Archive for October, 2013

A Person Here, A Person There

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Blessed Brew Nolan Winkler

Blessed Brew  acrylic and crayon by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

I keep forgetting and remembering and forgetting and remembering how things work in this universe for the likes of me, speaking of how best to go about sharing my writing and music with others. I think the reason I keep forgetting is that my ego keeps taking over to get us through certain parts of the process, but then years go by before my ego quiets down enough for the higher self to be heard. If that makes sense to you, we are kin.

Walking to and from the village provides me with an excellent vantage point for considering my role in the larger scheme of things, and not long ago while climbing the steep hill to home I solved a nagging emotional and strategic dilemma I’d been wrangling with for years—the solution provided by the juxtaposition of me walking up the hill while dozens of cars driven by versions of me zoomed by.

The dilemma I solved has to do with recent techno-digital changes that have radically altered the ways in which music and writing and visual art can be made available to the world, and how, as these technological changes have become more and more well-established, I have felt I should be availing myself of these new fangled modes of delivery in order to share my work with others. Note the word should. Aye, there’s the rub.

For instance, because it is now possible to write something, anything, a page of unedited doggerel or a reimagining of Goethe’s Faust without verbs, and upload said writing to any number of verbiage-spewing websites to sell or give away, that is what millions of people are doing and what many people tell me I should do with my writing. These same people say that once I have uploaded my novels and stories to these verbiage-spewing sites, I should join Facebook and tell my friends to tell their friends to Like my verbiage so people will download my writing to their pads or readers or phones. Why wait, they say, for some old-fashioned publisher to Like my verbiage? Just spew, digitize, upload, and hope to go viral.

These same people and other people, too, tell me I should record my music on Garage Band and upload everything I record, even junky noodling around, to a cloud thing connected to sites I should then constantly Twitter about so people will upstream my music and Like it and have their friends go to my Facebook Store to download my music on their iPods and add those tunes to their Pandora options request queue or something.

But for some reason I cannot bring myself to join Facebook or Twitter, or to learn how to use Garage Band or to learn how to digitize my verbiage. The thought of doing so fills me with the same dread I feel when I imagine trying to cross the Grand Canyon on a tight rope. Am I being irrational? That depends on your definition of rational. I do know that in order to make the recordings I want to make, I need Peter Temple to use his excellent microphones and expertise to record my piano in my living room. Maybe I have a personality disorder, but I consider my successful use of email a major accomplishment.

And as I was walking up the hill and feeling fine to be walking rather than piloting a hurtling mass of steel, I thought, What is the equivalent of walking when it comes to sharing my writing with others? Photocopies. What is the equivalent of walking when it comes to sharing my music with others? Making an album with Peter Temple at the controls and pressing a few hundred CDs.

Making three-dimensional artifacts is what I am comfortable and happy doing. If Universe wants to upload my creations to the global digital realm, she will send people with the requisite skills to do that for me. She has already done that for some of the things I’ve created, and she hasn’t yet sent anyone for other things I’ve made. So be it. In any case, I shall henceforth no longer be weighed down to the point of dysfunction by these damnable shoulds, and I will have goodies to share with people who want those goodies. What a relief.

To that end, I went into ZO, Mendocino’s finest and only copy shop, and consulted with Ian, the maven of duplication, about making an elegant comb-bound photocopy edition of my novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror (with illustrations by the author) to get a sense of how much such copies would cost me, which would help me figure out how much to sell them for via my web site and P.O. Box. The copies will be extravagantly signed and numbered, which will add to their inestimable value. I should have done this when I finished writing the book a few years ago, but I got so derailed by those aforementioned shoulds, that the handful of people I know will want the book have had to wait all this time for my higher self to wrest control of the steering wheel.

Speaking of happy, this AVA article is my 250th for the esteemed journal, and I know I would not have written any of these epistles if they did not first appear in newsprint before I load them onto my web site blog. That said, no one has ever offered me money, serious money, to write for an online publication, and I suppose if someone offered me more than a pittance, I might be tempted, whereas I have gladly written thousands of articles and stories for pittances for three-dimensional publications. What’s my problem? Why can’t I get with the times? I dunno.

