So It Turns Out…Part Two

November 13th, 2017

Todd & Casey

Todd & Casey

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

Part One of So It Turns Out…arose from my recent opening to, delving into, and accepting that I am Jewish. What does that mean? It means, among many other things, that I was born to and brought up by a Jewish woman who spent her entire life pretending she wasn’t Jewish; and one of the results of her subterfuge, though I didn’t have a conscious inkling I was Jewish until I was twelve, was my intense attraction to other Jewish people.

My friend Colin, my best friend in elementary school, a psychoanalyst now, wrote in response to Part One, in which he figures importantly, “What’s interesting is that over the years, as you have come to embrace your Jewish identity, it has become much less a part of my identity.”

But here’s the thing, Colin. Before I can embrace my Jewish identity, I have to allow that identity to emerge. My Jewishness has been sequestered deep inside me and disallowed in my waking life for nearly seven decades. Your Jewishness was never hidden. You were openly and proudly Jewish, so it makes sense that in the course of your long life, no longer living in a predominantly Jewish environment, you might evolve away from largely identifying yourself as Jewish. But you would never deny that you emerged into this life Jewish and spent your childhood in an openly Jewish family.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

In the year before Colin turned thirteen, he began preparing for his bar mitzvah. And I, still unconscious of my Jewishness, helped him study and rehearse for the ceremony that would initiate him into manhood in his Jewish community. I learned to sing and recite some of the lines of the ceremony in Hebrew, though I had no idea what I was saying. I also had no idea why I was so interested in what Colin was undergoing, but I was eager to be part of the process and he seemed pleased to have me as his occasional audience.

In a recent exchange of emails, Colin asked me if I remembered much about his Bar Mitzvah.

I replied: My mother and brother attended with me. I remember my brother and I were given yarmulkes to wear, which I thought was very cool. I remember you on the “stage” with three men, all of you in white robes with stripes and prayer shawls. I recall you were a little tentative at first, your voice wavering, and then you settled in and were wonderfully audible. I remember you carrying a big scroll, and I worried you might drop it. I can see your face. You were serious and focused. It’s a beautiful memory. I remember afterwards there was a big spread of food, and I remember there were trays of shot drinks, and some of the boys were sneaking them. I remember how excited and happy everyone was, and I didn’t want to leave when my mom was ready to go.”

Colin replied: One of my few visual memories of that day I became a man in the Jewish community is you wearing a yarmulke in a manner that exposed the fact that you were a guest in the Jewish community.

So while Colin was becoming a man in the Jewish community, I was still a boy and only a guest. Yet I felt I was something more than a guest. I felt giddy, as if I had snuck past the guards into an exclusive private party where, for a brief time, I got to be in a wonderful forbidden place full of fascinating people.

Last week during therapy, I was overcome by the sensation of being encased in a chrysalis that was no longer big enough for me. As I struggled and squirmed in my old carapace, my therapist encouraged me to break free.

“But I’ll be huge,” I said, fearfully.

“Good, be huge.”

“But I might be too big. What should I do?”

“Maybe you don’t have to do anything. Maybe you can just be big.”

But if I’m big, if I become who I really am, then people will notice me and discover I’m Jewish, and if they know I’m Jewish…

I entered therapy this time to deal with extreme anxiety that has been hampering my life for the last two years, and in the course of exploring the sources of my anxiety, my Jewishness has emerged as an important ingredient in the recipe of who I am.

My mother was a terribly anxious person, and some of her anxiety undoubtedly sprang from a lifetime of fearing she would be unmasked and exposed as Jewish—and I know I inherited my tendency to be anxious from her.

Twenty-seven years ago, when I was forty and in therapy for the first time, I underwent two rage release processes developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. In the moments before my second rage release process, I had an extraordinary experience. My first rage release process had been incredibly revelatory and helpful, so I was looking forward to this second bout of battling old demons. As my therapist and I were about to begin, I was overcome by the terrifying sensation of being squeezed tightly from head to toe, as if caught in a massive vise. I could barely breathe.

My therapist had me lie down on the floor and give voice to what I was feeling. The pain was so intense I curled up into a fetal position and clenched my fists and groaned to release the terrible pressure inside me.

At the height of my suffering, my therapist pointed at me and said loudly, “What is that?”

