Archive for January, 2011

Whales & Predictions

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

Sunday. The second of January 2011. My wife Marcia and I are sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean a few miles south of the village of Mendocino, the pale blue sky decorated with flat clouds, grays and whites, the celestial artist in no mood for billowy today. The sea is relatively calm and several pods of whales are passing by close enough for us to see them clearly without binoculars, their impressive water spouts presaging glimpses of their even more impressive enormity, our excitement at seeing them giving way to ongoing joy that the leviathans (my favorite synonym for whales) are right there, sharing the world with us, and saying hello so delightfully.

We have come to this promontory above the deep to give back to the ocean some forty pounds of stones and shells we’ve collected over the last five years for the decoration of windowsills and table tops; and as we throw the pretty gifts into the depths, we send with them our hopes and intentions for the year ahead.

The news of late has been full of predictions by economists and financial prognosticators about what may befall the national and global economies in the coming year, with the dopiest among them predicting an economic recovery, the centrists predicting a general flatness in the growth graphs, and the doomsters predicting the slopes becoming so steep as to render the pyramid an obelisk. Intellectually, I side with the doomsters, and I certainly urge everyone to avoid the stock market like the plague, but I have a hunch the master manipulators, the people with their hands on the big valves, may do several things along the lines of artificially raising and lowering oil prices to keep the Titanic from submerging completely, not that the bottom two-thirds isn’t already underwater.

Locally there is palpable relief that marijuana was not legalized, the buzz being that pot prices remain high for quality boutique bud, and thus cash will continue to flow around the county, though not into the coffers of our bankrupt local government. Despite the boon of illegality, if one may call it a boon, Mendocino real estate is putrefying, with many houses being taken off the market because they’ve been on so long the perception is they must be haunted or toxic not to have sold, when, in fact, they are merely grossly overpriced. Selfishly, I hope prices tumble so the likes of us can actually buy something for the purposes of truck farming and survival in the coming era of ten-dollar-a-gallon gas, but that scenario may not take hold until 2013.

That said, the presence of so many whales and a splendiferous Red-tailed hawk swooping by not ten feet in front of us, fill me with hope that 2011 will bring myriad opportunities for fun and possibly profit.

Throw high risers at the chin; throw peas at the knees; throw it here when they’re lookin’ there; throw it there when they’re lookin’ here.” Satchel Paige on Pitching

And speaking of leviathans, I would be remiss if I did not include among my predictions an early surmise concerning the upcoming baseball season and the fate of our World Champion San Francisco Giants. Savor those words with me, will you? We Are World Champions. Yes. So. I predict our team, having fulfilled the dream of generations of fans, will play with such ferocious confidence to begin the new season that before they are felled by a mid-season identity crisis, they will be so far ahead of their nearest rival in the division that timely psychotherapeutic intervention will save them from total collapse, we will win the division, claw our way into a showdown with the Philadelphia Phillies, beat those overpaid jerks in six games, and face the Yankees in the World Series, wherein Jonathan Sanchez will pitch a no-hitter, not a perfect game, but one featuring fourteen strikeouts, five walks, and two hit batsmen, to win the seventh and deciding game.

“There is, of course, a certain amount of drudgery in newspaper work, just as there is in teaching classes, tunneling into a bank, and being President of the United States.” James Thurber

I am perhaps overstating the case to call my contributions to the Anderson Valley Advertiser newspaper work, but I do sometimes like to fancy myself a reporter, having always identified with Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter, and not the man of steel. Could I be worthy of a press pass? And I very much appreciate Thurber’s take on the varieties of human labor because having made my living as a landscaper as well as a pen pusher and a teacher and a musician and an arborist, my experience has been that each form of work requires focus and determination; and the more we practice, the better we get.

My experience of drudgery has been limited to work I did not want to do, which, blessedly, I have largely avoided in my life. I do not consider physically repetitive work—chopping wood, shucking peas, juicing apples, washing windows, digging ditches—drudgery, but rather forms of movement necessary for the completion of tasks, movements I can think of as dances when I get into the swing of things.

“The only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic.” John Dewey

The continuing absence of a large anti-war movement in our country is both troubling to me and understandable. I went on my first anti-war march in 1963, when I was thirteen. I marched up Market Street in San Francisco with my father and a small contingent of Doctors Against The War. I carried a handmade sign that said Get Out Of Vietnam. There were several hundred demonstrators and several dozen vociferous hecklers calling us commies and traitors—Vietnam still unknown to most Americans. By 1966, however, getting into college was as much a way to avoid jungle combat as it was a means to getting a well-paid job, and most teenage boys in America knew this and were unhappy to be so threatened.

