Archive for November, 2011

Robbery

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

Someone broke into our car last week while we were in Cotton Auditorium for another marvelous Symphony of the Redwoods concert, Marcia in the orchestra, I in the audience. I left our car unlocked, having lost the habit of locking up since I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley six years ago. The thief or thieves took a water bottle, a pair of dark glasses, and several CDs. They did not steal the stereo or wreck anything, but the invasion left us feeling sad and cranky. Marcia always locks her car, and I will do so henceforth, though it pains me to feel I must.

I’ve been robbed several times in the course of my life, each robbery ushering in a time of self-review. I’ve had six bicycles stolen, each theft necessitating the purchase of my subsequent mount, along with new and improved locks and chains. And because riding my bicycle was, until quite recently, my primary mode of transport, I understand very well why we used to hang horse thieves.

The grandest material theft of my life befell me two days after Christmas in 1979. I had just moved to Sacramento and was renting a house in a demilitarized zone—poverty to the south of me, wealth to the north. For the first time since childhood, and after more than a decade of living a monk’s life, materialistically speaking, I was relatively affluent. In quick order I had acquired an excellent stereo with fabulous speakers, a fancy camera, a state-of-the-art electric typewriter, and several items of new clothing, having theretofore shopped exclusively at the Salvation Army. Friends were visiting, one of whom was a professional French horn player, another a professional guitarist. We went to the movies and were gone from the house a little more than two hours.

Upon our return from Going In Style, an appropriately bittersweet comedy starring Art Carney and George Burns as elderly bank robbers, we found my front door wide open, lights blazing, the house thoroughly sacked. Gone were my friend’s one-of-a-kind French horn, my other friend’s one-of-a-kind guitar, and most of my possessions, new and old. The thieves had driven a van up onto the front lawn and backed it up to the front door. They took the beer from the refrigerator, the sheets and blankets from my bed, every last one of my newly acquired gadgets and articles of clothing, as well as my entire record collection (seventy albums or so) including nine Ray Charles albums, my favorite jazz, Ravel, Debussy, Stevie Wonder, the Sons of Champlin double album, Leon Bibb, Buffalo Springfield…everything except a Laura Nyro album left to me by a long lost girlfriend.

I immediately called the police and was informed by an extremely irritable woman that unless the thieves were still on the premises and actively stealing things, it would be two or three days before they could send anyone out to take a report. She said they were currently experiencing a tsunami of crime and the non-violent nature of what had happened to me combined with my unimpressive address made me a low priority for the overworked gendarmes. I thanked her profusely for being so compassionate and understanding, but my tone must have betrayed my dismay, because her last words to me were, “Hey, it could have been worse.”

“True,” I replied, though she had already hung up. “They might have taken my piano, too, if only it wasn’t so heavy.”

In my life review that followed such a thorough erasure of my physical assets, my first thought was that the robbery was a clear sign I should not have moved to Sacramento and that I should quickly change course and move to Mendocino, which is where I really wanted to live. But I did not love myself well enough to heed that intuitive wisdom, and so I stayed in Sacramento for fifteen years, bought a house, married, divorced, gave up the house, and finally fled to Berkeley where more bikes were stolen and more self-reviews pointed me to Mendocino, though I would wait another eleven years before finally trusting the wisdom of that recurrent impulse.

Not that I regret the twenty-six-year delay. What is done is done. Regret is a venomous leech, so rip that sucker off and get on with things. Right? We rob ourselves by dwelling in self-pity, just as we rob ourselves by not expressing our feelings—happy or sad or angry. We rob ourselves by staying in rotten relationships and rotten jobs. And that, I think, has always been the greatest gift of being robbed—a wake up call, a reminder to discover and expel those parts of our lives that are self-robberies, self-swindles, self-sabotage.

Betrayal is another kind of robbery. I was lifted out of my first long stint of poverty by the sale of the movie rights to my novel Inside Moves. I had long aspired to write and direct movies, and to that end I had been writing screenplays for several years, as well as writing novels and short stories and plays. The agent handling the movie sale of my novel informed me there were two offers, one from Robert Evans who had recently produced The Godfather and Chinatown and Love Story, and one from Stephen Friedman who had recently produced The Last Picture Show. I was told that Friedman was offering twenty-five thousand dollars more, but the agents advised me to take the offer from Evans because they said he had a much better chance of getting the movie produced.