And without the slightest hesitation I shouted, “I’m Jewish!”

And the moment I spoke those words, I knew—I didn’t think or imagine—I knew German soldiers were going to kick the door down and kill me.

At the age of forty this was wholly new information for me. I had never suspected, not for a minute, that I carried in me a fear of being captured or killed by German soldiers. Where did such fear come from? My mother was born in Los Angeles. Her parents were born in Michigan. Her grandparents were born in Poland and came to America long before World War I. Yet I believed that saying out loud, “I’m Jewish!” would result in my death at the hands of German soldiers.

Twenty-eight years later, sharing this experience with my current therapist, I recalled when I was in high school and had the role of Mr.Van Daan in the play The Diary of Anne Frank. My character was one of several Jewish people hiding from the Nazis in an attic in a house in the Netherlands. I most vividly remember the end of the play when our hiding place has been discovered and the Nazis are coming to get us.

The actress playing my wife, Gail Land, a Jewish gal in real life, looks up at me as I slowly descend a flight of stairs. We can hear the approaching sirens—the Nazis closing in on us. And I am no longer in a play. I am a Jew about to be dragged out of hiding and taken to a concentration camp where I will surely die. I freeze in terror.

Now I hear Gail whispering urgently to me. I look down at her. I am shaking so violently it takes me a moment to realize she is mouthing the line I am supposed to say. So I come back into my teenaged body in California in 1966 and say the line and the lights fade out and we are engulfed in darkness.

So It Turns Out…Part One

November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.

Three Bananas

October 30th, 2017

297did

did diptych by Max Greenstreet (click on image to make larger)

The laboratory of Luigi Idano and Tamara Whozat. Various experiments underway. Luigi, male, hirsute, portly, prone to sweating. Tamara, female, burgundy hair, pleasingly curvaceous, only sweats in saunas, left eyebrow tastefully pierced with shard of amethyst.

Luigi: I know it’s a small sample size, but…

Tamara: Miniscule.

Luigi: Granted. But the implications are staggering.

Tamara: Hyperbole.

Luigi: Granted. Promising?

Tamara: Three nights, Luigi. Three times. You call this science?

Luigi: I never called it science. I called it a possible breakthrough of epic life-changing potentiality and I want to put out an all-points bulletin post haste trumpeting our discovery to the entire world.

Tamara: All points bulletin? What era do you think we’re living in?

Luigi: Well…then a tweet thing or a face thing.

Tamara: How can you be so out of synch with the way people communicate now?

Luigi: Out of synch? I happen to like all-point bulletins; they point in every direction. I like landline phone connections. I like letters arriving in my post office box. Envelopes with stamps on them. Pieces of paper with writing on them inside the envelopes.

Tamara: Fine. But why not wait until you try your little experiment a few more times? Why tell the world something that might not be true?

Luigi: Because I feel certain it is true. And besides, what could it hurt? We’re talking about bananas here. Who could object to bananas?

Tamara: I know several people who do not like bananas unless cooked in banana bread.

Luigi: How sad.

Tamara: Yes, but the point is…bananas may be too specific.

Luigi: Then food? What if I said food?

Tamara: Not specific enough. Food might include chocolate, and that would be antithetical to your hypothesis, assuming your hypothesis is the one I assume you have.

Luigi: But I must do something. This discovery could make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people, and in the lives of those who sleep with those people. Oh please let me put out an all-points bulletin and a tweet thing and a face thing. Please?

Tamara: I’m sorry, Luigi. I can’t be a party to this.

Luigi: Who said anything about a party?

Tamara: I thought you’d appreciate the archaic-ness of that expression.

Luigi: I do, actually. Okay, I’ll go it alone.

Tamara: You understand it’s not that I don’t want your discovery to be true. I do. But I don’t want another fiasco befalling our enterprise like that whole gluten-free-diets-raise-your-IQ thing we suffered through last year.

Luigi: Well, going gluten-free certainly raised my IQ.

Tamara: There you go again. Extrapolating from insufficient data.

Luigi: Does this mean I can’t use our official laboratory stationery for the all-points bulletin?

