Roads Not Taken

November 24th, 2015

Roads Not Taken

Trail To Garfield Peak (Crater Lake 2015) photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell

Do you sometimes look back on your life and recall those turning points that made you the chiropractor you are today instead of a tax attorney, a real estate agent instead of a dance instructor, a massage therapist instead of a taxidermist, a school teacher instead of a stockbroker, a hedge fund billionaire instead of a white water tour guide—or vice-versa?

Or your daughter calls you from her dorm at Pepperdine and says something that makes you think of the dance your sophomore year in college when you snubbed Andy Philips who was crazy about you because you thought he was dorky, though you liked him and laughed easily with him and you both loved Dickens and bird watching and Joni Mitchell and Emily Dickinson, and you adored Andy’s voice and sense of humor, but you were smitten with Brad Hamilton who was a total hunk, so you did everything in your power to seduce him, and you succeeded and got pregnant and married Brad, though you and he had nothing in common, and you ended up with three kids in Modesto where Brad is a clerk at Home Depot and you are a legal secretary.

So you Google Andy Philips and here he is, a professor of Poetics at the Institute For Transcendent Happiness on the island of Majorca, and the picture of him with his adorable cockapoodle Artemis on the shores of the Mediterranean is so lovely, and Andy, Andrew, is so handsome and lean and romantic looking you want to scream, but before you can scream Brad waddles into the room, bald and enormously fat, and says he can’t find the remote for the television and the game is just about to start—where is it?

But sometimes you look back over your life and see a key moment when you took a certain road that changed your destiny, not because you wanted to take that road, but because forces seemingly beyond your control forced you to go in a direction you might otherwise not have gone. I say seemingly in deference to those who believe we create our own karma, and even forces seemingly beyond our control are set in motion by our unconscious expectations of how things are supposed to be.

“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I was in my early twenties and roaming around the country, my supreme wish was to break into the movie business and eventually write and direct movies. But how could I do that as a vagabond in Vermont, hitchhiking to Canada, my destination Montreal? Three weeks earlier, I had been refused entrance into Canada because I lacked sufficient funds—two hundred dollars—and therefore qualified as a potential vagrant and drain on the Canadian economy.

This was when thousands of American youth were taking advantage of Canada’s marvelous system of hostels providing free meals and beds to transients—yay for socialism—and the Canadian border guards were under orders to do what they could to restrict the influx of undesirables from America.

So I had gone back down into New England, worked on farms, hauled crab traps, and washed dishes in restaurants until I amassed two hundred smackers, and now I was on my way to try those border guards again.

I was standing by the road, my cardboard sign reading MONTREAL, lost in yet another fantasy of my meteoric rise as a filmmaker, when a car driven by two friendly men stopped for me. I loaded my guitar and backpack and myself into their back seat, and off we went. They asked where I was going and who I was, and after my brief autobiography, they informed me they were filmmakers, had just completed a documentary about Tiny Tim (the longhaired fellow who played ukulele and sang ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips’) and were on their way to Quebec City to make a movie about a famous bike race.

We got along splendidly and they offered me a job assisting them on their film. I could hardly believe my good fortune. At the border, they showed their passports to a young border guard, he welcomed them to Canada, and then he asked me to get out of their car and show him two hundred dollars, which I did, much to his surprise and chagrin.

“Can we go now?” asked one of the filmmakers. “We’re due in Quebec City tonight.”

“You can go,” said the guard, “but I have to search this guy’s stuff. Lots of drugs being smuggled into Canada these days.”

So the filmmakers left me at the border and said if I could get to Quebec City the next morning, the job was mine.

Overhearing their offer to me, the guard made sure I would never make it to Quebec City the next morning. He tore my pack apart. He crushed my aspirin pills to see if they were cocaine. He measured the largest blade on my Swiss Army knife to determine if I was carrying a concealed weapon. He jumbled my food and clothing together and unrolled my sleeping bag and tent on top of the jumble. I knew he wanted me to protest his absurd search so he could use my belligerence to deny me entry, but I gave him no such satisfaction, and finally, with darkness and a hard rain falling, he let me walk into Canada.

I camped in the woods that night, a mile past the border, and the next day, after waiting for several hours, I caught a ride with a longhaired guy smuggling several pounds of marijuana into Montreal. I suppose I could have hitchhiked to Quebec City the next day and begged those filmmakers to take me on, but I chose instead to spend the next week busking on the streets of Montreal and gawking at the gorgeous French Canadians.

Ego & Muse

November 17th, 2015

Independent:Dependent Lily Cai Dance Company © 2015 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

Independent/Dependent (Lily Cai Dance Company) copyright 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

“When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything.” Shunryu Suzuki

As I was sitting by the woodstove last night—this November much colder than last—scribbling away on my latest something, I was struck by how little connection I feel to the books and stories and plays I’ve written over the last forty years, or even to the book I finished writing earlier this year.

How does it happen that something I thought about constantly and worked on for several hours every day for months on end is now but a vague memory? How can something that meant so much to me, mean so little now? Can the creative heart really be so fickle?

