Archive for September, 2010

Meaning of Meaning

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

“A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

I first encountered the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1967 when I was eighteen, a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. Wittgenstein’s little treatises The Blue and Brown Books were required reading for all freshmen enrolled at Stevenson College, the campus within the campus named after Adlai Stevenson and dedicated to the social sciences. I was a gung ho anthropology major, though my gung ho-ness would soon be replaced by the awareness that anthropology was a deeply conflicted realm best avoided by the already conflicted likes of me.

But in my early weeks on that lovely campus, free for the first time in my life from my parents’ incessant intrusions, the breezes eloquent and optimal for Frisbee, the bevies of braless beauties making of life an erotic potpourri, I was inspired to give academia the old college try. So I dove into my studies with youthful zeal, and things went swimmingly for a month or so, and then…Wittgenstein.

I beg the forgiveness of any Wittgenstein devotees who may read this dispatch. My sense of the man, based on a few biographical sketches and the four pages of his work I have labored through, is that he was an intimidating German charlatan for whom Oxford and the higher realms of academia were a field of clover, he a ravenous cow. But I don’t know.

In the introductory lecture on Wittgenstein given by a professor who would soon thereafter kill himself, we teenagers were told that the brilliant German transplant was initially intrigued by the meanings of meanings of words, but soon grew tired of such pedestrian mental gymnastics and was moved to pontificate for thousands of impenetrable pages about the meanings of the meanings of the meanings of words. To which my Jewish grandmother would have retorted, “From this he makes a living? Oy vey.”

Dazed and confused by the professor’s elucidation of Wittgenstein’s multi-layered inquiries into the meanings of meanings of meanings, and being mightily distracted by the nearness of so many outrageously cute and minimally clothed chicks (as we ignorant sexists called pretty girls in those days), I exited the lecture hall stuck on layer one. Woman. What is the meaning of Woman? Look! There goes one now. Okay. Wow. There she is. Woman means that. Her. And the meaning of the meaning? Hmm. What is the meaning of the word that means Her? Well, gosh, so many meanings, let me count the ways. But wait! What is the meaning of the meaning of the word that means woman? My head hurt.

We hoped, my fellow freshmen and I, that our section leaders (philosophy graduate students) would be able to shed some light on the dazzling introductory lecture so we might be able to cobble together passable papers on the subject at hand, whatever that subject turned out to be. I can see us now, a section of ten anxious neophyte scholars, gathered in a little room with a prematurely bald graduate student saying to us, “So…what comes to mind when you hear the word chair?”

To which one of my fellow scholars replied, “A chair.”

“Aha,” rejoined our section leader. “But do you think of a specific chair? Wittgenstein says you don’t. He says that when you hear the word chair, your brain accesses an abstract symbol representing the essence of chair, or what Wittgenstein calls chair-ness.”

A silence fell. I want to call the silence profound, but I’m unsure of the meaning of the meaning of the meaning of profound, but I do know that particular silence spoke volumes filled with blank pages.

“A picture is a fact.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Despite the confusing introductory lecture and the confounding discussion with the philosophy graduate student, I clung to the hope that Wittgenstein’s actual writings might burn off the thickening fog swirling about the prolific German of Oxford. So I hunkered down with The Blue and Brown Books and deduced from their brief introduction that these tracts were to Wittgenstein what Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff were to learning to read. That is to say, The Blue and Brown Books were the equivalent of Wittgenstein for Dummies.

Reading every word, and checking them twice, I made my way into the equatorial regions of Page Four of The Blue Book. Up to that point, or perhaps it was not a point but a moment, I thought I kind of sort of maybe sort of partially understood what Wittgenstein was driving at, but then his construct, so-called, fell apart for me and I had to start over at the beginning. I amplified my concentration and focused my entire being on following the steps (or threads) of his argument, and by the time I arrived at the North Pole of Page Three I felt sure that if Wittgenstein were only still alive and I could meet him, I would try to hurt him, though I had not theretofore been prone to violence.

This was my first powerful experience of feeling wholly unsuited to the academic life, and I was bummed because of the aforementioned erotic potpourri and the eloquent breezes, etc. So I wandered despondently across the bucolic campus to the Whole Earth Café (yes, the original Whole Earth Café of Whole Earth Café fame) and ordered a mango banana strawberry and yeast smoothie to soothe my jangled psyche. And as I was paying for my drink, I asked the hippy guy manning the cash register, “You ever read any Wittgenstein?”

And without missing a beat, he said, “The meaning of the meaning of the meaning of a turd.”

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Rumi

Coleman Barks, the renowned co-translator of Rumi into English, traveled to Turkey one summer to soak up the atmosphere in the home environs of Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet who is today more popular than Rod McKuen. One very hot day Barks went into a café and using his rudimentary Turkish ordered a bottle of water. The waiter seemed startled and asked Barks to repeat his order, which Barks did. The waiter hurried away to the kitchen and returned with a chef. Barks repeated his order to the chef, and a heated discussion ensued. Barks eventually got his bottle of water, but why all the fuss? Barks had mispronounced his words. Instead of asking for a bottle of water, he had asked for the secret of the universe.