Tamara: That’s what it means. Your findings do not come from the Laboratory of Luigi Idano and Tamara Whozat. This is your own wholly unfounded personal unscientific conjecture based on three nights and three bananas. For all we know the ripeness of the bananas may be a major factor, as might your desire for the bananas to be effective. The positive result you attained could be nothing more than a placebo effect, and you know how rigorously we study placebo effects in all our experiments.

Luigi: What if I characterized my results as anecdotal?

Tamara: Yes, do that. But not on lab stationery.

Luigi goes to his desk and writes the following letter.

To Whom It May Concern

For many years now I have had trouble sleeping at night. That is, I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but after a couple hours of slumber I will wake and not be able to go back to sleep. I have tried various herbal sleep aids, sleeping pills prescribed by doctors, hypnosis, psychotherapy, and myriad other cures for what ails me with no good results.

When I recently mentioned my difficulty to my acupressurist, she responded by asking, “Did you know it actually takes energy to sleep?”

I said I did not actually know this, but having slept with people who snore such that they sound as if they are wielding a chainsaw for eight hours without stopping, I can see how sleeping requires energy.

My acupressurist then said she had another client who also used to wake every night and was not able to go back to sleep; and this client, upon learning that sleeping requires energy, decided to keep a banana beside her bed so when she woke in the night and could not go back to sleep, she would eat the banana to give her energy, but not the kind of energy that kept her awake, rather an energy that helped her sleep. And verily it came to pass that eating a banana in the middle of the night worked wonders for her—the wonders of adequate sleep.

So these last three nights I had a banana at the ready beside my bed, and when I woke in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep, I ate the banana and fell back asleep. The first night, I had a dream about putting the wrong address on a package. The second night, I dreamt my funky childhood home turned into a palace. The third night I dreamt I was lost in a fog-enshrouded city. I was dressed as a clown with a tiny top hat and enormous shoes.

Who knows what my dreams mean, but I sure as shootin’ know what falling asleep means; it means I will have a banana by my bedside again tonight and tomorrow night and the night after.

Luigi shows the letter to Tamara.

Tamara: Good for you, Luigi. Send your message forth. Tell the world.

Luigi: I will. And would you post my message on your tweeting face thing?

Tamara: No.

Luigi: Fine. But take a moment to consider a person, possibly a good friend of yours, someone you really like, having trouble sleeping and reading my anecdotal evidence on your face tweet thing and gaining a new lease on life. Think about that, Tamara.

Tamara: No. Now can we get back to work on our will-flax-seeds-in-your-cookie-batter-make you-happier experiment? Our control placebo group of ravenous stevedores will be here in twenty minutes.

Luigi: Roger that. As soon as I send off my banana news to the far corners of the earth I will pop the non-flax-seeded cookies in the oven.

Tamara: Good. And I’ll make the coffee.

Do I Know You?

October 23rd, 2017

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”

Moronic Individualism

October 16th, 2017

newrealityM

“We are in crises where we are finding that the old systems don’t work. But that sort of disillusionment is only discovering that what you thought was so, isn’t. It’s the first step in learning. So I celebrate disillusionment.” Buckminster Fuller

The United States spends a trillion dollars a year on war.

We are told that several of the terrible fires raging in northern California this October were started by downed power lines sparking dry brush. How is it that in the year 2017, the richest nation on earth still has most of its power lines above ground? Part of the answer is that this nation spends a trillion dollars every year on war. Another part of the answer is that the state of California has a tax structure favoring wealthy people and corporations who do not feel they need to contribute to the greater good, so the state government lacks the muscle to compel the owners of those power lines to bury them.

We live in Mendocino, and every winter, often several times per winter, we are without power because of downed power lines that should not be suspended above the earth so they can be downed by annual winds and falling trees, but should be safely buried below ground. But because our utilities are not publicly owned, this endemic idiocy continues year in and year out. Why are our utilities not publicly owned? Because wealthy corporations control our government.

We wonder when the electorate will wake up to the inadequacy of our system of governance and taxation? Judging from the responses to the catastrophes that have befallen Puerto Rico and Texas and Florida and California, the answer is Never. We have evolved into a society of shortsighted self-serving stupid people, capable of bravery and bursts of generosity, but mostly we fend for ourselves in the face of a social system that punishes us for cooperating with each other.

