Archive for December, 2011

Creative Paradox

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
garth hagerman

Photo by Garth Hagerman

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

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Nadia Boulanger

During the four years in the early 1990’s when I ran the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I oversaw the work of two hundred teenaged writers and worked intimately with fifty of those talented scribblers. Three of the two hundred were, in my estimation, brilliant and original and highly accomplished writers; yet these three were so deeply introverted I predicted they would never succeed as professional writers. Sadly, so far, my prediction has proved true. In the publishing world of today, ambition entirely trumps talent, and believe it or not, ambitious imitators rule the narrow roost of your favorite bookstore, independent or otherwise.

We recently watched the first two-thirds of Robert Altman’s excruciatingly painful film Vincent and Theo about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo—two-thirds of the movie being all we could bear, and even at that I was an emotional wreck. Whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of the real Van Gogh, the movie conveys the very real suffering that many visionary artists feel in the absence of lasting emotional connections to other people and society, emotional connections these artists desperately want to make through their art. Yet because society is largely a manifestation of well-established perceptions and carefully regulated protocols for the presentation of those perceptions, most creative introverts are doomed to commercial failure unless they are rescued through the intervention of a sympathetic agent (catalyst) in the body of a functional extrovert.

The few moderate successes of my own writing career occurred because of the divine efforts of an extraordinary literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, the likes of which no longer exist, for she was wholly concerned with quality and originality, while caring not a whit about commerciality or the emotional idiosyncrasies of her clients. When Dorothy died, I was left to my own devices, which, for the most part, proved unacceptable to corporate operatives who care not a whit for quality and originality, and care only about their bottom lines showing large profits.

We want to think those elegant hardbacks awaiting us on the New Arrivals table at our favorite bookstore are the cream of a diverse cultural crop, the work of artists and original thinkers, but this is rarely true, for the source of nearly all of these books is corporate fascism, the antithesis of everything we wish our culture to be. Thus the most original of our writers and musicians and artists survive on the fringes of our cultural mix and remain largely unknown to you or to me or to anyone, save for a few friends, if they are fortunate to have friends.

This systemic isolation of original artists has probably existed since the dawn of urban life, when for the first time in human evolution large numbers of people came to live together in relatively small geographical areas. Certainly without the untiring efforts of Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother and agent and only friend, we never would have received the enduring gift of Van Gogh’s genius. And because in the course of my life I have been fortunate to read the unpublished work of a handful of contemporary geniuses that few others will ever read, I assume there are thousands of such writers and artists toiling away in anonymity; which assumption brings to mind the cultivation of carrots and how of the several hundred seedlings that sprout in the carrot patch only a lucky few will survive the seemingly random act of thinning so they may attain full carrotness, with only the rarest of carrots attaining carrot magnificence.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

Having published ten books with nine different gargantuan publishing houses, eight works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, and having had essentially the same dreadful experience with each of these corporate behemoths, I, the former Executive Oddball of the International Order of Barely Functional Introverts, finally decided to embark on the path of a self-publisher. Succeed or not, I would at least have some small control over my creations (if only to be in charge of hiding them); and best of all I would never again have to watch as my years and years of toil were relegated to the trash heap with the wave of some moron’s hand, before or shortly after what should have been publication days of joy and celebration.

Though it may seem incredible, even unbelievable, to those unfamiliar with mainstream American publishing, the entire system has, for over forty years, been based on the buying and publishing of thousands of books every fiscal quarter with the foreknowledge that most of these books will be intentionally killed before or shortly after their official dates of publication. How could such a bizarre system have taken hold in a field that most people still think of as a creative part of our cultural framework? A thorough explanation of how this self-annihilating practice came to be would fill a fat volume, but I will use the brief tale of one of my own books as an example of how the system operates.

In 1995, having gone nearly a decade since publishing my fourth novel, I sold my fifth, Ruby & Spear, to Bantam for a 25,000 dollar advance. A rousing contemporary myth, Ruby & Spear is about an impetuous white sports writer, Vic, and his adventures with a fabulous black basketball player named Spear, a sexy feminist named Greta, and Spear’s tough old mystical grandmother Ruby. When they purchased Ruby & Spear, Bantam was owned by Random House, which in turn had been swallowed by a massive multinational corporation that now owns most of the previously freestanding publishing houses in America. In truth, there are only three gigantic publishers left in America, each masquerading as several publishing houses, each in reality a tiny division of a multinational behemoth.

Why did Bantam buy Ruby & Spear? I would like to say it was because their editors and sales people were eager to bring forth an entertaining literary gem; but that would be untrue. Bantam bought Ruby & Spear because they were guessing (gambling) that the movie rights to the book would be optioned for the movies before the book was published, which optioning would result in thousands of dollars of free publicity for the book; and if, indeed, a movie of Ruby & Spear was made there would be millions of dollars of free publicity. Bantam hoped the book might be sold to the movies because another of my novels, Forgotten Impulses, was on the verge of being made into a major motion movie, and because my first novel Inside Moves had been made into a film during the Pleistocene, which film caused many copies of that book to be sold.

But when Forgotten Impulses was ignominiously dropped by the movie people, and that dropping coincided with a few stupid studio execs complaining that Ruby & Spear was strangely void of violence and chock full of strong complex women and atypical men (and it wasn’t set in either New York or Los Angeles, but in Oakland, for godsake!) Bantam decided not to bring out a hardback version (ending hope of widespread reviews); and then they decided to kill the paperback edition on publication day.