Then this morning our neighbor came by with a dozen beautiful blue and brown and white eggs just laid by his prolific chickens, and I thought I’m a hen, and the egg I’m laying right now is the most important egg in the world to me, but a few eggs hence I won’t remember this egg at all.

That put me in mind of when I was a young writer and would spend a year or two furiously working on a novel, my work fueled by a palpable visceral erotic majestic sense of how staggeringly great the story was. When at last the first draft was finished, I would let it cool for a few weeks before reading the entirety; and more often than not, I found the story and writing less great than I had sensed they were while in the throes of creation. And often that was the end of the process, the novel stillborn. But sometimes there was enough mojo in that first draft to inspire a rewrite, and once engaged in remaking the story, I would again be filled with certainty I was birthing a masterwork.

As I got to know more artists and writers, I learned that they, too, were often taken over by a sense of the importance and brilliance of the things they were creating, and when the things were done, the veils of grandiosity would be lifted, and they would see their creations in a wholly different light. So I came to think of this recurring self-delusion as a necessary trick of the mind enabling artists to complete creations requiring hundreds or thousands of hours of work. If the inner critic became engaged too early in the process, the flow might stop.

But what is that trick of the mind? How do we fool our egos again and again into thinking something is great when it isn’t yet great, and may never be great?

“What I love about the creative process, and this may sound naïve, but it is this idea that one day there is no idea, and no solution, but the next day there is an idea. I find that incredibly exciting and conceptually actually remarkable.” Jonathan Ive

I have spent the last three years writing a quartet of connected novels called Ida’s Place, and when I completed Book Four in August, it never occurred to me the saga was at end. I was so much in the habit of writing these books, so emotionally enmeshed with the large cast of characters, and so enamored of the ongoing drama, I couldn’t imagine there wouldn’t be another book or two or seven.

Indeed, the first chapter of Book Five poured forth from my pen as effortlessly as the previous four volumes. But then the flow ceased, the Ida muse done with me. However, my ego was not yet ready to let go of this large self-defining undertaking, and for several weeks more I labored away and cranked out five more chapters, though the process was no longer about harnessing an artesian flow but wringing water from stones.

Then on one of my walks to town, I was finally able to admit I was done with the Ida saga, or the saga was done with me, and the moment I admitted this to my conscious self, I realized that the last line of Book Four was a fine place to stop. And now, some weeks later, when I pick up one of the Ida books and read for a page or nine, the story and the writing are new to me. I’m happy to say I find the tale deeply engaging, but who wrote these volumes? Was Buckminster Fuller correct in saying we are verbs, not nouns?

So now what do I do? Now how will I be conjugated? Now who am I if not the person writing a series of novels set in a bakery café on the far north coast of California, a mythic version of Here?

“When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life without feeling any difficulties. The purpose of our practice is to be aware of this fact.” Shunryu Suzuki

There is no rushing a muse, and no telling when or how she will come to you. I once asked a painter I admire if he painted every day. He replied, “I go to my studio every day, except Sunday, and some days I’ll paint for fifteen minutes, some days for five hours, some days not at all. I made myself paint every day when I was a neophyte because I wanted painting to become a deep habit. And now that it is, showing up every day is the important thing.”

My favorite Sufi stories are those in which a person is at an emotional and spiritual impasse, and one of two things happens. Either a visitor arrives and does something or says something that liberates the stuck person, or the stuck person goes out into the world and has an experience that opens his mind and breaks down the wall around his heart.

Old Books

November 10th, 2015

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O'Day Ballet) ©2013 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O’Day Ballet) © 2013 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

I recently came upon an old book I inherited from my grandmother Goody, The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature published in 1939, a seventy-five-year-old book that has provided me with several days of enjoyable reading. Part of my enjoyment comes from frequently encountering words I have to look up in my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. But the larger part of my pleasure comes from the fascinating details to be found in the hundreds of miniature biographies of once-famous writers who are largely forgotten today.

In terms of my vocabulary, I have learned that a cottar is the equivalent of a sharecropper, a prebend is a stipend derived from a percentage of a church’s profits, a squib is a satirical jab, a suppostitious child is one fraudulently substituted to displace the real heir, and a pindaric is an ode in the manner of Pindar.

Of Pindar, this little old book says, “(c.522-442 B.C.) the great Greek lyric poet, acquired fame at an early age and was employed by many winners at the Games (Olympics) to celebrate their victories.”

I first came upon the word pindaric while reading the two-column biography of Jonathan Swift who was a cousin of Dryden, who also garners a two-column biography. Only Shakespeare warrants three columns, which means Swift and Dryden are thought to be among the most famous writers of all time, according to the editors of this edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature.

Also according to this dictionary, Dryden, upon reading one of Swift’s pindarics, remarked, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”

And the last line of Swift’s little biography states, “Nearly all his works were published anonymously, and for only one, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, did he receive any payment (£200).”

Famous writers making little money from their writing is a recurring theme in this dictionary, as is the fact that many noted writers from the 1600’s through the early 1900’s died insane. Syphilis, the cause of madness in most of those cases, is never mentioned in the dictionary, but the editors doubtless assume their readers know about the link between syphilis and insanity in the days before the advent of antibiotics.