That we do not have Single Payer healthcare, free healthcare for all our citizens, is conclusive proof of our collective myopia and disregard for the wellbeing of others. People may rant about how horrible our current President and Congress and Supreme Court, but our deplorable representatives did not come to power through a violent insurrection. They rose to power through the will of a society composed of profoundly self-serving people. Not bad people, but people trained from birth, and from generation to generation, to prize the individual, the self, above all else.

I recall when I was involved with a group of people in the 1970s planning to buy land and create a rural commune. At the initial meetings, I and a few others made the case that our first orders of business should be the establishment of a dependable water supply, a good road, an excellent septic system, and a reliable source of electricity for the entire community, to be followed by the construction of a community center with a kitchen adequate for the needs of the entire commune. Thereafter, we would turn our energies to building our separate dwellings.

No, said the majority of those involved. First we build our separate houses; then we’ll do that collective stuff.

I could not understand why these seemingly intelligent people thought this way, but I have since come to understand that they were simply being Americans. In America the needs of the individual, however absurd, always come first. And this is why we don’t have Single Payer Healthcare and why Donald Trump is our President and why we spend a trillion dollars every year on war and why we don’t have trains going everywhere instead of roads that are constantly deteriorating and why power lines are still above ground and why everything that has made our country the giant mess it is today continues to hold sway over our lives.

We know several people who barely escaped with their lives in the Santa Rosa and Redwood Valley fires, people who lost virtually everything they owned. Their losses are tragic, but such losses can also present us with opportunities to make changes in our lives we might not otherwise make that can ultimately benefit us.

I say this because I read a fascinating study done of people who lost everything in the great Oakland firestorm of 1991, and the gist of the study was that many of those people came to feel the loss of their material possessions was the beginning of much improved lives. And more personally, in 1980, shortly after moving to Sacramento, my house was broken into and thieves took virtually everything I owned including the food from the refrigerator, art from the walls, records, books, camera, typewriter, manuscripts, vacuum cleaner, clothes, bed sheets—only my piano and mattress remaining.

For some days after the robbery I was in a state of shock, but eventually the shock gave way to myriad realizations, one of which was that there were people in my life who were emotional thieves and robbing me blind. In my new state of awareness, I was able to eliminate those emotional burglars from my life.

This is not to suggest that catastrophic disasters are good, but that sometimes we can, individually and collectively, learn from experiences of loss and make changes—such as burying power lines—that will benefit us in the future.

And in the midst of the terrible political and economic wildfire that is the Trump presidency and the Congress of Selfish Monsters and the many state houses controlled by sexist racist gun fanatics, I hope previously asleep people will wake up to realize that the old way of the Demopublicans and Republicrats is moribund and always leads to psychopathic presidents serving the corporate overlords.

The meaningful alternative to our corporate totalitarianism is to build a system with housing for everyone and healthcare for everyone and safety and food and meaningful work for everyone, with a small efficient defensive military, and a system of taxation that does away with a small percentage of the population having most of the goodies and everybody else living on the verge of losing what little they have.

Oregon

October 8th, 2017

Rita

Rita photo by Todd

“He walked joyously, triumphantly, through the peace and beauty of springtime in California.” Katharine Grey

My great grandmother Katharine Grey wrote a pair of novels Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold, published by Little Brown in the 1930s. Based loosely on the experiences of my paternal ancestors, Rolling Wheels is about a family coming to California from Indiana via wagon train in the years before the Gold Rush of 1849, and Hills of Gold is about that same family living in California during the Gold Rush.

Throughout my childhood, my father impressed upon me that we were real native Californians, being descended on my father’s side from people who came here before California was even a state—never mind the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before my Anglo ancestors arrived, or the Mexicans who settled here hundreds of years before the first Anglos came to California.

I was also repeatedly told that my ancestors came to California in the same large wagon train that included the ill-fated Donner party, except my ancestors made it over the Sierras before the onset of winter and founded the town of Fremont while the Donners starved and ate each other.

And this is some of why when I travel to Oregon, I think of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and the Oregon Trail and pioneers and the wilderness that was Oregon and California before cars and freeways and computers and everything that has transpired in the last little while of human history.

Marcia and I just returned from an eight-day drive-about in Oregon, and the trip was a Big Deal for the likes of me, one who rarely leaves our watershed here on the Mendocino coast and rarely rides in a motorized vehicle for more than a few minutes at a time every few days. We spent two nights on the Oregon coast, four nights in Portland, a night in Bend, a night in Eugene, and another night on the Oregon coast before returning to California. We took many hikes, ate many good meals, communed with good friends, and saw many sights, some marvelous, some not so marvelous—a fine trip all in all.

