Archive for July, 2011

Aliens From Outer Space

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2011)

“Chances are, when we meet intelligent life forms in outer space, they’re going to be descended from predators.” Michio Kaku, famous theoretical physicist

So this morning I was listening to a radio interview of a reporter for the New York Times, and she laid out clear and irrefutable evidence of how the crooks took over our government and the banking system and didn’t even try to hide what they were doing—massive theft in broad daylight, so to speak. This radio interview was not on some lunatic fringe radio show hosted by a conspiracy theory fruit bat. No, this interview was on National Pentagon Radio and was listened to by millions of Americans; and the conclusion of the New York Times reporter and of the mainstream radio guy interviewing her was that, yes, the bad guys stole trillions from us and continue to steal trillions from us, but, well, so, let’s just hope and pray that the amoral scumbags will have a change of heart and give back a little of what they stole from the hundreds of millions of people whose lives they’ve destroyed.

That’s when I heard someone say, “Aliens from outer space,” and that someone was yours truly. Seriously folks, how else can we explain this? This being the takeover of our government and the takeover of several European governments by a bunch of amoral scumbags, and the acquiescence of hundreds of millions of people who are apparently more upset about Netflix raising their DVD rental rates than they are about having Social Security looted by these same amoral scumbags? Outer space aliens. That’s gotta be the explanation. Don’t you think?

“Extraterrestrial contact is a real phenomenon. The Vatican is receiving much information about extraterrestrials and their contacts with humans from its Nuncios (embassies) in various countries, such as Mexico, Chile and Venezuela.” Monsignor Corrado Balducci

See what I mean? Balducci is way up in the Vatican infrastructure. He’s no wannabe Catholic big shot. He is a Catholic big shot, and he says outer space aliens are real and making their presence known in Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela—two big oil producing countries and one major player in copper futures. Balducci stops short of saying the space aliens have taken over the American and British and French governments, but we can connect the dots, thank you very much.

“I looked out the window and saw this white light. It was zigzagging around. I went up to the pilot and said, ‘Have you ever seen anything like that?’ He was shocked and he said, ‘Nope.’ And I said to him: ‘Let’s follow it!’ We followed it for several minutes. It was a bright white light. We followed it to Bakersfield, and all of a sudden to our utter amazement it went straight up into the heavens. When I got off the plane I told Nancy all about it.”
 President Ronald Reagan describing his 1974 UFO encounter to Norman C. Miller, Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.

Wow. What a guy, Ronald Reagan. “Let’s follow it.” That’s so John Wayne. That’s so…reflexively heroic. Can you imagine Bill Clinton or Barry Obama or anybody short of Abraham Lincoln saying, “Let’s follow it.”? No way. I mean, what if the white light turned out to be some sort of voracious predator alien? Believe me, that’s the first thing Barry or Bill or either of the Georges would think if they saw an alien from outer space over Bakersfield; but not Ronald “Let’s follow it” Reagan.

“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” William Shakespeare

I have possibly had contact with aliens from outer space on two occasions. I say “possibly” because I don’t know for an absolute fact that these beings I met were aliens from outer space, but they very well might have been.

The first encounter took place on a winter evening in 1981 at Sacramento City College. I had just given a talk peppered with readings of my short stories to a goodly gathering and was about to exit the auditorium when a female (I am reluctant to say she was a woman because I think she may have been an alien from outer space) approached me and asked if she could speak to me. She was the most unusual person (if she was a person) I have ever seen, and I have seen some totally weird-looking people, as I’m sure you have, too.

She was approximately six-feet-tall, slightly taller than I, broad-shouldered yet slender, and she was wearing a sleeveless scoop-necked dress that at first glance seemed to be white, but at second glance seemed to be vaguely silver. At that same first glance she seemed to be exquisitely beautiful, but at that same second glance her face resembled nothing so much as the face of a praying mantis. And most striking were her eyes—huge multi-faceted white diamonds suspended in large transparent globes.