To kill a book, a publisher declares the tome out-of-print and ceases distribution before that book has a chance to live. This is the fate of the vast majority of books published by large publishers, and is especially the fate of literary fiction, a rare kind of writing that does not fit into any obvious target genre such as murder mystery, sci-fi, teen vampire, adult vampire, teen wizard, or bodice-ripping historical romance. 25,000 dollars, to a corporation making most of its billions from strip mining and manufacturing cell phones and buying and selling governments, is not much of a gamble, so….

So here I am, an introverted self-publisher, my first two self-published books winners of multiple independent publishing awards, yet almost no bookstores in America carry my books, and that includes those revered independent bookstores. Why? Simple. Many people who buy books have seen and heard myriad advertisements for the latest bodice-ripping historical vampire fantasy, and many of these same people enjoyed the previous seven volumes in that marvelous series, so they very much want to read the latest regurgitation; and they have not heard of Buddha In A Teacup or Under the Table Books, nor have the bookstore people heard of my unclassifiable tomes, neither of which contains a single vampire, though both volumes are mysteriously sensual. Thus we live with the painful irony that independent bookstores generally carry only the most popular mainstream gunk because they don’t have the shelf space for (or the knowledge of) less popular books.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

Long ago I had supper with one of the most powerful publishers in America who happened to be married at the time (ever so briefly) to the editor of one of those novels I published in the Pleistocene. And when this famous publisher was nicely lit after downing a few goblets of breathtakingly expensive wine, she raised her glass and proclaimed, “Every book that really deserves to be published eventually does get published.”

And though from a career-building point of view I should have raised my glass and cried, “Hear, hear!” instead I retorted, “Methinks you are rationalizing the actions of unscrupulous corporations,” which only made her hostile. Oops. Silly me.

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Gazing back thirty-five years through the telescope of hindsight, I realize that my editor’s wife, a great and powerful publisher (who was just a person, after all) was giving voice to what we all fervently want to believe, which is that great new creations will eventually find their ways into the lives of more than a few lucky people. And I think we harbor this belief in the inevitable ascendancy of excellent original art (which hasn’t been the case for thousands of years) because for most of human evolution, when our kind were much fewer and farther between, when we lived in bands and tribes and everyone knew everyone else, that when a good new creation came along, that song or story or painting or dance or myth or spear or drum or flute stood out like the only black horse in a herd of white horses, or vice-versa, so there was no way the glorious thing could be overlooked.

Occupy Christmas

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

(This story first appeared in the Sacramento News & Review December 2011.)

Two mornings before Christmas on a brilliantly sunny day in Sacramento, Max wakes to his phone ringing and smiles in honor of his wife Celia who was always the one to answer the phone when she was alive.

“Ahlo,” he says, enjoying how deliciously warm he feels under his pile of blankets.

“Daddy?” says Carla, fifty-four, Max’s only child. “Did I wake you?”

“A lucky thing,” he says, sighing contentedly. “Today’s the day we go cut the tree.”

“Why not wait for us?” she asks with little enthusiasm. “Save your back.”

“I’m going with the Riveras,” he says, happy to think of Juan riding up front with him while Rosa and Hermedia and the kids enjoy the spacious backseat. “Placerville here we come.”

“Listen, Daddy, about tomorrow. We’ll just get a cab from the airport. Save you a trip in that horrible traffic.”

“But I like picking you up,” he says, disappointed. “The weather is gorgeous and we can take the river road. Dylan loves riding in the Rolls with the top down.”

“Well, but…Daddy, I don’t think that would be such a good idea. Not this year.”

Max frowns. “Why not this year? Could be raining next year.”

“Well…” She sighs. “Dylan is quite caught up in the whole Occupy Wall Street thing, and…”

“So now he doesn’t want to ride in his grandfather’s Rolls Royce?” Max chuckles. “I hope you assured him I am not among the evil one per cent, but well entrenched among the blessed ninety-nine.”

“Daddy, it’s…he’s eighteen and he’s in college now, and…”

“What about my mansion in the Fab Forties?” asks Max, gazing out his window at the bright blue sky. “Are you two gonna stay in a motel and meet me for meals at Denny’s?”

“Daddy, don’t. Dylan knows you and Mommy bought the house long before the Ponzi scheme bankers took over the country. And the Rolls…it’s just what that represents now.”

“Whatever you say, sweetie,” says Max, closing his eyes. “I’ll see you when you get here.”

***

Max is proud of his old car, a mahogany brown 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud he rescued from the wrecking yard in 1997, the year he retired from the Post Office. Max is seventy-eight, a widower for five years now, and a most independent soul. He delivered mail for twenty-seven years before ascending to a managerial position, after which he was promoted seven times in thirteen years. A happy husband and father, Max’s consuming passions were restoring old cars, brewing beer, fishing, and playing the accordion. In his old age, Max no longer drinks beer and rarely goes fishing, but he still tinkers with his Rolls and plays his accordion; and since Celia’s death he has become a cover-to-cover reader of The New Yorker, his wife’s favorite magazine.

Truth be told, Max’s home really is a mansion, a two-story hacienda with a red tile roof on a huge lot on Forty-Third Street between J and M Streets, the front yard a vast moth-eaten lawn lorded over by a gargantuan oak, the crumbling old driveway terminating at a three-car garage, one unit housing the Rolls Royce, the other two units remodeled into studios for artists. Of the house, we will speak more later.

