to my offerings, I have ceased to bother them.

But I have managed to win over a handful of daring and prescient DJs who now regularly spin my tunes in Warren Vermont, Bloomington Indiana, Arcata California, Fort Collins Colorado and Astoria Oregon. Mazel tov!

“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.” Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I was a preschool teacher’s aide, one of my favorite things about the three and four-year-olds I had the pleasure of overseeing was their unabashed love of their own artistic endeavors and creations: crayon drawings and finger paintings and block towers and sand castles and somersaults and dances and impromptu songs—everything! Countless times an excited little kid would show me his or her creation, and in response to my saying, “That’s wonderful!” the little Picasso or O’Keeffe would confidently reply, “I know!”

But something happens to most American children in the years following kindergarten and continuing for the rest of their lives, some multi-level, multi-layered reprogramming goes on at home, at school, on television, at work, in life, so that by the time children are six and seven-years-old they are much less likely to share their creations with an adult, and by ten-years-old most kids cease to create anything.

From happy self-loving declarations of “I know!” to complete emotional and creative shutdown in just a few short years—the result of our horrifying and incredibly effective system of mass repression.

What are you talking about, Todd? Look at the millions of people making YouTube videos of themselves and their kids and cats and stuff, and the millions of people taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones to go along with their tweeting and sexting.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

In my perusal of sports highlights on my computer, I am required to sit through commercials in order to see brief snippets of games I’ve missed for lack of a television. Thus I have seen many ads for razors, cars, big-budget movies, computers, running shoes, and Disney vacation resorts. In the latest series of Disney ads, people are shown publicly acting out in spontaneous and imaginative ways, and then being judged idiotic or crazy by their families and friends.

In one such Disney ad, a father and his two children are in a hardware store when the father gets the wacky idea of donning a welding helmet and picking up a fluorescent light tube and pretending to be Darth Vader wielding a light saber. In his excitement, the father gets carried away and knocks over a display, a heinous act that embarrasses his well-behaved children and dismays the other people in the store. But in a twinkling, the father and children and their mother are transported to a Disney resort where the father is allowed to duel with real (fake) light sabers and a Disney employee dressed up as the real (fake) Darth Vader—the children no longer embarrassed by their impulsive father.

The Voice accompanying this vomitous series of ads declares, and I paraphrase, “So if you want to be even just a little bit creative and spontaneous and playful without punishment and censure, you must give large quantities of your hard-earned money to the Disney Corporation and we will allow you to be slightly more carefree than you are allowed to be in real life, though we know that even when you come to this totally artificial place, you will be too inhibited to act in ways that will necessitate our having to punish you.”

Sad People

February 12th, 2014

The house with no windows

The house with no windows painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.” Judy Garland

The well-known actor Philip Seymour Hoffman killed himself last week with a heroin overdose. He was forty-six. Hoffman was one of those actors who, with the notable exception of his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie Capote, generally played himself—an intelligent and somewhat cynical depressive. Because Hoffman wasn’t acting, in the sense of pretending to be someone he wasn’t, if the script was good and Hoffman was well cast, he was wholly believable as a real person—a rarity in contemporary American movies. If the writing was bad and the actors miscast, as in A Late Quartet, Hoffman, through no fault of his own, verged on the ridiculous.

As Truman Capote, the role for which he won an Academy Award, Hoffman presented a restrained and studied imitation of the real Truman Capote’s voice and mannerisms, an imitation I found maddeningly unbelievable, perhaps because I have an entirely different idea about who and what Truman Capote was than the character executed by Hoffman.

My opinion aside, Philip Seymour Hoffman was regarded as one of the best American character actors of the last fifteen years. He was wealthy, respected, and the father of three children with his devoted partner. Yet he killed himself with the heroin he habitually injected to find temporary respite from what proved to be terminal self-loathing.

Tens of thousands of people commit suicide in America every year, but we don’t often hear about those deaths unless the manner of dying is sensational. However, the suicide of a famous person is big news in our celebrity-obsessed society, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s suicide resurrects the age-old question: why would someone so successful and adored and in the prime of his life want to stop living? The unstated implication of that question is that we know why unsuccessful and unloved people want to end their lives, but why would a revered star want to die?

One answer to the question of why a successful and well-liked person would commit suicide (while still relatively young) is that self-perception is rarely, if ever, altered by the perceptions others have of us. Indeed, if others perceive us differently from how we perceive ourselves, those contrary perceptions rarely penetrate our consciousness.