“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” Groucho Marx

Once upon a time in Turkey there was a man named Halim who was a waiter in a café. One very hot day, a foreigner, a middle-aged man with curly gray hair, entered the café, bowed politely to Halim, and asked, “May I have the secret of the universe?”

Halim was startled by the foreigner’s request because that very morning Halim had woken from a vivid dream of strolling with a beautiful woman on the shore of a lake in the moonlight. In the dream, Halim and the woman had kissed, and then the woman had said to him, “I will gladly make love with you if you will tell me the secret of the universe.”

And now this middle-aged foreigner had made the very same request. What could this mean, this confluence of identical and unanswerable questions?

Halim rushed into the kitchen and said to the chef, “Toros, help me. An English man, or possibly he is American, has asked for the secret of the universe.”

“Ey Vaay,” said Toros, shaking his head woefully. “No doubt he is another of those blasted Rumi tourists. I’ll give him what for.”

So the chef and the waiter returned to the foreigner, and the chef said in his flawless Turkish, “Why do you want the secret of the universe?”

To which the foreigner replied, “To quench my thirst.”

“Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.” Mark Twain

In Turkey, in the very neighborhood where the famous Sufi poet Rumi lived so long ago, there stands a humble café. And on the kitchen shelf in this café there is a bottle of water among many other bottles of water that appears to be no different than the other bottles of water. But there is, indeed, a difference; for the water inside this singular bottle contains the secret of the universe.

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Gertrude Stein

A man, having guzzled a bottle of water on a hot day, wanders onto a barren field to take a piss. His urine rains down on a tiny fig seed that has lain dormant in a little crevice for seven hundred years. A pool of urine engulfs the fig seed, which pool evaporates over the ensuing hours, but not before the hard shell of the seed dissolves, the seed germinates, and tiny tendrils grow out of the seed and delve into the earth.

Some weeks later, a man on his way home from the café where he works as a waiter, espies the fig sprout growing in the otherwise barren field. With great care, the waiter digs up the seedling and carries the baby plant home to his garden where he will water and feed her so she might one day become the mother of ten thousand figs.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)

Magical Thinking

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.” Tom Robbins

Big game tonight, our Giants scrapping for first place in the National League West, a dozen games left in the regular season, our first shot at making the playoffs since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds. So this morning I hand-washed my black Giants sweatshirt and smudged it with white sage to amplify the winning mojo therein. Do I really believe wearing this particular sweatshirt will make a difference in the outcome of a distant baseball game? Was Yogi Berra a catcher? If reputable physicists seriously aver that butterflies flapping their wings in China impact the weather in Brazil, why wouldn’t my choice of sweatshirts influence a baseball game a couple hundred miles away?

Maybe you don’t believe butterflies contribute to the creation of weather? Do you believe that devoutly imagining something can make that something happen? As in envisioning Juan Uribe hitting a home run, and then he does? Hit a home run? Coincidence, you say? Then how about this: you’re stuck on the sofa, too tired to get up, or you’ve got a cat on your lap so you can’t get up, but you fervently wish someone would bring you a beer or a cup of tea, and suddenly here comes somebody with exactly what you wanted. That’s never happened to you? God, I’m sorry.

“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” William Burroughs

In 1962 the Giants went to the World Series. I was in the eighth grade at La Entrada Junior High in Menlo Park California. This was before the passage of Jarvis Gann Proposition Thirteen that annihilated the common good, so California still had the best system of public education in America. Indeed, the system was so good, the powers that were wheeled a television into our classroom so we could watch the World Series. Talk about having your priorities right.

So the bell rang at the end of class, lunchtime upon us, just as Willie Mays was coming to bat, at which moment Nancy Woolf, the girl of my dreams (though I was too shy to tell her so), approached that television, kissed her right index finger, and with that lucky finger touched the tiny projected image of Willie Mays on the screen. And on the very next pitch, Willie hit a towering home run. I saw this happen with my very own eyes, in real time. Everything was live in those days, no tape delay as I witnessed the power of love and divine pulchritude precipitating a mighty swing. Coincidence, you say? Magic, say I.