The biggest motivating factor for making the trip was to visit our friends Bob and Rita who recently moved to Portland from our neck of the woods. They have both become adept at navigating the byways of Portland and were marvelous guides and hosts as we explored that sprawling metropolis full of trees and roses and bridges and breweries and cafés.

On our last full day in Portland, we took the light rail from a station near Rita and Bob’s house to the center of downtown. A few decades ago, Portland became the first large metropolitan area in America to begin using most of the monies returned to them by the federal government (from the federal tax on gasoline) to create an urban transportation system that would make a good life possible for city people who don’t drive cars. Thus Portland has an excellent and ever-expanding light rail and trolley system second to none west of the Atlantic seaboard.

While riding the light rail into downtown Portland, I became aware that everyone in the crowded car, save for Marcia, Todd, Bob, and Rita, was staring into some sort of portable computer and occasionally diddling the keyboard: small and large smart phones, pads, and laptops. Everyone. No one was looking out a window or at another person. The young woman sitting in front of me was scrolling through photographs of tattooed naked women posed provocatively; and the man sitting beside her was playing a violent video game and snorting every time he killed something.

When we detrained downtown, I noticed that many of the people walking around and sitting in cafés and on benches were also staring into portable computer screens and jabbing them with their thumbs. In fact, save for the legions of homeless people occupying downtown Portland, almost everyone who was not walking fast or riding a bike was staring into a screen and diddling. For some years now I have been aware of the entrainment-to-screens phenomenon in America, but I had never before seen this mass entrancement on such a huge urban scale; and I was both astonished and weirded out, if you know what I mean.

A few days later in Eugene, we were eating good Indian food with our friends David and Joan and Eileen. David is an elementary and middle school music teacher who combines song, dance, comedy, marimbas, ukuleles, drumming, improvisation—you name it—to create exciting and engaging musical experiences for his students culminating in fabulous group performances.

“But,” he said, while telling me about various aspects of his work, “I now feel the most important thing I can do for my students is give them time to engage with me and each other and their own creative impulses without interfacing with their diddle boxes. Because interfacing with their diddle boxes is the main thing most of them do all the time now.”

“If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.” Alan Watts

There is a square in downtown Portland, one of the main squares, that has lots of places to sit and gawk at passersby, and in one part of this square there is a small parabolic amphitheater made of bricks. If one stands in the center of the parabola facing the ascending tiers of brick half-circles, and one speaks aloud at a normal volume, one’s voice sounds incredibly loud and clear in one’s ears—a totally neato auditory experience.

So I’m standing in the center of the parabola facing a young woman who is sitting slightly above me in the amphitheater and facing in my direction, though not seeing me. She is hooked up to her smart phone with wires connected to tiny earphones plugged into her ears, and she is diddling her screen.

I say, “Hello there,” and the words sound loud and clear in my ears. And then I say to the young woman, “You’re doing this aren’t you? You’re making this happen.”

She frowns quizzically at me and takes the earphone out of her right ear. “Are you talking to me?” she asks, her voice remarkably sonorous.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “You’re doing something to make my voice sound loud and clear in my ears, aren’t you?”

After a moment of silence between us, a sweet smile claims her face and she nods in agreement.

Magical Dancer

September 25th, 2017

Vito & Clare

Vito & Clare photo by Todd

“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” William Stafford

As I mentioned in a recent article, though I’ve been playing the piano every day for fifty years, and have often been paid for my playing, I can barely read music. I have tried to overcome the trauma that kept me from learning to read music—my six-year-old fingers being whacked with a heavy metal pen by a bad piano teacher—but I am still stuck at the very early stages of being able to play written-down music.

I am also a professional writer of stories and novels, though had I not first been encouraged by my friends in elementary school to write and read my stories aloud to them, and then received modest encouragement from my elementary school teachers, I’m sure I never would have been able to overcome the harsh criticism and denigration of my work by my high school and college teachers, not to mention rejections from countless editors in the employ of mainstream publishers.