The title for this article, A Person Here, A Person There, came from my dear friend Max Greenstreet. During a recent email exchange, I told Max about the occasional outbursts of web site orders for my obscure little book Open Body: Creating Your Own Yoga. These orders come from Australia, New Zealand, Finland, England, Sweden, Canada, and even sometimes America, a person here, a person there, as Max put it, wanting to buy Open Body from me despite the international postage being twice what I sell the book for.

The reason for these occasional outbursts of interest in Open Body is a perfect case in point about how best to go about sharing my writing and music. To make a long story short, some fifteen years ago, after a number of friends asked me for guidance in dealing with their chronic aches and pains, I made a little book about how I deal with the pain and stiffness that have accompanied me since I was a teenager. I made ten photocopies of the little tome, called it Open Body: Creating Your Own Yoga and gave the copies to friends as Christmas presents. One of the friends showed the booklet to a literary agent who contacted me and said if I would double the number of words, she would try to find a publisher for the little tome.

I expanded the book, appended inspiring figure drawings by my friend Vance Lawry, and the agent sold the book to Avon for ten thousand dollars, six for me, four for Vance. I was stunned by this turn of events, never having published a book of non-fiction and knowing little about the formal practice of yoga. Then, as with all the books I’ve ever published with big New York publishers, the villains in Sales got a whiff of the project and decided to kill the book. Open Body was remaindered—taken out-of-print—three months before it was published, and I was given the opportunity to purchase a few boxes of the book for a dollar each, which easily beat the cost of photocopying. Thus despite the premature death of Open Body, I ended up with a neato artifact at no cost to me beyond the emotional anguish of dealing with corporate morons who have made of our culture a wasteland.

Now here’s the fun part. Before the Sales cretins at Avon aborted Open Body, the young Avon editor who bought the book in the first place, sent the manuscript to Donna Farhi, a world-renowned yogini and yoga teacher, and she loved the book and gave us a rave blurb that appears on the book. And to this day, Donna reads from Open Body at workshops she gives in New Zealand and Australia and around the world for yoga teachers and zealous yoga practitioners, which readings result in occasional inquiries from people who want to buy new and signed copies of the book from me rather than used copies for pennies from online booksellers. A person here, a person there. Donna is also a fan of my piano CDs and frequently plays them at her workshops, so I occasionally sell a few of those to her followers in the form of actual CDs or as…downloads!

Having escaped once again from those terrible shoulds, I will soon be sending out notices of the photocopy publication of Oasis Tales of the Conjurer and the arrival of my new piano CD Incongroovity, featuring the groovacious song Real Good Joe. If you would like to be on my mailing list, please email me at my web site or send a note to P.O. Box 366, Mendocino, CA 95460. What fun!

Loyalty

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

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Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

My brother, a software systems analyst and project manager, sent me the following quote from the book Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies by Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda that my brother says sums up his world as an IT (Internet Technology) contractor for the past 25 years. “The old social contract was, give loyalty, get security. But that old contract has been repealed, and free agents quickly realized that in the traditional world they were silently accepting an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. From infighting and office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another to colleagues who don’t pull their weight, most workplaces are in dysfunction. Most people do want to work; they don’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions.”

The quote confused me because I wasn’t sure whether Barley and Kunda were saying that loyalty in the era of Internet Technology is obsolete and the cause of dysfunction, or if they were saying that the repeal of loyalty ushered in the era of dysfunction. When I read the quote to Marcia, she immediately replied, “Well, loyalty is a vertical phenomenon that ideally connects top to bottom within a system and gives everyone in the system a sense of the whole process they’re involved in. But if everyone is fighting for themselves, then the awareness of the purpose of the process is lost and everyone’s energy goes to self-preservation instead of doing necessary work and creating a healthy and functional working situation.”

