Archive for July, 2014

Failure

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

redemption song nolan winkler

Redemption Song painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” Paul Cezanne

Last night I attended the Mendocino Music Festival’s third orchestral concert of this year’s festival, my wife a cellist in the most excellent orchestra. The second half of the program was Symphony No. 2 in E minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a massive work that lasted more than an hour. The third movement of the four-movement symphony was especially moving to me—the glorious music swamping my psyche and catalyzing several epiphanies about the novel I’m currently writing.

In the program notes written by Marcia Lotter, a fine local violinist, she wrote that the failure of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was so depressing to Rachmaninoff that he was unable to compose anything for ten years, and it was only after successful hypnosis, during which the hypnotherapist implanted positive thoughts about composing in Rachmaninoff’s subconscious, that the great genius was able to resume composing.

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” Aldous Huxley

When I lived in Berkeley a decade ago, I was, among other things, a babysitter specializing in taking care of children from two in the afternoon until their parents got home from work after five. Favorite babysitting activities included gardening, drawing, taking walks, making fruit smoothies, reading, story telling and playing the piano.

I frequently oversaw two five-year-old boys who were close friends, and one of our favorite things to do was take turns playing my piano for each other and responding with our playing to what we had just heard the other person play. Our music was entirely improvised; atonality and redundancy perfectly okay, with banging the only thing we agreed to keep at a minimum.

These two boys and I enacted our round robin piano concerts fifty times over the course of a year, and one of the boys prefaced every single one of his turns at the piano by saying, “I’m not very good.”

No matter how many times I and the other boy responded to this child’s music with genuine appreciation and applause, he would begin his every turn at the piano with, “I’m not very good.”

One evening I was having supper with this boy and his parents, two smart, funny upbeat people, and after the meal the boy’s mother requested I play a few tunes for them on their piano. I did so, and then the boy’s father said to the boy’s mother, “Play something, honey. How about that Bach you’ve been working on.”

She went to the piano, sat down on the bench, and before playing said, “I’m not very good.”

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Most American artists and writers, even famous successful ones, struggle with feelings of failure and inadequacy. The universality of this struggle speaks volumes about our punitive and hierarchical society and the endemic antipathy to original self-expression, not to mention the lack of understanding of art as a practice that is not inherently about the creation of commercial artifacts.

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Albert Schweitzer

Long ago, before the advent of personal computers and PDFs and Word documents attached to emails, I spent three of my fifteen years in Sacramento writing an epic poem in the form of a novel entitled Two Rivers. When I finished typing the final version, I made a dozen photocopies of the giant thing, gave them to friends and began work on my next novel. Over the course of the next few years, two valiant literary agents tried and nearly succeeded in selling the book, but ultimately Two Rivers was never published.

A decade after completing Two Rivers, having moved to Berkeley, I went to visit old friends in Sacramento and ran into a photographer I admired but did not know very well, and he asked with some urgency if I would accompany him to his studio. We went to a part of town that in former times had been an industrial area but had long been abandoned by the time I moved to Sacramento in 1980 and remained so until I moved away in 1995. Now the area was a thriving enclave of artists and entrepreneurs, with once derelict warehouses refurbished into studios and galleries and cafés and performances spaces. On a huge lot at the heart of the new mecca was the photographer’s spectacular two-story studio and gallery.

“I bought this place nine years ago right at the start of the renaissance around here,” he explained, walking me through the gallery space and out onto a brick terrazzo surrounding a large fountain burbling away in the bright sunlight. “I couldn’t afford to buy this place now in a million years, but it cost me next to nothing nine years ago.”

“Fantastic,” I said, dazzled by the sight of two red and green parrots perched on a towering cactus.

“I decided to buy this place after I read Two Rivers.” He turned to me and smiled. “I got the manuscript nine years ago from a friend of a friend of your friend Bob. I read it twice without stopping and I’ve read it two more times since. I keep waiting for it to get published but…”

“Never will,” I said, remembering little about the book. “Too dark, too crazy.”

“Yeah, but that’s what helped me get down to my shit, down to what I’d been afraid of my whole fucking life. There I was. You wrote me, man. When Carlo jumped into the river and was drowning and Madman saved him, I swear to God it felt like he was saving me. And when Carlo crawled out of the river, I was changed. Bought this place the next day, stopped taking pictures of dog food and office products and never looked back.”

