Recipes of Alexander Skåll

February 10th, 2018

th_recipesofalexa-257

I am very happy to present here the first two chapters of my new novel The Recipes of Alexander Skåll. In a nutshell: Andrea Valeraine, a French photojournalist, has been searching for the legendary chef Alexander Skåll for over a decade, though many people think Alexander is dead. When Andrea finally locates the elusive chef, he agrees to meet with her on one condition: that she not reveal his whereabouts to anyone. The Recipes of Alexander Skåll is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California—a comedy drama love story rife with cooking and drinking and eating and philosophizing and picture taking and personal transformation. Handsome coil-bound copies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered by the author, may be purchased via my web site.

September 27

Whereabouts

Dear Alexander Skåll,

Hans Ryder gave me your mailing address and said he would contact you on my behalf. My name is Andrea Valeraine. I hope you will allow me to photograph and interview you in your kitchen and garden. Over the last eleven years, I have photographed and interviewed forty master chefs, seventeen of whom will appear with you in my book to be published by Tantamount Press.

I understand you do not like to be photographed. I hope you will make an exception in my case. I will only use photographs of you that meet your approval. I hope to visit you in October when it is convenient for you.

Andrea Valeraine

*

Dear Ms. Valeraine,

I’m only responding to your note so you will know Hans followed through on his promise to contact me on your behalf. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I cherish my privacy and do not wish to be included among your chefs. I’m sure your book will be a success without me.

Evasively Yours,

Alexander

*

Dear Alexander,

I understand your reticence. I, too, cherish my privacy. Having interviewed many chefs, I think you may underestimate your importance in the pantheon of famous chefs of the last half-century. Your whereabouts will not be divulged in my book. For that matter, we could write that you live in Canada or Europe now, not in California. Thus your appearance in the book will enhance your privacy.

Andrea

*

Clever Andrea,

I can assure you I am of no importance as a chef or anything else. My celebrity results from the bizarre nature of our culture, a mass psychosis that creates deities out of people who step in buckets of shit and come out smelling like roses. Not that I smell like a rose. More like a sachet of bitter herbs.

However, I like the idea of your book throwing the crazies off my trail. Let us connect at Harmony Books & Luthier in Fort Orford on October 22 at 1 PM. The north coast of California can be quite chilly and rainy in late October so I suggest you dress warmly and be prepared for rain.

If Hans can come with you, I would love to see the old idiot again.

Alex

*

Alex!

Thank you so much. As you know, Hans rarely leaves his apartment now, but I will implore him to come with me.

Gratefully,

Andrea

 

October 22 

History Of Sex

Twenty-five years ago, Harmony Books was the cultural epicenter of Fort Orford, a town on the far north coast of California. Today Harmony Books is two bookcases in a luthier shop—a few hundred vestigial volumes of poetry and fiction—and the legendary bookshop next door to the luthier has been replaced by three shops: pizza parlor, hair salon, and marijuana dispensary.

Twenty years ago, the luthier shop employed three luthiers. Today there is only one luthier in Fort Orford: Harmon Green, fifty-eight, six-feet-tall, his longish brown hair going gray, his handsome face detailed with smile wrinkles and lines of sorrow.

Wearing brown trousers and a faded red T-shirt—Harmony Books writ across the chest—Harmon sits on a cushioned stool at his large worktable putting new frets on a seventy-year-old Gibson guitar, his close-up vision enhanced by green-framed magnifying glasses.

The little bronze bell atop the front door jingles and Harmon removes his glasses to inspect his visitor—a woman, long-limbed and graceful, her reddish-brown shoulder-length hair touched with gray, her eyes bluish green, her lips voluptuous—her face expressionless. She is wearing a purple parka over a black turtleneck, gray trousers, brown walking shoes, and she is carrying a gray canvas camera bag.

“Excuse me,” she says, her accent French. “I’m hoping to meet someone here. Do you mind if I wait?”

“Not at all,” says Harmon, glad of the company. “You will find either armchair comfortable, the blue somewhat firmer than the green, there are books of poems and stories to peruse if you are so inclined, or you may chat with the luthier who is, incredible as this may seem, capable of conversation while he works.”

“My name is Andrea,” she says, smiling ever so slightly as she approaches the large worktable on which two guitars, a ukulele, and a violin are in various stages of repair. “Andrea Valeraine.”

“Harmon,” he says, receiving her attention as a kiss. “Harmon Green. Welcome to Fort Orford.”

“I am a photographer,” she says, admiring the ensemble of instruments and tools spread out on the big table. “Would you mind if I take pictures while you work?”

“I don’t mind,” he says, though he does a little. “I am often photographed by tourists. Must be something irresistible about a scruffy fellow engaged in pre-industrial handwork.” He chuckles at his self-description. “May I offer you a cup of coffee? Tea? Cocoa? Wine?”

She fishes her phone out of her camera bag and checks the time—12:37. “I would love some coffee. Thank you.”

Harmon rises with his characteristic ease, and Andrea is alarmed to feel sexually aroused, a feeling she has kept at bay for many years.

“Please make yourself at home,” says Harmon, gesturing to the entire store before he disappears behind the large shoji screen that divides the room.

“Merci,” she says, moving to the front of the store where she takes off her parka, settles into the blue armchair, and tells herself she is not attracted to this man but merely excited about the prospect of finally meeting Alexander Skåll.

Perusing the books on the shelves, she is pleased to see several volumes published by Tantamount Press, her publisher. Now she startles at the name Harmon Green on the spine of a slender volume from Tantamount, removes the book from the shelf, and cringes at the title—History of Sex.

Despite her aversion to the title, she opens to a random page.

 

calling

Comfortable together in their aftermath she says I never

come the first time with a new partner. But I came so hard

with you. Maybe you’re the one I’ve been waiting for.

