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Inside Moves Miracles

Monday, March 20th, 2017

inside moves cover

Inside Moves Pharos Edition 

I began writing the novel that would become Inside Moves in 1974, when the United States was on the verge of withdrawing from Vietnam. I was twenty-five and living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon, buoyed by my first ever sale of a short story. My rent was thirty dollars a month, so nine hundred dollars from Cosmopolitan magazine for a fanciful tale about a female boxer was a vast fortune and gave me time to write two novels and several short stories before the cosmic largesse ran out.

The voice that spoke Inside Moves to me was that of a young American man wounded and disabled in Vietnam. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, showed the manuscript to thirteen publishers over the course of two years. Several of the first twelve editors who read the book declared Inside Moves a narrative tour de force, yet felt the story was “an impossible sell.” Cripples and Vietnam were not considered commercially viable in those days.

Miracle #1: In 1977, Sherry Knox, a young editor at Doubleday, bought Inside Moves. My advance, minus Dorothy’s commission, was thirteen hundred and fifty dollars, which money lifted me out of dire poverty into functional poverty.

When I had rewritten the book to Sherry’s satisfaction, and my brother Steve came up with the stellar title to replace my original title, The Gimp, Doubleday decided to kill Inside Moves before publication—common practice for large publishers when the Sales Department decides not to support a book.

However, to minimally fulfill their contractual obligations, Doubleday listed the book at the back of their Spring catalogue with this briefest of descriptors: “Inside Moves: story of friendship between two men in San Francisco bar, basketball sub-plot.”

Miracle #2: As Inside Moves was about to vanish without a trace, an editor named Bill Contardi at the paperback house New American Library read the brief descriptor in the Doubleday catalogue and asked to see the manuscript. He loved the book, showed it to NAL editor-in-chief Elaine Koster, and she offered Doubleday 100,000 dollars for the paperback rights.

Miracle #3: When Dorothy called with news of the paperback offer, I was quite ill and in a very dark mood. Rather than rejoicing (I would get half of that 100 thousand dollars) I said, “Did they show it to other paperback houses? According to my contract, they’re supposed to.”

Dorothy said, “Dahlin (she was from Georgia), this is a mahvelous offer.”

And I said, “They were going to kill the book. They should at least show it to other paperback houses. Maybe there will be a bidding war.”

Dorothy reluctantly relayed my wishes to Doubleday. Moments later, some corporate honcho called to berate me for not taking this wonderful offer, and I explained to him that I knew very well Sales had intended to kill the book, and since I might never get another chance with a New York publisher, I wanted them to show Inside Moves to other paperback houses.

Miracle #4: So the honcho called Elaine Koster and asked for a few more days to consider her offer, and she countered with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of 150,000 dollars and the promise of a big bonus if a movie was made. Dorothy begged me to accept the offer, so I did.

Miracle #5: Two weeks later, Bob Evans, having recently produced Chinatown, The Godfather, and Love Story, optioned the book for Paramount Pictures. I was flown to Los Angeles to meet with Bob Evans in his mansion where he informed me he wanted me to rewrite the entire novel per his directions. He wanted to eliminate the Vietnam connection and not have so many disabled characters. I refused. He was not happy.

Bob Evans then hired Barry Levinson (before he became a famous director) and Valerie Curtin (then married to Barry) to write a screenplay based on the book. They changed the narrator from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, but were otherwise faithful to the heart of the book, and Bob Evans subsequently dropped the project.

Miracle #6: In 1979, Dick Donner, fresh from directing Superman I (and before he made his Lethal Weapon movies), made the movie of Inside Moves with independent money. Beautifully filmed by László Kovács, the movie stars John Savage, David Morse (his first role) and Diana Scarwid, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Inside Moves.

Sudden Cessation of Miracles: The company that owned the distribution rights to Inside Moves went bankrupt just as the film was being released in 1980, resulting in Inside Moves having an extremely limited theatrical run. And though the mass-market paperback of Inside Moves eventually sold 150 thousand copies, and I subsequently published four more works of fiction with four different publishers, all four books were abandoned by Sales prior to publication and I became persona non grata in the world of mainstream publishing.

Resumption of Miracles with Miracle #7: Thirty years after the original publication of Inside Moves, I got an email from the man in charge of preparing the DVD release of the movie Inside Moves for Lionsgate Entertainment. His name was Cliff Stephenson. At first I thought the email was a joke, but it was not. Shortly after I responded to Cliff’s inquiry, Cliff and an excellent cinematographer, David Chan, drove from Los Angeles to Mendocino to interview me about how the novel Inside Moves became a movie.

But more interesting to me than how Inside Moves came to be a film was the story of how this DVD project came about after the movie Inside Moves had been unavailable for nearly thirty years. Cliff told me that Dick Donner had long wanted to release Inside Moves (his favorite of his movies) in DVD, but was never able to untangle the corporate mess and discover who actually owned the film. When it was finally determined that the movie was owned by a British conglomerate, Lionsgate got the rights to bring out a DVD version of the movie.