I think it is important to recall that the Vietnam War was a purely American endeavor, a war our government hoped to win entirely. But we lost. And when America withdrew from that demolished country, the supranational overlords were mightily displeased and decreed, “Never again.” Never again would the mass media report what actually goes on in corporate-sponsored wars. Never again would the corporate propagandists describe America fighting alone for freedom and democracy, but rather the lie would be about coalitions of democracies (NATO and Coalition Forces) fighting dark, dirty, desperate insurgents and terrorists in order to bring democracy to oppressed people who just happen to live on top of vast oil reserves or where it would be good to route a pipeline.

And there would be no draft, no declaration of war, no serious debates in any congress or parliament, no substantive information or truth told to the benumbed population; and the people would, indeed, be numb and dumb and desperate and confused, so much so that the fates of strange brown-skinned people living far-away wouldn’t mean anything in the swirl of trying to keep our heads above water as the Titanic (there’s that big boat again) floundered in such treacherous economic seas that a single serious health challenge could send a person or a family into poverty and homelessness.

Yet until the wars are curtailed and eventually ended, we will never free sufficient resources to solve the environmental and social problems already eclipsing the cost of imperial conflicts. Surely the overlords are aware of the oncoming disasters; or do they imagine that endless and interconnected wars will ultimately provide the framework for controlling the flow of resources in a world of social and environmental chaos?

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

The bulletin boards and fences in the commercial sector of the village of Mendocino are shockingly empty of content these cold winter days, vast swaths of empty space awaiting flyers advertising concerts, firewood, yoga classes, art classes, food classes, classes on giving classes, and families of four with two dogs and three cats looking for a commodious place to rent, can pay approx 700 a month, partial trade for weed pulling and folk singing. Oh not yet, my darlings, but soon such bargains may come your way if the fences on Ukiah Street and the walls of Moody’s java haven prove to be valid economic indicators.

And the one and only bookstore in our village offering new books (not mine, alas) for sale is so quiet the place might be a library; and I fear such stores will soon go the way of the dodo, weakened by Amazon and finished off by Kindles and their digital ilk.

Yet even as I predict the demise of bookstores, I simultaneously predict that quite soon the making and selling of good old bound pages covered with symbols decipherable by those who can still read will once again become the way of literature. But why in the face of such overwhelming digitalization do I predict the resurrection of the Old Way? Because I have an inkling, a hunch, a premonition, that the moment is fast approaching when we will collectively wake to find that all the newfangled digital gizmos no longer work, and that the gazillions of bits of ethereal data assembled by everyone for the past thirty years have vanished into thin air—memory clouds entirely dissipated. And thus we will have no choice but to resort to, and take pleasure in, real things.

Todd has yet to Kindleize or iPadize his books because he is a techno doofus, otherwise he surely would.

All Or Nothing

Friday, January 7th, 2011

“Every day: meditation, chocolate, a glass of port wine, and flirting with young men.” Beatrice Wood at age 98 on her secret to longevity

“I’m never drinking coffee again,” said my friend, reciting his New Year’s resolutions. “And no more alcohol. And I’m off all sugar. And I’m joining a health club and I’m gonna work out for at least an hour a day, every day. Without fail.”

“Wow,” I said, having heard similar declarations from this fellow before. “Sounds draconian.”

“Look,” he said, piqued by my hint of sarcasm, “it’s all or nothing with me. One cup of coffee, I’m hooked again. One piece of chocolate, I’m a goner.” He glared at his big round tummy. “Moderation doesn’t work for me.”

“There can only be one winner, but isn’t that the American way?” Gig Young

I’ve often thought ALL OR NOTHING could be our national motto, for the concept infects virtually every aspect of our political, economic, social, and emotional lives.

“The only way I can figure out what I really think about anything is to write about it.” Norman Mailer

Throughout the 1990’s I worked with hundreds of writers to help them improve their writing. Some were beginners, some were advanced, and several were published authors, but they all began their time with me by confiding that they felt like failures because they did not write for at least two hours every day and produce piles of inspired prose as prescribed by those iconic books about how to be a writer. I will not name these bestsellers, for you may own one or two of them and believe they possess some value. I will only testify that these tomes have dampened the spirits and aspirations of countless writers rather than helping them in any meaningful way.

To those who have been wounded by such knuckleheaded all-or-nothing strategies, I offer the following insight. The most straightforward way I know of to establish a writing practice is to make writing your habit. There are many ways to become habituated to writing, but the underlying mechanism for developing any habit is to do the thing, the would-be habit, on a regular basis. For instance, I have a habit of making a cup of herb tea every morning after I get the fire going, and then I drink the tea whilst considering what lies ahead. This making and having a cup of tea every morning became my habit because I did it almost every day until the making and drinking became routine. The same holds true for establishing a writing practice.