Next day he calls her madly in love and she says

I made a mistake. Don’t ever call me again.

His heart aches for days until one morning she calls to say

Am I crazy? Get over here you wonderful guy.

Astride him she shouts God you are the best, the best ever!

Next day he leaves a love poem on her answering machine

and when she doesn’t call him back he goes to her house

and she growls Go away. Don’t ever call me again.

For weeks every sound murders him

until one morning he wakes to her

leaving a message on his answering machine:

Ready to go again?

 

Andrea reads calling a second time and finishes just as Harmon emerges from behind the screen with two steaming mugs.

“Would you like your coffee way over there?” he asks, sounding sad about her being so far from him. “Or will you join me at my table?”

“I will join you,” she says, bringing History of Sex and her camera bag to the worktable and sitting on the chair closest to Harmon.

“I guessed you’d like yours black,” he says, pleased she chose the chair nearest to him. “Yes?”

“What else did you guess about me?” she asks, sipping her coffee and humming a note of approval.

“You are French, not Swiss,” he says, setting his coffee down. “You are fifty-two, six years younger than I, you’ve lived in North America for a long time, in a city, you are a successful photographer, currently single, the wedding band a ruse to dissuade suitors, and you just read one of my poems and did not dislike it. I wonder which one. Old poems. Haven’t read them in twenty years. Maybe I’ll read them again now that you’ve awakened the book. You may have that copy if you’d like.”

“Merci,” she says, reddening ever so slightly. “I hope you will sign it for me. I didn’t like the title at first, but now I do. And I agree, we do awaken books when we read them, just as we awaken paintings and photos when we look at them.”

“Instruments, too,” he says, indicating the wall decorated with violins, guitars, ukuleles, and one intriguing tenor balalaika. “They love to be touched and played.”

“How did you know those things about me?” she asks, frowning. “You are correct, but…how did you know?”

“I don’t know how I knew,” he says, shrugging. “Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve had a knack for guessing people’s ages and birthplaces and other things about them, the information arriving in my brain once I get a good look at them and hear them speak.”

“Are you always right?” she asks, this talent fascinating to her.

“Pretty much always, yes.” He frowns and nods. “Strange, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think so,” she says, liking him very much. “You are just highly intuitive and extremely intelligent, and this is one of your gifts.”

“Yeah,” he says, his frown turning to a smile. “A gift.”

A pleasant silence falls.

Harmon puts on his magnifying glasses and resumes his work.

Andrea gets out her camera, stands up, and takes several pictures of the worktable.

Now she frames Harmon in the center of her viewfinder and asks quietly, “What are we striving for?”

“Do you mean why are we striving?” he asks, looking up at her, his magnified eyes frog-like. “Or do you mean…what are we striving to accomplish?”

“Mostly I mean why are we striving. But also what are we trying to accomplish?”

“You go first,” he says, comically arching an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” she says, laughing at his funny face. “That’s why I asked you.”

“Ah,” he says, removing his glasses and setting them beside the old Gibson. “We strive because we are habituated to striving and because there’s a certain joy in striving. We strive to get money for food and shelter and warmth for ourselves and those we love.”

She lowers her camera and says, “I’m tired of striving.”

“Well to quote my old pal Tyler Gray,” says Harmon, thinking of his friend who died some years ago, “a little striving goes a long way.”

“I don’t know how to strive just a little,” she says, thinking of Alexander Skåll and the completion of her book. “I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people.”

“Somehow I knew that,” he says, his eyes narrowing. “There’s nothing tentative about you.”

She sits downs and says, “No one has ever said anything like that to me before. Why would you say such a thing?”

“Because that’s how you strike me.” He gazes at her, unafraid. “You seem undisguised and wonderfully calm and very sure of why you’re here.”

“But now I’m not so sure,” she says, meeting his gaze. “I thought I was meeting someone else here, but now I think…” She takes a deep breath. “Maybe I came here to meet you.”

“Ah, but who am I?” He laughs self-consciously. “No need to answer that.”

“Oh but I want to. You are someone I’ve longed to meet. Someone…a man…who will be my good friend for the rest of my life.”

“Case in point,” he says, folding his arms. “Nothing tentative about you.”

“But you are not so sure if you want to be my friend,” she says, giving him a comical smile. “You who know so many things about other people so quickly.”

“I’m sure I like you,” he says, enjoying the intimacy of their exchange. “I’m just not in the habit of entertaining rest-of-my-life scenarios with people I’ve known for less than ten minutes.”

“Nor am I,” she says seriously. “I have never in my life been so forward with anyone, man or woman. But I feel powerless not to say these things to you.”

“Yet you are so obviously powerful,” he says, matching her seriousness. “Not to mention frighteningly attractive.”

“I am not attractive,” she says, looking away. “Nor am I powerful. If I were powerful…”

The bell above the door jingles and a young Mexican woman enters the shop—red parka, blue jeans, long black hair in a ponytail—a singular beauty.

“Hola hija,” says Harmon, raising his mug. “Come meet the enchanting Andrea Valeraine. Andrea, my daughter Dolores, known far and wide as Dolly.”

“Hola Dolly,” says Andrea, reddening at Harmon’s flattery.

“Hola,” she says, smiling shyly. “I came to bring you to Alex.”

Andrea gasps. “He sent you?”

“Yes,” says Dolly, glancing at her father. “He sent me.”

Thinking

February 5th, 2018

jennysletter

Perception pen and ink by Todd

Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Which is the English translation of the French “Je pense, donc je suis.” Which is Descarte’s translation of the Latin, Cogito ergo sum.

I remember the first time I thought about my existence being a matter of thinking I existed, and feeling a bit confused. I was twelve. What if I stopped thinking I existed, would I stop existing?

Lately I’ve become convinced by reading books about neurobiology and being in therapy again after eons of not being in therapy that: I sometimes feel how I think I feel, and sometimes I feel fine because I’m not thinking; but I’m not sure I exist because I think I exist.