Miracle #8: Initially, Lionsgate planned to find a serviceable VHS copy of Inside Moves, transfer that copy to DVD, and bring the movie out with no extras. However, Cliff’s wife worked for Lionsgate, knew of Cliff’s love of Donner’s films, and asked Cliff if he wanted to oversee the DVD project. He said he would love to helm the project, and when he saw the quality of the VHS copy they were going to use, he felt Donner would be outraged.

So Cliff undertook a search for a good 35-millimeter print of the movie, and one was eventually found in a vault in England—not a perfect print, but far better than any VHS copy. This film was transferred to DVD and Cliff convinced Lionsgate to let him create extra matter exploring how the movie went from book to screenplay to film.

As Cliff assembled this material, Lionsgate got more enthusiastic about the project, and on February 3, 2009, they released a snazzier product than originally planned—from which I earned not a penny. About fifteen minutes of my ninety-minute interview appears in the Extra Matter on the DVD of Inside Moves.

Miracle #9: A few months after Cliff came to interview me, I was walking on Big River Beach in Mendocino and bumped into Larry Bauman, owner with his wife Margie of Redwood Audio Books. I told him of the impending revival of the movie of Inside Moves and he said if I would make an audio version of the book, Redwood Audio would release it through Audible and other audio book sites. So I went into Peter Temple’s recording studio in Albion, had a great time reading aloud the novel I wrote when I was a young man, and the audio version of Inside Moves was born.

Miracle #10: Three years later, in 2012, I was minding my own business and writing yet another fabulous novel no publisher will touch with a ten-foot pole (I have eight such novels ready to go if you are a bold and prescient publisher), when I got an email from someone named Harry Kirchner. He said he was launching a line of books called Pharos Editions. The premise of Pharos Editions is to reissue long-out-of-print books that currently well-known authors feel deserve to be published anew. Once Harry secures the rights to publish such a book, the well-known author writes an introduction for that favorite book and lends his or her name to the reissue.

Harry’s email did not name which of my novels he was interested in, nor did he name the famous author involved, but during our first phone conversation he revealed that the marvelous Sherman Alexie was keen to have Inside Moves reissued and would write an introduction and have his name on the cover with mine.

So in 2013, Inside Moves, the novel, was born anew in a lovely quality paperback edition. Sherman’s intro is funny and flattering, though I wish he had written what he told an audience in Seattle at the launching of the Pharos line. He said his father gave him a paperback of Inside Moves when he, Sherman, was fifteen, and he has since read the book twenty times.

In the copy of Inside Moves he signed for me, Sherman wrote, “I am honored to be a part of the reissue. This book was formative in my life.”

Miracle #11: As a result of connecting with Harry Kirchner regarding Inside Moves, Harry convinced Counterpoint Press to bring out a beautiful paperback edition of my collection of short stories Buddha In A Teacup in 2016.

Possible Miracle #12: I recently had an inquiry about the remake rights to Inside Moves. I do not own those rights, but a new movie of the book would be most appreciated by this author.

The Beggar

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Beggar

Buddha Statue photo by Todd

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.

Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.

The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age—forty-nine—and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone’s throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl’s workweek, except Wednesday evenings.

His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.

As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn’t know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o’clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.

When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks further from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.

For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him—that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.

Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.

She takes a week off from work, though she doesn’t tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.

At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.

Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away—a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.

A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.

A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.

A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.

And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o’clock—seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.

A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.

She looks up at him, speechless with love.

To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, “Hello my dear friend.”

Wrong Ending

Monday, March 6th, 2017

inside moves covers

Four Editions of Inside Moves photo by Todd

“Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” George Orwell

A few weeks ago I had an inquiry about the movie remake rights to my novel Inside Moves. I replied to the inquiry (I do not own those rights) and then burned some sage and prayed to the gods of cinema to please make a second film from my novel. And though a remake is highly unlikely, just the thought of a new iteration of Inside Moves took me back thirty-eight years to the making of the first movie and the many conflicts I had with the filmmakers about how that movie should be made.

The narrator of the novel Inside Moves, Roary, is disabled from wounds suffered while fighting in Vietnam. For the movie, made in 1979, the screenwriters changed Roary from war veteran to a man who attempts suicide by jumping from a tall building. He miraculously does not die from the fall, but is somewhat disabled due to his injuries. I fiercely opposed this change because I felt it undermined the veracity of the entire story, nor is it ever explained in the movie why Roary wanted to kill himself.

John Savage plays Roary in the movie, and though superb in the role, I didn’t find him credible as someone who wants, or wanted, to kill himself. But the moviemakers were shy of bringing Vietnam into the story and they loved the shock value of showing someone jumping from a tall building. To compound the wrongness of their idea, when they filmed that suicide-attempt scenes they blocked traffic on the streets around the tall building and a huge crowd gathered. That crowd appears in shots of Roary’s jump, though in the movie, Roary sneaks into a building, goes to an upper floor, and quickly jumps, so there would have been no witnesses, no crowd. Oops.