Indeed, the editors make a number of assumptions about their readers, which assumptions in 1939 were probably sound. For instance, they assume anyone reading this volume will probably be fairly fluent in Latin and know most of the famous writers of the past three hundreds years by their last names. Scott is Sir Walter Scott, Arbuthnot is John Arbuthnot, Pope is Alexander Pope, and so on. Fortunately for the likes of me, if an author is referred to solely by his last name, he will have a biography in the good book and I can discover why he was so famous.

As one might expect of a book published in 1939 summarizing the history of English Literature, there are few women authors mentioned therein, though Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Anne Bronte, and Emily Bronte all garner tiny paragraphs, with George Eliot and Jane Austen winning half-columns, and Charlotte Bronte nearly a whole one.

Another delightful feature of the book is that for super famous authors—Dickens, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Melville, Thackeray etc.—in addition to their biographies, there are separate entries synopsizing of each of their most famous books, plays, and poems, as well as separate entries for important characters in those works.

What a different culture we had before the advent of television. In that sense, the 1939 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature is a fascinating time capsule from the end of an epoch in our cultural history when literature was of paramount importance and influence, and hundreds of great novels and plays and poems lived for hundreds of years as part of the contemporary cultural fabric.

Have you perchance heard of the book The Old Wives’ Tale? “…a novel by E. A. Bennett (1908) one of the greatest novels of modern times. It is the long chronicle of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, daughters of a draper of Bursley, from their ardent girlhood, through disillusionment, to death. The drab life of the draper’s shop, its trivial incidents, are made interesting and important. Constance, a staid and sensible young woman, marries the insignificant Samuel Povey, the chief assistant in the shop, and spends all her life in Bursley. The more passionate and imaginative Sophia elopes with the fascinating Gerald Scales, an unprincipled blackguard, who carries her to Paris, where she is exposed to indignities, and finally deserts her. She struggles to success as a lodging-house keeper in Paris, where she lives though the siege of 1870. The sisters are reunited and spend their last years in Bursley.”

Never heard of E.A. Bennett, the author of this greatest of novels? “Bennett, (Enoch) Arnold (1867-1931), became a solicitor’s clerk in London and in 1893 assistant editor and subsequently editor of the periodical ‘Woman’. After 1900 he devoted himself exclusively to writing, theatre journalism being among his special interests. His fame as a novelist rests chiefly on ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ and the ‘Clayhanger’ series. ‘Clayhanger’ (1910) ‘Hilda Lessways’ (1911) ‘These Twain’ (1916). The ‘Five Towns’ which figure prominently in these works are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Longton, centers of the pottery industry; and the features, often ugly and sordid of this background are skillfully woven into stories of lives which he presents dispassionately, with an infinite delight in significant detail. Among Bennett’s other best-known works are: ‘Riceyman Steps’, ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’, ‘Milestones’, and ‘The Matador of the Five Towns’ (short stories, 1912)”

Then there is John Knox (1505-72) who “…addressed epistles to his brethren in England suffering under the rule of Mary Tudor, and in Scotland under the regency of Mary of Lorraine. It was this situation which led to the publication of his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558), of which the title, Saintsbury remarks, was the best part.”

Saintsbury? “George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (1845-1933), a distinguished literary critic and historian…”

Thought Control

November 3rd, 2015

26. Unity of TimePlaceAction

Unity of Time/Place/Action photo montage by Ellen Jantzen

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Alfred Hitchcock

In 1976 I was in New York when the play Comedians by the British playwright Trevor Griffiths opened on Broadway. I was so inspired by the play—I saw it twice—that when I returned to Oregon, I quit my job as a landscaper and moved to Seattle to concentrate on writing plays and trying to get them produced.

Alas, I found no takers for my plays anywhere in America, though I sent them to scores of theatre companies, large and small, and personally delivered them to theatre companies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Ashland, Portland, and Seattle. The dozen or so theatre people who were kind enough to respond to my plays all made the same comment: no theatre company in America produces three-act plays anymore.

Well, Comedians is a three-act play and I’d just seen it on Broadway. But the play was an anomaly in America, a throwback, and very British. And I should have known better because in the same week I saw Comedians, I attended the play that was the talk of the American theatre world at the time, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a play of many little disconnected scenes in one fairly short act.

Had I only seen For Colored Girls, I would not have changed the course of my life to write plays, and certainly not three-act plays. But Comedians touched me deeply and so greatly expanded my notion of what a modern play might be, that I ignored the mores of my culture and wrote a trio of three-act plays I was certain would take the American theatre world by storm.

Self-delusions aside, the changes in the American cultural landscape that took place in the first forty years of my life are nothing compared to what has overtaken us since the advent of personal computers and the internet, which might also be described as the coming of universal Attention Deficit Disorder and the attendant SCB: sit-com brain.

“Within the reigning social order, the general public must remain an object of manipulation, not a participant in thought, debate, and decision.” Noam Chomsky

Marcia and I recently went on the first journey I have made away from Mendocino in seven years, not counting a few overnights to Santa Rosa. Marcia has gone on a number of far treks in those seven years, but not I, so our eight-day trip to Oregon was a big deal for me.