Several times in my life I’ve been rushed to hospital emergency rooms in cars and ambulances, and whilst en route and feeling my life force ebbing, I felt I existed because my body was alive and if my body stopped being alive I wouldn’t exist. I’m alive, therefore I’m alive.

About two years ago, due to a nasty run-in with some incompetent medical doctors, I began to experience panic attacks for the first time in my life. If you’ve never had a full-blown panic attack, trust me, you don’t want to have one, not even just to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had one of those.” I would describe a panic attack to you, but such a thing is beyond the power of words to describe. I might say: Imagine you are hurtling on a plank down a steep hill toward jagged rocks and your body is vibrating so tremendously you feel you may explode before you hit the jagged rocks, and that would not be the half of it.

The idea that: I think I’m having a panic attack, therefore I am having a panic attack, might be true, but doesn’t help much in the midst of a panic attack. Or maybe it does help. Or could help. Maybe if one could convince one’s self that the panic attack is merely a figment of thinking, and one could stop thinking in that way, then the panic would subside. That is how drugs made to quell panic attacks work. They interfere with the brain thinking we’re panicking, so we stop panicking.

Anyway, I’ve been having all sorts of helpful feelings and experiences and shifts in self-perception as a result of therapy, and I’ve actually gone some months without too much anxiety impinging on my life. So when visitations from the old anxiety tendrils began anew recently, I was not thrilled.

I wrote to my therapist: Last night, first time in a long time, my anxiety returned. Dreadful feeling, like the return of someone I really don’t like and hoped never to see again suddenly walking into my house. I was physically exhausted, so I knew that had something to do with my vulnerability to feelings of anxiety. At one point, I felt so angry about my ongoing anxiety, I shouted, “Get out of my life. Let me be happy. Just get out of my life.” And I was greatly relieved, a kind of mini-rage release. I couldn’t bring to mind parents or abusive people from my past. It was more a feeling of being victimized by the idea that for some reason it is not okay for me to have a happy healthy life.

My therapist wrote back, and I paraphrase: “This actually sounds very ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) to me and I want to say, “So, what’s the problem?” Yes, you have a habit or a propensity for anxiety.

“Stop narrating your mood. Feelings come and go like the tide. Let them move through you without judgment. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! Perhaps you want the narrator to get out of your life?

“I understand it is not a pleasant feeling. Stop fighting with it, though, because that just gives it more power over you. Do you check the weather as much as you check your mood and feelings? Do you try to control the weather? Do you judge it? Your feelings are your own atmospheric experience. Let them be what they are and keep on living and Being!

“Who are you? What are you without the narrative? Who is aware of the anxiety? What is the experience of the experiencer? Put your awareness on itself and let everything else take care of itself. Make sense?”

I was reminded by those words from my therapist of a time twenty years ago when I was going through great physical difficulties, and I went to a body worker and she would be working on my shoulder or my hip, and the pain would be tremendous, and I would inform her of my pain, and she would say, “Stay with the pain. Go into it. Really try to experience everything that composes the pain. Really stay focused on that pain.”

And if I put my awareness on the pain, by golly, the pain would either go away or jump to another part of my body, which amazed me and made me wonder: what is pain?

Twenty years later, I regularly go to a superb acupressurist who invariably discovers blockages in my meridians and unblocks them so that for a few days at least I feel vastly improved compared to how I felt before she manipulated those points of interest.

The truth is, I would benefit greatly from a thorough massage every few days, weekly acupressure, weekly psychotherapy, and a sauna every day during the winter and twice weekly during the summer. Who wouldn’t benefit from that regimen of healing help? Who has that kind of money?

I remember during an anti-war demonstration long ago, a speaker reported calculations made by smart people at a renowned university that for the same amount of money the United States spent every year building weapons and waging needless wars, every person in America could afford a full-body massage every few days, weekly acupuncture treatments, weekly psychotherapy, free healthcare, free education from nursery school through graduate school, free food, and so much more. Every American. And if you don’t think creating a system providing such goodies for everyone would cure our social and economic and emotional ills, you and I would not be in agreement.

How’s this for a variation on the basic Descartes? I receive vast amounts of physical and emotional tenderness and approval and love, therefore I am happy and not at all anxious, and I want the same for everyone else.

I Will Play Chico

January 29th, 2018

Moments that we save TW

Moments That We Save painting by Nolan Winkler

I Will Play Chico

        a cinematic poem

I want to make a movie, a modern variant of the Marx Brothers.

My brother will play Groucho, you will play Harpo, and I will

play Chico. The movie is a classic comedy mystery chase love

story. We race around being ourselves in myriad situations—

basketball games, delicatessens, hardware stores, museums,

pizza parlors, schools, post offices, gas stations, taquerias,

coffee houses, traffic jams, ice cream parlors, prisons,

art galleries, trains, psychotherapists’ offices, hotels,

noodle joints, laundromats, sporting goods stores,

bistros, police stations, zoos, churches, houses,

hotels, corporate headquarters, jungles—

and everywhere we go we encounter men

who are enraged at us for daring to be

ourselves and they will stop at

nothing to try to kill us.

 

Several times during the movie we take breaks from being

pursued by the men who want to kill us, and we perform

for audiences of women and children and unusual men

who are not enraged by us being ourselves. I play

piano, you play harp, my brother strums a

ukulele, and we sing songs in three-part

harmony. We read poems of mystery,

tell funny stories about unlikely

tender-hearted heroes, and

paint intriguing pictures of

a society free of cruelty

and jealousy.

 

In the end we are captured and jailed and charged with

the crime of being ourselves. The trial takes place in a

spooky courtroom presided over by a judge wearing

a mask and a hood. We are sentenced to death and

are about to be executed when all the women and

children and unusual men we’ve met along our

way rise up to save us. And in the fabulous

song and dance finale, the men who

wanted to kill us for being

ourselves wake from their

trances and see that

they are us.