Marcia’s response struck me as a good explanation for the ongoing dysfunction of our government, top to bottom. The abandonment of loyalty to anything or anyone other than the greedy self describes the motivation and behavior of John Boehner and his sociopathic colleagues, as well as Obama’s loyalty to the banksters and earth-gobbling corporate executives who would rather ruin everything in the world than help anyone other than themselves, which means they lack the ability to sympathize with others, which means they are incapable of love or rational thought, which means they are severely emotionally disturbed and should be locked away in high security mental institutions where they can pose no further danger to themselves or others.

We would rather be ruined than changed;


We would rather die in our dread


Than climb the cross of the moment


And let our illusions die. W.H. Auden

We recently watched Mike Leigh’s movie Life Is Sweet, a fascinating and painful and strangely delightful look at a working class English family. Perhaps because I was writing this article about loyalty when we saw the film, I saw Life Is Sweet as a study of loyalty, of parents being loyal to their children, of husband and wife being loyal to each other, of siblings being loyal to each other, and of friends being loyal to friends, and how loyalty can be a wonderful force for healthy growth and healing, but also a key ingredient in a recipe for debilitating dysfunction.

 “Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realize that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.” Andre Gide

The more I think about loyalty, the more the word loyalty seems rather useless on its own—lacking specificity and having too many different meanings depending on context. Therefore I am going to be disloyal to the initial inspiration for this article and change the subject entirely, though in changing the subject I may inadvertently illuminate the original topic through this juxtaposition of elements in tension.

Huh? Let me explain. My senior year of high school, 1967, I was in an Advanced Placement English class, which was supposed to prepare us for taking the AP English essay test. If we got a score of 3 or better (out of 5) on that test, our chances of getting into a good college would be much improved and we would be given ten units of college credit and allowed to skip the basic English courses most incoming college freshman were required to take. I was a contrarian and disdainful of obedient regurgitation, which made me an enemy of most of my teachers. When we took the practice AP exam and my score was the lowest in our class, my English teacher gleefully trumpeted my failure as proof of the error of my contrary ways.

Only one person in my class, Candy, scored a 5 on the practice exam. Candy was the perennial teacher’s pet and the queen, nay, the empress of slavering regurgitation. Throughout my four years of incarceration at Woodside High, Candy’s essays were routinely read aloud to us by a series of intoxicated teachers as examples of what proper student essays should be. I still remember our Eleventh Grade English teacher reading Candy’s slavering essay on the recurrence of synonyms for the color red in The Scarlet Letter, and Candy’s conclusion that “The Scarlet Letter is, unquestionably, the most perfect novel yet written in the English language.” This was a regurgitation of that very teacher stating, “The Scarlet Letter is, without a doubt, the most perfect novel ever written,” a proclamation that elicited from me a loud guffaw and “You’ve got to be kidding,” which resulted in my having to come in after school every day for a week (and miss basketball practice) and sit at a desk without speaking for an hour, while Candy and her fellow sycophants fluttered around the teacher and kissed her hems, so to speak.

Nevertheless, when Candy’s top-scoring practice AP essay was read aloud to us and ballyhooed as the Rosetta Stone for how to score high on the AP English exam, I and several of my fellow inmates noted that in Candy’s barfacious essay she thrice used the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension, and every time our teacher uttered those words she would gaze at Candy as if recalling a recent simultaneous orgasm.

After class that day, inspired by contempt and curiosity, three of my classmates and I cornered Candy and asked her, “What’s up with this juxtaposition of elements in tension?”

And though she was loathe to admit she had not invented the expression, Candy confessed she had been tutored by “an expert on the AP exam” who impressed upon her that the judicious use of this juxtaposition of elements in tension and a few other expressions we wheedled out of Candy would virtually guarantee a score of 3 or better—those expressions catnip to academics.

When the great day of the AP English exam came, we were sequestered in a windowless room and watched over by a trio of humorless teachers charged with making sure we didn’t cheat; not that one could cheat while writing a speculative essay on misogyny and superstition in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, or whatever it was they asked us to write about. With Candy’s tricks of the trade in mind, I generously peppered my essay with the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension and the author’s predilection for subtle symbolic forays and such diverse yet mutually accommodating points of view, and lo the judges gave me a 3, much to the chagrin of my English teacher. Candy, of course, scored a 5, went to Stanford for two years, transferred to UC Berkeley, and beyond that I know not where her juxtapositions and predilections and subtle forays took her.