Our big splurge was spending two nights at the Crater Lake Lodge, and though the big old lodge was filled to capacity, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. How can that be?

The first night there, we dined in our little room on cold cuts and hummus and other goodies from our cooler, but for hot water for tea we had to make the trek down to the vast lounge on the first floor where two enormous fireplaces ablaze with gas-fueled flames shone on seventy guests arrayed on comfortable sofas and armchairs, some of the guests waiting to go to supper in the dining hall, some drinking wine or beer or cocoa in the commodious surround.

And I felt I was stepping onto the set of the latest remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers because every person in the room, save for the waiters, was staring into either a smart phone or a tablet. Every single person. These were not teenagers or college kids or even thirty-somethings. No, these were people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, staring zombie-like at little screens. They might have been in a bus station or inmates of a sanitarium for the demented, though I did not see anyone drooling.

The big terrace outside the lounge features several dozen large rocking chairs facing the spectacular crater, and during daylight hours lodgers can eat and drink and rock out there with a fabulous view of the incredibly blue lake and the spectacular rock formations surrounding that blue. Except that all the people in those rocking chairs were looking into screens, too, which is why I say we practically had the place to ourselves.

Why, I wonder, did all those people spend so much time and money to go to Crater Lake and not be there?

“Intolerance is evidence of impotence.” Aleister Crowley

In 1989 the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape came out and caused a sensation that reached beyond the art houses. I was living in Sacramento at the time and loved the movie for its subtlety and complexity, and because it was so French, yet the actors spoke English. I was writing screenplays at the time, and Sex, Lies and Videotape was the first American film I’d seen in many years with a sensibility kin to my own.

The winter of 1989 was a very wet one, and when I went to see Sex, Lies, and Videotape a second time, the old Tower Theatre where I saw the film the first time was closed due to leaks. So my friends and I ventured far into the suburbs to a multiplex where the kiosk sported the shortened title Sex Videotapes—a foreshadowing of the experience awaiting us in the theatre.

In Sex, Lies and Videotape, you may recall, James Spader plays a reticent man who frequently pauses to think before speaking. Well, the audience of suburbanites at the showing we attended responded to these pauses with nervous giggling and catcalls such as, “What’s his problem?” and “He is so lame,” and the oft repeated, “Weirdo!”

We left the theatre despairing for humanity and desperate to get out of the burbs. A week later I went to the movie again at the Tower Theatre, and the first few times James Spader paused before speaking, I braced myself for shouted insults from the audience. To my great relief, the downtown audience had no trouble with a person thinking before speaking.

Graphic Novels

October 27th, 2015

The Search

The Search painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“I’m a comic book artist. So I think to myself, what do I like to draw? I like to draw hot chicks, fast cars and cool guys in trench coats. So that’s what I write about.” Frank Miller

Last night we watched a DVD of the new movie People, Places, Things. The film did not have a theatrical release, which is the fate of most movies made in America these days unless they are massively expensive blockbusters. People, Places, Things is not a blockbuster and probably didn’t cost much to make, and Marcia and I both very much enjoyed the movie.

The male lead is played by Jemain Clement who has a strong New Zealand accent, so should you rent the film, turn up the volume. Also be sure to watch the opening credits; they are a graphic novella about the five years preceding the beginning of the movie.

Clement plays the part of a graphic novelist who teaches graphic novel writing and drawing at a college in New York, Stephanie Allynne plays his stressed out wife, and Aundrea and Gia Gadsby play their six-year-old twin daughters.

A few hours after seeing the movie, I realized the blocking of the scenes in the film mimics the static nature of scenes in graphic novels, otherwise known as comic books printed and bound as if they are novels. The writer/director of the movie James C. Strouse refers to graphic novels as comic books throughout the film, which I found refreshingly honest. American publishers have been striving for decades now to convince readers that graphic novels are not comic books, but they are. Calling a cow a bovine does not mean that particular bovine is not a cow.

My favorite scenes in the movie were those in which Clement is speaking to his class of aspiring comic book artists. These scenes took me back to the early 1990s when I oversaw the Creative Writing department at the California State Summer School for the Arts and many of my teenaged students were disinterested in novels and poetry, but keenly interested in comic books.

These bright young writers were in the first wave of humans to have their brains programmed since childhood by watching thousands of hours of music videos—messages conveyed by streams of swiftly changing images underscored by walls of sound and rhythm that cause viewers to hunger for more such streams of images and sound. My students were also among the first wave of humans to grow up with personal computers, thus many of them were incapable of writing longhand or speaking in complete sentences.

As a consequence of my collision with this demographic, I was given several comic books to read, each comic book touted by the giver as his or her favorite. I had not read comic books since I was a kid, and even as a kid didn’t so much read them as flip through the pages in search of arresting images. These comic books given to me by my students were essentially storyboards for shallow unoriginal movies. What, I wondered, did intelligent teenagers find so compelling about these comic books?