Heaven and Hell

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

(This short story from Buddha In A Teacup appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

On their way to a matinee of the San Francisco Ballet, Roger and Susan must stand for the entire journey in a crowded subway car. They are wearing heavy coats on this chilly November day, though inside the slow moving train it is a veritable sauna—the air conditioning having failed.

Susan is twenty-six, a fetching brunette, and Roger is forty-nine, a strikingly beautiful former ballet dancer turned fashion designer. They have known each other for exactly one year, Susan and her two young children having moved from homelessness into the collective household where Roger and his lover Paul have been mainstays for more than a decade.

Paul and Roger were friendly and cordial with Susan for the first few months after she moved in, but they did not become close friends with her until they undertook their annual production of the community musical and Susan became their indefatigable assistant—Paul directing, Roger the choreographer and costume designer.

Rehearsals for the play—Guys and Dolls—proceeded splendidly until a week before opening night when the lead actress—with three big songs and two extravagant dance numbers—fell seriously ill. Paul was about to cancel the show when Susan shyly suggested she could play the part.

“I was a pom-pom girl in high school,” she told them, blushing at her confession. “Back in Tennessee? And I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. Mostly in the shower. But I can sing on key, and I know all the lines, so…”

To their great relief and astonishment, Susan was not only good in the part, she was fantastic. The play, which traditionally ran for two weekends, played to sold out houses for five weekends, and Susan became both a local star and the apple of Roger’s show business eye.

Susan was not as awed by her success as Roger and Paul were, and she returned without complaint to being a breakfast waitress in a nearby café and a mom afternoons and evenings.

Roger, however, was eager for Susan to pursue a show business career, for he saw her as a modern hero triumphing against all odds—with talent worthy of the professional stage.

Paul cautioned Roger about transferring his own frustrated ambition onto Susan, but Roger waved the warning aside, saying, “Oh, I’m just having fun. I just want her to see things so she can get a feel for the magic of it all.”

A voice crackles over the train’s public address system. “We apologize for the delay. We will be traveling at half-speed due to construction work. The air conditioning outage is due to an electrical problem. We apologize for the crowding. Two trains ahead of us went out of service unexpectedly. Thank you for your patience. Have a nice day.”

Roger, sweating profusely, shakes his head in dismay. “And they want to encourage the use of public transportation? Ha! This is a farce.”

Susan takes off her coat revealing her newly created dress, a svelte blue sheath designed and sewn by Roger. The train screeches to a halt and Susan is thrown against a burly man in a gray business suit. “Sorry about that,” she says, righting herself. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry.”

“Not at all.” The man smiles wearily and wipes his brow with a white handkerchief. “This is insane.”

“I’ve never been on the subway before.” She grins at him. “I think it’s wonderful.”

“This is not wonderful,” says Roger, running a hand through his perfectly coifed silver hair. “This is hell.”

“At least we’re moving again,” says Susan, nodding hopefully as the train lurches forward. “I’m not at work. And I don’t have the kids, much as I love them. And it’s my birthday. I’m going to the ballet. What could be better than that?”

“We could be sitting in an air conditioned train going fast.” Roger closes his eyes. “This is a nightmare.”

 *

They detrain an hour later in downtown San Francisco, Susan following Roger through the bustling throng to an escalator blockaded with a big Out Of Order sign.

“This is too much,” says Roger, starting up the stairs. “A four-story climb after sweating like pigs for an hour? This is criminal.”

“Yeah, but we’re here!” Susan tugs at his coattails. “I’m so excited, Roger. This is just so great.”

The automatic turnstile won’t let Susan exit the underground. So while Roger waits impatiently on the other side of the barrier, Susan approaches the station attendant in the big glass cubicle to find out why her ticket has been rejected. The attendant—a woman with sad brown eyes and silver fingernails—is talking on her mobile phone, oblivious to Susan.

Roger shouts, “Hurry up! We’ll miss the opening piece!”

The attendant doodles on a notepad and says into her phone, “No, baby, we went there yesterday. I’m tired of Chinese. Let‘s do Mexican today. Chile rellenos sound real good to me right about now.”