And I said to the charming agent handling the deal, “I just want to remind you that I very much want to write the screenplay of my novel. Is that a possibility?”

“No,” she said, laughing delightfully. “Bob has some big names in mind for that. Let’s get the movie made and then we’ll see about getting you some screenwriting gigs.”

Since I had yet to learn anything about the true nature of the movie business, I agreed to the deal with Bob Evans, and he did, indeed, hire the now-famous Barry Levinson and Barry’s then-wife Valerie Curtin to write the screenplay for Inside Moves. But then Evans dropped the project and it was relegated to limbo for a couple years. I subsequently published a second novel, Forgotten Impulses, and one of my suitors for the movie rights to that tome was the same Stephen Friedman. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with him, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m still angry that you didn’t go with us on Inside Moves, especially since we offered you more money and the screenwriting gig.”

“But (name of agent) never told me you offered me the screenwriting gig.”

“Fuckin’ agents,” he said, scowling. “I told her you were born to write that screenplay.”

Hilariously naïve, I went directly from my meeting with Friedman to the agency representing me wherein dwelt the beautiful woman who was my official representative in Hollywood, and when I informed her of what Friedman had told me, she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, that’s true. He did want you to write the screenplay, but we thought it would be better for the project to go with Evans.”

“But…so…you lied to me.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, her voice dropping to a husky whisper. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that in this town. Things are far more complicated than you realize. This business is all about relationships and the balance of power.”

A few weeks later, I was informed that I had been assigned to another agent in the esteemed agency representing me, another charming woman who “totally got” my yen to establish myself as a screenwriter; and to that end she encouraged me to write treatments for the movies I wanted to write. A treatment is a thorough synopsis of a movie’s plot accompanied by detailed descriptions of the characters, with snippets of scenes and samples of dialogue. I wrote a dozen of these cinematic treatises for her over the next few years, virtual novellas, and at least one of them caught the eye of a powerful producer at Tri-Star. My enthusiastic agent called me from a celebratory lunch with that producer at the Beverly Hills Hotel to let me know a lucrative deal was imminent, after which I never heard from her again. However, a few weeks after her exuberant phone call, I was informed I was being shifted to yet another agent at the esteemed agency representing me.

Then a year or so after that, I went to see a new comedy from Tri-Star with my friend Bob, and about five minutes into the film, I realized we were watching a movie based entirely on my treatment, down to the minute details of the characters I’d invented, the content and order of the scenes, and much of the dialogue. There were, of course, things in the film I had not imagined, but for the most part the movie stayed remarkably faithful to my treatment. I knew well enough by then there was no way I could prove the theft and win any sort of settlement, though the story and characters were entirely mine, which knowledge simply added to myriad other sad and discouraging things I had learned and was learning about the big money end of American culture. I felt robbed, yes, but this time I also felt stupid for having trusted Lucy yet again to not pull the football away, so to speak, right before I was about to kick a winning field goal.

I am currently reading The Horse’s Mouth, a wonderful novel about an artist, a painter, a truly gone cat, his art more important to him than anything else, even friendship. And he is forever coming to the conclusion that everything that happens to him—everything that has ever happened to him—is not only the result of his own actions, but precisely what he requires to continue evolving as an artist.

3-D

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

As the local and state and national and global economies continue to stagger under the weight of debt, real and imagined, and seven billion hungry humans vie for space and food and air and water on the besieged planet, and the Haves continue their eternal battle with the Have Nots, Hollywood has, in the last few years, been rescued from financial ruin by the advent of huge budget movies made in 3-D to be shown in special 3-D theaters and on special 3-D screens for audiences wearing special 3-D glasses. Yes, it was a close call. People weren’t going to the movies much anymore, preferring to wait to watch the junky new films at home for pennies on the dollar or pirating them off the interweb. Why drive to a multiplex and pay a small fortune to see crap when that crap can be delivered right to your doorstep, so to speak, like bad pizza?