So I asked my students to enlighten me, and the gist of what they said was that these comic books provided them with armatures on which to hang their fantasies. Indeed, each comic book starred a lead character superficially similar to the person who gave me the comic book. What were these comic books about? Young, lonely, alienated outcasts doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest.

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.” George Burns

I screened a number of movies for my teenaged writers, movies I was fairly certain they had not yet seen and would appreciate. Alas, The Maltese Falcon bored them to tears and they hated Stardust Memories. As one erudite student said of Woody Allen’s magnum opus, “That is one fucked up dude.”

However, they loved Diva, despite the subtitles, and no wonder. Diva is about a lonely, alienated young man doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest, with great music and fabulous cinematography. As much as I love Diva, there is no denying it is a comic book brought to life.

“To me, it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not be put to words.” William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams likened a poem to a nude, a novel to a strip tease. Williams was born in 1883 and died in 1963 and was claimed as a major influence by the San Francisco poets I most admired in the 1960s and 70s—Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. My favorite collection of William Carlos Williams poems is Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.

As a young writer inspired by Williams’ poems about the stuff of every day life, I practiced writing detailed descriptions of simple objects, a practice I found challenging and valuable. However, many years later when I asked my teenaged students to write descriptions of simple objects: a pen, a bowl, a piece of paper, I was startled by the dismay this exercise aroused in many of them.

“What does this have to do with writing?” asked one angry young woman.

“It’s just a stupid pen,” opined an outraged young man.

“This has everything to do with writing,” I replied. “And the pen will only be stupid if you make it so with your words. In order to write stories or poems that someone else can read and relate to, we must be able to clearly describe things with our words. And the way to get good at that is to practice. With your pen. On a piece of paper.”

The Magician

October 20th, 2015


A still from The Magician, a video by Kate Greenstreet

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“Magicians will always tell you the trick is the most important thing, but I’m more interested in telling a story.” Marco Tempest

Most artists are unknown or little known outside their neighborhood or town or small circle of friends. This is not a bad or good thing, but merely the way of the world. My favorite poets are known to only a handful of people, and many of the finest musicians and painters and actors I’ve had the good fortune to hear and see will never be known outside the little kingdoms inhabited by their personal friends and acquaintances.

All of the hundreds of artists I have known in my life, save for those rare few who for one reason or another succeeded hugely in the mainstream of our culture, either came to accept and even relish their relative anonymity in the greater scheme of things or they ceased to make art because the hope of great success was their primary motivation for making art.

A few of my books have sold thousands of copies, but none of my nine music CDs have sold more than a hundred copies. Many people unknown to me have read my books, but most of those who enjoy my music are known to me by their first names. And yet I have always been as dedicated to my music as I am to my writing, and I intend to practice and compose music for as long as I am able. Lovers of my music are few, but they are zealous lovers, and that is sufficient.

A few years ago I recorded an album of solo piano improvisations entitled Ceremonies, each piece an accompaniment to an imagined ceremony.

One of the pieces on the album is entitled “Dance of the Seahorses” and as I improvised that tune, I imagined the slow underwater dancing of those remarkable fish, a hypnotic enactment of a never-ending ceremony.

Another piece entitled “Blue Cathedral” is a churchy blues I imagined as a sacred processional in a cathedral bathed in ethereal light.

And my favorite piece on the Ceremonies album is entitled “The Magician.” As I played that mysterious tune, I saw in my mind’s eye a graceful mime performing a slow dance full of mystical and subtly humorous flourishes.

Fast forward to October 13, 2015, four days shy of my sixty-sixth birthday. An email arrived from my pal Max Greenstreet in New Hampshire informing me that he and his wife Kate Greenstreet had just released Kate’s video-poem The Magician, with my composition “The Magician” underpinning the narrative; and that short film is now viewable on Vimeo, a web site where filmmakers can share their creations with the world.

Words are inadequate to describe how thrilled and gratified I am that Kate chose my music for this video-poem she made in league with Cynthia King. I am a huge fan of Kate’s video-poems, Max her right hand man in the making of her films, and it is not hyperbole to say that having my music harmonizing with her words and imagery is a validation and encouragement that will sustain my musical pursuits for the rest of my life.

You can watch The Magician by going to

“It is the unspoken ethic of all magicians to not reveal the secrets.” David Copperfield

A large part of my joy about Kate and Max using “The Magician” in their exquisite film is that I have endeavored several dozen times over the course of my life to collaborate with other artists on a wide variety of creations, and the vast majority of those collaborations ended in creative or emotional or financial disaster, and usually some combination of the three. It would be convenient to blame my collaborators for these disasters, but since I am the only constant in these many failed equations, I suspect the fatal flaw lies with me.

Long ago in the days before digital cameras, I collaborated on the making of a short film I wrote and directed. The audio engineer on the project said he would only collaborate with me if everyone involved in making the film had his or her role in the process clearly defined, written down, and agreed upon, and that as the instigator and financier of the project, my judgment in all creative matters would be the final one, with everyone involved agreeing to that, too, with signed documents attesting to these agreements.

At the time, I thought such punctilious preliminaries unnecessary, but he was a superb sound engineer and I very much wanted to work with him, so I agreed to his conditions. My cameraman bridled a bit at the strict clarification of his role, but he signed his agreement as did the few other people involved, and we got to work.