“Excuse me.” Susan nods politely to the attendant. “I’m late for a ballet show and my ticket…”

The attendant snatches the card from Susan and sticks it into a slot on her computer console. “Not Maria’s,” she says, continuing her phone conversation. “Let’s go to Cha Cha’s. Better margaritas. Hold on.” She hands the card back to Susan. “There’s no credit on this. You need to add three dollars and seventy cents at the Add Credit machine.”

“But I paid ten dollars in Berkeley,” says Susan, her eyes filling with tears. “And I don’t have any more money with me.”

“Sorry,” says the attendant, yawning. “Machine says that card is dead.”

“Jesus!” cries Roger, waving his arms at Susan. “What the hell’s going on?”

Susan shrugs helplessly. “She says my ticket doesn’t have any credit. And I didn’t bring any more money.”

Roger storms up to the cubicle and shouts through the glass. “Now wait just a god damn minute. We put ten dollars on that card in Berkeley. Our train was a half hour late, the air conditioning didn’t work, the escalators are broken, and now…”

“You want to talk to my supervisor?” The attendant glares out at Roger. “You want to file a complaint?”

“No, ma’am,” says Susan, speaking softly. “None of this is your fault. We know that. But the thing is, it’s my birthday and Roger is taking me to my first ballet. I just love to dance. And he was a ballet dancer. And we’re awful late, so…”

“Okay, go on,” says the attendant, buzzing open the gate. “And teach your friend some manners.”

 *

They race along the crowded sidewalks, arriving at the theater just as the performance is about to begin, and despite Roger’s anguished protests, they are compelled to wait in the lobby until the first piece is completed.

Roger falls onto a sofa and buries his face in his hands. “But this was the piece we wanted you to see. This is the main reason we came. This dance is about you, about your life.”

Susan sits beside him and puts her arms around him. “Roger. It’s okay, honey. There’s four more dances after this one. And this is the most beautiful theater I’ve ever seen. Look at those stairways and those chandeliers. Isn’t this amazing?”

He looks up at her, his cheeks streaked with tears. “But we wanted so much for you to see this piece. Paul will be crushed. We wanted this day to be perfect for you.”

“It is,” she says, smiling at the usher, a grim little man in a gray uniform barring their way to seats in the seventh row. “It is perfect. I love everything about it.”

The door behind the usher opens a crack and a wizened face appears, its twinkling eyes meeting Susan’s, its lips communicating something that causes the usher to beckon to Susan and Roger.

“Come in,” says the usher. “There’s been a slight delay. You have just enough time to get to your seats.”

Food Prices

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

apples for happiness

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“U.S. food prices are on the rise, raising a sensitive question: When the cost of a hamburger patty soars, does it count as inflation?” Ben Leubsdorf and Jon Kilsenrath

The sentence above opens a recent article in The Wall Street Journal and illuminates one of the most despicable practices of our government: not counting food prices when calculating the rate of inflation. Imagine not counting rainfall when supposedly measuring rainfall.

I have avoided listening to audio of Janet Yellen, the new chair of the Federal Reserve, because the articles wherein she is quoted make her sound like a dupe of epic proportions, and listening to dupes is one of my least favorite activities. In the Wall Street Journal article of which I speak, she is quoted as saying she is not certain that food prices are relevant to discussions of inflation.

How can anyone, let alone the person in charge of national fiscal policy, not be certain if food prices are relevant to inflation? What do Americans spend most of their money on? Food and shelter last time I checked, and driving to and from shelter to work to get money for food, and driving to and from shelter to grocery store to buy that food. Claude Levi Strauss, the famous anthropologist, said that 98% of all human activity is related to growing, gathering, preparing and eating food. Without sufficient food, we perish. And food prices have been skyrocketing for the last several years, which is the only inflation of any relevance to most people on earth.

You will recall the famous Arab Spring of the recent past. The same nincompoops who neglect to include the rising cost of food in discussions of inflation also rhapsodized about the Arab Spring being caused by the people of Tunisia and Libya and Egypt yearning for democracy, when the actual cause of those uprisings was desperation over the meteoric rise in food prices and the inability of many people in those countries to afford bread.