“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.” Thomas Szasz

My father, a medical doctor and a Freudian psychoanalyst, was a religious atheist. He felt it his un-God-given duty to debunk and demean anything and anyone tainted with even the slightest whiff of what he called magical thinking, which included believing in God, astrology, reincarnation, and Santa Claus. Near the end of his life, my father proselytized zealously about his latest and greatest theory explaining everything that had ever happened in human history. To wit: most people are genetically incapable of not thinking magically, and are therefore easily controlled by vastly more intelligent people who don’t believe in magical thinking. Shamans and priests and gurus and messiahs and emperors and popes and politicians throughout history were those born free of the magical thinking gene, but they pretended to believe in magical thinking in order to rule the roost. For thousands of years, anyone who didn’t believe in magical thinking and was naïve enough to say so publicly was branded a heretic or a lunatic, until finally science overcame religion and reason prevailed over superstition. But magical thinking, according to my father, still must be ruthlessly opposed or the charlatans will make use of this dominant genetic propensity to seize control once more and plunge the world back into ignorance and organized religion.

My father insisted that spirituality was synonymous with magical thinking, and he declared all spiritual experiences to be fake or delusional. On those rare occasions when I used the words spiritual or mystical in my father’s presence, his reactive rhetoric rivaled the fieriest of fire and brimstone preachers. This was before he developed his ultimate theory of the genetic inevitability of magical thinking, which allowed him to express pity for the inferior masses rather than hatred and contempt.

“Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.” Theodor Adorno

My mother was not a magical thinker, nor were my siblings, but I have always been so. This means, according to my father’s theory, that I was born with the gene for magical thinking and my siblings were not, which may explain why they are atheists and I have never felt that the geological, chemical, and biological workings of nature in any way preclude the existence of an intelligent universe. Indeed, my recent reading of a rigorously scientific text on hummingbirds confirms my view that the universe is a fully conscious artist.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

I have recently heard the expression magical thinking used to castigate those who believed Obama’s campaign promises, to ridicule those who think solar energy can effectively replace fossil fuels, and to pour salt into the wounds of those who lost their shirts and pants and everything else in the ongoing economic meltdown; and I realize from these vitriolic usages that the expression magical thinking is used primarily as a synonym for stupid and/or ignorant, which conforms with my father’s theory of cultural history.

So let us deconstruct the expression and see what we find. On the surface we almost have an oxymoron. Magical—Thinking. In my experience, magic only fully manifests when the linear logical mind is quieted or turned off, and disbelief (preconception) is thereby suspended. That is, if our brains are on red alert to not believe in anything contrary to our current notions of reality, our brains are highly unlikely to be open to magical occurrences.

I think this brings us to the root of the inquiry as well as to the root of magical, which is magic, a seriously loaded word. There was magic in the air when he saw her. Witchcraft. Voodoo. Love. Angels. Pleasure. Luck. Fate. Sunsets. Kittens. Simultaneous orgasms!

As with most loaded words, magic behooves us to find a less loaded equivalent to make our point. I nominate the word extraordinary, which means beyond the ordinary, something unexpected, perhaps even unprecedented. We’re down one to nothing in the bottom of the ninth, Posey on second, two outs. Juan Uribe steps to the plate. I am suddenly overcome by an extraordinary thought, one might even call it a vision, of Juan connecting with a fastball and hitting the ball out of the park. And he does, Juan does. He hits the ball out of the park. Fair. Not foul. Gone. Outta here! Adios pelota! Extraordinary! Did my wanting him to hit that home run make the home run happen? Or was my vision merely prophetic? Whoa. I don’t know. For if I knew, then my thoughts would be what? Scientific?

“Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.” Margot Fonteyn

There is a marvelous passage (marvelous to magical thinkers) in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in which Merton tells of his extraordinary experience in a cathedral in Mexico City. As Merton prayed fervently to God that He exert His extraordinary power so that Merton’s first book would be accepted for publication, Merton was filled with an extraordinary energy (a magical thinker might call such energy the light of God) and Merton was shaken to his core. And though his book was not published, Merton came to understand that God had not forsaken him, but had given him exactly what he most needed, not what he most wanted.

So tonight when I don my black sweatshirt and perform on our extraordinary piano an extraordinary blues progression in lieu of the national anthem, and Marcia (yes, I’ve converted my extraordinary wife to the cause of los Gigantes) and I take a moment to visualize our starting pitcher throwing extraordinarily well and our hitters making loud and extraordinary contact with the ball, we will trust the unseen powers, otherwise known as the baseball gods, to grok from our vibes that we don’t just want to win, but that our need is extraordinary.

(Todd worships los Gigantes in Mendocino and blesses KMFB for broadcasting the games locally. This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010.)