She was also radiant, and by that I mean she seemed to be alight, glowing from within—definitely a white light. When she shook my hand, I felt a jolt of electricity run through me that might have been sexually thrilling, except she was so far beyond any concept I’d ever had of a possible bedmate, I was not so much turned on as transfixed. Then she spoke and she had this terrific Serbian or Latvian or Russian accent, and she mangled English grammar and English words so beautifully I would have fallen in love with her for that alone if she hadn’t been completely off the charts in terms of how exotic and strange and alien she seemed.

“I em Yanina,” she said, her diamond eyes turning subtly turquoise before growing clear again. “I hev mosst unusual life to tell. But I em not writer. Hearing you, I em thinking, ‘Yes, he is what I em needing for to tell my story.” She took my hand again. “I pay you very well, and my book go all over world. Say you meet me tomorrow.”

I was about to say Yes, her honeyed voice and terrific accent and marvelous language mangling tipping the scales in her favor, when I came out of my trance just long enough to discern she was not alone. Standing some ten feet behind her was a huge man wearing a black suit and a red bowtie, his handsome jowly face dominated by a stupendous handlebar mustache. Yanina noticed me noticing her gigantic companion and said, “This is Raul. He is, as you say, bodyguard.” Then she smiled (and her smile might have been an ice pick thrust deftly between my ribs into my heart). “When you hear my story you will understand why I need such protection.”

Which prompted me to blurt, “You know, I’m really just focusing on my own stuff these days. I appreciate your thinking of me in this regard, but…”

“You are afraid,” she said, nodding sagely. “Don’t be. There has never been story like mine. It is worth big risk.”

And if not for Raul…

My second possible meeting with an alien from outer space also took place in Sacramento, seven years after I never heard from Yanina the probable alien again. The summer day was hot and humid, my garden a riot of basil and flowers and corn and tomatoes and myriad tasty comestibles. I was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs leading from the garden up to the deck adjoining my house and thinking about where in my garden to stand while I held the hose over my head to cool down, when I heard a whirring sound and espied something the size of a hummingbird zooming toward me at an altitude of about two feet. In fact, I thought the thing was a hummingbird because hummingbirds do make a kind of whirring sound when they fly fast (though this was a different sort of whirring than hummingbird whirring) and my garden was a popular hummingbird hangout.

A split second later the thing was hovering in the air about a foot from my face, and it was definitely not a hummingbird. I should note I was not under the influence of any drug or alcohol at the time, though I was excessively warm and more than mildly depressed. The thing was definitely a machine. I could hear other sounds accompanying the whirring, notably clanking and squeaking. I felt certain, and feel certain to this day, that the thing was looking at me. Either something inside the flying machine was observing me, or the thing itself, perhaps with a tiny camera, was checking me out.

Then the thing flew away, up and over my fence, and I never saw the like of it again. Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that aliens from outer space might be little. Some years after my encounter with the alien flying machine in my garden, I saw a documentary entitled Fast, Cheap & Out of Control by Errol Morris, the title referring to the work of Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. scientist who designed tiny robots and wrote a famous paper suggesting we send one hundred one-kilogram robots to Mars or wherever, instead of a single hundred-kilogram robot. That way, if some of the robots broke down or didn’t work properly, there would still be many more robots to carry out the exploring. The paper was entitled “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System” published in 1989 in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

After seeing this documentary, I was convinced that the flying thing I had encountered in my garden was one of thousands of exploratory robots sent from some distant solar system to check out life in ours. So now the question is: are the aliens from outer space who sent the hummingbird robots the same aliens behind the crooks who have ripped off trillions of dollars and brought humanity to the brink of extinction? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised.

Another Year

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

(photo of Mike Leigh)

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

According to the on-screen credits that introduce Mike Leigh’s latest movie Another Year (available on DVD), the backers included agencies of the British government, including the national lottery. So…not only do the Brits have excellent and free healthcare, but their government provides money for cutting edge artists (be still my heart) to make major motion pictures about people so real that Marcia and I have been talking about Another Year for days on end, as if the characters in the movie actually came here and spent several days with us, getting drunk and driving us batty with all their imperfections and beauties and sorrows and strengths and frailties attendant to being human, as opposed to being cartoon characters.