***

Dylan (named after both Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas) is a lanky young man with an impressive mop of brown curls. All his T-shirts and pants and sweaters and sweatshirts are black, but he possesses many colored scarves for which he is admired in Tucson where he lives with his mother Carla, a social worker, and where he recently matriculated at the University of Arizona with a double major in Design and Film. He has over two hundred subscribers to his YouTube channel whereon he posts videos of himself talking about his life. He loves watching himself talk and one day he hopes to make 3-D blockbusters featuring A-list actors portraying him talking about his life.

However, his dreams of a career in cinematic autobiography are currently on hold because Dylan has, for the first time, fully awakened to the unjustness of American society. He was already awake to the unjustness of being an only child with an up-to-the-minute politically correct mother and no father, but he was oblivious to the “one per cent versus ninety-nine per cent” phenomenon until the Occupy happenings began. Then just two months into his first year of college, he flew to New York with Maureen, his first real girlfriend (they have since broken up) and spent parts of two days hanging out with the Wall Street occupiers, a deeply moving experience for Dylan, one beautifully echoed and amplified by the revival of Hair he saw just hours before he flew back to Tucson.

Dylan removes his headphones on which he has been listening to impromptu speeches and discussions he taped in the park where the Wall Street occupiers were camping. He looks out the jet window at the snow capped Sierras, turns to his mother—she reading Mother Jones—and says, “This is so decadent. Flying to Sacramento in a gas guzzling ozone layer destroying jet to spend three days in a mansion when so many have so little.”

“Yes, honey, it is decadent,” says Carla, nodding sympathetically. “Certainly compared to the lives people lead in Africa and Iraq and India, but we didn’t want to spend two days driving each way, did we?”

“Why are we even going?” says Dylan, shaking his head. “Why can’t he come to us?”

“He does, honey, twice a year. He’s seventy-eight years old. And our spending Christmas with him is the high point of his life. I think we owe him that much, don’t you?”

“Why do we owe him anything?” asks Dylan, previously a huge fan of his grandfather, the subject of dozens of Dylan’s videos. “He drives a Rolls Royce and lives in a mansion. He’s the one per cent.”

“Don’t be simplistic,” says Carla, feeling a headache coming on. “Your grandfather…”

“He should be ashamed to have so much,” says Dylan, putting his headphones back on. “When so many have so little.”

***

When Dylan and Carla arrive at Max’s mansion in a taxi driven by a black man, Dylan is horrified to see a Mexican boy mowing Max’s front lawn, and a Mexican man waxing Max’s Rolls Royce.

“Wow,” says the cab driver, pulling up in front of the magnificent house. “Nice digs. Hey, didn’t Ronald Reagan live just a couple doors down here when he was governor before he was president?”

“I think it was one street over,” murmurs Carla. “Or two.”

“I can’t believe this,” says Dylan, shuddering with embarrassment. “Grandpa has servants now? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Honey, let’s not jump to conclusions. Your grandfather sometimes hires people to help him with household chores. That’s all.”

At which moment, Max comes out the front door wearing a Santa Claus hat, overjoyed to see his daughter and grandson.

***

“Wow,” repeats the taxi driver as he opens the trunk to unload Carla and Dylan’s suitcases, “that is some beautiful house.”

“Thank you,” says Max, coming to help. “We just gave it a fresh coat of paint. You want a tour?”

“Seriously?” says the driver, grinning at Max. “Love one.”

“I’m Max,” says Max, shaking the driver’s hand.

“Ruben,” says Ruben, delighted. “That’s a Silver Cloud, isn’t it?”

“1958,” says Max, turning to the recalcitrant Dylan. “My God, you’ve grown another three inches.”

“Not,” says Dylan, stiff and unresponsive as Max hugs him.

“Hi, Daddy,” says Carla, melting in her father’s arms. “The place looks fabulous.”

“Well,” says Max, holding her tight, “that’s because of what I haven’t told you yet, which is that the Rivera’s are living with me now, so there’s no shortage of manpower.”

And before Dylan and Carla can react to the stunning news, Rosa Rivera and her two lovely daughters, Maria, twelve, and Carmen, seventeen, emerge from the house, followed by Hermedia, Rosa’s mother.

“Not to mention woman power,” says Max, winking at Dylan. “And believe me, these are some powerful women.”

***

There are five upstairs bedrooms in Max’s house, four of which are currently occupied by the Rivera family—Juan, Rosa, their three children, and Hermedia—one of which is occupied by Max. There are also two bedrooms downstairs, both reserved for guests or for Max when he wants a change of scenery. The kitchen is huge and beautifully appointed, the living room gargantuan; and the magnificent library contains thousands of books and a most excellent pool table.

As Dylan unpacks his suitcase in one of the downstairs guest rooms, he is occupied by a host of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he has fallen madly in love with Carmen Rivera. On another hand, he feels incredibly nostalgic about the upstairs bedroom he has considered his room for as long as he can remember; a room now occupied by Diego Rivera, the boy who was mowing the lawn. And clouding all his feelings are anger and chagrin with his grandfather for having live-in servants, a Rolls Royce, and a mansion.

Dylan frowns at himself in the mirror on the wall above the dresser wherein he deposited his black clothing and four colored scarves; and he is quietly rehearsing an indignant lecture on social inequity and injustice that he plans to deliver to his grandfather, when Max suddenly appears in the bedroom doorway.

“Dylan,” says Max, frowning gravely at his frowning grandson, “I need to talk to you. I need your advice.”

“About what?” asks Dylan, completely caught off guard.

“Several things,” says Max, nodding gravely. “Big changes afoot.”

So Dylan follows Max to the kitchen where Rosa, Hermedia, Carmen, Maria, and Carla are preparing a lavish Christmas Eve supper of Chile Verde, arroz y frijoles, a fabulous ensalada, guacamole, and pumpkin pie.