One of the things many people love about the novel Inside Moves is the generosity and kindness of Roary and the gang at Max’s bar, where most of the story takes place. And this generous spirit does infuse the movie. However, the screenwriters added an ending in which Roary does something so antithetical to his nature, so opposed to the message of the rest of the movie, I several times beseeched the director, Dick Donner, not to end the movie that way. I also spoke at length to John Savage, and he agreed the ending was terribly wrong. John was certain that when Donner saw a rough cut of the entire movie, he would not use the misguided ending.

But because the people making the film were spending a large part of the production budget staging and filming the ending scenes of the movie, I was not hopeful. I attended the filming of those scenes at what is now Oracle Arena in Oakland, and was deeply saddened by an ending that had nothing to do with my book or the rest of the movie they made.

A couple months before the movie was to be released, I was invited to attend a sneak preview in a huge theater in San Francisco. I brought several friends with me and we sat in the jam-packed theater with hundreds of other people, most of them unaware of what movie they were about to see.

This was my first time watching Inside Moves, and I could barely process what I was seeing. There were times when the audience howled with laughter, and there were moments when I could feel everyone in the theatre deeply connecting to the characters and the story.

Then came the final ten minutes of the movie. In the scene just before those scenes filmed at the Oakland arena, Roary and several characters from Max’s bar are on their way to attend Jerry’s first basketball game as a member of the Golden State Warriors. While the group is waiting for their bus to arrive, Roary encounters Ann, Jerry’s former girlfriend, a hooker, who knows nothing of Jerry’s success. The interaction between John Savage and Amy Wright in this scene is a brilliant enactment of a scene lifted verbatim from the novel. As Roary says goodbye to Ann and joins his pals on the bus, the music swells and EVERY PERSON IN THE AUDIENCE THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS OVER!

Because it should have been. The audience began to applaud and cheer, and hundreds of people gave the movie a standing ovation. But wait. The movie wasn’t over. Alas, there was an implausible and wrongheaded revenge scene glued to the end of the film. So people sat back down, and all the excitement and good feelings drained from the theatre as the senselessly violent scene played and then the credits rolled.

Filing out, we heard dozens of people saying how wrong the ending was; and many people made that comment in the questionnaires accompanying the screening. Then we went to a pub full of people who had seen the movie, and everyone was talking about the movie—how good it was except for that terrible ending.

And I hoped the director and producers, who were all in attendance at that sneak preview, would see the wrongness of their ending and cut it. But instead they shortened the scene of the bus driving away with the gang from Max’s, and they brought up the announcer’s voice at the Oakland arena while Roary was getting on the bus, to insure the viewer understood the movie was not over yet, lest they miss the violent ending.

So if by some miracle the cinema gods do remake Inside Moves, I hope they allow Roary to be a man transcending the wounds of war, and they end the movie with a message of kindness and generosity, not vindictive violence.

Little Men

Monday, February 27th, 2017

vito, tood, marcia

Vito and Todd and Marcia photo by Clare Bokulich

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Marcia and I recently watched Little Men, the 2016 movie written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and directed by Ira Sachs, and for my taste it was the best American movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By Hollywood standards, Little Men would be called a European film made in America. Character-driven, subtle, no villains, no heroes, ultra-real, and entirely free of violence, the film is about essentially good people caught up in the cruel realities of economics in a capitalist society, and how those realities shape the courses of people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Because the story of Little Men focuses on the friendship of two thirteen-year-old boys, adolescence and emerging sexuality are also subjects of the movie, each handled with marvelous subtlety and sensitivity. I was so touched by the friendship depicted in this movie that for days after I was swamped with memories of my friendships in junior high school and high school, and the events that led to the demise of those friendships.

The movie is beautifully wrought, and Sachs uses exquisite imagery to tell parts of the tale, imagery without dialogue, so the viewer’s imagination and personal experience are invited to co-write the back-stories of the characters in the film. The acting is nuanced, the dialogue never predictable and always believable, and the sensibility of the film deeply compassionate.

In thinking about Little Men, I realize that most of the American films made available for viewing these last forty years do not honor the viewers’ imaginations or intelligence. I think this trend in movies began with the rise of television as a dominating fixture of our culture, and by the early 1980s Aim Low became the ironclad rule of commercial cinema. Now, of course, most movies are aimed at children or teenagers or young adults, a population that has no experience of great literature, and no experience of subtlety or nuance or complexity in writing or music or cinema.

When I was sixteen, in 1966, I saw Zorba the Greek, and I vividly recall how challenging and exciting it was to contemplate and try to accept such a complicated and changeable character as Zorba. Was he a hero or a villain? Both! Neither! Oh how I loved the widow portrayed by Irene Pappas, yet she was not saved by Zorba, but senselessly killed. Or was her killing senseless?

In that same year came the dangerous British movie If, and some of my classmates hated the film, and some loved If more than any movie they’d ever seen; and everyone who saw that movie believed the drama made the leap from reality to fantasy at a different point in the movie; and a few people thought the story was real from beginning to end.

Then for another decade, it seemed that every week another movie would come out that challenged us to think about life in a new way, to question the status quo, to feel the richness and positivity of originality and artistry, to give us the opportunity to revel in the unsolvable mysteries and beauties of life.

