Archive for June, 2010

Solar School

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

Mendocino has a spanking new elementary/junior high school on Little Lake Road about a mile inland from the village, and I am happy to report that her shiny blue metal rooftops are being covered with photovoltaic cells to produce electricity. I was recently at the school shooting hoops on one of the three new outdoor basketball courts, fresh nets affixed to glossy orange rims, and as I huffed and puffed in humbling pursuit of my largely uncooperative basketball, valiant technicians were hard at work affixing the solar cells.

It was a sunny day, and in the absence of students or anyone else making use of the new school, I thrilled to imagine the school’s electric meters whirling in reverse as great currents of electricity flowed from the rooftops into the greater power grid. Such imagining made me happy in the face of the murderous gusher continuing to gush in the Gulf of Mexico. I am aware that solar power is not the ultimate answer to the woes of the world. I have read myriad articles by smart people explaining how electric cars are every bit as bad for the earth as gasoline powered cars. I have read even more articles by these same and other smart people explaining how renewable energy will never replace oil and that we are destined, rather soon, for a new Dark Age of lawlessness and mass starvation. But whenever I stopped to catch my breath from chasing my runaway basketball and saw those fellows affixing solar panels to the shiny blue roof, I felt twinges of hope.

When I was a young man I decided to try to make my living as a musician and a writer. I worked as a landscaper, a gardener, a janitor, a ditch digger, a farmhand, a day care worker, and at several other low-paying jobs. With whatever energy I had left at the end of each day, I practiced music and writing. And for ten years, every person I knew, including my best friends and many smart people, told me with absolute certainty, “You will never succeed as a writer or as a musician. Give it up.” And when I did succeed, these same absolutely certain people said, “I always knew you’d make it.”

Indeed, I have subsequently observed again and again that smart people are often very good at talking themselves and other people out of doing things by stating with absolute certainty that the thing in question cannot be achieved, and they know the thing cannot be achieved because they have the data to prove it. “Oh, so you put in a gray water system to water your garden and conserve water. Big deal. That won’t help. Corporations waste millions of gallons of water every minute. Your little gray water system won’t make a bit of difference. Ditto growing your own vegetables, driving less, having only one child instead of two, vacationing closer to home, carpooling, turning off lights, lowering the thermostat, or cooking your meals with a solar cooker. Won’t help. Don’t bother.”

Alternative energy? Why it takes so much energy to mine the materials for solar cells, to manufacture the cells, package them, ship them, you might as well drive an old Chevy Impala from here to New York and back and stay in air-conditioned motels along the way. Replace oil and coal consumption with wind power and solar power? You gotta be kidding. Can’t happen. Look right here. These are the numbers. Can’t happen. Get ready to subsist on turnips if you’re lucky and huddle in caves and fight off hordes of starving cannibals until you die a premature death.

But I look up at those guys on the blue roof and I can practically hear the electricity being made out of sunlight. Gushers of electricity. I see herb gardens surrounding this new solar school, and fields of tomatoes and squash and potatoes growing where they’re currently gouging out a soccer field. I see these commodious classrooms being used by people who walk here or ride here in electric shuttle buses or come on horses or on bicycles, and I see these people learning from each other, sharing ideas and books and tools, playing music, quilting, weaving, carving, building, making food, feeding each other, and caring for each other.

I don’t think even the smartest prognosticator can predict what humans might do if we allow ourselves to be guided by our creative instincts rather than the analysis of dubious data about things having little or nothing to do with the countless things each of us might do separately and together.

That said, I do think the idea of bio-fuels is horrific on any scale larger than a backyard still, and when I hear about hundreds of thousands of people planning to gather on beaches around the world to protest offshore drilling, my first thought is, “Yes, but how will they GET to the beaches? Because if they’re driving cars, I’m not buying it.” And I agree there is a powerful denial-of-reality mantra etched into our media-warped minds that intones: They (whoever they are) will surely figure something out to solve the crises of energy and food and pollution and over-population and crime and environmental degradation and global warming and the extinction of whales and salmon and krill and phytoplankton so we can go on our merry way living high on the hog, so to speak.