Walton’s Favorite Films

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

(not including all the Marx Brothers movies, a Buster Keaton or two, a few Capra films, The Maltese Falcon and several other great oldies, and a few inexplicably appealing teen flicks; and I’m sure there are others evading my memory at the moment)

AMARCORD (Italian)

AMELIE (French)

ANTONIA’S LINE (Netherlands)

APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (Canadian)

BABETTE’S FEAST (Danish)

BAGDAD CAFE

BEDAZZLED (the original with Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore)

BETWEEN THE LINES

BIG NIGHT

BIG PICTURE, THE

BILLY ELLIOT (British)

BLAME IT ON FIDEL (French)

BRAZIL (British)

BREAD & TULIPS (ITALIAN)

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE

CALCUTTA: THE BLACK HOLE (French)

CAREFUL HE MIGHT HEAR YOU (Australian)

CENTRAL STATION (Brazilian)

CHOCOLAT (CAMEROON)

COLD COMFORT FARM (British)

COLOR OF PARADISE, THE (Iranian)

DAY FOR NIGHT (French)

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE

DEPARTURES (Japanese)

DIVA (French)

DOMINIC AND EUGENE

DREAMKEEPER

DREAMS (Japanese)

EXOTICA (Canadian)

FAST RUNNER, THE (Inuit)

FLIRTING (Australian)

FRENCH TWIST (French)

GADJO DILO (Gypsy)

GIRL, INTERRUPTED

GODS MUST BE CRAZY, THE (South AFrican)

GREEN RAY, THE (FRENCH)

HAIL HAIL ROCK’N ROLL

HEARTS AND MINDS

HORSE’S MOUTH, THE (British)

HOWARD’S END (British)

I HAVE HEARD THE MERMAIDS SINGING (Canadian)

I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER

IF (British)

IL POSTINO (Italian)

INSIGNIFICANCE

JACKNIFE

KING OF HEARTS

KING OF MARVIN GARDENS

KING OF MASKS (CHINA)

LANDLORD, THE

LATCHO DROM (Gypsy)

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (Italian)

LIFE IS SWEET (British)

LIVING IN OBLIVION

LONELY HEARTS (AUSTRALIA)

MAN FACING SOUTHEAST (Argentina)

MISSISSIPPI MASALA

MOSTLY MARTHA (German)

PLAYBOYS, THE (British)

ROOM WITH A VIEW (British)

SALAAM BOMBAY

SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER

SECRETS & LIES (British)

sex, lies and videotape

SHINE (Australian)

SMOKE

SPINAL TAP

STARDUST MEMORIES

STRAIGHT STORY, THE

STUNT MAN

TALK TO HER (Spanish)

TANGO LESSON, THE (British)

THE BAND’S VISIT (Israeli)

THELMA AND LOUISE

THIEF, THE (Russian)

THIEVES (French)

32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD

TOTO LE HERO (French)

TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY (British)

12 MONKEYS

TWO OF US, THE (FRENCH)

UN COER EN HIVER (French)

VINCENT AND THEO

VOLVER (Spanish)

WALKING AND TALKING

WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?

WINGS OF DESIRE (German)

YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (Australian)

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

ZORBA THE GREEK

Art Rant

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Books

Rae’s eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor.” from Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott

The silence of the eyes rings true, and the eyes being side-by-side seems plausible, but how in heck did those eyes get onto that couch without Rae?

I was thirteen and had devoured a thousand books before I discovered the first typo of my reading career, an error that struck me as a scandalous affront to the artistry of writing. I was an insatiable reader, and wanting to be a professional writer I did not skim, but read every word. And when I found passages that wowed me, I copied their lines longhand to teach my sinews the feel of great writing.

“The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.” from Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Nowadays I am surprised if I read a book from a corporate press and don’t find grammatical errors galore with typos sprinkled throughout. I was recently told I must read the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, a current darling of the New York literati, a writer with myriad awards to her credit, including a Pulitzer. I dutifully ordered her most revered collection of short stories, and after wading through several introductory pages of praiseful blurbs from influential magazines and newspapers—the word miraculous appearing in several of the blurbs—I entered a grammatical minefield that rendered her half-baked stories unreadable for the likes of me.

I complained of Ms. Lahiri’s failings to Marcia, my wife who is so patient with me when I rant about the decline and fall of our culture. Marcia calmly considered my condemnation of the writer and said, “Maybe you just don’t like her style.”

Indeed. Clunky composition featuring profligate use of the word “it”, pronoun confusion, place confusion, time confusion, inadequate descriptions of people and places, and lame depictions of action do add up to a particular style, but who needs it? And why would reviewers describe such stuff as miraculous? In two words: culture collapse.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Lamott and countless other contemporary authors contracted by the corporate presses should be ashamed to publish books that have not been thoroughly and thoughtfully edited. Why aren’t they ashamed? You tell me.

Radio

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” Marilyn Monroe

In 1966 I was lead singer in a rock band of sixteen-year-old boys. By our third rehearsal we knew we were fantastic and would soon be opening at the Fillmore for our favorite bands Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Joy Ride, though I was never certain if we were The Joy Ride or simply Joy Ride.

This was long before the advent of cassette tape recorders (now obsolete) so we recorded our loud songs on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the one-of-a-kind tapes to Warner Brothers and Columbia Records so we would be discovered and made famous and have beautiful wonderful girlfriends who wanted to have sex with us day and night while maintaining their brilliance and creativity and innocence.