No collaborative endeavor I have been involved with before or since ever went so smoothly. The potential clash of egos was dispensed with at the outset, and clashing egos, as I’m sure you know, make collaboration difficult if not impossible.

And though today my creative endeavors are solo flights—no one to argue with but little old me—I often fantasize about how grand it would be to team up with a drummer or filmmaker or singer or dancers who find my music and words exactly what they’ve been looking for to meld with their artistry.

This is why I am so thrilled that Kate and Max used my music in their movie The Magician. My music, in the words of Goldilocks, was just right—our collaboration arising from friendship and mutual admiration.

As I resume collaborating with myself, I imagine my novel-in-progress calling out to prescient publishers and daring movie makers, my latest piano explorations ringing through the global etheric in quest of people who will hear my music as soundtracks to bold new explorations of the light fantastic.

Fin Again—Wake!

October 14th, 2015

todd at Crater lake

Todd At Crater Lake photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“…that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes…” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

We just returned, Marcia and I, from a nine-day journey to Oregon, our motive operandi a visit to my brother and his wife in their new digs in Portland, they among the wave of humanity crashing onto Portland, which is now the fastest growing urban area in these United States. We stayed in Gold Beach and Yachats on the Oregon coast on the way up, two nights in the Portland manse with mein brudder und his wife, a night in Eugene with friends on the banks of the Willamette, two nights at the lodge at Crater Lake, a night with friends in Arcata and…

This morning I woke in our familiar king-sized bed here in the kingdom of Mendocino, and before clarity conquered the last wisps of dream imagery, I wondered: did I dream the entire journey? And then I remembered Norman O. Brown from whom I took a course at UC Santa Cruz in 1969, Myth and History, and saw him standing perfectly still on the stage of the lecture hall, this the umpteenth pregnant pause of his lecture. He was about to speak the last words of the day’s thought ramble, and he liked to give plenty of air to his final pronouncements.

“Fin. Again,” he said softly. And then louder, with an urgency bordering on ecstasy, “Wake!” Then soft again, almost under his breath, “Finnegan’s Wake.” And once more, “Fin. Again. Wake!”

“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

I have not traveled away from Mendocino in seven years, save for the occasional visit to Santa Rosa to visit Marcia’s mom and a few trips to San Mateo for Thanksgiving with the brother now in Portland. Thus for a stay-at-home, this Oregon jaunt was what my long-ago friend Leo used to call a Large Pattern Change.

I met Leo when I lived in a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972. My room was on the second floor of the big house I shared with eight other people, a long narrow room with a view of Monterey Bay. Leo would come to visit me twice a week and sprawl on my bed while I sat at my desk. He would speak of his difficulties with his mother, with his depression, and with women. As he spoke, I would jot down things he said that seemed pertinent or interesting to me.

How did I meet Leo? I was having coffee with a friend at the Catalyst—I am speaking of the original Catalyst housed on the ground floor of the St. Charles Hotel destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Leo approached our table to speak to our mutual friend, joined us, and asked me politely if I would buy him a cup of coffee and baklava.

Having barely enough money to pay for my own coffee, and not knowing Leo from Adam, I hesitated and Leo said, “You, too, currently short of funds? Then a small coffee and I’ll get yours next time.”

When I think of Leo, I think of Winnie-the-Pooh. I cannot imagine Leo running, only trudging. He was large, overweight, and had a beautifully sad old man’s face, though he was only in his late twenties when I knew him. He had long light brown hair and wore a beaten brown derby, a long scarf, and enormous shoes with holes in the toes. He was unemployed, lived in a boarding house, survived on a stipend from his mother, thought he might like to write something, but couldn’t get down to business.

I was little enamored of Leo after our initial meeting, so when he showed up at my house one afternoon a few days later, I hesitated to invite him in, but he seemed not to notice my hesitation. Shortly thereafter, he was sprawled on my bed recounting his latest disaster with a woman who waited tables at the Catalyst, “She obviously liked me until that Fulcrum Moment when we sat down in the Acapulco and I explained I only had sufficient funds for guacamole and one beer we could share, and it was Leo Becomes A Demon Time. Now when I come into the Catalyst she won’t even look at me and I want to shout, ‘What does money have to do with love?’ And now she asks He Of the Large Mustache to wait on me. I’ve seen her asking him and nodding furtively in my direction without looking at me.”

Thus I became Leo’s psychotherapist, and that was the extent of our relationship. He visited me twice weekly, unburdened himself for an hour or so, and then wandered away. He was fond of saying things like, “I’m on yet another plateau without a view,” and “My mother has entered another Stretch of Minimal Funding,” and “Yes, I lack purpose, but not for lack of desire.”

Leo believed all his troubles would be over if he could only convince one of the many beautiful young women he was madly in love with to become his lover. “I suffer from a lack of Reciprocal Passion. When I’m with Carla (the woman Leo spent most of his money on paying for sex) she won’t even open her eyes when…you know.”