“Ours is the age of substitutes; instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; and, instead of genuine idea, bright ideas.” Eric Bentley

I see now that the opening quote from Barley and Kunda contains an apt description of my (and probably your) educational experience. I came to realize that in the traditional world (of academia) we were being forced to accept an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work; I simply didn’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions. And so I became a free agent, otherwise known as a freelance human being, and stumbled along for many years under the weight of my neuroses and through myriad juxtapositions of elements in tension until I came to a most wonderful turning point in middle-age when I bequeathed my loyalty to the notion elucidated by Mr. Laskin in my novel Under the Table Books. To wit: Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you aren’t a perfectly wonderful soul.

The Machine Stops

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

theroaroftime

 

The Roar of Time pen and ink by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

“In this world there are only two ways of getting on—either by one’s own industry or by the stupidity of others.” Jean De La Bruyère

E.M. Forster, best known for his novels Room With A View, Passage To India and Howard’s End, published a great short story in 1909 entitled The Machine Stops, an extremely prescient imagining of a future we may soon inhabit. Forty years before the advent of television, Forster foresaw computers and the worldwide internet, the demolition of the global environment, and the total collapse of technological society.

I thought of Forster’s story this week for three reasons. First, we are in the midst of The Government Stops, second the climate news is more dire than ever with rising global temperatures on pace to make human life on earth untenable within a decade or so, and third, my trusty iMac, a senile seven-year-old, has finally become so obstreperous and the screen so degenerate that I have ordered a new iMac and trust the universe will employ the precessional repercussions of my action to her advantage. Buckminster Fuller described precessional repercussions as those right-angled unintentional effects of an intended action; for instance, the honeybee goes to the flower with the intention of getting nectar, and one of the marvelous unintended repercussions of the bee’s action is pollination. Mazel tov!

Little did I realize how much time I spend using (and being used by) my computer until going mostly without the blessed device for these last two weeks. Yikes. Not only do I several times a day type my longhand output into on-screen documents, but I carry on most of my correspondence by email now, read several articles a day online, watch sports highlights and movie previews, and pursue several lines of research, all as a matter of barely conscious course.

I am happy to report that I don’t feel I have missed much these last two weeks and know I have gained valuable time to do important work to prepare this old (new) house for winter, work I never seemed to have quite enough time for because, well, you know, there were links to click and leads to follow and Truthdig and Bill Moyers and Rhett & Link and and and…

As of this writing, our government has been “shut down” for eleven days, with polls showing a slight majority of people blaming Republicans for the impasse and a frighteningly large minority blaming Obama. That anyone could blame Obama for this blatant sabotage of our system is silly, but that tens of millions of registered voters blame him for the actions of a bunch of cruel racist lunatics is, in the words of Grouch Marx, “A travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham of a mockery.”

The central bank of China owns a large chunk of our national debt and is highly displeased with America’s governmental constipation, as are the various global financial markets. “Please get your money business in order pronto,” they chorus with growing vitriol. “We don’t care if you want to starve your own citizens and deprive them of healthcare and decent education, just don’t jeopardize our investments in your big bubble economy or we’ll stop buying and holding your stinking debt!”

The Japanese are pissed off, too, but they don’t have a leg to stand on with their (our) Fukushima nuclear disaster so close to global endgame catastrophe I wonder how anyone can sleep at night, let alone eat fish.

“There are two worlds: the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.” Leigh Hunt

Today Marcia and I walk to town to buy groceries, run a few errands, and split a salad at Goodlife Café and Bakery, the day cool and windy, a large coalition of vagabonds and their dogs conferencing in front of Harvest Market, their mood upbeat, many cups of coffee in evidence.

While Marcia copies things at Zo and returns a DVD to our miniature library, I go to the post office where marvelous Robin sells me four sheets of the fabuloso new Ray Charles stamps and I send one of my books and two of my piano CDs to a lucky customer in New Zealand, the postage twice what my creations cost her. What a woild!