Thankfully, despite the confederacy of dunces that controls much of our culture, I managed to publish several books; and though contemporary commercial publishers are largely indifferent to what I’ve written in the last ten years—my best work—I carry on because I love to write and there are several marvelous people eager to read my stories.

But how did I come to love the piano again after being so frightened and hurt while trying to play the instrument as a child?

My mother played the piano, not often, but when she played, she was happy, and that is most significant. From the time I was a very little boy, whenever she sat down at our big old upright and got out the Tams-Witmark songbooks of hits from the 1920s and 30s and 40s, I would stand beside her as she played and we would sing “It’s Only A Shanty In Old Shanty Town” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and many others. Thus my early neurological wiring regarding the piano was all about pleasure and joyful communion with my otherwise not-very-happy mother.

Neither the violence of that bad piano teacher nor the rolling eyes of my father could inhibit my love of singing or curtail my frequent renditions of show tunes and pop hits. When in high school, I had roles in musicals, and at that same time, the late 1960s, I was lead singer in a rock band I formed with a guitar-playing friend named Dave. We did mostly original songs and were not great, though we thought we were.

One night Dave was at my house—my parents gone to a party—and we were working on new songs. During these songwriting sessions, I sang and played bongos, while Dave played his Rickenbacker electric twelve-string and sang, too.

Tiring of our bongo-guitar combo, Dave said, “Play something on the piano and I’ll play with you.”

I glanced at the dreaded keyboard. “No, I don’t play that thing.”

“How about a simple pattern of bass notes?”

“No,” I said, furiously shaking my head. “I’m terrible.”

“Like this,” he said, reaching over to the keyboard and playing Middle C and then G below Middle C and then C below that G, and back up again.

With great trepidation, I played what he had played.

“Now keep that going.”

So I kept the pattern going and he tried out various groovy sounding chords on his twelve-string and…

Six weeks later we were the opening act for a rock band in a teen nightclub in the huge basement of a church in Woodside, California. I don’t know how Dave got us this gig, or why he thought we were gig-worthy, but there I was sitting at a large upright piano in fairly good tune. Dave had his twelve-string guitar plugged into his trusty little amp and I had a microphone suspended in front of me for introducing the tunes and singing wordlessly on a few of our musical inventions.

We’d been playing and developing our piano-guitar creations for hours every day after school and on weekends for those six weeks and enjoying ourselves tremendously, but I was terrified about playing in front of an audience. Dave was giddy, but not terrified.

There were about forty teenagers sitting at tables or standing at the soft drink bar, and many of these teens were high on marijuana, having toked outside before entering the club. They had come for the rock band and were talking and laughing and not paying any attention to us. There were also a few parents present and some college guys hired to maintain order.

One of those college guys introduced us with, “Here’s Dave and Todd.”

My hands were shaking as I began to play a simple pattern of notes I’d figured out for my left hand combined with a few notes played with my right hand; and after I found my groove, so to speak, Dave started playing his guitar—the room wonderfully resonant. We called our songs ragas, and they were certainly raga-like if not technically ragas.

We had no idea what anyone might think of our music, but the moment we began to play, everyone in that resounding basement stopped talking and we could feel them listening to us, which was one of the most exciting feelings I’d ever had.

Then out of the shadows came a young woman bedecked with scarves. She may have been wearing clothes, too, but all I remember are her green and red and gold scarves. She walked to the center of the room and danced a fabulous dance full of eloquent gestures and graceful spins; and as she danced I realized she was dancing to the rhythm of my pattern of chords.

Then other people joined her on the dance floor and we played that raga for a long time because the people were digging what we were laying down.

When we finished that first tune, in my memory, the applause was thunderous, though it was probably just applause in a reverberant room—and nothing ever again could stop me from playing the piano.

Know Your Audience

September 18th, 2017

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

What Comes Around

September 11th, 2017

What Comes Around

What Comes Around photo by Todd

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

So the other day Max wrote to say he loved my piano tune “What Comes Around”.

When I created the piece fifteen years ago, I played it several times a day as a form of meditation, and the playing became so automatic I assumed I would never forget how to play that particular progression of chords. “What Comes Around,” is entirely composed, unlike most of my tunes, which are designed to be at least partially improvised each time I play them.