But our collective denial of reality scares me far less than the growing insistence by so many smart people that there is nothing we can do, collectively or individually, that will make any positive difference to the degradation of the planet and society and the future. And I sincerely wish all these smart future prognosticators would spend more time trying to imagine and test new ways to groove efficaciously with the earth, and spend much less time explicating and arguing ad nauseum that nothing we do will make any difference, because I’m enthralled with those solar panels on the blue roof and visions of electric meters whirling backwards; and if I hear one more smart person look up at those solar panels, figuratively speaking, and say, “Won’t help, don’t bother,” I’ll throw my basketball at him. Odds are I won’t hit him, but that will be my intention.

No doubt my years of living in communes informs my impatience with those who pronounce with such certainty that the actions of individuals can’t possibly ameliorate the horrific disasters perpetrated by the likes of BP and the Pentagon and all the other rapacious forces of evil in the world. Had I not proven to myself that I could live happily with few things, and subsequently experienced a quantum improvement in my quality of life as I spent less and less money and used less and less energy as a result of my immersion in small-scale socialism, I, too, might believe that peak oil sounds the death knell for a comfy way of life. Had I not grown, with relatively little difficulty, much of the delicious food I and fifteen other people needed to survive, I, too, might believe that only misery and drudgery and premature death lie ahead. But I don’t think the transition from a greed-based society to socialism will be bad. I think the change will be difficult but ultimately marvelous.

Yes, it may turn out that Things In General will continue to go from bad to worse, and lawlessness and deprivation will soon engulf us all. But Things In General are, for the most part, so stupid and wrong and broken they ought to crash and burn and leave ashes to fertilize the new and very different system we put in place of the old general things. When I read descriptions of how the Mendocino County Supervisors are presiding over the steep decline and inevitable fall of our local basic services, I find their collective myopia and inaction highly instructive. They reveal themselves to be inmates of the larger state and national institutions that would rather take things away from the weak and defenseless than raise taxes on the wealthy. Their stupidity would be comical if the effects were not so terrible for those least able to protect themselves. The obvious solution is standing right in front of our duly elected officials, a perfect hero of a solution named Equality, except our benighted leaders cannot see her, for she wears the cloak of socialism, and socialism is taboo. But I digress.

What I’m suggesting is that there are many ways already known to us that will help spin the meters backwards, and many more ways we have yet to imagine and design and try out. Just because all these smart people have decided things are going to turn out a certain way doesn’t mean things will turn out that certain way or that we should cease our efforts to figure out ways to live less destructively on the earth. Smart people only know what they think they know. And not one of them knows some of the things you know.

We are only doomed to a disastrous future if we buy into those guesses of disaster (and that’s all they are, guesses) and forget that we, individually and collectively, are limitlessly creative. And I predict that if enough of us make it our daily practice to give some of our time for the greater good, however we imagine doing so, all heaven will break loose.

For some reason, Todd is in an optimistic mood this week. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

The Presence of Absence

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the AVA June 2010)

Thursday in the village of Mendocino is the day the AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser) arrives in our post office boxes and at the liquor store (should we need extra copies.) Now and then the AVA is delayed for a day and arrives on Friday. But this week, the AVA did not come at all. I inquired of my heroes at the post office, but they had not seen hide nor hair of the goodly rag. And though I knew the liquor store is supplied via the mails, too, I nevertheless went thither in the vain hope that a batch had been brought by pony express or valiant pickup from the inland empire to our coastal enclave.

The liquor store in our hamlet is a living foreign movie. No matter how many times I go in there, I have the feeling something important is missing. There is an empty feeling about the place, as if the proprietors are just moving in or just moving out. The lighting is strange and forlorn and bathes everything in a pale yellow light. My friendly greetings invariably fall into a bottomless chasm of ennui, and in thirty tries I have never once elicited a smile from the fellow at the cash register. Perhaps he is hardened by years of dealing with drunks. I don’t know. I don’t buy anything there except the AVA, and maybe this bugs him. In any case, they didn’t have any AVAs and I was apparently not the first person to inquire.