But crap in 3-D is amazing. 3-D crap looks fifty times more real (and better) than real crap. And little kids, the second largest engine of movie ticket sales after kids slightly older than little kids, love 3-D, probably because their brains aren’t fully formed yet and the impact of watching massive multi-dimensional animated penguins and cartoon characters and toys and gigantic super heroes killing and killing and killing and everything exploding and mutant robots eating buildings is equivalent to multiple orgasms in adults. I don’t know. I’m not a little kid anymore, so I’m just guessing about the multiple orgasm comparison. But Hollywood knows very well the effect of 3-D on children and adults, and they can’t crank out this 3-D crank fast enough. I’ve only watched previews of 3-D movies on my computer since I don’t get out much anymore, but let me tell you, once you’ve seen a preview for a 3-D movie (even without the special glasses or special 3-D home movie screens that are selling like hotcakes and currently rescuing the electronics industry), non-3-D movie previews are pathetic. Soon, I predict, even low budget films will be made in 3-D. Or maybe even 4-D.

Despite my contempt for mainstream American cinema, not to mention American culture, I am currently a fanatical fan of 3-D reality because for the first time since I was a little kid, I have excellent vision in both eyes without the aid of glasses. Yesterday I walked on Big River Beach and I might as well have been inside a 3-D movie—everything was so amazingly multi-dimensional and beautiful and clear. The waves rolling in and crashing on the shore were more amazing and multi-dimensional than any waves I’d ever seen. Ditto the sea gulls, the clouds, the sand, the stones, the seaweed, the dogs, the earth and sky.

I walk outside and the huckleberries on the bushes are so round and blue and obviously real that I want to eat them. So I do. I understand the appeal of 3-D on a visceral level now, and I thank the laser gods for this miracle of clear vision with nary a frame around that clarity.

My mother was extremely nearsighted and three of her four children inherited that trait. My sister Kathy got our father’s eagle eyes and was thereby spared the shame and ignominy that befell my other siblings and I when we first wore our glasses at school. Indeed, I first heard the word Homo used as an epithet in reference to my wearing glasses. I was in the Seventh Grade in 1960, in northern California no less, when Homo was flung at me; and I did not yet know what a homo was. The little cartons of milk we bought at lunchtime in the cafeteria were labeled Homo, so at first I thought the slur might have something to do with dairy products. I soon learned what Homo meant and thereafter got into several bloody fights defending my honor and heterosexuality.

For some years in the 1970’s my mother was a Special Education teacher in East Palo Alto where the little boys and girls, especially the boys, who had to wear glasses were routinely harassed and beaten up for wearing glasses; and those precious and expensive glasses were often stomped to bits by the thugs assaulting the nearsighted ones. Indeed, many of my mother’s students were having trouble in school precisely because they could not see the blackboard and were afraid to wear their glasses or let anyone know their vision was weak. My glasses were never stomped on, but they were frequently snatched from my face so I had to chase down my abusers to get them back.

I was an excellent and highly competitive athlete in junior high and high school, and the prejudice against those of us who wore glasses was so profound that our coaches frequently started lesser athletes ahead of us. It seemed clear that these fools would rather lose games than feature athletes who wore glasses, probably because the coaches feared the derision and scorn of opposing coaches. I was on the second string basketball team as a consequence of my spectacles, as were two other superior players, and at practice scrimmages we so routinely dominated the starting team that even the starters lobbied our moronic coach for our promotion.

I have been told that things are better for myopic kids today, in part because a number of high profile celebrities beloved by the young, including Justin Timberlake, wear glasses in public. Contact lenses have improved greatly since the 1960’s and are more affordable now. Laser treatments for nearsightedness are common, and young athletes undergo such procedures routinely now.

I used to wonder why there was such a fierce prejudice against children who wore glasses, though not so ferocious an antipathy to adults who wore glasses. Certainly the wearing of glasses still got a person classified as a geek in college in the 1960’s and 70’s, but the violent animosity we experienced in childhood seemed to largely fade away by the time I was in my early twenties. I thought this prejudice must be genetic and have to do with the ability to survive in the caves and jungles of prehistoric times when being among the fittest must have included having excellent eyesight to avoid being eaten by lions or killed by snakes and other aggressive humans.

I theorized that the priests and shamans of ancient times were nearsighted people who figured out that the way to survive with lousy eyesight in a ruthless world was to invent captivating myths and fiery hocus pocus to harness the strength and loyalty of stupid people with good eyesight. And to this day I note that many of the smarter people in positions of power around the world wear glasses.

When I was twenty-three I got contact lenses for the first time, and a fascinating thing happened to me, a thing as fantastic as my walking on Big River Beach yesterday and feeling like I was inside a 3-D movie. And that fascinating thing was that women took notice of me as never before, so that for the first time in my life I was perceived to be, relatively speaking, a hunk. By the age of twenty-three, however, I was hardwired to think of myself as unattractive and unworthy of the attention of any woman I found attractive. I had been rejected by innumerable women I felt sure would have loved me if only they could have seen past my glasses. Which is to say I was wholly unprepared for the invitations, both subtle and overt, that came my way once I was no longer seen as a four-eyed nerd, if seen at all.