After I recorded “What Comes Around” for my album Incongroovity in 2013, I ceased to play the tune. But when Max said he loved “What Comes Around”, I really wanted to play it again. I sat down at the piano and hunted and hunted for the first chord, but the notes eluded me. Then I listened to the beginning of the recording, and after a long hunt found the opening chord. I hoped the rest of the chords would be easy to remember, but they would not stay remembered when I managed to find them, so I resorted to writing down the notes, though not as notes on a staff but as stacks of letters (with flat signs when needed) denoting the notes.

Since then, I have been playing the pattern of chords several times a day. After a week, I can almost get through the whole piece without having to refer to the stacks of letters denoting notes. I am humbled by how hard it has been to re-learn this piece, and I think about how easy this process would have been had I learned to read music and simply wrote down my compositions as sheet music.

Why didn’t I learn to read music? When I was six-years-old I took piano lessons from a sad angry man who yelled at me when I played wrong notes, and one day he struck my knuckles with a heavy metal pen and called me an idiot when I played a wrong note. I ran from the piano, screaming in pain and fear, and I never took another lesson. When I re-engaged with the piano ten years later, I did so as an explorer without a guide or map, and have continued to explore through trial and error and repetition and improvisation for fifty years.

In the midst of re-learning “What Comes Around” I got an email from my friend Rico about Keith Jarrett and his famous Koln Concert recording. Rico had recently heard a Ted Talk about the concert and wondered if he remembered correctly that I loved that Koln Concert recording as much as he did. I wrote him back and said I had tried to listen to that album, but found the music and the performance uninteresting.

Despite my feelings about the Koln Concert, I will always love Keith Jarrett because of his part in one of the most ecstatic musical experiences of my life, courtesy of the Charles Lloyd Quartet circa 1968. That quartet was Lloyd on tenor sax, Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Cecil McBee on bass. I heard them perform a few times in 1966 and 1967 at the Fillmore along with Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.

Then in 1968 the Charles Lloyd Quartet came to Santa Cruz to play at Stevenson College where I was living in a dorm and sometimes going to classes. They performed on the stage in the dining hall for an audience of two hundred jazz buffs. The quartet was in fine form and I was enjoying the show, though I wasn’t wild about the music. I was by then deep into exploring the piano in my own unconventional way that had little to do with classical jazz, of which Lloyd and Jarrett were masters.

So midway through the second set, Keith Jarrett stands by the piano and begins playing random notes on a soprano saxophone. He is not keeping time, just playing random notes with no consistent rhythm. And I’m thinking, ‘This is going to morph into some sort of recognizable tune,’ but Jarrett just keeps playing random notes, not in any particular key, for a couple of minutes. The crowd is getting restless, and I feel restless, too.

Now Charles Lloyd starts playing random notes on his tenor sax, though not in time with Jarrett’s non-rhythmic random notes. I can feel my brain trying to make some sort of sense out of what I’m hearing, but with little success.

Now the bass player starts playing random notes, too, but all his notes are very low, which creates a kind of drone bottom, and this sort of gives form to what I’m hearing. Sort of.

And now the drummer begins to play a conga drum (I think he had a single conga, but he might have had two) and though he begins to play with random untimed hits, he settles into, or seems to settle into, a definable rhythm, and suddenly the separate parts cohere and the totality is incredibly beautiful. I focus on Jarrett and he is still playing random notes, as is Lloyd, as is the bass player, but the sum of their sounds feels impeccably composed, the combinations of notes incredible. People begin shouting and singing and crying and dancing, and none of us ever want this astounding music to end.

After telling Marcia about that miraculous musical experience from fifty years ago, I’m doing yoga by the fire when it occurs to me that the drummer played conga (or congas) rather than his trap set because congas sound pitches, percussive notes, and those pitches played rhythmically supplied an essential bonding agent for that fabulous musical gumbo.

And this is why, though I have never been a big Keith Jarrett fan, I love Keith Jarrett.

Tales of the Heat

September 4th, 2017

sunflower redwood

Sunflowers & Redwoods photo by Todd

“One of the big questions in the climate change debate: Are humans any smarter than frogs in a pot? If you put a frog in a pot and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t jump out. Instead, it will enjoy the nice warm bath until it is cooked to death. We humans seem to be doing pretty much the same thing.” Jeff Goodell

After a long, wet, and very cold winter in Mendocino, we decided that keeping our woodstove going from morning until night and running expensive space heaters in our offices and dressing like Laplanders, and still not being warm enough, was not the best way to continue, so we had a Mitsubishi electric heat pump system installed.