We had one gig before (The) Joy Ride broke up. The gig was a battle of four bands in a cavernous high school gymnasium. We were awesome, yet we lost the battle. The only possible explanation for our defeat was that the airheads didn’t get where we were coming from. Our one stalwart groupie said we reminded her of Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds rolled into one. No wonder we knew we were fantastic.

Embittered by our rejection by the airheads, I joined forces with a guitar player and wrote eleven amazing songs. We recorded our masterworks on that same reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the tape to A&M Records because a friend of ours had a friend who knew someone’s friend’s cousin or uncle who worked there. Maybe the tape got lost in the mail, but more likely the record company airheads just didn’t get where we were coming from. In any case…

Fast-forward forty-five years. Having just produced two new CDs, I have been questing for likely DJs at likely radio stations to send our music to, my goal being to send forth a hundred packets, each containing our CDs and a heartfelt handwritten letter aimed at a specific DJ. So not Jazz is my collaboration with the aforementioned patient wife Marcia, her exquisite cello improvisations elevating our jazzy instrumentals and songs into the sublime, while 43 short Piano Improvisations is my solo adventure in musical haiku.

Whilst pursuing those rare DJs who might be open to music from the likes of us, I have visited over a hundred public radio station web sites and scrutinized several hundred DJ profiles and play lists. As of this writing, I have sent out sixty-seven packets and gained three DJ fans: one in Fort Collins, Colorado, one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Astoria, Oregon. They have each played a tune or two of ours, and promise to play more. We are, in a word, thrilled.

As a result of my copious research, I have learned that if a radio station is an NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate and airs All Things Considered, they will probably be a kind of public radio Clear Channel with canned programming and zero interest in independent artists. But if a station airs Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, there is a fair chance they will harbor one or more zany, curious, eclectic programmers. And then there are the entirely student-run college stations. I do not intend to approach any of these stations until our hip-hop metal reggae album Dread Metal YoYo is ready for release.

Movies and Plays

“Television has raised writing to a new low.” Samuel Goldwyn

John Simon is the author of my favorite one-sentence film review. In response to the movie Tommy, he wrote in Esquire, “Anyone who has anything good to say about this movie has nothing to say to me.” I feel this way about nearly all the American movies I’ve seen in the last thirty years, and that is because I have not been programmed to digest contemporary theatrical offerings.

Contemporary movies and theatre in America are now entirely conflated with television, the essence of which is physical and psychic violence, emotional superficiality, sexism, the deification of morons, verbal abuse disguised as humor, and non-stop brainwashing. Because I ceased watching television in 1969, the programming of my brain has not kept pace with the changing cultural mores. Thus contemporary American plays and movies, even those purported to be brilliant and deep and meaningful, almost always strike me as trivial and/or toxic.

I remember the precise moment I decided to forego television for the rest of my life. I was nineteen and on the verge of dropping out of college—academia antithetical to the likes of me. I was wandering the halls of my dorm looking for someone to accompany me on a late night stroll when I came to a lounge wherein a dozen young men and women were watching television. As I stood in the lounge doorway and watched the watchers, I was struck by the realization that these promising young people, four of them my best friends, were being lobotomized by the rays emanating from the television, their faces fixed in helpless idiocy.

Over the last thirty years, I have attended some two hundred plays in theatres large and small in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco, and most recently Mendocino, and I cannot bring to mind a single contemporary play written by an American that I believed in for more than a moment or two. Of the few hundred American movies I’ve seen since 1980, I can think of a handful I would call good, only a few great. Thank goodness we have access to foreign films (I consider the British foreign) so I do not entirely starve for good movies, though I am frequently hungry.

I am certain (having been privileged to read such manuscripts) that fine plays, books, and screenplays are still being written in America, but they are not, as a rule, produced or published or widely disseminated. And, yes, I have on rare occasions over the last forty years watched television, usually at the request of friends urging me to sample shows they say are fabulous, only to have my sense of the ongoing devolution confirmed.

Renaissance

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

If you so desire, you can overcome the televisionization of your psyche and revitalize your aesthetic taste buds. Having worked with many teenage and adult writers who were initially incapable of writing original stories with non-stereotypical characters and natural-sounding dialogue, and knowing the causes of their dysfunction to be television, corporate fiction, and contemporary American movies, I found that if I could convince my charges to eliminate these influences from their lives, creative rebirth was a virtual certainty. For teenagers, such rebirths may occur within weeks of their ceasing to imbibe the media opiates. For adults, such rejuvenation may take months. And I suppose the modern variants of television, iPads, cell phones, YouTube, etc. should be included in the list of influences to be minimized.

Our brains, in much the same way as ecosystems, will regenerate once persistent toxics and stresses are removed, and once you end your addiction to the opiates of the masses you will be astonished by the dramatic shift in your perceptions. However, there is the strong possibility you will feel left out of the cultural discourse about celebrities and the latest movies and books you can’t remember shortly after you ingest them, and you may feel isolated and lonely and desperate in the absence of all that you have become accustomed to. Fear not. Falling off the wagon is but a click of the On button and a badly written bestseller away.