Certainly one of the great appeals of the AVA to me is that I often have something published therein. Discovering that I am once again in the goodly rag never fails to impart a momentary thrill, a sense of well-being, a revivifying and inspiring validation that I did not waste however many hours I spent writing whatever I wrote. I never know in advance if my pieces will run. The editors are not in the habit of telling me, possibly because they don’t know themselves until the very last minute before they put the paper to bed, and perhaps not even then.

No, the only way to find out if I’m in the AVA is to look through her pages. Now and then I will land an essay on the front page (mazel tov!) but more often than not my pieces are tucked away in the cozy confines of the middle. In truth, I don’t care where they land, just so they do. Land.

Those weeks when I do not appear (assuming I’ve submitted something before the deadline) I invariably experience a brief emotional downturn. I want to make it clear (to myself if no one else) that this downturn has much less to do with my absence from the pages of the AVA than it does with the absence of my books from the bookstores of America, the lack of reviews of my books in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the towering indifference of the great big world to the creations of little old me. So when I am not in the AVA, it merely ignites a feeling, for just a moment or two, that I am truly nowhere, that there is no place for my words, that I am, metaphorically speaking, clinging to a leaking dinghy in a storm tossed sea, etc.

Germaine to this sense of not being anywhere, I’ve been enjoying of late a marvelous book of poems entitled I Hear My Gate Slam, Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting, translated by Taylor Stoehr. These poems, written by a handful of poets thirteen centuries ago, have survived because they are very good poems and because they speak compellingly of human emotions immune to the so-called advance of culture and technology: love, loss, longing, death. And there are two wonderful little essays at the end of the volume written by the author, one on the art of translation, the other about how the friendship among these poets inspired many of their poems. Stoehr writes, “They often wrote poems borrowing, imitating, or otherwise reflecting each other’s work.”

So as I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping black tea and stewing about the absence of the AVA, and therefore not knowing if I was absent or present therein, I came across this passage from Stoehr’s Afterword: Translating Classical Chinese Poetry that seemed to be reflecting my very thoughts. “The bereft poet is constantly in the presence of absence—an empty place at the family table, an empty bed—so that the ache of loss seems never to go away. I want to call this ‘the presence of the absence’—absent friends and loved ones hovering in the imagination.”

Now there is a grandiloquent expression. The presence of absence. And that is how it feels when there is no AVA in our post office box, no AVA at the liquor store, no AVA on the kitchen table, no fresh gossip to chew on, no fellow writers to jiggle our cognitive synapses in ways the electronic digits will never jiggle them. There is an unexpected vacancy of that certain sensibility that is the sum of Bruce and Mark and their collective writing and winnowing of the incoming verbiage of latter day exiled poets. For all poets are exiles inhabiting a terrain defined by a perpetual presence of all manner and variety of absences. That is why poets write their poems, and why we prose writers toil to put our thoughts and feelings into words. To bring light and sound and feeling to the void or the chaos or the darkness or the presence of the absence.

Then, too, the presence of absence begs to be modified to the presents of absence, presents suggesting gifts. The gifts of absence. And what might those gifts be? Well…

I am currently reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain, his brief and famous preface concluding, “It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing could be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.” Despite Twain’s disclaimer, there are many moments in the course of his narrative when he is clearly constraining himself because he is, in fact, not yet dead as he dictates this last great work.

The most shocking to me of Twain’s constrained moments comes when he declares his direct responsibility for the death of his firstborn child, his only son. Though verbose about every other matter, large and small, Twain speaks of his most terrible crime for but one terse paragraph.

“Our first child, Langdon Clemens, was born the 7th of November, 1870, and lived twenty-two months. I was the cause of the child’s illness. His mother trusted him to my care and I took him for a long drive in an open barouche for an airing. It was a raw, cold morning but he was well wrapped about with furs and, in the hands of a careful person, no harm would have come to him. But I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot all about my charge. The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs. By and by the coachman noticed this and I arranged the wraps again, but it was too late. The child was almost frozen. I hurried home with him. I was aghast at what I had done and I feared the consequences. I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the courage to make confession at that time. I think it most likely that I have never confessed until now.”