 “The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity.” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

Today Mendocino is sunny and cool. Marcia is about to give a cello lesson and I am girding my loins to move two cords of summer-seasoned firewood into the woodshed in anticipation of what we hope will be a very wet winter—my batteries recharged by the splendors of our Oregon odyssey.

Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs

October 8th, 2015

Crater Lake Chipmunk

Crater Lake Chipmunk photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

1972. Santa Cruz. Never enough money. I was working days as a gardener, nights playing music. My girlfriend was a waitress and house cleaner. Rent was cheap but wages were negligible.

So one day my girlfriend said to me, “My brother and his wife are making good money housesitting. If they can do it in Philadelphia, why can’t we do it here? People go away for a night, a week, a month, and they pay us to stay in their house, water the plants, feed the cats, walk the dog, maybe take care of their kids.”

She put an ad in the Sentinel. Something like: Responsible couple with good references will housesit for you. We are clean non-smokers, good with pets, good with plants, good with children.

Truth be told, I was not keen on housesitting, but my girlfriend was tired of our lack of cash and Spartan lifestyle.

A few days later, a woman called in response to the ad. Ellen. She was going away that Friday and returning Sunday. Ellen had a ten-year-old son and a dog. We went over to her house that night to audition. She was large, mid-thirties, we were skinny, early twenties. Her very fat son Perry was sitting on the sofa eating candy and watching television.

We met the dog, a friendly German Shepherd named Georgia. Her parents were purebred mega-champions. Ellen was planning to breed Georgia with another champion and sell the puppies for big money.

“Oh,” said Ellen, “I forgot to mention, Georgia is in heat, so we’ve been keeping her locked in the garage at night because lots of male dogs are coming around. Oh, and the reason I’m keeping Georgia in the garage at night instead of in the house is ever since she went into heat she’s been acting crazy. She barks and growls at the guinea pigs. Oh, I forgot to mention the guinea pigs. Chester and Madge. They’re purebred prize-winning longhaired black and white guinea pigs. That’s their cage on the high shelf. Their special food is in the refrigerator. I sell their babies for big money. Oh, and my most prized possessions, handed down from my great grandparents, are an onyx chess set and four onyx teacups and an onyx teapot. Hand-carved by a famous Mexican artist. They’re on the shelf above the stereo. Oh, and Perry is fine with TV dinners. He likes three or four of them for lunch and dinner. Cereal for breakfast. He has a television in his room, too. Helps him go to sleep.”

I was about to say maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, two complete strangers taking care of a big crazy-in-heat dog. My girlfriend was having second thoughts, too. But then Ellen said, “How does a hundred and fifty dollars plus twenty dollars for food sound?”

Considering I made two dollars an hour and my girlfriend made one-fifty plus tips, this was a dizzying sum so we said yes.

When we showed up on Friday afternoon, several male dogs were hanging around the house. Ellen was dolled up. Her perfume was so strong, I nearly fainted. She gave us the name of the motel in Monterey where she was attending a conference. We didn’t ask what the conference was about.

She served us beer and chips. Perry was eating a TV dinner and watching Leave It To Beaver. Georgia was asleep on the living room rug. Ellen had given her a tranquilizer in ground beef. When Georgia woke up, we were to lock her in the garage.

A horn sounded. Ellen grabbed her suitcase and dashed out the door. Perry looked up from Leave It To Beaver and said, “She’s not going to a conference. That’s Hal. He’s married.”

We made supper. My girlfriend got drunk and fell asleep beside Perry on the sofa. I fed the guinea pigs. Georgia woke up and I locked her in the garage. Perry fell asleep with his head on my girlfriend’s shoulder. At midnight, I woke up Perry and my girlfriend and we brushed our teeth and went to bed.

In the wee hours of the morning we woke to a loud crashing sound and whining and moaning. We got up to investigate. The guinea pigs were fine. The onyx teacups and teapot and chess set were fine.

But the whining and moaning coming from the garage did not sound fine, so I opened the door connecting the kitchen to the garage, turned on the light, and there was Georgia, daughter of registered champions, locked in coitus with the ugliest mongrel I have ever seen.

“Stuck together,” said Perry, giggling. “His penis has kind of a hook on it.”

The ugly mongrel had gotten into the garage by hurling himself through the window-top of the outside door. When the dogs finally separated, we shooed Ugly outside, I nailed a piece of plywood over the broken window, and we brought Georgia into the house and gave her a tranquilizer in ground beef. She was exhausted from her sex with Ugly and fell right asleep.

Alas, Georgia did not stay asleep. While we slumbered, she knocked the hamster cage off the shelf, tore the flimsy door off the cage, and slaughtered Chester and Madge. Then she annihilated the onyx teapot, teacups, and chess set.

The next day and night and day were torture as we waited for Ellen to come home from her conference with Hal. I spent the long hours gluing onyx shards together. But miracle of miracles, when Ellen came home and learned of the disaster, all she said was, “My fault. I never should have left you with Georgia in heat.” Then she handed us a hundred and seventy dollars.

A few days later, we got a check from Ellen for an additional fifty dollars and a note saying she felt terrible about putting us though such an ordeal. Would we consider housesitting for her again? We were the first sitters Perry had ever liked.