[Todd reads books written by dead or very old or unknown authors and watches foreign films (and the occasional teen flick) in Mendocino.]

This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010

Poor People

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Anne Frank

On my way out to water the garden, the living room radio tuned to our local public radio station, I hope I didn’t hear what I think I just heard, especially since I recently renewed our membership to that radio station. But when I come in from the garden, Marcia confirms that some nincompoop guest on said station did, indeed, say, “You shouldn’t give money to the homeless people in Fort Bragg because they’ll just use it to buy drugs.”

If I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve heard say that about homeless people, I’d be rich. And if I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve convinced to think otherwise, I could buy each and every homeless person in Fort Bragg a delicious organic apple. I choose to call the guest of that listener-sponsored radio show a nincompoop because the word describes him precisely. A nincompoop is a simpleton, a shallow thinker, someone who speaks without knowledge. And this nincompoop’s statement is not only false, but also cruel, and his cruel lie makes me so angry I absolutely must refute him.

Henceforth I will address you directly, my dear nincompoop. Here are some ironclad facts for you to consider.

1. Many poor and homeless people are not drug addicts.

2. Many people with homes are drug addicts.

3. The only difference between homeless people and people with homes is that homeless people do not have homes, and people with homes have homes.

4. The only difference between poor people and rich people is that rich people have lots of money and poor people have very little money.

Here are some questions for you, my dear misinformed nincompoop. I will supply the answers since you are not here. And though I don’t know you, I am certain these are the correct answers.

1. Have you ever been homeless? No.

2. Do you know any homeless people? I don’t mean, do you know of any homeless people, I mean do you actually know any homeless people well enough to sit around with them and shoot the breeze or take drugs with them or eat food with them? As their pal? No.

3. Where do you get off saying homeless people only buy drugs with the money we give them? You get off saying that because some radio talk show host needs his head examined for inviting you on his show.

4. Have you ever been extremely hungry, as in starving, and not had any money to buy food? No.

5. Have you ever purchased wine or marijuana or prescription drugs? Yes, you have. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth.

6. Do you think buying wine and pot and prescription drugs is qualitatively different than buying illegal drugs? Yes, you do, but you’re wrong.

7. Have you ever heard of Angela Davis? Yes, the political activist scholar with the famous Afro. She has written convincingly, with pages and pages of unassailable data to back up her claims, that poor and homeless people buy illegal drugs because they don’t have health insurance or enough money to afford prescription anti-depressants, painkillers, mood elevators, and all the other legal drugs bought by people with health insurance and enough money to buy such drugs. Poor and homeless people buy speed and dope and uppers and downers and fortified wine to self-medicate just as you and I and hundreds of millions of people with homes and money do.

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Edmund Burke

When I lived in Berkeley not very long ago, once a week I would take BART to San Francisco where hundreds of poor and homeless people gather at the mouths of the underground to solicit donations. I would emerge into the sunlight and see these multitudes of poor and homeless people, and I wanted to give each and every one of them money because they all quite obviously needed money. But paying my rent and buying food left me very little money to spare. I couldn’t afford health insurance, I didn’t own a car, my clothes were hand-me-downs from friends, and I went out for a meal about never. Indeed, the primary thing distinguishing me from those poor and homeless people begging at the corner of Powell and Market was that I had a bit more money than they and a few more options for earning what I earned.

Just how does one decide which poor person to endow with a buck or two out of the hundreds and thousands and millions of poor people who need money? And by the way, dear nincompoop, even poor homeless drug addicts spend some of the money you don’t give them on food, so they will have the strength to take those horrible drugs that you take, too, only you don’t call them drugs because you are misguided.

Having been homeless for some years in my twenties, and having lived for many years on the verge of being homeless again, and having depended on the kindness of friends to get me through my most difficult times, I knew that anything I gave to these mendicants would be greatly appreciated. Even a dime or a nickel. I did not know if the money I gave would be used for drugs or food or shelter; but I did know that how the money was spent was none of my business. My business was to be compassionate, and so when I felt I could spare a few dollars, I gave them to whoever got to me first.

After a few months of running the gauntlet of these poor and homeless people who had been so abused and abandoned by our fascistic corporate oligarchy trickle down cruel and unusually punishing society, I hit upon the idea of taking a big fistful of change with me whenever I went to the city, and dispensing coins until they were gone. In this way I fulfilled my role as an executor of the final drips of trickle down economics.

One day, having dispensed a few dollars in quarters and dimes, and as my thoughts turned to earning enough money to pay my usurious rent, I was hailed by a young man I had given baksheesh to on a previous trip to the city. He smiled at me and was about to speak, when I interrupted with, “I don’t have any money for you today.”