Twain never makes another mention of this event or of this child, though he later goes on for dozens of pages attacking and excoriating Brett Harte for what Twain describes as hideous amoral narcissism and monstrous neglect of wife and children. Yet for my entire reading of this powerful memoir, I could not get Twain’s confession of murdering his son out of my mind. Indeed, it strikes me as the truest paragraph in the entire book, constrained as it may be, for it is free of the artifice of cleverness. And I can’t help thinking that the death of his son informed everything he ever wrote thereafter; indeed, that Twain’s greatness, his profound sympathy for the poor and downtrodden that illuminates his finest works, that powerful presence of absence, sprang from his terrible trial that would never end until his own death.

Which brings me back to the presence of the absence of the AVA, which I think of as a very Twainian sort of paper, the kind of paper Twain first wrote for, the kind of paper that is not constrained by anything but the whims of her editors, both of whom strike me as having little fear of death, which the Buddha said is the fear that underlies all fears. And in the absence of the presence of fear, these editors are free to improvise, which is the mother of originality. And the present of her absence in my life this week is this essay, which may or may not make it into her pages. I’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Words, Words, Words

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

We are awash in words. Our thoughts are words. We talk with words, we read words, we listen to words. We depend on words to define our reality. And when we hear the same pronouncement often enough, most of us come to believe the pronouncement is fact even if the only proof is repetition.

Shortly after the World Trade Center came tumbling down, a comprehensive national poll revealed that less than one per cent of the American population believed Sadaam Hussein had anything to do with that event. Then the administration of George Bush, speaking through their corporate media, embarked on an all-day-every-day-all-channel campaign of repetition stating briefly and with no corroborating evidence that Sadaam was joined at the hip with Osama Bin Laden and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Six months and ten million repetitions later, a new poll revealed that seventy-nine per cent of the American people believed Sadaam was directly involved in bringing down the twin towers. Repetition of an unfounded lie became general belief.

For a month now this same corporate media has been calling the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico a leak. I think they have intentionally chosen the word leak so we will associate this unprecedented disaster with a dripping faucet. What do you think of when you hear the word leak? Certainly not millions and millions of gallons of oil gushing into the ocean for days and weeks and months on end. Yet even after movies began to appear on television and on the Internet showing the oil gushing from a massive broken pipe, commentators continued to use the word leak. As of this writing, that catastrophic gusher is still being called a leak, with only a few of the more daring journalists using the word spill, which is also inaccurate and inadequate.

Do our overlords think we’re stupid? You bet they do. You may recall some years ago when there used to be occasional news of the war that has never ended in Iraq, commentators and journalists referred to Iraqis killed by American forces as insurgents; a brilliant choice of words for the purposes of propaganda, the word evoking visions of faceless murderers surging out of shadowy alleyways, no? The dictionary defines an insurgent as one who participates in a revolt, otherwise known as a rebel. The soldiers of the Confederacy during the American Civil War were called rebels. But Iraqis battling the invaders of their homeland, as well as noncombatant Iraqis who died in the onslaught, were not honored as rebels or even called Iraqis, but were dehumanized by the term insurgents. Call me naïve, but I believe had the word Iraqis been used in place of the word insurgents, the American public, as stupefied as we are, would have been compelled through those millions of repetitions of the truth (as opposed to the lie) to take action to end the illegal war.

Please note that the word insurgents is now being used to describe citizens of Afghanistan killed by American and NATO invaders; and in a further twist of truth, insurgent is being used interchangeably with the word Taliban, which I predict will soon become a common noun spelled with a lower case t. Talk about reframing reality.