 

Todd Walton

Of Birds and Irony

January 22nd, 2018

tracks02

tracks photo by Max Greenstreet

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

We’ve had several hummingbird sightings in the garden these last few cold winter days, and these first visitations after two months of not seeing the brilliant little hovering blurs always remind me that spring will soon come creeping over the windowsill, to cop a phrase from a song from My Fair Lady.

Did you know that an adult hummingbird visits an average of 1500 flowers per day, and that same adult hummingbird will eat six to seven hundred bugs a day in order to survive? Most people don’t realize that hummers are such voracious insectivores, but they are, for which we should be immensely grateful and not spray our gardens with bug poison.

Decades ago on an early summer backpack trip on the Lost Coast, my five pals and I reached the beach at Little Jackass Creek at dusk after a long day of hiking up and down the coast range through heavy brush. We found a fine camping spot a couple hundred yards up the creek from the beach, and also found multitudes of mosquitoes—this concentration of mosquito bait, six humans where no other humans were, attracting thousands of hungry blood suckers to our camp.

We lathered up with repellant, but we needn’t have. As we sat by our nascent fire, recovering from our strenuous trek, a vast array of diminutive super heroes materialized around us to gobble the swarms of mosquitoes. There were swallows, dragonflies, tiny sparrow-like birds, bats, and hummingbirds harvesting the air with such thoroughness and efficiency that within twenty minutes there were virtually no mosquitoes left in our vicinity. If I hadn’t been in the midst of this blessed annihilation, I wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible.

Along with the hummingbird sightings, I recently had a communication from a hawk, though I didn’t see her. Walking to town through the woods west of our house, I heard her shrill cry and looked up into a thick tangle of pine boughs to determine where the sound was coming from, imagining a hungry Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the tangle, as eager for spring as I am.

You probably know that raptors have incredibly keen eyesight, but did you know that an eagle flying a thousand feet high can spot a rabbit on the ground three miles away, and that the eyes of birds of prey weigh more than their brains?

As I was reading and writing about birds, I got an email containing the text of a speech given by a famous actress at one of the women’s marches that took place on the anniversary of the current President of the United States being in office for one year, a march protesting all things anti-women, most especially the current president. This super-famous actress was decrying the male-sexual-power-over-women ethos of Hollywood and America and the entire world, and admitting, while decrying, that her success was the result of acquiescing sexually to powerful men who then gave her the chance to play sadistic murderous sex sirens in many movies for which she became incredibly rich and famous.

Perhaps because I was reading and thinking and writing about birds and the fantastic complexity of nature, this woman’s speech struck me as an account of a natural process rather than a description of something terrible and wrong. Male mountain lions, for instance, do battle for control of large territories within which female mountain lions have smaller territories they protect from other female mountain lions. When a new male mountain lion takes control of a large territory from another male mountain lion, his first order of business is to find the litters of kittens fathered by the previous male mountain lion, kill the kittens, and then impregnate the mothers of those now dead kittens with his own offspring.

Which is not to say I don’t deplore the sexual-power-over ethos of Hollywood and America and the entire world, but to say I think it behooves us to examine this long-standing reality in the context of the evolution of humans and human society, and not merely as something we find abhorrent today. How did this ethos get established? How did sexual power-over serve the evolution of the species? Does this seemingly unfair and yucky ethos still have an evolutionary purpose? Is this power-over way of relating to one another inherent to our species?

Meanwhile, my friend Max recently sent me some photos he took of tire tracks in the snow. I found these photos stupendous and wrote the following to Max.

“I love those tire-track snow pictures. If you were a famous artist, you could blow those up to six-foot by four-foot prints, or twelve-foot by nine-foot, and frame them in huge black frames and they would go nuts over them in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The New York Times would say they reveal the “genius of accidental movement of mass-with-treaded-tires colluding with the crystallization of nature’s communication modalities.” And The New Yorker would call them “brilliant calligraphic collaborations of mindless humanity and ironic natural positing.”

Think of a rabbit enjoying a tasty patch of freshly sprung grass on a sunny day in spring, little suspecting that three miles away and a thousand feet above the earth, an eagle has spotted the rabbit and is about to descend at a hundred-and-fifty-miles-per-hour to kill and eat the rabbit; neither the raptor nor the rabbit knowing that female humans are frequently the victims of predatory male humans or that Max’s photographs are not huge and hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art—ironic positing of no consequence to eagles and rabbits doing what they were born to do.

351tires

tires diptych by Max Greenstreet

 

One Thing Leads To Another

January 15th, 2018

white winter permain

White Winter Permain photo by Todd

For several years in my childhood, there was a sentence I repeated to myself when I was riding my bike or walking home from school or climbing a tree; and I realize now, sixty years later, that I repeated this phrase as a way of countering my mother’s basic life philosophy, which was something along the lines of, “No matter what you do, it isn’t good enough.”

The sentence I repeated to myself was: “One thing leads to another.”

I was reminded of that favorite sentence yesterday when Susan Waterfall, the pianist and musical historian, and her orchestra conductor hubby Allan Pollack, came over for Marcia’s scrumptious cornbread and coffee, and brought with them the beautiful White Winter Permain apple tree, bare root, that Susan purchased for me from an heirloom apple tree nursery.

Susan gifted me with the apple tree, and got one for her orchard, too, after reading about the White Winter Permain in an article I posted seven months ago entitled Of Apples and Accordions. In that article, I copied a paragraph from the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory that read: “PEARMAIN, WHITE WINTER (Winter Pearmain) — Oldest known English apple; dates back to 1200 A.D. Medium to nearly large, round to oval, light greenish fruit turning pale yellow with numerous dots. Fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy flesh. Pleasantly rich, aromatic flavor. Fine quality, all-purpose apple. Excellent keeper. Tree is a healthy, vigorous grower; bears regularly and heavily. Splendid vitality; widely adaptable. Excellent pollinator. Old favorite dessert apple of the Middle West in early 1800s. Today is grown primarily in warm winter areas where its low chilling requirement renders it one of the few possible apples there. Ripens in late October.”