Eventually, with very few exceptions, only foreign films and a rare American anomaly provided those kinds of thrills of discovery and challenged us to think outside the narrow box of American culture. American movies devolved into the teen and kiddy junk, much of it ultra-violent, we have today. Now, every October and November, a few so-called serious films come out in time for the awards season, but these tend to be shallow and stereotypical and unwatchable for the likes of me.

I believe there is a direct connection between the devolution of our cinema and literature, and the ascendancy of those who now control the reins of power—for a culture that celebrates complexity and subtlety and a multitude of possible meanings and endings will not easily succumb to infantile simplicity.

How refreshing it was to see Little Men, a movie that made no attempt to wrap things up in a neat little happy ending, but said, as did Zorba the Greek, “Here is an artist examining a slice of life full of real people caught in real dilemmas. How exciting! See what you think and feel as you open to this artistry, this vision, this vivid real-seeming dream.”

Ignorance

Monday, February 20th, 2017

strength for tw

Strength painting by Nolan Winkler

The earwigs are a plague on the garden.

Jonathon—a thickset man with an unruly gray beard—wanders up and down the rows of decimated bean plants searching for surviving leaves, finding none. How curious, and what a disaster for the community. He has been gardening for fifty years, since he was six years old, and he has never experienced such an infestation—nothing even close to this. Only the garlic shoots have weathered the onslaught of the ravenous bugs, and even they show signs of being nibbled.

Having tea with Malcolm, his predecessor at the helm of the abbey garden, Jonathon says, “I went out last night at midnight and there were thousands and thousands of earwigs clinging to every stem and leaf. I’ve scoured the garden for their nests, but except for one small concentration near the old greenhouse…”

Malcolm, eighty-seven, a slender man with boyish dimples, shakes his head. “You won’t find concentrations.” He swirls the tea in his cup to bring out a last burst of flavor from the leaves. “They’re everywhere in the ground.”

“But why this year?” Jonathon gazes at the slice of garden he can see through Malcolm’s open door. “There’s nothing much different about the weather this spring than last. Our methods haven’t changed.”

Malcolm settles back in his rocking chair, a smile playing at his lips. “I must tell you, I’m glad it’s not my worry now. I’d be out there all night picking the buggers off one by one.”

“But what do you think it is?” Jonathon frowns at what he can see of the ruined planting. “We’ll have to start over again. And we’ll have to buy vegetables this year. I feel like such a fool.” He turns to Malcolm. “Can you make a guess?”

“No need to guess,” says Malcolm, finishing his tea. “The same thing happened to me my third year here—forty-four, no, forty-five years ago. And ever after we always dug the compost in deep and never top dressed with young compost that had any wood chips or sawdust in it. That’s just elixir to an earwig.”

“Oh my God,” says Jonathon—awareness dawning in his tired eyes. “The sawdust we got from the mill in January and mixed with the manure.”

“Yes, and you have five new apprentices who don’t know how to thoroughly rake the clods out of the new beds. Those warm little pockets under the clods are perfect boudoirs for earwig orgies.” Malcolm rocks forward and rises from his chair. “But even so you might not have had this plague if there’d been a good freeze this winter to kill off most of their eggs, but it never got terribly cold.”

Jonathon stares in amazement at Malcolm. “How long have you known?”

“All along,” he says, stepping into his garden clogs.

“And you didn’t say anything because I told you not to butt in anymore.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “I’m such an idiot.”

“No, no,” says Malcolm, putting a hand on Jonathon’s shoulder. “You’re a fine gardener. We can’t know everything.”

“So what did you do back then to kill them off? Poison?”

“Never.” Malcolm laughs as he steps outside his cottage—his sinecure for fifty years of service to the sangha. “What we did was double dig the ground and make the new garden immaculate. Then we sunk big bowls every six feet along the rows and filled them with beer. Earwigs love beer even more than they love baby basil. That drowned a good many of them, and we were out every night for two weeks picking the rest of the buggers off by hand until the plants were strong enough to fend for themselves.”

“I guess that’s what we’ll have to do,” says Jonathon, relieved to have the mystery solved, however difficult the remedy.

“Have you seen my little vegetable patch?” asks Malcolm, starting up a narrow trail leading away from the main garden. “Up in the old orchard?”

“I didn’t know you’d planted anything this year,” says Jonathon, watching him go. “I’ve been so busy with the expansion of the fields, and the master classes, and…”

“I’ve been fortunate.” Malcolm beckons him to follow. “Not many bugs up there. Might get enough beans and such to see us through until yours come ready. Come on. I’ll show you.”

(This is a story from Todd’s book Buddha In A Teacup. An audio version is also available.)

Pollination

Monday, February 13th, 2017

winter mint

Winter Mint photo by Todd

“When the flower blossoms, the bee will come.” Srikumar Rao

Well, maybe not. With bee populations in decline worldwide and the so-called civilized world in no hurry to eliminate the known causes of these precipitous declines, more and more flowers are going unvisited by those faithful little pollinators.

Fear not. Scientists in Japan recently tested miniature drones equipped with sticky tendrils and were successful in transferring pollen from one flower to another with the little robot copters. Soon, say these triumphant scientists, orchards and vineyards and backyards will be abuzz, so to speak, with millions of little hovering robots doing the work bees used to do.