“Dylan and I are venturing forth,” says Max, inhaling the divine scents of simmering green sauce and roasting pork. “Any last minute requests?”

“Maybe more cerveza,” says Carmen, smiling boldly at Dylan. “Are you a beer drinker, Dylan?”

“I…um…yeah,” he says, dizzy with desire. “What kind? I mean…what’s your favorite?”

“Whatever you like,” she says in such a way that all the women smile the same knowing smile.

***

“We’ll take the Radio Flyer,” says Max, leading the way to the garage where a shiny red wagon with a long black handle awaits them. “Remember this? In which I used to drag you all over town when you were little? Going on our expotitions to Corti Brothers?”

This subtle reference to Winnie-the-Pooh does bring sudden tears to Dylan’s eyes, for Max is not only his grandfather, Max is the only father he has ever known.

“And while we’re standing here beside the Rolls,” says Max, pleased to see he’s gotten through to Dylan’s sweeter self, “I wanted your advice about what to do with this old car. I restored it to perfection, but now I don’t want it anymore.”

“Must be worth a fortune,” says Dylan, shocked to realize he had hoped to inherit the Rolls when Max died.

“So I’m told,” says Max, nodding. “I suppose I could just sell it for the cash, but I was hoping to do something more creative with the old thing, something…transformative.”

“You could give it to the engineering department at Sac State or UC Davis,” says Dylan, grinning at the huge old car, “on the condition they turn it into a solar electric vehicle.”

“Brilliant,” says Max, pulling the little red wagon down the drive. “Problem number one solved.”
“Seriously?” says Dylan, catching up to his grandfather. “You’d just… give it to them?”

“Unless you want it,” says Max, nodding. “I’ll give you first dibs.”

“No, no,” says Dylan, imagining tooling around Tucson in the magnificent old car, shooting videos and giving rides to beautiful women. “I don’t want it.”

“Problem number two,” says Max, as they emerge onto J Street and turn left en route to the liquor store. “Juan and Rosa insist on paying rent now that Juan is working again, and I have no idea how much to charge them.”

“Oh…um…” says Dylan, aghast that his grandfather would consider charging his servants rent, “what’s the situation? I mean…I need a little more background.”

“Juan is a very fine mechanic,” says Max, nodding to affirm this. “That’s how we met. He worked on the Rolls for years and on your grandmother’s cars, too, and we’ve gotten to be very good friends. Rosa cooks at Quatro Hermanas. Her chile rellenos are to die for. Your grandmother used to hire Rosa and Hermedia to help when we threw big parties. Your grandmother loved throwing big parties, especially when you and your mother came to visit. Remember? Anyway…when Juan seriously injured his back and couldn’t work for several months, and they fell behind on their house payments, and the bank foreclosed, and they were scrambling around for a place to live, I insisted they move in with me until he got back on his feet.” Max laughs. “Now I don’t ever want them to leave. I was so lonely until they came to live with me.”

“Well, then…I think you should let them pay you whatever they feel is right,” says Dylan, feeling rather stupid for having cast his grandfather as a villain. “And if they give you too much, you can always give some back.”

“They’re very proud people,” says Max, pulling the wagon into the liquor store with them. “And isn’t Carmen the most beautiful young woman you’ve ever seen?”

“Yes,” says Dylan, nodding emphatically. “Yes, she is.”

“Wait until you hear her sing,” says Max, waving to the clerk. “Miraculous.”

***

Following a sumptuous Christmas Eve meal, a party ensues in the living room, with Max playing his accordion to accompany the decorating of the tree. Dylan films the party, with much of his focus on whatever Carmen happens to be doing. Juan ascends the ladder and drapes the lights on the tree as Rosa and Hermedia direct him, while Carla and Maria and Diego and Carmen hang ornaments and tinsel on the boughs.

When the tree is fully adorned, eggnog is drunk, See’s chocolates are passed around and devoured, and everyone opens one gift. As a capper to the evening’s festivities, Max accompanies Carmen on a soulful version of Silent Night in front of the tree, a performance beautifully filmed by Dylan and uploaded on YouTube moments thereafter.

ªWhen everyone else has gone to bed, Max and Carla sit at the kitchen table, the room lit by a single candle.

“Do you remember when you were a very little girl,” says Max, gazing fondly at his daughter, “all the people who lived here with us?”

“Not really,” she says, thinking back. “I know you had a commune here, but only because you and Mommy told me about it, not because I really remember.”

“We wanted to create a new way of living on the earth,” says Max, remembering himself with long curly black hair and a mustache. “We wanted to grow our own food and pool our money and live simply and make love and not war.” He sighs. “I watch the videos of the Occupy Wall Street people, and I even spent a day down at the park with Occupy Sacramento, and you know, Sweetie, it’s exactly the same thing we were trying to do, only we didn’t know how. We had no wise elders, no role models. And when we started having babies, necessity trumped experimentation and we soon reverted to the ways of our parents.”

“But you tried,” says Carla, taking her father’s hand. “You tried to do something different and better.”

“Your mother never stopped trying,” he says, ever aware of his wife’s spirit. “That’s why we always had two or three foreign students living here and artists using the garage. And you know, it feels like a commune again with the Riveras living here. They know how to do it. They know how to share.”

“I think you should leave the house to them, Daddy,” says Carla, surprising herself with the idea. “I already have the house you bought me in Tucson.”