One woman who chased me down, literally, had theretofore shunned me as if I wore visible proof of leprosy. I can still vividly recall lying in bed with her in a post-you-know-what haze, marveling that such a gorgeous gal had not only consented but emphatically insisted we make love, when she said without a trace of guile, “Yeah, when I saw you without glasses I thought, ‘Better grab that fox quick before somebody else does.’”

It was true: when I wore glasses I was invisible, sexually and otherwise, to most women, and when I did not wear glasses, many women saw me in 3-D and wanted to learn more about me. And I do think that phenomenon is primal and about choosing a sperm donor and meat provider in those ancient times when our genetic infrastructure evolved. A man who cannot see might make a baby who cannot see, and will certainly not see the scorpion coming to sting us, or throw his spear as well as that big ugly guy named Eagle Eye. And so…

I was married in 1984 to a bright, ambitious woman. A year into our marriage, I was struck in the eye by an errant tennis ball going a hundred miles an hour and thereafter found it impossible to continue wearing contact lenses. And so I began wearing glasses again full time, which prompted my wife to say, “You know, I don’t think I would have given you a second look if you’d been wearing glasses when we met.”

Which brings me back to 3-D being the salvation of Hollywood and all the rage this holiday season. I wonder if our current version of human society, our hyper-technical, digital, staring-at-screens reality has attained such a high degree of unnaturalness that our inner human, the one that evolved as a naked ape in those times before agriculture and electricity, so deeply craves the feeling of being alive as we evolved to be alive, that 3-D, in powerful visceral synapse-stimulating ways, connects us to how we once perceived this miraculous world. I wonder this because as I walk down the hall or write these words or pull carrots or watch Marcia read the newspaper, and I do so with clear stereoscopic vision for the first time in my life, I feel much better equipped to do what I’m doing, not to mention more excited about doing it.

Occupy Yourself

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Photo of Todd by Marcia Sloane

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

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Quentin Crisp

In 1972, when I was in my early twenties, I founded a commune in Santa Cruz, California, a collective of eight people (with numerous and frequent overnight guests). We were disenchanted with American society, with America’s wars of aggression, with America’s pyramidal scheme of things, and with America’s environmentally disastrous use of the land, so we decided to explore new (to us) and regenerative ways to interface with the world rather than follow in the destructive footsteps of our parents and forefathers.

To that end, the eight of us shared a house built for a family of four, created a large organic garden (some of us having worked with Alan Chadwick in the university gardens), and pooled our minimal resources for the good of the group. Our experimental community lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of selfishness, immaturity, and a profound lack of preparation for such an undertaking. Our intentions were flawless; our skills and execution abysmal.

Nevertheless, I learned many valuable lessons from that adventure, and my next communal experience was vastly more successful, though it, too, died a sorry death for lack of skills, experience, and commitment by the majority of the participants. We were children, after all, though we had attained the age of adults in other societies; and children, with rare exceptions, eventually need guidance from elders to make the transition from play into self-sustaining living.

A few nights ago, after watching a raft of Occupy Wall Street videos sent to me by fascinated friends, I was reminded of a night in that first commune, when several of us were gathered by the fire in the living room, rain pounding the roof of the house owned by an opportunistic university professor with a penchant for young hippy chicks, the owner of several houses he rented to gangs of youthful experimenters, many of whom I have no doubt would have flocked to the Occupy happenings of today—for the fun and adventure if nothing else.

So there we were discussing Marx and Sartre and Steinem and the tyranny of patriarchal theocratic monogamy mingled with visions of interconnected communes and solar organic farms and grassy walkways instead of cement sidewalks; and mass transit and bicycles instead of poisonous factories and cars and freeways—utopia manifesting in clouds of cannabis—when Pam appeared on the threshold connecting the kitchen and living room and said, “Hey, I totally dig where you guys are coming from and where you’re going, too, but who’s on dishes tonight? The kitchen is totally gross.”