Our government also just released figures showing that national unemployment has dropped to 6.1 per cent. Who do they think they’re kidding? Or put another way: what is the purpose of such blatant falsity? We know that a pack of power hungry sociopaths fabricated a story about weapons of mass destruction to justify going to war, but what purpose is served by cooking the books about inflation and unemployment? Answer #1: Increases in Social Security payments are determined by the rate of inflation. If the government lies and declares the rate of inflation 1%, that is how much they will increase Social Security payments, which is what the government has been doing for the last several years. Answer #2: Jiggle unemployment rates downward and the stock market goes up. Steal from the poor and give to the rich.

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” Woody Allen

I was not particularly conscious of food prices when I was a child because my mother did the food buying, though I do remember that for most of my childhood Mom would not buy watermelon until the price dropped below ten cents a pound. At the height of summer, watermelon sold for three cents a pound. Yes, a big juicy delicious twenty-pound watermelon in Menlo Park California circa 1955-1960 cost sixty cents, those fabulous melons grown just down the road in Gilroy.

When I began supporting myself in my late teens, I became keenly aware of food prices and remain so to this day. I also have a quasi-photographic memory and know immediately when food prices go up or down. Fruit and vegetable prices fluctuate seasonally, of course, but overall fruit and vegetable prices are more than twice what they were eight years ago. A good price for organically grown apples during apple season eight years ago was sixty-nine cents a pound. A great price during apple season this past year for organically grown apples was a dollar and eighty-nine cents per pound. Right now apples are going for four dollars a pound. Maybe Janet Yellen doesn’t eat apples.

Remember when broccoli was nineteen cents a pound? That means you are over fifty. Remember when you could get two See’s Candy suckers for a nickel? That means you are over sixty.

“There are only two families in the world, my old grandmother used to say, the Haves and the Have-nots.” Miguel de Cervantes

In the summer of 1969 I was driving through the hills of West Virginia in an old GMC panel truck, heading I knew not where and needing a place to camp and something to eat, my cash reserves low. As I slowed on a hairpin turn I saw a crude sign at the bottom of a dirt drive that said Chikens 4 Sale. I shifted into first gear and climbed the deeply rutted track to a decrepit cottage, the roof caving in, every last living and dead thing in sight coated with dust.

A little barefoot boy wearing hand-me-down rags stood in front of the hovel glaring at my truck. As I shut off the engine and the trailing cloud of dust engulfed the house, two younger children stepped out onto the collapsing porch and glared at me, too. Then their mother appeared, a pregnant young gal with long brown hair, a shotgun cradled in her arms.

She squinted at my truck and shouted, “He’s not here. Don’t know when he’s coming back.”

I climbed out and said, “Saw the sign for chickens for sale. I’d like to buy one for supper.”

The woman nodded. “Theys a quarter each if you take’em live. Thirty cents if I got to kill and gut and pluck.”

“Great. I’ll take one killed and gutted and plucked.”

She stepped back into the house and I foolishly expected her to return with a pre-prepared chicken from her refrigerator. She did not, however, have a refrigerator or electricity. She emerged a moment later without her gun and led me to a squalid pen surrounded by rusting chicken wire.

Pointing at the dozen or so raggedy chickens pecking at the barren ground she said, “Which one you want?”

I pointed at one that looked fairly healthy. “How about that big brown one?”

“Okay,” she said, opening the rickety gate—and in a flash she snatched up that bird and broke its neck as easily as snapping a dry twig.

Perceptions of Wealth

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Perceptions of Wealth

Roses Pancakes Coffee photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“I got plenty of nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me.” DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Say what we will about the silliness of Hillary Clinton claiming to be dead broke when she and Bill exited the White House in 2001 to make way for George “Picasso” Bush, at least her ridiculous boast brought to light the collective insanity of the obscenely wealthy. Wait a minute. We already knew the obscenely wealthy were insane. Or did we?

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I was part-time secretary to a wealthy woman who lived and worked near the top of the socio-economic pyramid of the city-state of San Francisco. At the beginning of my tenure as her secretary—in the archaic sense of being her editor, chauffer, escort, confidante, tea maker and typist—I interpreted her frequent claims of being poor and broke and penniless as a kind of self-mockery, and so simply ignored that particular line of blabber. But over time I came to realize she truly believed she was poor, her belief arising from consorting with people who had a great deal more money than she.