“Wasn’t asking for money,” he said, shaking his head. “Just saying hello. You helped me out two three times before. Just saying hello.”

“Well,” I said, flushed with shame as I fumbled for my wallet, “I think I might have a dollar or…”

“You don’t have to give me money, man. I was just saying hello because, like…I know you.”

So I didn’t take out my wallet. But I did meet his gaze. And we looked at each other for a short infinity, and I saw that he was I.

And that is the heart of what I want to say to you, dear nincompoop. I am you, and you are me, and we are all together. And your nimcompooposity is mine, and mine is yours. And those poor homeless people, the ones you are so certain will spend the money you don’t give them on drugs, they are you, too. And by not giving to them, you are not giving to yourself. That may be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is absolutely how the universe operates.

The Golden Rule didn’t get to be the Golden Rule by accident. “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” underpins every religious philosophy that ever lasted more than a week. The Golden Rule might also be called karma. Our actions create our reality. Yes. You are the owner of your own karma. Your actions create your happiness and unhappiness. And another helpful Buddhist idea is that duality and separateness are bogus illusions (as opposed to useful illusions) and as long as we see those poor and homeless people as separate from us, we will remain separated from ourselves.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”  William James

Here is what I propose you do, my friend, my mirror. Go to the bank and take out a thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills, and do not rest until you have given those twenties to fifty people you think are homeless. And as you give that money to those people, ask them to tell you a little about themselves. I promise you will discover that they are you and you are they, and we are all together.

Now go home and take a luxurious bath and simmer in your own newly spiced juices. Get the living room nice and toasty. Pour yourself a glass of wine or some other refreshing beverage, and make yourself comfortable, because what happens next will blow your mind into brilliance.

(This essay was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)

Men In Dresses

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in it, I pray God keep me so.

Jean D’Arc

Various accounts of the life of Joan of Arc, or as they say in French, Jean d’Arc, suggest that when she first heard voices urging her to wrest control of the badly beaten French armies and lead them to victory over the occupying forces of the British, she wasn’t sure if the voices were those of angels or self-delusion. I know how she feels. A week ago I woke to a voice saying loud and clear, “Men in dresses,” and for hours thereafter, visions of men wearing dresses came fast and furious.

I saw the capitol mall in Washington D.C. filled with millions of men in dresses, not kilts or robes or even skirts, but full-blown dresses made originally for women but now worn proudly and purposefully by men. Please understand: these millions of men were not dressed up as women. They were not wearing makeup. They were not trying to imitate women. They wore sensible shoes. They were merely men, the vast majority of them heterosexual, in dresses.

Why were all these fellows wearing dresses? I didn’t know, but I felt in my bones that these visions were prophetic, and furthermore I sensed that men in dresses, both the idea and the three-word expression, would play a key role in the salvation of the world along with the salvation of human society. My linear logical mind told me I was delusional, but my gut, if you will, told me I was right on.

So I wandered deep into the forest and sat at the base of a mighty redwood and spoke to the unseen powers of nature or whoever it was that had contacted me. I said, “What meanest thou by men in dresses?” I thought by using that older form of English I might entice even the most reticent spirits to join in the discussion. I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was whistling in the dark. I had no compass in my quest to understand why these bizarre visions had been sent to me.

Then I heard a voice. Well, I didn’t really hear a voice. I sensed a voice. And maybe what I sensed wasn’t technically (measurably) a voice, but more of a feeling. Yes. That’s it. I had a feeling. A feeling deep inside. Oh, yeah. And the feeling said unto me, “Enough with the olde English. By men in dresses we mean just that. Men wearing dresses. If men in great numbers start wearing dresses, trust us on this, eventually all men will start wearing dresses, unless their job absolutely precludes wearing a dress, and when the majority of men are comfortable wearing dresses and wear dresses most of the time, then for reasons we can’t explain to you yet, there will come a cognitive and spiritual sea change in how men and women think about life and the planet, and most importantly in how men and women think and feel about each other, and this sea change will spark a vast and celebratory global transition away from the paradigm of weaponry and greed and inequity, and usher in a time of peace and compassion and creative family planning that will reduce the global human population to planetary perfection within seven generations and make of the earth a paradise once more, and render humanity vibrantly diverse and creative and profoundly graceful.”

“Fine,” I said, liking the vibe of this feeling I was hearing, “but what does that have to do with me?”

“You have been chosen as the messenger to bring this news to the world. You are deeply, one might even say absurdly, heterosexual. You had two brilliant older sisters and relish the company of women, and, well, we can’t tell you the Big Reason we chose you, but believe us, it’s a really good reason.”

“Oh, come on. Why me? And for that matter, why choose an illiterate peasant girl, speaking of Jean d’Arc, and not some well-connected princess to lead the resistance? Why not invade the psyche of some macho movie star with fabulous media connections? Why an unknown middle-aged semi-recluse perfectly comfortable in trousers?”