I have now planted the White Winter Permain in the center of our little orchard, and a few Octobers hence I hope to be eating apples from this tree. Thank you, Susan!

One thing really does lead to another.

A couple months ago, Marcia and I were visiting Carolyn Steinbuck, the pianist, and her husband Francis Rutherford, the cellist and fixer of just about anything needing repair, and Carolyn mentioned she was going to be selling her six-foot grand piano. Having wanted a grand piano for most of my adult life, but never imagining I would own one, I inquired of the price. Carolyn named a reasonable amount, and I replied without conscious forethought, “I might be interested.”

Hearing those words coming out of my mouth was startling to me, as was Carolyn’s response, “If anybody should have a grand piano, you should.”

What did she mean? Why should I, the past president of the Society of Undeserving People, have a lovely grand piano? A few days later, I returned to Carolyn’s house, gave the grand a good tryout, thought to myself I am unworthy of this piano and shouted, “I want it!”

With Marcia’s enthusiastic support, we bought Carolyn’s grand and had the six-foot beauty carefully moved from Carolyn’s house in Elk to our digs in Mendocino, a crew of three formidable and good-natured men accomplishing the daunting task.

the movers

The Marvelous Movers photo by Todd

But before that formidable trio brought the behemoth to our house, we had to do some serious rearranging of furniture and stuff in our living room, resulting in ridding ourselves of a gigantic old armchair, taking things down from walls, one thing leading to another, so when the grand piano was in place, our living room felt more spacious than ever before, and I still had my beloved upright piano.

When the marvelous movers were gone, I sat down at the grand, played a run of notes, and was immediately besieged by buyer’s remorse. I hurried across the room to the upright I’ve had for forty years, played a run of notes, wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake, and…

Weeks went by. The grand and I became better acquainted, but there were things about the sound and action I was unhappy with. I needed the expert advice of my tuner, Richard Kane, to determine whether those unhappy things could be made happy, which is why I so eagerly anticipated his January visit.

A few days ago, Richard came to tune the grand for the first time, gave her a test drive, and assured me that everything I felt was problematic could be rectified with proper regulation. We then discussed the subtle buzzing and somewhat metallic sound of the otherwise grandiloquent bass notes, and he said there was something he could do on the spot to solve those problems.

So rather than tune the piano, he loosened the bass strings, detached them one-at-a-time from their anchor posts (pegs?) and gave each string a bit of tightening twisting and self-Rolfing (my term) to remove accumulated stuckness before reattaching them. Then he tuned the bass strings and promised to return two weeks hence to tune the whole piano.

bass string fix

Bass String Fix photo by Todd

Alas, Richard no longer does the regulating my piano needs, but he will endeavor to find a technician willing to make the long trek to these hinterlands to make the grand right.

Now here is a deeper thing that led to those other things. I am absolutely certain I never would have even considered buying Carolyn’s piano had I not recently been through some hugely transformative experiences via psychotherapy. A fundamental rule of my former psychological operating system was to never allow myself to be my whole big self. To survive the slings and arrows of my unhappy parents, I learned to make myself small and to severely restrict my bigness and wholeness to avoid, as much as possible, verbal and physical abuse.

However, emerging as I am from the old constricting carapace of my former operating system, I am replacing many of the fundamental rules composing my operating system with new rules. And though I am still in a major reconstruction phase, the day I played the grand at Carolyn’s, Todd who shouted, “I want it!” was more than big enough to have a grand piano.

the player

 

 

 

Parts

January 8th, 2018

bred in the bone 72

Bred in the Bone painting by Nolan Winkler

 

The picture

is imperfect,

partial.

 

As when it’s said:

“I am partial

to”

             Kate Greenstreet

 

I recently came upon a short film on Vimeo entitled Nix+Gerber made by a collective of filmmakers calling themselves The Drawing Room. I have now watched their marvelous little movie three times and sent the link to several people I know. Nix+Gerber not only captures the remarkable creative process of Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, but eloquently illuminates the steps every artist must take in order to bring his or her vision to fruition.

The word artist is a loaded one in our society and has countless meanings and implications, so for the sake of clarity, I will give you my current definition of an artist. An artist is a person who is committed to making art as an essential part of her life.

The first step illustrated by Nix+Gerber is clarifying to yourself what kind of art you make. Nix tells us she considers herself a photographer more than a sculptor, and says, “I’m not the kind of photographer who is going to go out and find things to photograph. I’m gonna create things to photograph.”

Thinking about my recent novels in this regard, I would say, “I’m a fiction writer writing about humans striving to overcome self-doubt while seeking love and friendship in an imagined present-day American society.”

Regarding my music, “I’m a pianist creating melodic rhythmic patterns on which to improvise.”

The second step of the artist’s process shown in Nix+Gerber is having a vision of what you wish to create. For Nix and Gerber they have visions of things to make so they can then photograph those things.

Their vision for their series of incredibly real-seeming miniature interiors entitled The City, is of a world “post-mankind…where buildings have aged and crumbled and nature has taken back some of the spaces.”

The third and fourth steps of the artist’s process are: choosing your medium(s) and undertaking the creation. To bring their vision of this post-mankind world into being, Nix and Gerber spent many years building a series of hyper-realistic miniature three-dimensional interiors, including a medical school lecture hall, a power plant control room, the shop of a violin maker, a church, a Laundromat, and a subway car.