If we feel we are useless and pathetic and inadequate, and someone tells us with great sincerity that we are useful and admirable and capable, we might enjoy that praise for a moment, but such praise will not alter the foundational self-assessment implanted in childhood and reinforced by the accompanying continuous loop recording blaring away in our unconscious mind every minute of every day: you are just no good!

As it happens, most people who suffer from extreme self-loathing are also supremely self-involved. This is neither ironic nor surprising when we understand that the maintenance of self-loathing requires self-fixation. Good or bad or mundane, for the narcissist everything must be about the self—all else irrelevant.

“I need the applause.” Jerry Lewis

When I was in high school, much to the dismay of my parents, I stepped off the academic path preparing me for medical school and signed up for Drama. I loved acting, and I especially loved being in the company of so many beautiful emotive girls who wanted to be actresses. I aspired to write plays, too, and had at my disposal many eager young thespians to act out the scenes I wrote for them, which was a fantastic learning experience for me.

I was fifteen when I got my first part in a school play—the minor role of Franklin Roosevelt’s son in Sunrise at Campobello. This was an ideal first role for a young actor because I was onstage for much of the play, pushing the actor playing Franklin Roosevelt around in his wheelchair, but I only had a few lines to memorize and just one slightly meaty scene. Thus I got to bask in the electricity of a live performance in front of an audience without any great dramatic responsibilities.

Nevertheless, I comported myself well enough so that the applause from the audience swelled just a bit when I came out to take my bow at play’s end, and I vividly remember how my body received the applause as if I was being injected with happiness, an injection that made me high as a kite for hours thereafter. I noticed, however, that when I came down from that high, I was anxious and fidgety and desperate to experience that same sort of high again.

By the end of my senior year in high school I had been in seven plays and was addicted to that scalp-tingling rush from being enthusiastically applauded. However, I was also painfully aware that the euphoria I experienced from such mass approbation was becoming shorter and shorter-lived with every performance, and that in the aftermaths of those transitory highs, I experienced debilitating lows, such that I began to dread applause and the ensuing depression, which fear decided me not to pursue an acting career, but to focus instead on mastering writing and music, the pursuit of such mastery insuring a lack of applause for many years to come if not forever.

“The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and work unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.” Gustav Mahler

Easier said than done, Gustav. The advice of this famous composer works better for me if we change the word point to practice, because the world’s opinion—which I take to mean the opinions of others—can make the difference between an artist earning enough money to live on from his or her work, or not earning enough. Therefore, to withstand the slings and arrows of such potent external forces, one’s internal sense of self must be especially strong and positive, and we must fervently believe that what we are endeavoring to create has value regardless of our worldly success or lack thereof.

“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” Pema Chödrön

I don’t think we can rescue anyone. We can momentarily save a drowning person, but there is no way to stop that person from jumping overboard once our backs are turned. Still, I’ve known many marvelous people struggling with some murderous addiction or another, and I have many times fantasized that if I could only spirit them away to an island from which there was no escape and where they had no access to the killing substances they were addicted to, that with the guidance of a wise master they would finally come face to face with those terrible internal threats they were trying to suppress by shooting heroin or getting drunk or eating too much, and they would undergo cataclysmic emotional and spiritual crises and come out the other side into a state of being that is, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, “Not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.”

Which is what happens, more or less, to addicts and depressives who experience life-saving transformations, except not usually because someone kidnaps them and takes them to some mythic isle presided over by a bodhisattva. No, something inside them, something more powerful than the command to self-sabotage leads them through the fiery labyrinth of self-hatred and crippling self-doubt and into meaningful communion with others. But if that divine spark is not in them, or the spark has grown too weak to become a flame, that person will inevitably seek escape from suffering through other means, a needle or a bottle or a flight through space to the unyielding ground.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Albert Camus

Just a few months after I graduated from high school, Henry, one of the boys in my Drama class, committed suicide. Henry was a fantastic actor, though he never got a part in one of the school plays. I knew of his talent because every Friday the Drama students would perform scenes and monologues we were supposed to learn and practice during the week. Our grades for the semester were determined almost entirely by the grades we got for our Friday performances, and Henry never failed to bring us all to our feet cheering and applauding his performance.

Whereas I rarely did more than memorize my lines and practice my scene a few times before the Friday performance, Henry rehearsed his monologues and scenes hundreds of times, spent hours in front of the mirror creating his costume, and before each performance would have a makeup artist make him up to look stunning under the stage lights he would carefully orchestrate to fit the moods of his scenes.

Sometimes Henry did comedy, sometimes tragedy, but underpinning every performance he gave was an almost unbearable sorrow that brought even the most glib and cynical among us to tears.