(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)
“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting what you are doing. This is the ultimate.” Zhuangzi
Something happened to me a few days ago the likes of which hadn’t happened to me in eons. I was shooting hoops at the elementary school, playing alone, as is my custom now that I am deep into middle age and easily injured, when I became aware that I was caught up in an extraordinary flow of action involving my body, the ball, the air, the backboard, and the hoop. I think this was what sports commentators mean when they say a player is “in the zone,” playing with seeming effortlessness, yet playing superbly and flawlessly for an extended period of time. A frequently used adjunct comment to saying a player is “in the zone” is “he’s unconscious.”
That adjunct comment turns out not to be true, because the cool thing about being in the zone, and this has been corroborated by many athletes speaking about their in-the-zone experiences, is that they were not unconscious, but rather fully aware of being in the zone yet not consciously controlling what they were doing. That is to say, they were not conscious of making decisions about what to do next while they were caught up in the flow of action because they were, in essence, inseparable from the flow of everything going on.
It is also true that the more practiced and skillful an athlete, the more easily and often she will find herself in the zone; zone being a misnomer since it is not really a place, but a state of being. My in-the-zone moment was probably the result of playing more often these past few months when school has been out and my access to the courts has been unlimited.
My experience of being inseparable from the ecstatic flow began with the awareness of the ball coming into my hands as if thrown to me by an invisible cohort, the ball leaving my hands as if self-propelled, the ball arching high into the air and tumbling down through the center of the hoop, the ball returning as if passed to me by that same invisible friend, my body dancing back from the hoop to a distance I usually, consciously, avoid, the ball leaving my hands again, arching high, smacking through the net, on and on, dozens of times without a miss from near and far, until I had the thought, “This is so fun!” and the ball caromed off the rim into the weeds.
“As far as I’m concerned, the essentials of jazz are: melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing, and instrumental personality.” Mose Allison
Musicians, artists, dancers, inventors, thinkers…all creative people aspire to be in the zone.
“Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.” Tobias Wolff
On the way home from my in-the-zone experience on the basketball court, I fell into a memory of my largest (in terms of numbers of dollars) experiment with money. I was a pauper by American standards from 1969 when I dropped out of college until 1980 when I made what was for me a small fortune through the sale of the paperback rights to my first published novel and the simultaneous sale of the movie rights to the same novel. Shortly thereafter, I paid a large amount of income tax, moved to Sacramento, and bought the only house I’ve ever owned. And then in 1984, just as my movie money was running out, I got married and resumed my practice of making just enough to get by.
Then in 1995, hot on the heels of my divorce and the concurrent disappearance of my house, I made the second small fortune of my life through the unlikely sale of a one-year option on the movie rights to my obscure novel Forgotten Impulses, published in 1980, for one hundred thousand dollars, and the even more unlikely sale of my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam for twenty-five thousand dollars. In the case of Forgotten Impulses, no movie was ever made, and in the case of Ruby & Spear, Bantam took the wonderful book out of print the day it was published (though copies of both novels can still be found on the interweb for pennies, and you may listen to me read Ruby & Spear (and play all the different characters) at Audible or iTunes). But in any case, I suddenly had, by my standards, another large pile of money.
And I decided to give this second fortune to favorite friends who had very little money and would greatly appreciate some cash. Having spent much of my first fortune on myself, a strategy that brought me little joy and much sorrow, I was curious to see what would happen if I shared my wealth. My hope was that in giving away my fortune I would be priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, which priming would eventually bring me even more money.
As it happens, giving away a fortune in America is not as simple as simply giving money away. First of all, one must pay a large portion of the fortune to the federal and state governments, and this portion is especially large if one is not in the habit of making big sums of money and does not have shelters and deductions and depreciations and such to mitigate the taxes owed. Not wanting to go into debt, I called my accountant and, despite his good-natured assertion that I was insane, we figured out I could give away seventy-six thousand dollars and still have enough left over to pay the taxes I owed, make an impressive contribution to Social Security, and have a few thousand dollars left for rent and food and a new basketball. So I made a list of people I wanted to give money to, most of them artists and poets and musicians working at low-paying jobs while painting and writing and making music and hoping for big breaks such as the two big breaks I’d gotten, and I gave them each two thousand dollars.
Some weeks after mailing out those thirty-eight checks, I got a postcard from Paris from one of the recipients informing me that on the day she got my check she bought a round trip ticket to Europe, packed her bags, and, as she wrote, “I knew it was now or never, so I went for it. Merci!” Another recipient sent me a list of how she spent her two thousand: one thousand donated to a non-profit organization dedicated to spaying feral cats, three hundred for art supplies, six hundred and fifty rent, and fifty bucks on expensive coffee beans. Several recipients said they felt weird taking money from me and wanted to give the money back. When I insisted they keep the cash, they all seemed mightily relieved. And most fascinating to me were the four recipients who never said a word to me about receiving the money, though cancelled checks confirmed they had, indeed, gotten the loot.
Did my giving away my small fortune prime the cosmic pump as I hoped it would? I assume so, though my income for the next several years remained barely adequate to cover rent and vittles, and the Internal Revenue Service did audit me for that year because of what my auditor called “an unlikely income spike.” But money, after all, is not the only measure of how Universe indicates her support for what we do and how we do what we do.
“My hand does the work and I don’t have to think; in fact, were I to think, it would stop the flow.” Edna O’Brien
So today I’m sitting on a bench on the terrace at the Presbyterian, summer fog cloaking the village, and I overhear the following snippets of conversation going on two benches away where six people, four men and two women, are passing pot pipes around and shooting the breeze.
Woman #1: Dude. You were married? For real?
Man #1: So, yeah, I was like totally married. Only she was like thirty and I’m like six years younger, so she just didn’t get me, you know? Like we were from totally different generations.
Woman #1: So are you like…divorced?
Man #1: Totally.
Man #2: Hey, where have you been? Nice shoes.
Woman #2: I was, you know, in LA and like…now I’m out on fifty thousand dollars bail.
Man #2: Dude. Fifty thousand. What did you do?
Woman #2: Lots.
Man #1: Pot?
Woman #2: No. I said lots. Credit cards and shit.
Man #1: Whoa, Dude. I thought you said pot.
Woman #2: No and one of the big credit card things was totally not mine, so…
Man #1: You want to smoke some hash on top of that?
Woman #2: Sure. Why not?
Woman #1: Totally, dude. Go with the flow.
Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com
Tags: Anderson Valley Advertiser, basketball, Edna O'Brien, Flow, Forgotten Impulses, in the zone, money, Mose Allison, potheads, Ruby & Spear, taxes, Tobias Wolff, Todd Walton, Under the Table Books, Universe, Zhuangzi