Each interior took them approximately seven months to create, working long hours every day, meticulously sculpting and fabricating every imaginable detail of that interior—including dust and cobwebs and rust stains—until the scene was complete and ready to photograph. And then, when they were satisfied with their photographs of these interiors, they dismantled the interiors, saved any of the thousands of tiny objects they might use again, and threw the rest away—the lasting artifacts being photographs.

I am reminded by Nix+Gerber of the work of Andy Goldsworthy, the British sculptor famed for his site-specific sculpture and land art, the fame of those works resulting from the excellent photographs he took of those sculptures and presented in big beautiful books, as well as in the documentary film Rivers and Tides.

My latest novel is about a woman nearing the end of her ten-year quest to find and interview and photograph a man who was a very famous chef until he disappeared and was presumed dead. I have spent a year word-sculpting the details of this novel and have recently completed the entire form, which I am now in the process of refining. I will eventually produce copies of the novel to share, and use the original pages for fire starter.

Thus my process is similar to Nix and Gerber’s process. We commit ourselves to making works of art, we have our visions, we decide on our mediums, we create the many parts composing our final creations, and we choose ways to present our creations to the world.

“A writer should immediately tell the reader four things:

1. Who the story is about.

2. What he is doing.

3. Where he is doing it.

4. When he is doing it.” Madeleine L’Engle

The final interior for Nix and Gerber’s The City, is a painstakingly accurate replica of Nix & Gerber’s incredibly cluttered home studio. In the movie Nix+Gerber, as we see in close-ups several of the hundreds of tiny parts composing the amazing replica of their home studio, Nix says, “It’s the little details that really make the scene come alive.”

This is true in a novel, too. For instance, if two people are talking, a description of where they are having their conversation, mention of a cat on a lap, steam rising from a mug of coffee, wisps of fog drifting in from the sea at day’s end, all contribute to the scene coming alive by resonating with the reader’s personal associations to these details of life.

Near the end of Nix+Gerber, speaking of the finished work, Nix says, “I’m too close to see the illusion. I have to rely on friends to tell me if it works or not.”

And this is why when I complete a draft of a novel, I don’t immediately begin working on the next draft. I need time to individuate, so when I begin the next draft I am somewhat distinct from those characters who have become so real to me they inhabit my dreams.

The little movie Nix+Gerber has stayed with me for several days now, not only because the movie is a delight to watch, but because Nix and Gerber’s astounding artistic odyssey inspires me to continue my own journey through the unknown, guided by a vision I wish to share with others.

Going Around Again

January 1st, 2018

Korte

Hymn To The Gentle Sun

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.” Lewis Carroll

If I had a dollar for every person who said to me in the last few weeks, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I could buy three excellent tacos at the new taqueria in Mendocino.

When people say, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I am tempted to reply, “Do you really think the first day of January will be a vast improvement over the last day of December?”

But I don’t say that because I know what they really mean is they hope things for them and the planet and everyone they know will improve in the future, so why not use the beginning of a so-called new year as a way to imagine the end of unpleasantness and the beginning of less unpleasantness and maybe even some really fun things happening?

A year, it turns out, for those who believe the earth revolves around the sun, is the time it takes the earth to go once around the sun. The first day of January is the day many people have agreed is the first day of that revolution, but we might agree that the Winter Solstice is the first day, or the Summer Solstice is the first day. Or, as I like to agree with myself, the day I was born is the first day of my current trip around the sun.

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” Mark Twain

About six months ago, as part of my attempt to lessen the severe anxiety I was experiencing in my every day life, I stopped following the news. I stopped reading news stories on my computer, stopped listening to news on the radio, stopped reading newspapers, and excused myself when the people began talking about the latest mass murder or war atrocity or something terrible our government was doing or not doing.

At first, I felt ashamed and guilty about not keeping up with the daily horror show, but within a few days of giving up mass media, my anxiety was so vastly reduced, I hardly minded feeling ashamed; and pretty soon the shame and guilt vanished, too.

This experience confirmed for me that at least part of my anxiety was related to consuming ideas and images that frighten or anger or depress me. Given a choice, why would anyone choose to consume frightening, angering, and depressing ideas and images as a regular part of his or her daily life? My answer to that is that most people don’t choose to follow the news, but are entrained to do so, habituated to doing so, which means they are habituated to thinking of the world and human society as relentlessly terrible. Which would explain why so many people are eager for this year to be over.

However, if we continue to absorb the emanations of mass media, we will soon be eager for next year to be over, too.

Am I suggesting you stop following the news in the ways you follow the news? No.

“For years I was tuned a few notes too high—I don’t see how I could stand it.” William Stafford

In a recent letter to my friend Max, I wrote:

We change. Our tastes change. I hadn’t read any prose other than my own work for a couple years and thought I might never again read any prose by other authors (except Kim by Rudyard Kipling every few years), and then I was given two volumes of essays by Kathleen Jamie and gobbled them like a starving person. What a surprise. But reading Jamie didn’t get me reading other prose stuff again. Most contemporary prose is dreadful to my senses. But I was happy to know I might still occasionally find things that feed me.

I have become so sensitive to giant imagery and loud sounds that I will never go see a movie in a theatre again because it might kill me, literally. Even attending symphony concerts is getting harder for me because the music is often too loud for my circuits to handle comfortably, and I have to plug my ears during the loud parts.

Thirty years ago, one of my favorite poets was Mary Norbert Körte. She was a nun for several years when she was a young woman, then left the convent and moved to Mendocino County and became a hippy wild woman poet. For a time she worked on the Skunk Train, the tourist train that runs between Willits and Fort Bragg going through the redwood forests, up and down over the coast range.

I read with her once in Sacramento long ago, and listening to her read, I felt I was sharing the bill with a great genius. The first time I heard her read was many years before that in Santa Cruz, and I thought she was one of the most insightful humans I’d ever heard; and I never imagined I would one day read with her. I have a volume of her poems she wrote when she was a nun, Hymn To the Gentle Sun, and I used to love those poems. Now I don’t connect with them. I wonder what Mary thinks of those poems after all these years?