Somehow I am not reassured. Why not just stop producing and dispensing the pesticides and herbicides known to be decimating bee populations? A silly question, I know. Kin to asking: why not stop producing and dispensing the substances known to cause global warming? The answers are the same. To stop producing pesticides and greenhouse gases would be unprofitable in the short term for the huge corporations who have more power than nations.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Albert Einstein

We recently watched the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. This movie turns out to be a perfect Trump-era movie, for it is about a not-very-bright narcissist with no talent and too much money, and the people who feed off her. I was hoping for something to take my mind off of the over-arching stupidity and insensitivity of the new regime, yet found I was watching a goofy and pathetic drama based on that same kind of stupidity and insensitivity.

For me to enjoy a movie, I must care about at least one of the main characters, and preferably all of them. In the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, I cared about no one and wondered why anyone would want to make a movie about such shallow and uninspiring people, unless it was to demonstrate that much of our culture is deformed by the machinations of such dreadful people.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

Just for fun, I tried to imagine explaining to Donald Trump about declining bee populations, but in every imagined scenario, he kept interrupting to say, “That’s not true. There are plenty of bees.”

I recently saw a film clip of Donald addressing a group of law enforcement officials and telling them the murder rate in America is at an all-time high, though the FBI recently reported the murder rate is at an all-time low. Whenever he is asked about disparities between his claims and the claims of researchers and scientists and government agencies, Donald likes to say we’re not hearing the truth because the media won’t report the truth.

What makes this extra confusing is that the media frequently does not report the truth, so Donald is correct in saying so, but the media does report everything Donald says, whether true or not, and then some parts of the media try to decipher which part of what Donald said was the truth and which part was not true. In the end, vast swaths of media time are filled with this nonsense, all of which adds up to little or nothing, but does leave us mentally exhausted and feeling as if we are trapped in an absurdist nightmare written by Ionesco.

There was something absurd and pathetic about Florence Foster Jenkins, and there is definitely something absurd about the reign of Trump, though it is now obvious that Trumpian absurdity is intended to keep us from paying attention to those men behind the curtains pulling all the important strings the media so rarely tells the truth about.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, Florence’s sycophants spend most of their energies handpicking the audiences for her truly terrible singing performances so no one will guffaw and point and say, “The emperor is a talentless buffoon.” But in the end, the truth about Florence is revealed to the world via a newspaper review and Florence is crushed.

Alas, the truth never seems to dent Trump, let alone crush him, but washes over him like gentle rain and only seems to make him more certain that whatever he says is brilliant and right on key.

Going Bananas

Monday, February 6th, 2017

going bananas

Going Bananas photo by Todd

In Woody Allen’s movie Bananas, one of Woody’s earlier, funnier films, there is a scene in which the leader of a successful rebellion in a banana republic becomes the new dictator and decrees that henceforth everyone must wear underwear on top of their clothes instead of under their clothes. Watching their leader make this mad decree causes Woody and another of the victorious rebels to finally realize their leader has gone mad with power.

I thought of this scene today when I read one of President Trump’s recent executive decrees. To wit: any federal agency wanting to institute a new regulation must simultaneously revoke two existing regulations. If you want to make it illegal for companies to dump toxic chemicals in rivers, then you must revoke the ban on dumping toxic chemicals in the ocean and in the air.

Another movie that comes to mind at this zany time in our nation’s history is the 1992 Eddie Murphy flick The Distinguished Gentleman. Eddie plays a two-bit thief elected to Congress through an unlikely fluke. When he arrives in Washington, he knows nothing about how government works, but finding he has landed among others of his ilk—criminals—he is soon raking in money from amoral lobbyists and corporate vampires. Since this is a Hollywood comedy and not reality, Eddie’s character is eventually won over by a gorgeous woman with righteous values, starts doing good things for regular folk, clashes with the forces of evil, and prevails. But it is the lead up to his conversion from criminality to decency that gives the movie its zing of veracity.

Then there is the Kevin Kline movie of 1993, Dave, about a nice guy named Dave who has a side job impersonating the President of the United States. Through a fluke even more preposterous than the fluke that gets Eddie Murphy’s character elected to Congress, Dave becomes President of the United States, sort of. The corruption and dastardliness of Washington politics are revealed, and Dave eventually does the right thing after haplessly aiding and abetting the bad guys.

These movies are wishful fantasies about decency and kindness and justice triumphing over greed and avarice and criminality. In reality, emotionally damaged narcissists who rise to power in American politics do not suddenly change their tunes and become decent generous empathic people. They stay damaged and greedy and wreak havoc on our society and our world until they get too old to keep wreaking havoc or until someone or something dethrones them.

“There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

My brother sent the following yesterday. “I watch the news now as if I am back in the Roman Empire, and yes, we have another psychotic, psychopathic Emperor, so let’s see how this one gets taken down, by whom, and after how much harm to everything and everyone else. He certainly has surrounded himself with some of the most openly evil and openly hateful humans ever. The mini-series about the Trump presidency will have SO many parts for sleazy-looking actors.”