“To heal from the inside out is the key.” Wynonna Judd

A psychotherapist once said to me, “The problem with blaming others for our unhappiness is not that those others aren’t important in the history of our sorrow, but that blaming them for everything interferes with our taking responsibility for what we have done and are doing now.” And one of my problems with blaming Wall Street and Washington and the wealthiest people for the woes of the nation (and the world) is that though many Wall Street operators and politicians and excessively wealthy people are unscrupulous jerks and thieves, blaming them for all our social and economic problems seriously interferes with taking responsibility for what we of the so-called 99 per cent have done and are doing now.

I find it maddeningly simplistic to suggest that we of the 99 per cent are not profoundly involved in the socio-economic systems of our towns, counties, states, and nation. As I read history, until the most recent collapse of the gigantic Ponzi schemes that kept our false economy bubbling along at least since Clinton took office in 1992, many of the people (or their parents) now bemoaning the economic imbalance of our society were perfectly happy to reap the rewards of that fakery, including the promises of fat retirements based on their 401 Wall Street retirement plans, and to hell with the rest of the world and those less fortunate than they. And I am certain the so-called one per cent know this about the 99 per cent, which is why they, the one per cent, do not take the 99 as seriously as they should.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” Carl Jung

Shortly before Obama became President of the United States, I wrote that unless Obama moved quickly to institute Single Payer Healthcare and nationalize the banking system, within two years we would see massive social unrest. I was wrong. When the Occupy happenings began I thought they might be the start of that massive unrest, but now I doubt anything immediately massive will be sparked. I hope I’m wrong. But when someone sent me a link to an Occupy Kauai YouTube, and thirty seconds into the silly thing I was guffawing, I had the feeling the Occupy phenomenon might be well on its way to self-parody. Can the Occupy clothing line and Occupy Café chain and Occupy app be far behind?

“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez successfully employed non-violent protest, resistance, and boycott to further their political, social, and economic aims, and we are all beneficiaries of their courage and strategies. I assume some of the Occupy folks have studied the methods of Gandhi and King and Chavez, and I remain hopeful they will eventually decide to emulate those visionaries. Discussing my hope with an avid fan of the Occupy Wall Street folks, I asked, “So would you say the strategy of the occupiers is to not have a strategy?”

“Absolutely,” said my friend, “because to have a strategy is to commit to an ideology, which could quickly become vertical and therefore inherently divisive. This is a horizontal movement so no one is excluded.”

“Excluded from what?”

“From protesting how unfair the system is. That’s the beauty of saying we are the 99 per cent, because that’s totally inclusive except for the few people who have everything.”

“But a few people don’t have everything and the situation is much more complicated than some infantile delusion that one per cent of the population is determining everyone else’s fate. Among many other things, we do elect the charlatans passing the laws favoring the fat cats, don’t we?”

“Of course, but we don’t want to make this too complicated. By keeping things simple no one feels excluded.”

“I feel excluded.”

“That’s because you like things complicated. You want everyone to push for taxing corporations and socialized medicine and free education and shrinking the military. Talk about divisive.”

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” Aldous Huxley

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I wrote the end of this article. In the dream I was madly in love with the Occupy Wall Street people and compared them to the disenchanted rebels and counter culturists of my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I compared Occupy Wall Street to the Be Ins of those mythic times, and I wrote eloquently (as one does in dreams) about how the only agenda anyone had at those Be Ins was to “be there now” for whatever might go down, so to speak. Then, still in my dream, I thought of the television show Laugh In starring the young Goldie Hawn and Lili Tomlin; and in that marvelous way of dreams, Laugh In and Occupy Wall Street merged, and the protests became funny and sexy and good.

I think my dream was partly inspired by a slide show I watched before going to bed. Marcia sent me a link to a Huffington Post slide show of the Wall Street Occupation, a montage of compelling images that might have been shot in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the mythic Summer of Love in 1968, though I’m not saying the Occupy folks are a bunch of latter day hippies, but rather that they are as disenchanted (yet hopeful) as we were forty years ago, and they are passionately seeking alternatives to the earth-killing system that currently holds sway over our country and the world.

The article in my dream ended with lyrics to a beautiful song that made me cry. I wish I could remember the words, but they did not survive the transition to my waking state. What did survive was the feeling that just as we didn’t have an agenda forty years ago when we waved goodbye to the old ways and set out to figure out new ways that made more sense to us, neither do the Occupy people have an agenda other than to take things one day at a time, to be there now, to be good to each other, and to see what might evolve. So hurray for them, and by association, hurray for us.