“Well,” says Max, closing his eyes and seeing his dear Celia standing in her rose garden, the bushes ablaze with color, “you would always be welcome here. Of that I have no doubt.”

fin

 

 

 

 

 

Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

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

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”

Yes, But…

Thursday, December 15th, 2011


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

“If there’s not drama and negativity in my life, all my songs will be really wack and boring or something.” Eminem

For many people, December is the most neurotic month; and Christmas marks the apogee of shame, jealousy, disappointment, and self-loathing. Indeed, most psychotherapists aver that Christmas in America might as well be called Crisismas. One can theorize endlessly about why Christmas/Hanukah (and the attendant mass gift buying) inflame the dominant neuroses of so many people, but the picture that sums it up for me is of a child surrounded by dozens of presents she has just frantically unwrapped, not one of which satisfies her craving to be loved.

“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

When I embarked on my first experience of formal psychotherapy, I knew my parents had abused me, but I could not clearly elucidate the rules of behavior instilled in me by their abuse. My therapist suggested I try to write down the basic rules governing my behavior so I might gain a more objective view of how those rules impacted my life.

One of the most deeply entrenched rules I uncovered was: Nothing I do is good enough. Sound familiar? I ask because I subsequently learned that this rule runs many people’s lives. And though I doubt our parents ever came right out and said, “Nothing you do is good enough,” I know that in myriad other ways they repeated that message thousands and thousands of times; and repetition accomplished the entrenching.

For instance, my mother used “Yes, but…” responses to everything I did or said. “Yes, but…” responses are characterized by positive (though insincere) opening statements followed by the word but, followed by subtle or emphatic derogatory proclamations. Here are a few examples of the thousands of “Yes, but…” responses I received from my mother over the course of my life.

Following my performance in a high school play, my mother said, “You were very good, but…you’re not going to be in another play, are you?”

Upon hearing about my very first sale of a short story, my mother said, “Well, that’s good news, but…they didn’t give you very much money, did they?”

And after meeting my girlfriend(s) for the first time, my mother opined, “Well, she seems nice, but…maybe just a little cuckoo/not too bright/might have a weight problem/might be anorexic/seems rather young for you/seems rather old for you/never finished college/works in a restaurant/rides a motorcycle/do you think she takes drugs?/she sure can drink/she wears an awful lot of makeup/why no makeup?”

Children who are constantly bombarded with “Yes, but…” responses grow into adults incapable of hearing or believing positive responses from anyone. If such a bombarded person sings a song and a friend responds, “That was beautiful,” the bombarded person will assume the compliment is false because in their experience honest responses (which are always negative) only come after the word but. Indeed, a statement not followed by but and a negative comment has no meaning at all to a person programmed to believe Nothing I Do Is Good Enough.

Some people grow up with “Yes, but…” fathers and non-“Yes, but…” mothers, or vice-versa; and these people tend to have mixed views of themselves as partly good enough and partly not good enough. Their versions of the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule are Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Dad (men) or Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Mom (women). However, if both parents employ “Yes, but…” responses to everything a child does or says, then that child will become an adult with serious trust and intimacy issues; and he or she will almost certainly fear and loathe Christmas because no matter what he or she buys for anyone, it, the present, won’t be good enough. How could the stupid thing be good enough? Consider the source!

Most of my father’s responses to me began with, “You know what you really should do?” followed by a lecture about what I should be doing as opposed to what I was already doing. In this way he re-enforced the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule with the I’m Never Doing What I Should Be Doing rule.

At best the family teaches the finest things human beings can learn from one another— generosity and love. But it is also, all too often, where we learn nasty things like hate, rage and shame.” Barbara Ehrenreich

I vividly remember the day before Christmas when I was twenty-two, a scruffy lad hitchhiking to my parents’ house for our annual festival of neuroses starring my brother and sisters and parents and moi. This was during the vagabond phase of my life—a cold and rainy day in California, the oak trees rife with mistletoe. I was standing on the western edge of Highway One, about ten miles south of San Francisco, the rain drumming on my gray plastic poncho, my backpack and guitar sheltered under a silver tarp, my soggy cardboard sign reading Half Moon Bay Or Bust. I was dreaming of a hot shower and a good meal and a warm bed, and trying not to think about the de rigueur verbal abuse that would accompany such parental hospitality, when a tie-dyed Volkswagen van stopped for me.

The driver was a loquacious fellow named Larry from Galveston, Texas, his coach reeking of tobacco and marijuana, his voice warm and comforting. After a few minutes of back and forth, he said, “Hey, man, I like you. Why don’t you come to our house for Christmas? Stay a couple days? We live right down here in San Gregorio. Kind of a commune, you know? My wife Suse is cooking a big turkey, my sister Clara’s making yams. Bunch of artists and musicians.” He bounced his eyebrows. “Lots of pretty women. You’ll dig it, man. There’s plenty of room to spread your kit.” Then he grinned enormously and added, “It’ll beat the shit out of mom and dad, guaranteed.”

As the child of two alpha “Yes, but…” parents, I was certain there was an unspoken but attached to Larry’s generous invitation—a problem or multiple problems. Larry’s wife might become violent after her third glass of wine, and the wine would probably be cheap and give me a headache. Their dog would bite me or give me fleas. Suse’s turkey would be overcooked, Clara’s yams inedible, and I’d become constipated or get the runs. I would hate the music Larry and his friends played, and Larry and his friends would hate my music. The women would not be pretty and the whole affair would be a disaster.

“The thing is,” I replied, hating myself for turning him down, “I promised my mother I’d come home for Christmas, and…she worries about me. I haven’t seen her in a year, so…”

“I hear you,” said Larry, nodding sympathetically. “But listen, man…if it sucks, you know where to find us. We’d love to have you.”