Marcia catches up to me in the cozy confines of Corners of the Mouth where I note that the sunflower seeds are from North Dakota, the pumpkin seeds are from Oregon, the peanuts are from Georgia, the coconut oil is pressed and jarred in Oregon, and the bananas are definitely not from the Anderson Valley. If the vast petroleum-powered food transportation machine were to suddenly stop, much of what we eat these days would not be here to eat. We grow vegetables and potatoes, and we buy more of the same from local growers, ditto berries and apples and eggs, but rice and beans and avocados and and and…

We trudge up the hill with our laden packs and arrive home to a Fedex note stuck to our door saying the delivery person came two hours in the future with my new computer but needs a signature before he or she can leave the package. The note says, “Go to Fedex.com and enter the Door Tag tracking number to learn what your options are.”

So I dutifully go to Fedex.com on my barely functional computer, enter the tracking number, and there in large print is confirmation that my package was delivered on September 6, five weeks ago and four weeks before I ordered my new computer. Zounds! Talk about efficient.

Feeling miffed and disoriented, I call the Fedex 800 number and get a sexy woman’s voice that turns out to be a voice-recognition system that sounds confident she/it can understand why I’m calling if I will clearly explain my situation using telltale words and expressions such as delivery and wherefore art thou, Romeo.

“Did you say package?” says the sexy voice, her tone endowing the word package with suggestive connotations. “Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number and she responds enthusiastically with, “Okay. Your package was delivered on September 6.”

“No!” I scream. “No! No! No!”

“Okay,” says the robot lady who never needs to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom or see a doctor or complain about low wages and lousy working conditions. “I’ll connect you to a service representative. Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number again and she rewards me with a hideous synthesized instrumental version of Hey Jude. After thirty seconds of this sonic blasphemy, a different sexy sounding female voice announces that my call may be monitored for quality assurance and to determine if I am naughty or nice.

When I make a silent vow to listen to the original version of Hey Jude so I might like the song again, the universe rewards me with a real live person who says his name is Mark, pronouncing his name Mar-ek. “How can I help you today?” he asks, sounding as if he is in a large room with hundreds of other people all talking at the same time.

I recite my name and address and explain my situation and Mark says, “The driver made an error and used an expired tracking number. He attempted to deliver your package at 3:48 today, but no one was there.”

“Mark,” I say, “it is not yet 3:48 here. Is this perhaps another driver error?”

“Yes,” says Mark, giggling. “Yes, it is.”

“Will the driver come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark. “He will.”

“Why did he not just say that on his door tag, Mark?”

“He did say that,” says Mark, “but he used an expired door tag tracking number so the correct information was not available to you online.”

“But he will come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark, sounding a wee bit impatient with me and possibly in need of a coffee break. “I am almost a hundred per cent sure he will bring your package tomorrow.”

“I’ll be waiting with baited breath.”

“Oh, just sign the door tag,” says Mark. “And then you don’t have to be there when it comes.”

“Thank you, Mark. You have been very kind to me.”

“No problem. Have a nice day.”

Aggression Versus Intelligence

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

 

 


magician

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

“The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man and constitutes the powerful obstacle to culture.” Sigmund Freud

Konrad Lorenz famously defined aggression as “the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of the same species.” How about violence directed against members of the same society? I’ve been thinking about the certifiably insane people in Congress who want to deny tens of millions of poor and hungry people sufficient food and shelter and healthcare. I am referring to those duly elected nutcases willing to shut down the entire government to get their murderously selfish way. We might ask: why are these crazy idiots so pissed off at poor people? But more interesting to me is the question: how did these horrible, racist, sexist dimwits attain positions of such great power? And though it may seem overly simplistic, I think the answer is that in degenerate human societies, which ours has definitely become, aggression is a more successful survival trait, in the short term, than intelligence.

I recently read a report summarizing the calculations of a group of budget analysts and economists showing that if the United States government would spend a quarter, that is one-fourth, of the amount currently spent on our military, all the tens of millions of people currently living in poverty in America would immediately be lifted out of poverty. Now why won’t our government do that? The only feasible explanation for our government’s failure to quickly rectify the grotesque economic imbalance in our society is that the people running our government are more aggressive than intelligent. They would rather attack members of their own species than help members of their own species. In other words, they are moronic goons.