The Sunday following our viewing of Another Year, I leafed through the Pink section (movies, music, theater, dance) and Insight section (books) of the San Francisco Chronicle and felt painfully embarrassed, as I often do, by our so-called culture. Books so badly written (my teeth ache thinking about them) fill the bestseller lists and garner slobbering reviews of such transparent falsity there can be no question this nonsense was planted by the publishers, those New York-based mouths of multinational corporations that would never knowingly publish a controversial sentence, let alone a truly original work of fiction. And this is the mediocre gunk that fills our bookstores; these are the made-for-dumbed-down-adolescents inanities that fill our movie theaters; these are the live sit-coms passing for plays that clutter our stages.

Which only makes Mike Leigh’s Another Year even more astonishing, not only because his movie is a great original work of art, but because it was made at all (without interference from the backers), and, miracle of miracles, made available in America to anyone emotionally capable of sitting through a movie that isn’t predictable, has an extremely subtle plot, features brilliant actors who are not particularly handsome or beautiful, has no overt violence, and causes us to examine our own lives in light of how this movie makes us feel. Escapist fun, no. Great art, yes.

Here is a Mike Leigh quote that gives a bit of insight into his way of making movies, an insight that applies to any art employing improvisation as a means of creating the first draft, as it were.

“The whole thing about making films in an organic film on location is that it’s not all about characters, relationships and themes, it’s also about place and the poetry of place. It’s about the spirit of what you find, the accidents of what you stumble across.”

In my experience as a writer and artist, and as a teacher of writers and artists, “the accidents of what you stumble across” turn out to be the primary catalysts of the creative process. And what I learned was that a terrible fear of stumbling and accidents and saying/writing “the wrong thing” was endemic among Americans longing to exercise their creative muscles; and if I wanted to make any headway with my students, I had to devise processes for overcoming this enormous blockade to free flowing creativity.

Ultimately, I invented hundreds of non-analytical writing exercises that circumvent our inner judges, critics, goblins, parents, and teachers who continue to shout so loudly in our brains that we can’t hear the muses trying to speak and sing and create through us. Many of these exercises are collected in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path (published in 2000 by 10-Speed Press and now out-of-print) which you can find copies of for pennies on the interweb, and from which I do not make a dime. I recommend the book to you and anyone wishing to establish a writing practice that takes full advantage of “the accidents of what you stumble across.”

Working first with teenagers and then with adults, I found that nearly everyone, even professional writers, suffers from what I diagnosed as plotitis, the primary symptom of which is the bizarre and ridiculous notion that a writer must have all the story elements (plot, characters, locations, etc.) figured out before he or she begins to write. In my quest for an antidote to the obvious cause of plotitis, an operating system error lodged in the left (analytical) brain, I stumbled on a process that not only cures the disease, it empowers everyone to write wonderful stories, a process I dubbed Arbitrary Story Structures. Here is a brief excerpt from The Writer’s Path introducing the process and two of the story structures.

*Arbitrary Story Structures

To help writers overcome one of the fundamental obstacles to successful story writing, we devised a simple and effective story-generating technique that frees the writer from having to invent the structure of a story before she begins to write it. When a writer is relieved of the need to invent a plot, her intuitive talents are free to emerge.

Arbitrary Story Structures are not detailed plots, but rather bare skeletons on which to hang an original tale. Following the brief instructions, we present eight structures of varying complexity. Each of them is written in a particular person and tense, but feel free to use any tense or person you prefer. Some of the structures provide slightly more specific suggestions than others. Use the ones you find most appealing.

Basic Exercise.