We parted ways at the San Gregorio general store and I hitched the last thirty miles to the festival of neuroses at my folks’ house. And that festival did, indeed, totally suck. So the next day, Christmas, despite the howling wind and torrential rain, I hitched back to San Gregorio, found the dirt road to Larry’s and Suse’s place, and arrived at their little farmhouse to find Suse storming around in the wreckage of her kitchen and raging on the phone at her mother in Los Angeles—Larry sitting in his van with his five-year-old son Lance, Buffalo Springfield on the stereo singing, “Listen to my bluebird laugh, she can’t tell you why. Deep within her heart, you see, she knows only crying. Just crying.”

“Hey,” said Larry, rolling down his window and smiling at me. “You came. Right on.”

“Is it still okay if I stay here tonight?”

“Absolutely,” he said, turning to his son. “Hey, Lance, this is Tom.”

“Todd,” I said softly. “Merry Christmas, Lance.”

“I got four books and a ball and crayons,” said Lance, nodding seriously. “What did you get?”

“Fifty dollars,” I said, thinking of my unhappy mother slipping me the money under the table so my dad wouldn’t see, and how, despite her disapproval of everything I chose to do, she loved me; if only I would be someone else.

“Suse is seriously bummed,” said Larry, shaking his head. “Bullshit with her mom. You don’t want to know. So…I think maybe you better sleep in my van tonight. Should be better in the morning.”

“I think I’ll just come back another time,” I said, taking a hit from the proffered joint. “But I thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh, stay, man,” he said, nodding encouragement. “This, too, shall pass. Besides, we need you to help us eat all the leftovers. Right, Lance?”

“Right,” said Lance, nodding emphatically. “There’s tons.”

When Is It Done?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

(This piece appeared—twice!—in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2008-2009. I recently got a request for this article, thought it was on my blog, but could not find it herein. So here it is now. Enjoy.)

Thirty-five years ago, I was hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on Highway One, and I got a ride with the poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus, one of the more esoteric Beats. He sported a wispy white beard and a well-worn cowboy hat, and his old car reeked of tobacco. Recently installed as a poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz, he was going to a party in Bonny Dune but had no idea how to get there.

 I knew exactly where he wanted to go and offered to be his guide, though it meant traveling many miles out of my way. I was obsessed with poetry and wanted as much of the great man’s time as I could finagle. He accepted my offer to be his Sancho Panza and did me the honor of asking, “So what’s your thing?”

“Guitar. And I write stories and poems, too.”

He nodded. “Who do you read?”

“Philip Whalen. Lew Welch. Faulkner. Kazantzakis.”

He lit a cigarette and seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.

And then, without consciously intending to, I asked, “So…how do you know when a poem is done?”

So pained was Everson’s expression, I might as well have asked him what he thought of the poetry of Rod McKuen. Here he was on his way to a party, no doubt to drink and smoke and let his hair down and take a break from all the bullshit attendant to his newly won academic sinecure, and his guide to such bliss—a scrawny wannabe with nary a joint to share—asks him the single most annoying question an artist can be asked.

I was about to blurt an apology for my stupid question, when the good man cleared his throat and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

William Faulkner rewrote his first two novels, Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay, many times. But no matter how many drafts he wrote, he always wanted to rewrite. He came to realize that in the time it took him to complete a new draft, he had so changed as a person and grown as a writer, that he had become, literally, someone else; and this new person wanted to make the book his book.

So from then on, Faulkner made it his practice to write three drafts and call the book done. Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ also settled on three drafts. And I, in the days before computers, would do four drafts before undertaking a final draft with an editor. Of course, with the advent of computers, rewriting has taken on whole new meanings, and our beleaguered bookstores and libraries are jammed with proof that computerized word processing has in no way improved the quality of writing or the quality of books.

There is a marvelous movie made in 1956 entitled The Mystery of Picasso. The film was revived in the 1980’s and shown in art houses all over Europe and America. In the film, Picasso paints on one side of an absorbent canvas that allows colored ink to seep through the canvas unadulterated and without running. The camera is on the other side of the canvas, filming Picasso’s strokes as they appear, as if by magic, and coalesce into paintings. Some of the paintings are shown developing in real time, some manifest in time lapse.

When I watched this movie in a theatre full of artists and art lovers, the response from the audience was remarkable. As Picasso rapidly created a painting, a person—or several people—would cry out, “Stop! It’s perfect!” and then they would groan as Picasso carried on, changing the image until someone else would shout, “Yes! There! That’s it!” only to have the master paint on and on and on.

By the end of the film we had witnessed the making and annihilation and making and annihilation of hundreds of great works of art—done and not done and done and not done and done.

With the exception of The Prince and the Pauper, which may be a perfect fable, Mark Twain had great difficulty finishing his novels, as did Thomas Hardy. Both men would write in trances of inspiration until they reached the climaxes of their stories, and then not know how to end them. Both writers would put their incomplete manuscripts away for several months, even years, then get them out and affix endings quite unrelated to the original spontaneous flow. Sadly, these forced completions are the great weaknesses of otherwise masterful works.

So Twain might have said a book is done when the writer ceases to write it. Faulkner might have said there is no guarantee that when a thing is done the artist will like it. Picasso might have said the thing is always done and never done. And in this moment, reserving the right to change my mind in the next, I say the poem or song or book or painting is done when a comfortable silence falls and I’m absolutely certain it’s time for me to do something else.