And though we were glad to know Perry liked us, we were no longer in the housesitting business.


September 29th, 2015


Grace Upon The Visit painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley          

Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.

I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.

Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”

Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?

To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.” George Bernard Shaw

The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.

Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.

“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”

Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.

“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.

“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”

“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.

“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”

“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.

“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Spear takes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”

“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James

As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.

I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.


September 23rd, 2015


Ganesha photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Arthur Conan Doyle

Ganesha, also known as Ganapati and Vinakaya, is the male Hindu god with a human body and head of an elephant. His Rubensesque androgynous form is most often represented with four arms, each arm with a five-fingered hand, though some drawings and statues of Ganesha have as few as two arms and as many as twenty. Revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom, he is also the patron deity of writers.

I knew nothing about Ganesha until nine years ago when Marcia and I got together, and Marcia revealed she was a devotee of the chubby multi-talented deity. She owns two small statues of Ganapati, one a handsome two-armed drum-playing fellow carved from wood, and the other an alluring six-armed dancing guy made of brass.

A remover of obstacles is my kind of deity, so with Marcia’s permission I placed her wooden Ganesha on top of my upright piano where he shares the lofty plateau with two statues of Buddha, one a happy standing fatso, the other a mellow lotus-positioned fellow with his thumbs and fingers touching each other in an intriguing mudra. The only other idol atop my piano is a tiny glass baseball player currently stationed in the shadow of Ganesha—my last gasp plea for the removal of the Dodgers from the path of our floundering Giants.

The more I learn about Ganesha, the more I like him, and when we recently removed the obstacle of an unsightly outhouse from a cirque of redwoods viewable from the eastside windows of our house, we decided to look for a large statue of Ganesha to stand in the grotto previously occupied by the ugly pooper.

And lo we were directed to Sacred Woods in Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, an impressive yard containing hundreds of statues imported from Thailand and Indonesia by Rachelle Zachary, the owner of Sacred Woods. After a delightful hour of statue shopping, we settled on an exquisite four-and-a-half-feet-tall white-stone statue of the elephant-headed god, hand-carved by a Balinese master, and a few weeks later the weighty objet d’art was delivered to our south-side deck.

Our plan was to have the redwood trees surrounding the proposed location for the statue limbed up before we engaged a trio of strong men to transport the statue to the grotto. However, after two weeks of gazing out the south-facing dining room windows at the magnificent statue standing on the far edge of our ground-level deck, we decided to move the statue just a few feet off the deck from where he was. We had fallen in love with seeing him from the dining nook, which is also where I do much of my writing.

And so I began clearing away the dense grass and brambles and vines and dead fern fronds clogging the ground where we envisioned Ganesha standing in the embrace of two stately ferns, and after a few minutes of work I uncovered a massive flat-topped granite stone butting up against the deck. We briefly considered placing the statue on top of the granite stone, but the top was too narrow and too close to the deck where rambunctious dogs and exuberant children and clumsy adults might unwittingly topple the statue.

When Marcia came outside to see how my work was progressing, I gestured at the mass of dead branches and fern fronds and chunks of old bricks and rotting abalone shells left by the previous owners and said, “The ideal thing would be a little brick pad right in there.”

Marcia nodded, winked at Ganesha, returned to her studio, and as I filled my wheelbarrow again and again with the brittle remnants of the past, I held in my mind’s eye an image of our magnificent Ganesha standing on a small brick pad surrounded by an expanse of gray gravel populated with large stones.

Then something astonishing happened, something a non-believer would call a fortuitous coincidence, and something a devout follower of Ganesha would call His doing.

As I clipped away the last of several dozen dead fern fronds from the lower reaches of a large fern, I espied the corner of a pink brick lying in the ground. Having previously removed several chunks of old brick from the vicinity I thought this might be another such chunk. However, upon removing more of the detritus, I exposed a perfectly level pad made of eight whole bricks.

And that is where our statue stands today, surrounded by an expanse of gravel populated with large granite stones. We have no idea what stood on the brick pad prior to the coming of Ganesha, nor are we certain the brick pad was there before I suggested to Marcia and Ganesha that such a pad should be there. Judging from several other artifacts left behind by the previous owners, I would guess a statue of John Wayne or possibly Ronald Reagan stood where our Ganesha now lords it over the ferns and stones.

I was inspired to write about Ganesha today, remover of obstacles, after a visit to Main Street in Mendocino to view the sturdy white fence recently erected on what is now the end of the sidewalk just to the west of Gallery Books.

A public servant, or as A.A. Milne might have written, a Person Of Very Little Brain, is no doubt behind this blood clot, so to speak, in a major artery of our little town, and as I stood at the ridiculous fence and gazed out over the headlands and Big River Bay, I thought of Monty Python and Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers, for this travesty of a mockery of a sham is a hilarious commentary on how far we humans, collectively speaking, have not come since we climbed down from the trees millions of years ago and sallied forth to people the earth.

Oh Ganesha, Ganapati, Vinakaya—we implore you to help us remove the Dadaesque obstacle on Main Street.