“The most beautiful words in the English language are “You’ve lost weight.” Christopher Buckley

My father helped establish a clinic at Stanford Children’s Hospital for psychosomatically ill children and adolescents. These kids are so ill they have to be hospitalized or they might die. The vast majority of the patients in this clinic are starving themselves to death for fear of being fat; or as one psychotherapist put it, for fear of not being skinny enough.

What I found most interesting in learning about these anorexics was that nearly all of them quickly improved once they got away from their families and schools and television, and many of them just as quickly relapsed when they returned to the outside world. What could be going on in our society to make so many young people feel they cannot be skinny enough, while so many other people are eating themselves into morbid obesity? I see the twin epidemics of anorexia and obesity as symptoms of the all or nothing nature of our society.

“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” George Bernard Shaw

There is a movie by Cameron Crowe called Singles. I haven’t watched the film since it came out in 1992, but the scene I remember most vividly (and my memory may have rewritten the scene somewhat) involves a character played by Bridget Fonda who wants to have her breasts enlarged because she believes her boyfriend played by Matt Dillon will love her more and not be interested in other women if she, Bridget’s character, has much larger breasts.

So she goes to a doctor who specializes in breast enhancement and the doctor falls in love with her at first sight and thinks she’s perfect just as she is. Oblivious to the doctor’s romantic interest in her, Bridget and the doctor stand shoulder-to-shoulder staring into a computer screen where a drawing of a woman’s torso and head can be manipulated with a dial to make the breasts grow larger or smaller. At first the drawing displays girlish breasts the size of Bridget’s breasts, and Bridget turns the knob to make the breasts grow larger and larger until each breast is nearly as big as the head of the woman in the drawing. Then the doctor spins the knob the other way and the breasts shrink to the size of Bridget’s breasts, and then Bridget commandeers the knob and makes the breasts bigger. Back and forth. All or nothing.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

“Todd is a writer,” said a hostess introducing me to a well-heeled couple at her party. And then, winking ironically, our hostess fled.

“Written any bestsellers?” smirked the man.

“Honey,” said his wife, nudging him. “Don’t be rude.”

“What’s rude? Maybe he has. Have you?”

“No,” I said, feeling a strange admixture of shame and a desire to punch the guy in the nose. “Not yet.”

“Get on Oprah,” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “That’s the way to do it. She tells the world she loves your stuff, you’re a made man.”

“I’ll give her a call,” I said, looking for the nearest exit.

“You wish,” said the man, snorting.

A silence fell and the chasm of all or nothing opened between us.

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” John Emerich Dalberg-Acton

I will never forget a long ago conversation I had with two writers, a woman from France and a man from Germany. This was in 1982, but the scene is still vivid in my mind. We were sitting in a modest café in Santa Monica, sipping wine and discussing our shared passion: movies. The next thing I knew, these charming people were sincerely trying to convince me to move to Europe because, as the woman put it, “Your government is doomed to fascism, and as your government goes, so goes your culture. Can’t you see? If you have only these two identical parties, there can be no voice for socialism. This is why the big corporations are buying the movie studios. To promote their agenda.”

“Besides,” said the man, who admired my stories and plays, “there is no place for your writing here. You will have an audience in Europe. Your work is character-driven, as the agents like to call anything even slightly nuanced, which is the kiss of death in Hollywood. But in Germany we love stories about real people. Everything here is a cartoon now. You should come to Europe.”

“Your work is too subtle,” said the woman, sighing. “And your characters are not predictable. They hate us to be unpredictable here.”

“You will be ignored. Come to Germany.”

“Or France,” said the woman, smiling assuredly. “We will sponsor you, and within a year you will have a play produced, I’m sure.”

“You can make a living as a writer in Europe,” said the man, nodding. “You might not get rich, but you can make a living with your craft. Isn’t that what you want?”

But I was too enamored of the vision of rising from nothing and getting it all—uncompromising art and riches; so I stayed in America and rode the rollercoaster of my career up and down, mostly down, to this roughly level ground where I stand today, a habitué of these hinterlands, writing because it is my habit and my passion, sharing these words with you through the auspices of our instantaneously reactive Universe that loves everything from the tiniest Nothing to the grandest of Alls. Or so I like to think.

“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice—there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” Frank Zappa

Scholar Jim

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

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

I wonder how Mark Twain would feel if he knew his novel Huckleberry Finn has been rewritten in such a way that the meaning of his book is entirely changed, and that such an execrable mutation of his work is about to be afflicted on the next generation of American schoolchildren. I ask because such a crime has just taken place. Yes, it’s true, and I quote from The New York Times:

“Throughout the book [Huckleberry Finn]—219 times in all—the word nigger is replaced by slave, a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.