Falling Behind

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become a mediocre company.” Bill Gates

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing career, commercially speaking, was turning steeply downward, my third-rate Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages; and people seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change the messages because they never wanted to hear them again. So I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days; and then people complained I was erasing really good messages before their friends got to hear them. Thus art mirrored life.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral even existed. I’m speaking about a time before the advent of the interweb, which was not very long ago but seems prehistoric. If I still had that particular outgoing message and put it on YouTube today as the soundtrack to beautiful scantily clad women dancing on the beach or swimming in lagoons or sprawling on bearskin rugs or walking through sun-dappled forests, I have no doubt my message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from all the hits and links and apps and downloads from clouds and kindles and everywhere.

Sadly, I only remember the feeling of the message, not the words. The feeling was of being exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which was telling an entrancing story or expressing some deeply satisfying feeling or describing a most delicious way of being—something so alluring that the caller was overcome with a full body sensation of life being a lovely adventure, a sexy samba on a warm summer day, and that their calling me and listening to my message was exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Yes! The experience of listening to my message was a holy act, a miraculous give-and-take, a blessing, a multi-dimensional, emotionally, physically, and spiritually fulfilling orgasm free of even the slightest attachment to outcome or length or reason. Hallelujah!

I got hundreds of calls. Telephone calls. Not emails or hits or links. I’m talking about actual human beings calling my number and listening to my message—hundreds of people from all over America and around the world. Friends told friends and their friends told their friends, and so on. A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated as, “I am so very much wanting to have the child you are the father.” Another call came from a bunch of people having a party in England, and after hearing my message they applauded and shouted “Bravo!” Calls came from bars and cafés all over America and Canada where the callers held the phones up so everyone in those joints could listen and respond. I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words, their order and tone and cadence, made people laugh and cry and rejoice. Some people left delightful replies—impromptu poems full of love and hope that brought tears to my eyes. I tell you, that message was an elixir, a salve, and a great big answer to the gigantic question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger of a message on my answering machine for months until one day a friend who had heard that psalm too many times said, “Enough already,” and I hit the Erase button. Honestly, I had no idea what I was erasing because I had not listened to the blessed thing since the moment, all those weeks and months before, when I hit the Record button and fell into a reverie from which flowed those now forgotten words.

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

My wife Marcia and I are both self-employed and have web sites whereon we display our wares and talents in hopes of enticing people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs two chamber music camps each year for adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her marvelous camps and sells her CDs and sheet music. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD that has sold three thousand hard copies and is being downloaded at an enviable rate each month, I being the envious one. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to new customers. She also sells her album of wonderful cello-centric songs Skyward, sheet music of her original compositions, and three CDs she’s made with her husband Todd (that would be moi).

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell my books, music CDs, story CDs, birthday cards, and cards and posters of my zany paintings. Visitors can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) for free, and sample tunes from my albums. My most successful creation, commercially speaking, is the lovely little hardbound book (signed by the author) Buddha In A Teacup (just ten bucks!) I am currently most enamored of my solo piano CDs and dream of one day rivaling Marcia’s enviable download business, though for now I’m thrilled when I make .0013 cents from someone in Poughkeepsie taking a listen on Napster.

And, yes, my previous experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering machine message and a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again. My new CD Mystery Inventions, piano and bass duets, for instance, might be just the creation that inspires those hits to keep on coming. Or not.

So…from what I’ve just said you might get the impression we’re a fairly techno-savvy household. In truth, Marcia is a computer enthusiast and gets better at cyber software stuff all the time. I, on the other hand, am a technophobe. Even simple procedures involving software are to me as Everest is to one with high blood pressure. After nearly thirty years of owning a personal computer, the contraption remains for me little more than a typewriter with a screen, a way to send and get mail, and a pseudo-television for watching sports highlights and movie previews—all else digital is baffling to me.

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.” E.F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful

So yesterday I’m reading the newspaper, the actual paper, not a projection, and I come to an article the likes of which I usually skip, an article about a man who has an app design software company that is growing so fast he just rented another 150,000 square feet of office space in the hottest sector of downtown San Francisco, and he thinks he’ll quadruple that space by year’s end.

I could not understand anything this man said or anything he is reputed to have done. He said that twelve million people have downloaded one of his apps that empowers them to paint on their cell phones, thus “unleashing an avalanche of pent up creativity.” Twelve million people are painting on their cell phones? Are they finger painting? What does a painting made on a tiny screen look like? Then the guy goes on to say that everything he and anyone in the know are doing today is “all about the cloud.” The cloud. I’ve heard about this cloud, some sort of virtually unlimited cyber space computing zone making possible the instantaneous transfer of jillions of bytes of digital information per nanosecond times a jillion squared. This cloud, according to this billionaire cyber wizard, “will unleash the creative potential of humanity.”

And my gut reaction to that is, “I hope so, but I doubt it.”


Complexity

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Are most humans inherently incapable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, or can almost anyone develop such a capability?

Yesterday I heard live coverage of the eviction of campers at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, an occupation that began as a protest against rich people being further enriched by a corrupt financial system. After several weeks of camping in the park, the protestors morphed into an ongoing settlement of people who, judging from interviews I heard with a number of evicted campers, wanted to continue living in Zuccotti Park indefinitely because: “Where else am I supposed to go?” “The one per cent got rich ripping everyone else off.” “There are no good jobs left in America because the rich people sent all the jobs to China.” “It is my constitutional right to camp here as long as I want.” “Private property is a conspiracy of the one per cent.” “This is the beginning of a revolution.” “They can’t make us go.” “It’s time to make a stand.” “The system is totally rigged.” “It’s much better here than in the homeless shelters.” “We are family.”