1. Read Part 1 of the Arbitrary Story Structure and write the first paragraph of your story.

2. Read Part 2 and write the second paragraph of your story.

3. Continue this process until you’ve written a paragraph for each part of the structure.

4. Read your story aloud.

5. If you like your story, refine or expand it.

Arbitrary Story Structure 1: The Journey

Part 1. You are on your way somewhere.

Part 2. You see something that strikes you as extraordinary.

Part 3. You think about what you’ve seen.

Part 4. You encounter another person.

Part 5. You have a brief conversation with this person.

Part 6. You fall asleep and dream. Tell the dream.

Arbitrary Story Structure 2: The Turning Point

Part 1. Someone is somewhere.

Part 2. He thinks about something and decides to go somewhere.

Part 3. He reaches the destination.

Part 4. He experiences a strong emotion.

Part 5. He has a vivid memory.

Part 6. He does something uncharacteristic.*

Now you might think that if eight people were to write stories based on the same story structure that eight similar stories would result. Yet that never happens. Indeed, the abstract nature of the suggestions ignites something unique in everyone, and no two stories will be alike.

“‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last,

‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’

‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’

‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.” A.A. Milne

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is divided into four sections of roughly the same length, the sections corresponding to the progression of the four seasons. In The Writer’s Path we call this a Natural Story Structure. To quote from the book again:

*The human life cycle—birth, life, death—is a grand story structure to which many of the world’s most famous novels adhere. Within this most familiar structure, countless story lines wait to support your unique visions. And beyond the human life cycle, in the patterns of all things, myriad story structures await you.

What, for instance, is the abstract story structure of a day? Here is a seven-part abstract structure based on one of many possible interpretations.

Part 1. Darkness

Part 2. Dawn

Part 3. Morning

Part 4. Noon

Part 5. Afternoon

Part 6. Evening

Part 7. Night*

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis

I think it is truthfulness suffused with empathy expressed through Mike Leigh’s mastery of the cinematic art that makes Another Year so memorable and challenging and original.

Lives Unlived

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2011)

“Every art has its secrets, and the secrets of distilling are being lost the way the old songs were lost. When I was a boy there wasn’t a man in the barony but had a hundred songs in his head, but with people running here, there and everywhere, the songs were lost…” Frank O’Connor

I am reading The Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor for the third time in twelve years. Enough time has passed since my last reading of his remarkable stories so I have forgotten sufficient details and plot twists and endings to make the stories new to me again; and in some ways they are better than new because I know them now as I know favorite pieces of music or beloved paintings, and in this further experience of them I discover more and more of the genius they contain.

Frank O’Connor, who died in 1966, was Irish, and most of his stories are set in Cork and Dublin in the 1940’s and 1950’s. O’Connor was hailed by W.B. Yeats as the Chekhov of Irish literature, yet very few of my well-read friends have heard of him, and I, a voracious story reader since childhood, discovered him relatively late in my incessant search for great stories. I should note that many of my well-read friends are aghast at my reading habits which now largely involve reading and re-reading a relatively few dead writers of short stories, with barely an American among them. I find the most ballyhooed contemporary writers unreadable, and if not for a Brit or two, regarding fiction it could truly be said I read only the dead.

I have imbibed Kim by Rudyard Kipling seven times in the last twenty years, and I will probably read that astonishing book again soon. I do not read many novels, even those written by my favorite dead short story writers, so Kim is something of an anomaly for me. Every line of that book is to my taste exquisite poetry; I don’t so much read Kim as inhabit its pages. But I was speaking of Frank O’Connor.

“What makes him so great?” asked one of my well-read friends who had never heard of Frank O’Connor.

“Well,” I said, “when I read Bashevis Singer or Maugham or Wharton or Maupassant, I am enthralled by their artistry and insight, yet I know I am capable of writing stories that at least approximate the structures of their creations if not the mastery of their lines. But Frank O’Connor’s stories, though only eight to fifteen pages in length, are essentially novels with plots spanning many years, yet they have the power and immediacy and emotional depth of a D.H. Lawrence story focusing on a particular moment in time.”