Sixty-two million people voted for Trump, so we must assume several million people are thrilled by how things are going so far. I don’t personally know anyone thrilled by what Trump is doing, but yesterday in the Harvest parking lot I happened to walk by just as two burly men emerged from twin gargantuan pickup trucks, greeted each other with High Fives and big grins, and one of them cried, “Old Donny Boy is kicking ass now.” And his cohort shouted, “Yee haw!”

Old Donny Boy? How about Crazy-Person-In-Chief?

Meanwhile, life goes on. The post office is still operating, correct postage propels letters and packages across the country and around the world, the ATM machine at the bank still provides cash for seemingly solvent people, the grocery store still sells food, restaurants still serve meals, beer still flows from taps at the pub, and gasoline remains under three dollars a gallon.

Marcia and I went for a stroll on Big River Beach today, the sun muted by dense incoming fog, the landscape of huge logs and driftwood on the wide expanse of beach much changed by the rain-swollen river in collaboration with super high tides. I happened to be on the beach eleven years ago, my first winter as a Mendocino resident, when a giant redwood trunk, sixty-feet-long and eight-feet-in-diameter came floating down the river and eventually landed near the stairs leading up from the beach to the Presbyterian.

That mighty log stayed there by the stairs, sinking ever deeper in the sand every year for eleven years. Then just last week, the river joined forces with massive storm waves to dislodge the huge log and relocate it some hundreds of feet to the east atop a crest of sand.

The seemingly unmovable has been moved. Something that seemed unchangeable has changed. And this is how I’m experiencing, so far, the reign of Donald Trump, however short or long his reign turns out to be. His madness, characterized by greed and avarice and racism and sexism and ignorance, is a mighty storm that will dramatically change the political landscape of America and the world.

Should we survive his mad attempts to undermine the Constitution and revoke the basic rights of the citizenry, will we elect better people to represent us? Or will we embrace the slightly less crazy people and terrible ideas that brought us to this historic embarrassment: the enthronement of an angry child who knows almost nothing about anything, trapped in the body of a man who has never known the slightest inconvenience, let alone hunger and poverty and discrimination?

Facts

Monday, January 30th, 2017

now i'm sailing tw

Now I’m Sailing painting by Nolan Winkler

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Martin Luther King

I recently watched several interviews with people attending the inauguration of Donald Trump, and I had to keep reminding myself these were not actors in Saturday Night Live skits, nor had clever cynics written the bewildering dialogue. These were real men and women, old and young, gay and straight, who were excited enough about the election of Donald Trump to travel great distances to witness the swearing in.

Each of the people was asked which of Donald Trump’s plans for America most appealed to them. One woman said, “He’s pro-Israel. All our other presidents have been anti-Israel, so this is fantastic.” Three of the men interviewed said they most resonated with Trump’s promise to strengthen the military, one of them saying, “I’m tired of us being so weak.”

One young man had traveled all the way from Georgia with his wife and son because, “This is the first president who ever cared about me.” When asked how he knew Donald Trump cared about him, the young man said, “Because he’s finally doing things for regular people instead of just rich people.”

A woman opined, “He’s about America first. Obama gave more money to other countries than to America. Trump will keep our money here and grow the economy.”

And there was a man who said, “Trump is gonna kick the corporations out of government and get things back to normal.” When asked what he meant by normal, the man said, “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.”

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George Orwell

I ran into a friend at the post office yesterday. When I asked how he was doing, he sighed and said, “I miss Obama.”

“What do you miss about him?” I asked, thinking of those interviews with people who love Trump.

“Are you kidding?” said my friend, glaring at me. “Compared to Trump?”

“Not compared to Trump. What do you miss about Obama?”

“He wasn’t a lunatic,” said my friend, waving his arms. “Trump is a fascist crazy person.”

“Yes, but I’m curious to know what Obama did when he was president that you liked.”

My friend thought for a moment and said, “He pardoned Chelsea Manning.”

“I’m so glad he did,” I said, nodding. “How are your knees doing these days?”

“Much better,” said my friend, nodding with me. “How’s your shoulder?”

“Coming along,” I said, and then we spoke of the weather.

“Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace.” Dalai Lama

Facts, it turns out, are things people think are true because they want those things to be true. My facts are not necessarily your facts, and my facts are certainly not the facts of those who think Donald Trump is a wonderful guy doing wonderful things for America. Nor are my facts the facts of those who think Obama was a wonderful guy who did wonderful things for America.

And this is where gardening and the weather and rooting for the same baseball team come in handy. Humans enjoy agreeing with each other. My mirror neurons rejoice in agreement with your mirror neurons, and when our mirror neurons rejoice together, our entire body/mind/relationship systems rejoice, too.

When I was living in Sacramento a long time ago, I frequently went to McKinley Park to throw the Frisbee with a friend or by myself. I loved flinging the disc into an oncoming breeze and having the disc boomerang back to me. One morning on the greensward, I made an overzealous throw and my disc got stuck in a tree bordering the field, and by stuck I mean lodged in a dense tangle of branches about twenty feet off the ground.