Consider this. If you and I got together with two other people, and you had hundreds of eggs and eleven big bags of potatoes and I had thousands of carrots and seventy-three loaves of bread, and the other two people had nothing and were very hungry, what do you think we would do with our abundance of food? Well, if we were even moderately intelligent and just a tiny bit compassionate we would share our food with those less fortunate people. But if we were very aggressive and extremely stupid, we would not share our food but do everything in our power to keep those two people from having anything to eat. This is what we are living through right now on a national scale. We are witness to and victims of a few hundred senselessly aggressive people trying to hoard everything for themselves rather than give anybody else anything. Defies belief, but there it is.

What went wrong? How did we, the people, allow our society to degenerate to this critical point where so few have so much and so many have so little? Another recent article reported that over 75% of the American people have no savings whatsoever and no money beyond this month’s paycheck, if they are fortunate enough to have a paycheck. That’s three out of every four people in the country on the verge of hunger and homelessness. So how is it that we haven’t elected a Congress to represent this vast majority of the population?

In thinking about aggression versus intelligence and why we handed over the reins of power to a bunch of heartless jackals, I am reminded of Marshall Mcluhan saying, “The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf.” I interpret this to mean that adults infantilized by mass media (and raised by parents infantilized by mass media) are as powerless to defend themselves against the aggressive depredations of the corporate rulers and their government lackeys, as children are powerless to defend themselves against the depredations of violent adults.

Whenever I think of Mcluhan I also think of Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self. Lasch said, “The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.” This crucial observation was especially prescient since it was made before the advent of cell phone computers and Ipads and their ilk, apparatuses that purvey the addictive flow of mind-altering media while the devices themselves are as addictive as the gunk they purvey.

Lasch also said, “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” So what does it say about our underlying character structure, the American character circa 2013, that we, the people, would consciously choose hyper-aggressive idiots to run roughshod over our nation and the world? I think it says that we, the people, have been lobotomized by mass media and the insidiously invasive technologies purveying that media to the point that we are now, for all intents and purposes, collectively supine and passive in the face of the pathological aggression of a tiny minority of raving bullies.

I think it is crucial in any discussion of media manipulation of the masses to recall that television in its most primitive form did not become ubiquitous in American households until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and it was not until the 1990’s that television and television-like media were empowered by the internet and internet gizmos to go everywhere with us. Think about what has happened culturally and politically in synch with this television-based takeover of our lives and our society. Our public education system has entirely collapsed, our industrial base is gone, meaningful journalism has been replaced by sensationalist propaganda, our food supply is controlled by chemical companies, our largest banks are owned and operated by unregulated criminals, and we now have a vast underclass, hundreds of millions of people living in or on the verge of poverty, whereas in the 1960’s homelessness and dire poverty were essentially non-existent in America. There is a clear and direct connection between the conquest of our homes and minds by television and mass media, and the collapse of our society—a conquest that took very little time at all.

We the people are perpetually entranced now, the images and sounds and special effects and hypnotic suggestions brought to us minute-by-minute and hour-after-hour carefully designed and calculated to amplify our yearning for friendship and community and adventure and love and health and meaningful work. But rather than actually help us fulfill our desires and satisfy our yearnings, the media never ceases to whisper that fulfillment comes from watching enactments of other people fulfilling those desires. We needn’t do anything but get the latest and fastest and highest definition devices for displaying those constantly reiterated myths we so greatly desire to inhabit. By watching actors and athletes and celebrities and lucky winners attain their goals and live their dreams, or at least lead lives more exciting and colorful than our own dreary lives, so shall we be satisfied.

But only if we keep watching. Should we ever cease to check our phones or our portable screens every few minutes to get an update, a quick fix, or if we miss an episode of that gritty drama comedy murder mystery series we are now hopelessly addicted to, we will fall into a bottomless pit of fear and depression from which there is no escape, no return. Happiness is maintaining a strong clear high-speed connection anywhere and everywhere 24-7. Got it?