“Sweetheart, we’ve been grooming you for this role over several lifetimes. Trust us. You’re the perfect person to lead this movement.”

“You keep telling me to trust you. Why should I?”

“We’ll get to that later. For now, how do you like these visions we’ve been sending you? Of men in dresses. Compelling, no?”

“I see all sorts of problems with your plan.” I directed my words to the massive tree, imagining my words traveling up the trunk to the highest branches and from there skyward. “First of all, assuming I could convince an initial bunch of guys to wear dresses with me, what makes you think we wouldn’t be taken for a bunch of cross dressing exhibitionists?”

“Oh, you most definitely will be taken for a bunch of cross dressing exhibitionists. Not to mention perverts and weirdoes. But since you’re so fond of referencing Jean d’Arc, remember, she was considered as nutty as a fruitcake until she proved herself otherwise. This won’t be easy. Saving the world never is.”

“Great, so I’m supposed to spend my golden years as the brunt of jokes and verbal abuse and who knows what else? Listen, I’m flattered you thought of me, but I’m sure you can find someone better suited, pun intended, to the task.”

“We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. In the meantime, we’d like you to focus your thoughts on how you will stage your first massive Men In Dresses demonstration to achieve maximal media attention. Bye bye.”

I walked home in a funk. Being sent visions is completely different than thinking things up or imagining things. Visions are out of your ordinary. I know that doesn’t sound like a proper sentence, and it might not be proper, but it’s accurate. Whatever your ordinary might be, a vision is not of that. Not obviously anyway. Visions don’t follow logically from inklings or predilections or stuff you’ve been working on. I’ve never wanted to wear a dress. And I’ve never thought it was neato or even keeno when a man wore a dress. Indeed, men in dresses have always made me uncomfortable. What’s the point, unless one has a rash you-know-where and you’re trying to avoid chafing? So…

I decided not to focus my thoughts on how I would stage my first massive Men In Dresses demonstration to achieve maximal media attention. If these spirits had a plan, let them present it to me in full flower. And so they did. They didn’t even wait until the next day. I was eating a desultory lunch, avocado on rice cakes with goat cheese, and pondering my diet to discern if I’d eaten something that might have triggered the whole Men In Dresses concept, when a high definition vision came to me of how I would stage my first massive Men In Dresses demonstration to achieve maximal (and positive) media attention. And with this vision came a partial understanding of why the spirits had chosen me. I’m a huge fan of elegant design, and this way to stage the first massive Men In Dresses demonstration was, in the immortal words of Richard Pryor, pure pussy.

Okay. So. Brown paper grocery bags. We, the ten thousand men attending the first Men In Dresses critical mass, bring our dresses to the demonstration site in brown paper grocery bags. This is critically important. Brown paper bags are a symbol of no frills masculinity. No real man would be embarrassed to be seen carrying a brown paper grocery bag. Embarrassment is the first and largest emotional obstacle to making this whole thing work. Men, believe you me, are very easily embarrassed.

Secondly, a minimum of ten thousand men must participate in the first demonstration because any fewer than ten thousand will be, well, embarrassing. This will require a great deal of advanced planning, but there’s nothing wrong with advanced planning, especially since ten thousand men without exhibitionist cross dressing tendencies will need serious convincing about why we’re doing this and how it will not be embarrassing.

Thirdly, we will wear jeans and T-shirts and sensible shoes over which we will put on the dresses we’ve carried to the demonstration site in brown paper grocery bags, thus eliminating any worries about undressing in public or being seen carrying a dress. Eventually, men will feel perfectly comfortable traveling to massing sites in their dresses, though that will never be expected or required. The idea is to get men used to wearing dresses in public with a minimum of discomfort.

Fourthly, as stated before, no one will wear makeup or act girly. This whole movement, in these initial stages, according to my spirit guides, is about wearing dresses. Everything else, whatever that turns out to be, will follow from that.

Fifthly, I have to write a declaration, something along the lines of the Declaration of Independence, brief and poetic (in a masculine sort of way) and deeply inspiring, that will compel millions of men to become Men In Dresses.

Which is to say, I have to compose a stirring text from the dictations of the spirits. Once I have the declaration in fine fettle, I will send the speech to the seven men the spirits direct me to send the speech to, and these seven men will each send the speech to seven other men, and so on until seventy thousand men have received the declaration and one in seven commits to showing up for the first public display.

The cool thing (and a huge relief) I just learned is that if I can successfully transcribe the Declaration of Men In Dresses and the attendant Oath of Commitment To Wearing Dresses as given to me by the spirits, I will be exonerated from wearing a dress until the fourth critical massing. Here’s what they’ve sent me so far.

Beneath our clothing, we are each and every one of us naked. We hold this truth to be self-evident.

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

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com