I think it is extremely important to be aware of the intentional misuse of single words in the context of the larger tracts of misinformation that constitute most of our news today. My current favorite misused word is socialism. The dictionary definition of socialism is: a political and economic theory of social organization based on collective ownership and democratic management of the essential means for the production and distribution of goods. A public utility, a worker-owned business, a well-regulated oil industry, a free healthcare system, public education, a system of freeways as opposed to toll roads, these are all facets of socialism. But to hear the pundits bandy the word, they might as well be talking about insurgence.

A lawyer friend regaled me with what she learned at a seminar on how to lead witnesses. A video of a moving car striking a parked car was shown to thirty people. Out of earshot of each other, ten of these witnesses were asked to estimate how fast the car was going when it bumped the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it collided with the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it smashed into the parked car. The word Bump generally elicited a guess of ten miles per hour, Collide produced guesses of twenty miles per hour, and Smash inspired guesses upward of thirty miles per hour. Same video, different verbs.

Leak. Spill. Gusher.

Insurgent. Iraqi. Patriot.

Contractor. Mercenary. Hired killer.

For decades, my grandmother Goody fought valiantly against the misuse of the word hopefully. Someone would say, “Hopefully it will rain tomorrow,” and Goody would respond, “Hopefully is an adverb. Which verb in your sentence were you hoping to modify?”

“Uh…rain?”

“Can it be said that rain falls hopefully? Perhaps you meant to say I am hopeful that it will rain tomorrow.”

Or another person might say, “Hopefully I’ll get the job.”

“Hopefully?” Goody would echo with undisguised irony in her voice. “I fail to see which verb you are attempting to modify?”

“Er…”

“Did you mean to say I hope to get the job, or did you mean to say Should good fortune shine on me I will get the job?”

A year before she died, Goody said to me, “I fear I have lost the battle, but comfort myself that I have at least saved you.”

“I will do my best to carry on the good fight,” I said, smiling hopefully, yet knowing I didn’t stand a chance against the gushers of semi-literate insurgents arising from the ruptured pipes of our once pretty good socialist system of education.

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books won the 2010 Indie Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction, the 2009 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Bronze Award for General Fiction, and the 2010 Bay Area Independent Publishers Association Award for Fiction.

Woody Polanski

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

(This essay originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser)

For most of my life it has been my habit (one might even call it a duty) to write letters to artists and authors I admire. I wrote my first fan letter when I was seven years old, the intended recipient Willie Mays. Shortly thereafter I wrote to Will James, the author of Smoky the Cow Horse. Will James was long dead when I wrote to him, but I had yet to learn that authors of books could be dead. When I was seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-two, I wrote long impassioned letters to the playwright Arthur Miller asking if he would take me on as his apprentice. He did not write back. Indeed, most of my letters to writers, directors, artists, and musicians have failed to elicit responses; so now when I write such letters, I expect no replies.

On the other hand, in the course of my own forty-year career as an author and musician, I have received a few dozen letters from people responding to my creations, including much-appreciated missives from readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. And it is inconceivable to me that I would not write back to someone who has taken the time to write to me. Then again, I am not, as the famous must be, inundated with fan mail, so I suppose I should not judge the Great Ones as I judge myself. Except…

British artists and artists from the Commonwealth nations, no matter how famous and busy, almost always respond to my letters, albeit tersely. I attribute this to the British tradition of teaching their young to answer their mail. Among my prizes are a letter from the film director Jane Campion, a note from the actor and director Kenneth Branagh (dictated to his secretary), and a card from the director Nicolas Roeg.

Poets, too, eventually write back, but even moderately famous Americans of other disciplines generally do not. And once in a great while I make a connection with an admired artist that produces a lively correspondence.

Which brings me to Woody Allen. I was a zealous fan from 1965 to 1984, from my teenage years into my thirties, and I continued to attend Woody’s movies until 1995, hoping against hope he would make another good film. I wrote him several letters over the years, none of which he answered. As a young writer, I had been heartened by his leap from clunky sophomoric comedies to carefully crafted comic dramas, and I identified strongly with his evolution as an artist until, to my mind, he ceased to evolve circa 1984. In my final letter to Woody, written in 1993, I suggested he stop making movies for a few years and get a job in a grocery store, or move to Canada and work as a house painter, or get a gig on a fishing boat in Alaska. He was, I felt, not just repeating himself ad nauseam, but missing the chance to transcend the mediocrity inherent to his redundancy.