We would rather be ruined than changed;

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden

Nearly all of Frank O’Connor’s short stories illuminate the lives of people who would rather be living other lives—a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. Born to parents who did not live the lives they said they wanted to live, and having known many people, including myself, who have spent large chunks of our lives not living the lives we say we want to live, O’Connor’s stories continuously strike chords in me and ring loud bells of recognition. I am not speaking of people who wish to be something or someone beyond the reach of all but a few mortals, but of people who knowingly repeat, for years and decades and lifetimes, painfully self-limiting patterns they are entirely aware of yet feel powerless to change.

My father found himself at fifty entrenched in a life he loathed, living where he did not want to live, and married to a woman, my mother, he didn’t like. The last of his four children had finally escaped his direct control, he owned a house outright worth millions, and he was a successful psychotherapist, a trade he might have plied anywhere; yet he could not bring himself to change, and so daily drank himself into a stupor and outwardly blamed his misfortune on my mother.

I hitchhiked to Atherton from Santa Cruz for my father’s fiftieth birthday party, though at the age of twenty-three I was a source of shame and disappointment to my parents. I had defied their wishes and dropped out of college to create a life that made sense to me apart from the expectations of others. I had lived as a vagabond from nineteen to twenty-two, and only recently settled among the communards of Santa Cruz (circa 1972) where I earned my living as a musician and laborer. I did not often visit my parents in those days because to tarry in my father’s presence was to invite diatribes of condemnation.

On the morning following his fiftieth birthday party, as I was about to head home to Santa Cruz, my father invited me to join him for coffee on the terrace. I vividly remember that morning—a scorcher in late August—my father looking haggard and sad, the strong black coffee not yet mitigating his hangover. And before he could launch into yet another sermon about me pissing my life away, I said, “So, Dad, now that you’re fifty…if you could live anywhere and be anything you want to be, what would you do?”

“Anything and anywhere?” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I would buy a house near the water in Carmel and be a sculptor. Wood and stone.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I’m too old,” he said bitterly. “And your mother would never let me.”

“Sure she would. She loves Carmel. She loves the ocean. And you know she’s happiest when you’re happy.”

“No,” he said, continuing to shake his head. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Fifty is not old, Dad. Why not give it a try?”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said, sneering at me. “Your mother would never allow it. I’d have to divorce her to have the life I want.”

“So why not get a divorce?”

“She couldn’t survive without me. I wouldn’t do that to her. No…we’re stuck.”

Thus spoke the renowned psychotherapist; and not a word of what he said was true. My mother had recently begun practicing law and was earning a good salary. She would gladly have sold their crumbling house to start anew in Carmel; and had my father been bold enough to divorce her, she would have settled for a fortune and lived no more unhappily than she did in their loveless marriage.

We said our uneasy goodbyes and I walked down the hill to the Alameda de las Pulgas where I got a ride from a guy in a convertible Volkswagen going to Woodside. From Woodside I rode in the back of a pickup over the crest of the coast range and down through the redwoods of La Honda to the hamlet of San Gregorio where I bought cheese and bread and chocolate for a picnic on the beach. And as I walked out to the ocean, I passed the beautiful farm near the mouth of the San Gregorio where my father had taken me when I was eight and again when I was twelve, a farm for sale that my father said he wanted to buy so he could live near the ocean and sculpt wood and stone.

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

A sunny morning, the tide stupendously low, I walk the far reaches of the beach at Big River, and sing a wordless song to the drone of the roaring waves. Now an osprey plummets out of the cerulean sky and splashes down in the nearby shallows to catch a silver sliver of life.

“Good omen,” I say, watching in awe as the raptor flies up from the water to roost in a cliff-hanging pine; and sure enough, here ahead of me on the untrod sand is a magnificent walking stick, long and sturdy and bleached white by the sun.

Enter the pelicans—twelve apostles—fifty yards offshore, gliding northward in an undulating line, the tips of their wings nearly touching the dark waters.

“Omens galore,” I say, as the osprey dives again.