I found a two-inch-diameter length of tree branch, about two-feet-long, and proceeded to heave that club at the tangle of branches in hope of dislodging my disc. I managed to hit the tangle several times, but the disc remained ensnared, and I was just about to give up when a man came sauntering toward me and raised his hand in greeting.

I had seen this fellow many times before because he was often at the park. I had never spoken to him, but I had seen him sitting in the bleachers watching tennis matches, sitting on a bench by the duck pond, and playing basketball on the asphalt court. He was often in the company of other men I guessed were unemployed, and I was afraid of him. He had never menaced me, but his clothes were ragged, his skin was dark brown, and he was one of the biggest men I had ever seen, and I do not mean obese. He was seven-feet-tall and his shoulders were so broad he must have had to turn sideways to get through a standard-sized doorway.

I stiffened at his approach and made ready to flee.

“Man,” he said, his voice deep and full of sympathy. “You hit that mess right on, six seven times. Wonder why that thing don’t fall down. Mind if I try?”

“Not at all,” I said, handing him my club.

“I seen you over here lots of times throwing that thing. You good,” he said, looking up at the tangle of branches.

Then he bent to one side, took aim, and hurled the club with such force and accuracy that the nest of branches was obliterated and the Frisbee fluttered to the ground at my feet.

“Wow,” I said, grinning at my hero. “Amazing. Thank you.”

“No problem,” he said, returning my grin.

“Would you like to play?” I said, miming a toss of the disc.

“I don’t know how,” he said, humbly.

“I’ll bet I can teach you in five minutes,” I said, not so humbly.

“I got five minutes,” he said, laughing.

So I taught him, and he was soon as good as I, and many times after we met on that field to play.

Circus Maximus

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

hattybirfday

Clowns drawing by Todd

“I remember in the circus learning that the clown was the prince, the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important.” Roberto Benigni

After over a hundred years as the premiere circus in America, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will present their final performances in May of 2017. High operating costs and declining ticket sales made continuing the massive operation unprofitable. With the phasing out of elephant acts due to ferocious criticism from animal rights groups, ticket sales dropped dramatically.

Elephants, it seems, were a big draw. As a boy, I was in awe of those huge animals, but I especially liked the acrobats and tigers, and most especially the clowns. The last time I went to the circus, the aforementioned Ringling Brothers etc., I was in my late twenties and the clowns were bad, save for one. Bad clowns are like bad movies. Intolerable. But a good clown, a great clown, is definitely the high prince of the circus.

In the circuses I attended, clowns were mainly used as filler between acts—emotional relief from the tension of worrying about performers falling and breaking their necks or being mauled by lions. As the lion tamer and her big cats departed, the clowns came running into the ring to keep the audience distracted while the trapeze artists climbed to their swings high above.

Sometimes the clown acts were full of slapstick and pratfalls, sometimes they featured adorable dogs doing things to confound their clown masters, and once per performance, the alpha clown would perform a longer scene, not filler, but a star turn.

That last time I went to the circus, the alpha clown was a big fellow wearing an old floor-length coat, his face painted to express overwhelming sorrow. He entered dragging a rickety little wagon in which there stood a massive book with a black cover, nearly as big as the clown. And trailing behind the rickety wagon was an old hound wearing a little clown hat, his face as sad as the clown’s; and this hound was dragging a long rope at the end of which was tied an enormous pencil, four-feet-long and as thick as a man’s leg.

The audience laughed when the clown and dog and book and pencil first appeared, but as the clown and dog made their slow and ponderous way to the center of the ring, the audience fell silent. At last the clown stopped, and with what seemed to be every ounce of his strength, he wrestled the massive book out of the wagon and opened the heavy cover to reveal a blank page. Then he trudged past the pitiful hound to the pencil and dragged that pencil to the book.

Then he began to scan the audience, and after a short infinity, his gaze fell on me in the fifth row. I held my breath as my girlfriend nudged me and whispered, “Why is he looking at you?” Then my brother elbowed me and said, “He’s looking right at you.”

And then the clown hoisted the pencil onto his shoulder, placed the tip of the pencil on the blank page of the book, and made a gigantic check mark. Then he dropped the pencil, closed the cover, lifted the book into his wagon, and slowly dragged the wagon out of the ring, with dog and pencil following.

“We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus. That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.” Charles Bukowski

Speaking of circuses, OxFam recently reported that eight men, most of them Americans, have more wealth than half the people on earth. Eight men have more wealth than 3.6 billion people. A billion is a thousand million.

“Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” H.L. Mencken

And still speaking of circuses, Donald Trump is now President of the United States. There were hundreds of events around the country protesting his inauguration. At many of these anti-Trump demonstrations, people carried signs saying Trump Is Not My President. What did those people mean by that? Were they from countries with presidents other than Donald Trump? I don’t think so. I think they were saying Trump was not their president because they didn’t vote for him and they don’t like him.

“Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.” P.T. Barnum

I think there is something dangerous about denying that Trump is our president, just as I think there is something dangerous about portraying Obama as something he was not. The eight years of Obama’s presidency set the stage for the election of Donald Trump, and the details of that stage setting are what we need to investigate in order to effectively react to the enthronement of Trump.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2016, Obama approved the dropping of 26,171 bombs in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. And every Tuesday, according to the New York Times, Obama selected the targets—men, women, and children—to be executed by missiles fired from drones.