And while we’re imbibing remarkable graphics and awesome surround sound and never-ending car crash sequences and fascinating presentations about all the things we’d really like to be involved in if only we had the time for those sorts of things (but we don’t), we are too distracted to pay attention to those maniacs looting the nation and tearing the heart out of what might have been a great society, because whenever we do pay attention we feel, you know, bummed out, because there’s nothing we can do about those unpleasantly aggressive men wrecking everything. That’s just the way things are. Don’t the most popular television shows glorify amorality and violence and stupidity and drug dealing and serial killing and out-of-control aggression? Haven’t things always been that way? Haven’t violent bullies always wrecked everything for everybody else? That’s never going to change, right?

Even so, here’s a wild idea. The next time you go for a walk on the beach, don’t take your phone with you. I know that sounds crazy and reckless and dangerously daring; but do it anyway. You’ll be okay. I promise. And when you’re way out there on the sand, have a seat and watch the waves and just hang out for a while and see what happens. See what you think.

Trish

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

Friends of ours recently told us that their twenty-five-year-old son, a bright personable college graduate, but no techie, found the job market so grim he signed up for a seven-year officer training program in the Navy. The benefits are socialist utopian—excellent pay, free healthcare for him and his wife and children (should he ever marry and have children), subsidized housing, free travel, his children’s college educations entirely paid for, fabulous retirement pension and benefits—and he can go to graduate school online while serving in the Navy and becoming a helicopter pilot or a meteorologist or a navigator or just about anything else he can imagine becoming.

The big problem is that he will be a cog in the imperialist war machine and his superiors may ask him to kill people or support the killing of people, which won’t be easy for him because he’s such a nice guy and doesn’t want to kill people or help other people kill people. And, of course, he might get killed or maimed in the line of duty, though if he doesn’t join the Navy he is just as likely to get killed or maimed by some idiot drinking or talking on the phone or taking drugs (or all three simultaneously) while driving.

In any case, the idea of a promising young person joining the military because he or she can’t see any other way out of the putrid economic situation engendered by our insanely selfish stupid shortsighted overlords reminded me of Trish, and I thought you might enjoy hearing my story about her.

Twenty-five years ago, at a low ebb in my writing career, I was invited to take the reins of the Creative Writing Department of the California State Summer School for the Arts, a brand new program for ambitious teenagers who wanted to see about becoming writers, artists, dancers, actors, animators, and musicians—a one-month summer residency program at CalArts in Valencia on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The first person they hired for my position stuck around long enough to hire two writing teachers, but then quit when he realized the job actually required a couple months of hard work. I took the job because I was out of money and my wife said she would leave me if I didn’t take the job.

The school’s charter explicitly called for the department heads to be experienced professionals in their fields and not academics, yet I was the only non-academic among the department heads, a situation profoundly disheartening to me because academics, even the nice and well-meaning ones, tend to be maddeningly unimaginative and profoundly crippled by dogmas every bit as stifling as the dogmas of organized religion.

Trish only got into CSSSA because the school was so new there were very few applicants. The second year we turned away many promising writers, but that first year all thirty-two of the Creative Writing applicants were invited to attend, and twenty-seven accepted those invitations.

Growing up in a trailer park in a rough-and-tumble part of San Bernardino, Trish was eighteen going on thirty-five, and one tough cookie. Tall and slender with carrot-red hair, she wore tight blue jeans, T-shirts with NAVY writ large across the chest, and her boyfriend’s big black leather jacket, her boyfriend being a badass biker in jail for aggravated assault but hoping to transfer out of the county jail in San Berdoo and into the Marines. Trish was going into the Navy a few weeks after she finished her month at CalArts and “the only reason I did this summer school thing is because Miss Engle said I should.” Miss Engle was Trish’s English teacher and Trish adored her because “Miss Engle is the only teacher I ever had who thought my poetry was good.”