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

A friend recently said to me, “I guess we should have voted for Hillary, now that we know what a fraud Obama is.”

“Are you serious?” I replied, having previously thought this person to be moderately intelligent.

“Well…just look at what he’s doing.”

“What does that have to do with Hillary? What makes you think she would do anything differently than Obama? She works for the same people he works for. She does whatever her handlers tell her to do.”

“Well…but under Clinton…”

“Don’t go there,” I warned. “Don’t rewrite history, please. Bill was the master deregulator, the champion of NAFTA, the destroyer of the safety net, enemy of our industrial base, servant of the fat cats. Don’t you remember?”

Remembering things is another human capability I wonder about. I am astonished by how little anyone remembers about anything. When I remind people that Al Gore, before his enthronement as an environmental guru, led the campaign against the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the usual reaction is disbelief. “He’s also a proponent of nuclear power,” I add, “and said so to Congress shortly after he made a big splash with his global warming movie.”

“No!”

Yes.

So if we can’t remember anything, and we can’t understand complex situations, where does that leave us?

The novel Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain is a comic tragic story of a well-meaning intelligent person who remembers things and is capable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, living in a society of racist imbeciles and self-serving charlatans. If the title has deterred you, I encourage you to give the book a try.

At the outset of the story we learn how our hero got his nickname, and how the dreadful label dramatically altered the course of his life.

[In that same month of February, Dawson’s Landing gained a new citizen. This was Mr. David Wilson, a young fellow of Scotch parentage. He had wandered to this remote region from his birthplace in the interior of the State of New York, to seek his fortune. He was twenty-five years old, college-bred, and had finished a post-college course in an Eastern law school a couple of years before.

He was a homely, freckled, sandy-haired young fellow, with an intelligent blue eye that had frankness and comradeship in it and a covert twinkle of a pleasant sort. But for an unfortunate remark of his, he would no doubt have entered at once upon a successful career at Dawson’s Landing. But he made his fatal remark the first day he spent in the village, and it ‘gaged’ him. He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:

“I wish I owned half that dog.”

“Why?” somebody asked.

“Because I would kill my half.”

The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:

“’Pears to be a fool.”

“’Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”

“Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot,” said a third. “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?”

“Why he must have thought it, unless he is the downrightest fool in the world; because if he hadn’t thought it, he would have wanted to own the whole dog, knowing that if he killed his half and the other half died, he would be responsible for that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don’t it look that way to you, gents?”

“Yes, it does. If he owned one half of the general dog, it would be so; if he owned one end of the dog and another person owned the other end, it would be so, just the same; particularly in the first case, because if you kill one half of a general dog, there ain’t any man that can tell whose half it was, but if he owned one end of the dog, maybe he could kill his end of it and—”

“No, he couldn’t, either; he couldn’t and not be responsible if the other end died, which it would. In my opinion the man ain’t in his right mind.”

“In my opinion he haint got any mind.”

No. 3 said: “Well, he’s a lummox, anyway.”

“That’s what he is,” said No. 4, “he’s a labrick—just a Simon-pure labrick, if ever there was one.”

“Yes, sir, he’s a dam fool, that’s the way I put him up,” said No. 5. “Anybody can think different that wants to, but those are my sentiments.”

“I’m with you, gentlemen,” said No. 6. “Perfect jackass—yes, and it ain’t going too far to say he is a pudd’nhead. If he ain’t a pudd’nhead, I ain’t no judge, that’s all.”

Mr. Wilson stood elected. The incident was told all over the town, and gravely discussed by everybody. Within a week he had lost his first name; Pudd’nhead took its place. In time he came to be liked, and well liked, too; but by that time the nickname had got well stuck on, and it stayed. That first day’s verdict made him a fool, and he was not able to get it set aside, or even modified. The nickname soon ceased to carry any harsh or unfriendly feeling with it, but it held its place, and was to continue to hold its place for twenty long years.]

Ah, subtlety, another of the lost arts, along with complexity and memory—attributes of an interesting mind, of the sort of intelligence I love engaging with, and just the sort of intelligence that is so painfully lacking in our contemporary fiction and plays and movies and humor. I love subtle irony, subtle sarcasm, subtle innuendo; and because I employ such subtlety in my speech, people are forever falling away from me as from something uncanny, so I feel compelled to say, “I was only kidding. That was a joke. Let me explain. Please.” But by then it is usually too late, as it was too late for Pudd’nhead, and I am taken for a fool, or for someone who likes complexity and subtlety and remembering what happened not so very long ago.

“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that make horse races.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

So…while the various Occupy encampments around the country were being raided by police, and the tents and belongings of several hundred campers were being removed, a video game called Modern Warfare 3 was released in America, and within twenty-four hours the game sold 6.5 million copies and grossed 400 million dollars, with the Japanese and German versions of the game soon to be released. “This game’s Survival Mode features one or two players fighting endless waves of enemies, with each wave becoming increasingly difficult. Despite being so frequently compared to the World At War Nazi Zombies Mode, enemies do not spawn at fixed locations like the zombies do; instead, they appear at tactical positions based on the current location of the player.”

This may be a stretch, but can you imagine a video game entitled Occupy Wall Street wherein the player(s) not only have to figure out how to successfully camp at Zuccotti Park and keep the police at bay, but also try to achieve objectives beyond continuous camping? Killing the enemy will not be an option in this game; which means subtlety, complexity, and an excellent knowledge of past protest movements will be extremely important in any game-winning strategy, which means, of course, no one will buy the game.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Goodnight, Gracie.