“Alan Gribben, a professor of English and a Twain scholar at Auburn University, approached the publisher with the idea in July. Mr. Gribben said Tuesday that he had been teaching Mark Twain for decades and always hesitated before reading aloud the common racial epithet, which is used liberally in the book, a reflection of social attitudes in the mid-19th century.

“‘I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,’ he said. ‘And I don’t think I’m alone.’

“Mr. Gribben, who combined Huckleberry Finn with Tom Sawyer in a single volume and also supplied an introduction, said he worried that Huckleberry Finn had fallen off reading lists, and wanted to offer an edition that is not for scholars, but for younger people and general readers.

“‘I’m by no means sanitizing Mark Twain,’ Mr. Gribben said. ‘The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact. I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.’ (The book also substitutes Indian for injun.)”

Should we be outraged? I suppose the publication and widespread dissemination of degenerate versions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer pale next to the unending crimes against humanity perpetrated by military forces around the globe, but still, removing nigger from Huckleberry Finn and replacing it with slave is not only immoral, it is grossly stupid. For one thing, the word slave already appears many times in the original text. Clearly, Twain did not want Jim to be known as Slave Jim. Might not this so-called scholar have changed nigger to negro or some African-sounding word like jomo or kumbaya? Or better yet, why not change nigger to scholar? Scholar Jim. Yes. I like the sound of that.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Ernest Hemingway

Ernest who? Wrote some book called For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now there’s a title in need of updating. Nobody uses the word whom anymore. Or the archaic verb toll. The new title should be Who Is That Bell Ringing For? Don’t you think?

But, Todd, the word nigger taken out of the context of a novel set prior to the Civil War is offensive and racist. Never mind that Huckleberry Finn is about racism and the dawning awareness in the mind of an extremely appealing everyman (Huck) that slavery and racism are deeply wrong and need to be abandoned by anyone purporting to be a decent human being. Never mind that the word nigger is to Huckleberry Finn what garlic is to good Jewish, er, Hebrew chicken soup.

“Only one thing is impossible to God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.” Mark Twain

Indeed. Why is it even legal for this so-called scholar to rewrite Huckleberry Finn? Oh, because the book is in the public domain, meaning Twain and his heirs are long dead, so anyone who wants to fuck with, I mean, amend the original text may do so without fear of legal action against them. Fine. In that case, I want to change the ending of Huckleberry Finn, which has always struck me as weak and something of a copout. I think the novel should end with Huck coming out of the closet and admitting that he and Tom [Sawyer] have a serious thing for each other. You know what I mean by thing, don’t you? And Becky will be exposed as a cover for Tom and Huck’s, you know, hanky panky. And Jim (Jomo) should be like this totally wise prophet kind of guy who helps Huck and Tom emigrate to France where they adopt three children, a Hebrew, an Italian, and an Irishman. Yascha, Luigi, and Sean. Scholars all.

“What are the three great American things? Jazz, the Bill of Rights, and Mark Twain.” Roy Blount Jr.

What about Moby Dick? Goodness, dick will never do. Dick means, you know, the male thingy. Perhaps the Auburn scholar would like to go through Melville’s massive tome and change all the dicks to, I don’t know, Jason? Moby Jason. No, I’m thinking scholar might be the best choice here, too. Moby Scholar. Yes. Perfect.

“There are three kinds of people—commonplace men, remarkable men, and lunatics.” Mark Twain

There goes Mark (Samuel) again, using an inappropriate word. He used the word men synonymously with people. What a sexist! What a male chauvinist pig. I’m sending a letter to that Auburn scholar demanding he rewrite all of Twain’s nineteenth century writings to bring them into accord with twenty-first-century political correctness. Just think how women today must feel when they read quotations like that. How could Twain have been so blind and ignorant and arrogant not to know that our language would continue to evolve after his death. Some genius he turned out to be.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

The best thing for me about this Auburn University scholar, or the damn idiot, as I’m sure Twain would have called him, blithely ruining Huckleberry Finn and making boatloads of money in the process, is that his deplorable actions have now freed me entirely from my last shreds of regret about dropping out of college in 1969 after two inglorious years of academic nonsense. There have been times in my life when money and gainful employment were hard come by, and in those dire straits it crossed my mind that it might have behooved me to earn a degree or two, but now I am confirmed in my long ago decision to remove myself from the psychic influence of that Auburn scholar and those of his kind, for they are surely bad for the mind and the heart, and most definitely toxic to the soul.

“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Mark Twain

Seriously folks, I do mourn for our culture as I mourn for our society, the lunatics having taken control of just about everything now. But comes the revolution, we will find all the copies of Huckleberry Sawyer wherein nigger has been replaced by slave, and we will burn those copies, but not wastefully. We will ignite those useless pages in woodstoves to heat our homes, the flames providing extra heat for the double good they are doing.