Trish wrote poems that rhymed, and her rhymes precipitated my first big crisis at the summer school. One of the two teachers working with me, a died-in-the-wool academic, told Trish that rhyming was infantile and creatively restrictive and Trish should write poems that didn’t rhyme. This was before rap lyrics and competitive poetry slams rife with rhyming became all the rage in the hipper college English departments and before I managed to convert my faculty to my teaching philosophy best summed up by Johnny Mercer: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

So three days into the program, Trish came to my office, stood in the doorway, looked at the floor and said, “I’m quitting because Donna said my poems were restricted kindergarten shit. Fuck her. I’m outta here.”

To which I replied, “I’m sorry she said that to you. What a thoughtless thing to do. She’s obviously wrong and doesn’t get the gist of song. Some of the greatest poetry ever written, rhymes. She’s hopelessly out of step with the times. I love rhymes. Bob Dylan, Ogden Nash, Robert Graves, and all those Led Zeppelin songs. I think Donna just stayed in college too long.”

Trish frowned and said, “You want to read my poems?”

“I’d love to. I can read them tonight and…”

“No,” she said, stepping into the room and placing a big black binder on my desk. “Read them now. Okay? I’ll wait outside.”

Her poems were written in curly cursive on lined paper, brief chronicles of her hard scrabble life in a trailer park in San Berdoo with her alcoholic mother and promiscuous sister. Her father was in prison and one of her poems about him rhymed mail and jail and bail and tail, his latest crime statutory rape. Her boyfriend was a heavy equipment operator and a biker who was sweet when sober, crazy violent when drunk. Yes, her rhymes sometimes muted the power of her narrative, but the discipline of rhyming seemed to help her make sense out of the chaos from whence she came.

“Trish?” I called, having lost myself in her poems. “You there?”

She reappeared in the doorway and gave me a furtive glance before returning her gaze to the floor. “You took a long time.”

“They’re fantastic,” I said, tapping her binder. “Why don’t we switch you into my section and see what happens?”

“You like them?” She squinted suspiciously. “You’re not just saying that so I won’t quit?”

“I love them, and I’d love to see you try your hand at writing a story or two.”

“I just write poems,” she said, picking up her binder. “Poems that rhyme.”

So Trish became a permanent member of my morning section, and over the next three weeks she changed considerably, something that happened to many of the students who attended CSSSA where for the first time in their young lives they found themselves in the company of fellow artists and social misfits and original thinkers, free from the constraints of parents and old haunts and habits and educational dogma—breathing the air of creativity and freedom, however fleeting the experience.

Trish eventually wrote several good poems that did not rhyme, at least not overtly, and she wrote a brilliant and painfully realistic story about a young man who robs a liquor store, flees on his motorcycle to the trailer park where his girlfriend lives, and convinces his sweetheart to ride with him into the desert where they are ambushed by the police and the young man dies in his girlfriend’s arms—drenching her in his blood.

For the Creative Writing denouement that first year, we commandeered a large conference room and invited students and faculty from the other disciplines, as well as parents and friends, to attend a performance by our writers of their best new work. Participation was voluntary and those writers too shy to read were encouraged to enlist fellow writers or Drama students to read their stories and poems for them.

I very much wanted Trish to perform her story because I thought it by the far the best short story produced by anyone during that long hard month of work. But Trish said she couldn’t possibly get up in front of an audience and the only way she would consent to having her story read was if I read it.

The great day dawned, and in our audience of a hundred or so students and faculty and parents were Trish’s big handsome boyfriend en route from jail to Camp Pendleton, and Miss Engle, Trish’s high school English teacher.

The show was a resounding success, the audience applauding loudly after every poem and story, and for the grand finale I performed Trish’s tragic tale. And when I finished reading the last sentence and looked out at the audience, there was not a dry eye in the place. And then came thunderous applause and everyone shouting “Author! Author!” until Trish stood up to receive her due.

When she came to say goodbye to me the next day, Trish declared, “They only liked it because you’re such a good reader.”

“Not true. They loved it because it’s a great story. And you wrote it.”

“I’m not a writer,” she said, looking me in the eye. “I don’t have enough to say.”

“That’s what life is for. To give us material.”

“I’ll send you a postcard,” she said, gifting me with a rare smile. “From wherever I go after basic training. Promise.”

But she never did write. So it goes. That’s just the way the wild wind blows.