Heat pump technology has evolved and improved dramatically in the last twenty years, and heat pumps are now extremely efficient and cost effective. Since ours is electric, and we now get our electricity from 100% renewable sources, heating our house contributes very little to global warming. The initial installation is expensive, but the monthly heating bills are so much lower than heating with propane or wood, we are very glad we made the investment. And we still have fires in the woodstove when we want wood heat and flaming ambience. We have yet to go through a winter with our new system, but summers on the Mendocino coast can be mighty chilly and we have already enjoyed the benefits of our very quiet heating system.

The day was warm when the fellows were installing the heat pump a couple months ago, and they reminded us that heat pumps are designed to heat or cool the air coming into our house. We laughed and said, “We will never need an air conditioner.”

Well, a few days ago, on the second day of the historically hot air mass settling upon Mendocino and San Francisco and most of California and the western United States, we did, indeed, use our heat pump to cool our house. And when our brains cooled down enough so we could think clearly again, we rejoiced to be comfortable and clearheaded instead of dangerously hot and semi-comatose.

From 1980 to 1995 I lived in Sacramento in a house built before the advent of air conditioning, with a full basement and an upstairs. My daily routine during the blistering hot days that lasted from May to October, was to rise at dawn to exercise and work in the garden before the heat became overwhelming, close all the windows in the house by eight AM, and leave them closed until the afternoon when the house became unbearably stuffy and hot.

Then I would cover my sofa and office chair with towels, strip down to my underpants, open the windows, and every half-hour go outside to stand under ice cold water pouring onto my head from a garden hose while I stood amidst my zucchini and basil and tomatoes and corn and beans. I was the only person I knew in Sacramento who lived without air conditioning; and most of my Sacramento friends thought my way of adapting to the heat was a form of insanity. I saw my behavior as a way to conserve resources and not contribute to global warming, which none of my friends appreciated me talking about in those days.

I moved to Berkeley in 1995 and rented an old house that did not need air conditioning because of its proximity to San Francisco Bay and being directly across the bay from the Golden Gate. Thus on hot days, I simply opened my front door and the sweet oceanic breezes came rushing in.

When the temperature spiked to 104 on Saturday in Mendocino, I had an email exchange with a friend in Palm Springs where it was a mere 102. Communicating with him put me in mind of times I spent in Palm Springs with my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey. They moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles when they were in their late sixties, having lost their once sizeable fortune in a disastrous real estate deal.

For their first few years in Palm Springs they managed a swank getaway called La Siesta Villas, fourteen luxurious cottages arrayed around a big swimming pool. Their compensation for managing the place was a small apartment and stipend, their income supplemented by Social Security and my generous parents.

Movie stars and celebrities and rich people frequented La Siesta Villas—Natalie Wood and Dinah Shore among the many stars who came there to escape the smoggy megalopolis of Los Angeles.

“I often feel like the madam of an exclusive brothel,” Goody told me during her tenure at La Siesta Villas. “Illicit trysts abound here, all these famous people with their beautiful mistresses and handsome lovers, air conditioners blasting away to drown out the sounds of sexual exuberance. Champagne and caviar delivered at midnight. Sordid elegance!”

Goody and Casey rose very early each day to take a long walk before the temperature soared above a hundred as it frequently will in Palm Springs; and on their walks they would occasionally encounter their neighbor Liberace walking his poodles. Friendly hellos became longer conversations, Liberace was charmed by Goody, and one Christmas he gifted her with two wine glasses etched with his trademark candelabrum.

On one of my visits to Palm Springs, I went walking with Goody and we not only bumped into Liberace and I got to admire his diamond rings and famous pompadour up close, but after saying goodbye to him, we went to an Open House for a hacienda for sale and arrived just as Red Skelton was coming out.

Goody introduced herself to Red by saying, “You won’t remember, but long ago you and William Bendix posed for a picture with me at a party at Jay Sandrich’s.”

“You’re right,” said Red, smiling his famous dimpled smile. “I won’t remember.”

And then my grandmother and Red laughed together, and I laughed, too.

Goody, Red, and William