I am forever disappointing people because I won’t/can’t read books they tell me are wonderful and great. I give these books a try by using the Look Inside feature at Amazon, and if any of them ever pass the two-page test I will buy that book and give it a try, but so far none of these recommended books have passed the two-paragraph test. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful books, it just means they aren’t for me as I am currently configured.

Maybe you and I are dealing with huge self-defining issues that have shaped our lives up to now. Maybe we had roles in our families, relational roles that continue to play out in our lives. In therapy, I’ve uncovered some of those early defining issues in my life (what Gabor Maté calls coping mechanisms that become traits—things we did to survive that became habits) such as feeling responsible for everyone else’s happiness or unhappiness. Turns out I’m not. Can’t be. But my system was habituated to trying to make other people happy or feeling I was a failure and despicable if someone I knew was unhappy. A kind of less-obvious narcissism. I am responsible for other people’s happiness or unhappiness? That’s plain silly, not to mention tiring.

So follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously said. Follow what you know in this moment to be right for you, knowing you can’t make a mistake. You’re just hiking along the trail and reacting with an open heart and an open mind to what comes your way.

Love,

Todd

Her Children (Otra Vez)

December 25th, 2017

351tires

tires diptych by Max Greenstreet

Earlier this year, 2017, I brought out a collection of eighty-three of my essays and memories entitled Sources of Wonder. I had been meaning to make such a collection for some time in response to requests for such from several of my readers, but I kept not assembling these “greatest hits”, because…well, I’m not sure why I was hesitant, but I was.

Then one day Marcia got a letter from a friend who had been whiling away a little time in her neighbor’s living room and picked up a book that had for a place marker an old newspaper column. Marcia’s friend read that column from a 2011 Anderson Valley Advertiser, loved the story, and then discovered the piece was one of mine: Her Children.

When Marcia told me this story, I was finally convinced that a collection of my essays and memories would be a good thing to offer the world so copies might be stumbled upon years hence and read with pleasure by people I know and people I will never know. I’m happy to report that Sources of Wonder has garnered rave reviews from a handful of prescient souls who purchased copies in support of this author.

As a New Year offering, I present the piece that inspired the collection. Bien Venidos!

 

Her Children

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No. They always said, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.

 

Renaissance

December 18th, 2017

Balance

Balance photo by Marcia Sloane

“If you are depressed, you are too high up in your mind.” Carl Jung

We went to an excellent modern dance concert yesterday afternoon given by the Mendocino Dance Project, an ensemble of four women dancers, all of them residents of these hinterlands. I used to be a devotee of modern dance and attended countless concerts given by famous and not-so-famous troupes in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and at numerous universities. Three of the six pieces we saw danced yesterday, were, for my taste, as fine as anything I’ve ever seen. Right here in a seventy-five-seat theatre in Mendocino.

This inspiring dance concert got me thinking about the tens of thousands of artists and dancers and musicians and writers graduating annually from thousands of academic factories in America, and how most of those young artists will find little opportunity in the so-called real world to do much paid work in the arts they chose to pursue. Because we are an all-or-nothing culture, only a lucky few will even partially support themselves through their creative endeavors.

And that got me thinking about the annual defense budget of the United States, which is a trillion dollars a year, and the annual corporate tax breaks amounting to hundreds of billions, and the annual hundreds of billions we give to insurance companies to cover possible medical expenses—multiple trillions of dollars every year handed over to a relatively small number of people who already have most of everything, in exchange for almost nothing.

This enumeration of wasted trillions led me to imagine those trillions being spent on things human societies actually need, and after our energy system was infused with sufficient funds to feed the power grids exclusively with eco-friendly renewables, and our local, state, and national transit systems were made flawless and comprehensive and non-polluting, and our healthcare system was made a thousand times better and entirely free, and our educational system was made truly fantastic and also free, we would still have trillions of dollars to spend. Then, among other things, young people aspiring to be artists could be supported in practicing their art without having to be incredibly lucky.

But we probably won’t be redirecting those trillions any time soon, there will probably be no national renaissance, and we will carry on as we do, delighting in the very occasional excellent original dance or art or music or writing we stumble upon while making our way through the vast morass of contemporary culture.

Of course, one person’s morass is another person’s Valhalla, and every generation of artists in a society with no history and no artistic continuity, as ours is becoming, must reinvent their artistic wheels, so to speak. Which explains why so many contemporary books and plays and movies, and so much contemporary art and music seem so youthful to me, and by youthful I mean unrefined, unpracticed, imitative, shallow, and unknowing of what generations of preceding artists practiced and refined and deepened.

For several years I oversaw the work of gifted teenaged writers, and their promise was what was most exciting to me. I did not expect refined art from them, though sometimes a masterwork would pop out of the teenaged ferment. And that is what contemporary culture reminds me of—people with little knowledge or training trying to learn the basics of their chosen means of expression while on the job.

Imagine a person walking onto a stage in front of a large audience and saying, “Hi. Thanks for coming. I’m a mime and a dancer, or I want to be. I’ve hardly done any miming or dancing in my life, but I’ve worked up a little something, kind of, and now I’m gonna try some stuff out and see what happens. Okay, start the music. Hope you enjoy this. Let’s see, what should I do first?”

That’s what contemporary culture feels like to me much of the time; and this amateur approach does not make for strong and believable dialogue in plays and movies, nor produce much masterfully finished art or music or literature. Nor does the amateur approach fill the movie studios and publishing houses and theatre companies and recording companies with people who have knowledge or understanding of what happened artistically ten years ago, let alone what transpired fifty and a hundred years ago.