This redundancy has largely to do with Woody’s obsession with women much younger than he and his concomitant fear of mature women. Woody is now seventy-five, and the younger women in his movies are no longer teeny boppers but starlets in their twenties and thirties. When Woody was thirty-four he made the movie Manhattan in which he proclaimed his preference for docile, naïve, submissive fifteen-year old girls to women his own age. And thereafter, in movie after movie, Woody or his surrogate chooses much younger women over older women because, well…Woody can’t help himself.

If Woody had explored this paramount male obsession in depth rather than length, or if he had varied his story lines and given his female characters complex (i.e. authentic) personalities, or if his movies had continued to evolve as visual works of art, I might have been able to hang with his redundancy of theme. After all, a single overriding obsession drives the work of many great artists. But Woody’s tragedy is that circa 1990 he abruptly and completely lost his finer capabilities as a writer and a director. In seeming desperation (delusion?) he fully regressed to his beginnings as a perennial adolescent lusting after pulchritudinous gals who weren’t exactly bimbos, but were never sharp enough to resist the likes of Woody, a wealthy influential movie director.

Allen’s greatest film, in my opinion, is Stardust Memories, a film he made in 1980 in which he examines his life and motivations more honestly and openly than in any other of his films, and in which he plays a real self, as opposed to his usual self-caricature. His other standout performance is in Broadway Danny Rose, wherein he proves himself capable of superb acting at the expense of his usual schlemiel shtick. In Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose, Woody involves himself with women his own age who are not obviously types, and both films suggested to me that Woody was on his way to even greater cinematic creations. Sadly, these were two of his rare box office failures, which apparently scared him away from originality in deference to making money. Oh, well.

Fast forward to the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where Woody was on hand to tout his latest movie. And though I long ago ceased to watch his self-aggrandizing voyeuristic flicks, I was fascinated by Woody’s willingness to weigh in on the question of whether Roman Polanski should or shouldn’t be extradited to California for raping a thirteen-year old girl. Woody opined, and I paraphrase, “They should leave Polanski alone. He’s suffered enough.” Suffered? Since when is living like an emperor in a French chalet for twenty years and making big budget movies considered suffering?

And I couldn’t help thinking, “Hold on here, Woody. You married your adopted daughter forty years your junior, having seduced her when she was a teenager under the not-so-watchful eyes of your then wife Mia Farrow, and we’re supposed to give even a whiff of credence to what you think about anything, let alone sexual abuse of a minor?

To be fair, Woody is not, so far as we know, a serial rapist as Polanski is reputed to be, but Woody clearly identifies with the diminutive Polish director. Not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with liking beautiful young women or making a movie or two about liking them. I have no doubt that liking attractive young females is burned into the genetic code of the vast majority of male humans, and was burned there to insure the continuance of our species. The problem, and it’s a gigantic world-threatening problem, is that the genetic command to mate with every fertile young woman we can possibly mate with came about over millions of years of evolution during which individual humanoids rarely lived much beyond their teens, and the survival of our widespread little bands was an extremely iffy proposition.

What we need in this time of earth-killing overpopulation is not the glorification of perpetual adolescence, but the glorification of mature love, instinctive generosity, and collective creativity. And I think Woody was heading in that direction when he blew a main fuse. Oh, if only he’d answered my letters. We might have been friends and I could have encouraged him to continue his explorations of those deeper waters where every artist worth his or her salt needs to go.

In any case, here is what I propose for Polanski and Woody. They should be exiled from their places of privilege and given low-paying jobs in working class neighborhoods in Chicago and Cleveland, live in studio apartments, only be allowed to date women their own age, and after a few years of scrabbling for rent money and waiting in line for healthcare and serving the needs of other people, they be allowed to make movies again.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com