Under Obama, more than 14 trillion dollars of public money was transferred to the coffers of Wall Street. Fourteen trillion dollars. A trillion is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

I think if that 14 trillion had been spent on improving the lives of all Americans, rather than enriching the top few percent, Trump would not be our new president. I think if Obama had pursued peace as aggressively as he pursued war, Trump would not be our president. And I think if Obama had really been the environmental president and vigorously promoted solar and wind and wave energy production rather than funding coal and oil development, Trump would not be our president.

But until further notice, Trump is our president.

Carrying On

Monday, January 16th, 2017

And the dog walked, walked… site

And the dog walked, walked… painting by Nolan Winkler

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

We are feeling pampered and special because the power went back on after a two-day outage. We know there will probably be another outage when the next storm hits, but for now we’re on Easy Street. No more cooking on the woodstove. No more boiling water in the old kettle to wash dishes. No more writing by candlelight. Our computers work again. We can take showers. Luxury!

The first article to pop up on my computer when I ignited the machine after the outage was about Professor Guy McPherson who says, “There’s no point trying to fight climate change. We’ll all be dead in the next decade and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

The second article was entitled “Why getting farmers to switch from tobacco crops is a struggle.”

Email brought an announcement from my niece, a yoga teacher, informing us that her Yoga and Art and Cooking retreat in Italy is sold out ten months in advance.

My sister called and told me of her summer plans to go camping in the environs of Mount Rainier. She is a biologist and knows well of the forces threatening the biosphere, but she carries on with her life as if we will all not be dead in the next decade. She catches her rainwater for watering her drought-resistant garden, walks to work most days, and looks forward to her children eventually producing a grandchild or two.

Speaking of grandchildren, since Marcia and I do not have children and grandchildren of our own, we enjoy availing ourselves of the offspring of our friends. For this holiday season we had several fun visits with Nick and Clare Bokulich and their nineteen-month-old son Vito. I was especially pleased to introduce Vito to the music of Ray Charles, Vito and I played some stirring blues on the piano, Vito ate many bananas and apples, and we had nothing but fun.

During the storm and accompanying power outage, a few large branches fell from our surrounding redwoods and narrowly missed the house. Then the pump in our well gave up the ghost, and despite the torrential downpour, the savants at Mendocino Coast Water Works rushed to our aid, removed the old pump and pipes, and installed a new and improved super duper pump and water transport system that will last for many years longer than Professor MacPherson says we have to live.

Marcia and I took advantage of not being connected to the outer world via computers to clean our offices and get a start on this year’s income tax. And I discovered the domain name of my web site Under the Table Books was about to expire. So I called the domain site people and spent a pleasant ten minutes talking to a nice young man who convinced me to re-up for another three years. He was pleased to find my piano tunes available for listening on YouTube and my novels downloadable to his Kindle.

Yes, our phones worked throughout the storm, though we had no electricity. We do not have smart phones or cell phones, and even if we did, there is no service for such here in the redwoods, but we do have good old land lines that for some reason almost never go down in these storms that routinely take out our electricity.

Hearing from friends about the latest sculpting of Big River Beach by high tides and a fantastic outflow of rainwater in the river, we trekked down to Big River to walk along the banks of the huge muddy torrent. Several dogs and their owners were out on the pristine sands, enjoying the sun and all that room to run. The formerly No Dogs Off Leash beach is now a prime destination for dog owners wishing to let their dogs off leash.

Fortunately, the dogs we encountered were all friendly or disinterested in humans, and one dog in particular, a magnificent roseate Malamute, ignited my dog-owning fantasies. But then I recalled the enormous dog I used to take care of in Berkeley when his owners were out of town, and how that delightful mutt ate more in a day than I did in a week, so I let my doggy fantasies go.

Home again, I got the fire going and found myself thinking about life in the context of everyone being dead within ten years—virtually all living things on earth extinguished by super heat and lack of oxygen; and I became immobile with grief.

When I was in my twenties and thirties and forties, I persistently lobbied my friends and politicians and the Sierra Club and local, state, and national government to take action to address the problems of overpopulation and our earth-destroying dependency on cars and gasoline. My proposals were received by nearly everyone in those days as the ravings of a nutcase, and I eventually stopped trying to convince anyone of anything. I came to realize that people, for the most part, believe what they want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary.

Now that my ravings, which were based on the work of many farseeing scientists, are shared by millions of people, and there is still little being done to address the processes that have brought us to this frightening phase of human and planetary life, I realize that whether Guy MacPherson is correct or not in saying we will all be dead in ten years, what is true is that Nature, not humans, will take the lead in saving the biosphere.

Perhaps some humans will survive the coming environmental crises, perhaps not. In the meantime, the sun is shining, the first plum blossoms have appeared in Mendocino, the ebullient teenagers swarm down from the high school to buy lunch at Harvest Market where gigantic pickup trucks crowd the parking lot and a hardworking fellow assiduously cleans the market windows.