What does this have to do with our current government? Everything. I have no doubt that had a thousand more original and masterfully crafted books been published in the last fifty years, and two hundred more compelling beautifully written plays been produced in those same fifty years, and five thousand more fabulous unknown artists been more widely known, we would have an entirely different bunch of people running our government. They would be people infused with the genius of their society, which would, by definition, speak to the needs of the society. Our elected representatives would have senses of humor and irony. They would not be misogynists and racists. They would be learned and thoughtful, and they would all be incredibly compassionate and generous.

Furthermore, I think (here’s a conspiracy theory for you) that the overlords are keenly aware of the transformative power of excellent original art—they last saw that power on massive display for a brief window of time known as the Sixties (circa 1963-1975)—and have made sure since then to never allow such unpredictably transformative stuff to spread beyond an isolated watershed or two because that kind of Creative Power To Change Things messes with their control of society.

I’m referring to the ineffable power of original art to radically change people’s ways of thinking and feeling about the world.

The neato thing about humans is that we are inherently inventive and creative, and left to our own devices we will invent and create incredibly neato things, especially when we are surrounded by other people freely inventing and creating neato things that help show us the way and inspire us. Creativity is infectious.

That dance concert filled me with hope, fleeting perhaps, but fleeting is all we really have. So as I settle down to work on my novel today, I am filled with joy imagining people reading my book and having all sorts of unexpected feelings and ideas and excitement.

Sex & Power

December 11th, 2017

340swept

Swept diptych by Max Greenstreet

“As if layers of lies could replace the green illusion; or the sophistries of failure, the stench of success.” John Fowles

As part of my anti-anxiety regimen, I avoid mass media news. Even so, I still hear about the ongoing criminal acts of Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as the latest ecological disasters. And the main thing I’ve been hearing about lately are the movie stars, celebrities, politicians, and people in positions of power in arts organizations and corporations and universities, mostly men, accused of egregious sexual misconduct.

To which I say, “So what else is new?”

My mother grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother, Goody, was a close friend of Freda Sandrich, wife of the movie director and producer Mark Sandrich who directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and produced and directed many other movies. Goody’s husband, Casey, hobnobbed with movie people, too. Which is to say, when she was a young woman with aspirations to be an actress, my mother imbibed lots of insider information about the movie and theatre and music world, most of that info having to do with who was a homosexual, who was having an affair with who, and who did what to get ahead—and that what was usually sexual, and we’re not talking romance here.

My siblings and I did not want to believe our mother’s nasty lowdown on the many actors and actresses we admired, and on several occasions we protested, “Oh come on, Mom, not everyone got to be a star by having sex with the producer or the director or somebody who was already a star.”

To which she would reply, “Why do you think they call it the casting couch and not the casting stage or the casting chair? They call it a couch for a reason. I know. I was asked to audition for parts. But I wouldn’t lie down on that couch, and if you won’t let them screw you, you don’t get the part. It’s not nice, but it’s true.”

According to my mother, nearly all of our favorite male movie stars were homosexuals or notorious heterosexual predators, their prey young fame-hungry starlets. And all our favorite female stars had once been fame-hungry starlets ready and willing to have sex with whomever they needed to have sex with to succeed.

And my mother’s brother Howard, an entertainment lawyer who represented many big stars, told me stories about his clients that made my mother’s tales of Hollywood sound like Frank Capra movies. Yet when I sold my first novel to Paramount Pictures and Bob Evans (he had just made The Godfather and Chinatown) I forgot all about the casting couch and went to Hollywood under the noble delusion that my excellent novels and scintillating stories and neato screenplays would be all I needed to exchange for riches and fame.

Now lest you think my mother and her brother exaggerated the pervasiveness of sexual dominance and submission in the entertainment industry, read any thorough history of Theatre and you will learn that in Shakespeare’s time, theatre companies were composed solely of men and boys, and could only exist under the auspices of powerful aristocrats with excellent connections to incumbent royalty. Thus in order to legally form a theatre company, a man had to bend, literally, to the will of someone with greater societal power than he, and once that man had gained the requisite support of a powerful person, other men bent to him if they wished to join his theatre company. From that tradition, entrenched for centuries, was born the theatre and movie world of today.

So there I was, a neophyte in Hollywood meeting with upper echelon players, and from day one I was made aware that my excellent novels and neato screenplays were of so little consequence to the people with power in Hollywood, you wouldn’t believe how little. And every step of my way in the movie biz, and on several memorable occasions during my odyssey through the publishing world, I was presented with demands and invitations to bend to the sexual wills of men and women in order to further my career—demands and invitations I was unwilling to accept.

Thus, as a sympathetic movie producer said to me when I lamented my fall from grace in Hollywood and New York, “Listen, sweetheart, you don’t put out, you get put out.”

Which is why news of famous actors and famous writers and famous politicos using their positions of power to coerce sexual favors from those less powerful than they is very old news to me and old news to anyone who has been in the entertainment business for more than a week or two. So my question is: why is such a big deal being made about such behavior now, when Power Over Others, sexual and economic, has been an essential component of our culture for centuries?

Here’s my theory. The controllers of our media and our government and our economy are keenly aware that our stock and real estate markets are fantastic bubbles filled with hot air, and Trump or no Trump, those bubbles are soon to burst. But rather than allow the endgame of their Ponzi schemes to be the focus of our collective attention, they have pulled out the oldest arrow in their titillation quiver to distract the masses from the colossal rape of the already supine population—a rape in the form of more tax breaks for the wealthy and more plundering of the national corpus before our casino economy comes tumbling down yet again.

Or as the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and her comrades, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Keep your eyes on the screen. Pay no attention to the psychopaths ransacking your future. Keep your eyes on your screens and we’ll give you the name of yet another Famous Old Man who did naughty things to people less famous than he. Aren’t you outraged? Doesn’t it make you just want to…buy something?