Over the course of five years of working for this wealthy woman, I met dozens of extremely wealthy people perched near the tippy top of that socio-economic pyramid, and I was astonished to find that many of them spoke often and bitterly about how little money they had and how terribly constrained their lives were for lack of funds.

“We were going to stay on our farm in Provence for the usual two months, but Jack said we could only go for six weeks this year and only spend a month at the Montana ranch because he had to be here for some stock thing. And we haven’t had a spare minute to get to the beach house this summer because we’re completely redoing the kitchen and it’s a matter of life and death. I am so done with black and red marble. Give me green serpentine! Did I tell you we’re busting out the south-facing wall to turn the dining nook into a dining room? I felt like I was in prison. I wanted the room to vault out over the canyon, but Jack said sinking steel girders into the cliff would add way too much expense and we’re just strapped right now.”

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” H.G. Wells

One day I arrived on my bicycle at the splendid Berkeley home of my employer to assist a renowned chef who was catering a seven-course luncheon for which I would prepare seven outrageously expensive teas—four greens and three blacks. I stowed my bike and knapsack in the garage, changed into suit and tie, climbed the twelve stairs to the front terrazzo and gazed westward over the descending hills to San Francisco Bay—the distant towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising out of white fog.

The front door swung open and here was my employer, a tall youthful woman in her late sixties, dressed as if for her coronation and beckoning urgently. I followed her into the dining room where the enormous oval table was set for twelve with heirloom Dutch china and gleaming Swiss silver, the royal scene crowned with a spectacular floral centerpiece of rare Brazilian jungle blooms—to be removed moments before the guests were seated.

The chef’s assistant peeked out from the kitchen and said, “Madame? Would you care to taste the soup?”

“Be right there,” said Madame, frowning gravely at me. “I have a terrible feeling there’s something not quite right about the mix. See what you think.”

I circled the table, noting the names on the parchment place cards, each card an original work of art by a well-known calligrapher—the guest’s name rendered in gold leaf and embraced by a fanciful watercolor rose.

I had forgotten nearly everything Madame told me about the people coming to her luncheon, except that they were all culturally influential, vastly wealthy, and food snobs. Knowing Madame would not be satisfied with a simple “Looks good” about her placement of the Very Important People, I was relieved to find one end of the table overburdened with males and correctly deduced that pointing this out would give Madame something to sink her teeth into before the guests arrived.

At which moment, there came a timid knock on the front door, and in my capacity as butler I went to answer. And here was Phil, a portly middle-aged fellow wearing dilapidated shoes, raggedy pants, a filthy gray sweatshirt and a red tartan tam o’ shanter. Accompanied by his ancient dachshund Boris, Phil was an alcoholic Scotsman who came to Madame’s house every week to beg for food and money.

Phil was about to say something when his stomach growled so loudly it sounded as if someone was trapped in there and crying for help. Phil waited for the impressive growl to subside, smiled sheepishly and said with his charming Scottish brogue, “Now that tells the tale better than I can, wouldn’t it?”

Before I could reply, Madame appeared behind me shouting, “Go away! Immediately! I can’t have you here. Come back tomorrow.”

Phil frowned and muttered, “Piece of bread?”

I turned to Madame and said, “I’ll take care of this. And my only comment about your table is that the west end is decidedly masculine, but otherwise…perfect.”

“Of course,” said Madame, smacking her forehead with the palm of her hand. “Hurry up with him and then come help me make things right.”

I stepped out onto the Welcome mat, closed the door behind me, and said to Phil, “Meet me at the end of the driveway and you shall have bread and cheese.”

His smile returned. “Didn’t see any cars but hers so I thought it would be all right to come up. Throwing one of her fancies, is she? Just a little bread and I’ll make myself scarce, though I was hoping to have a snooze under the pine back there. Think she’d mind?”

“No snooze here today, Phil,” I said, shaking my head. “Can we make this quick?”

“Say no more,” he said, beginning his descent with little Boris at his heels. “Just a bit of bread. Maybe some cheese.” Then he paused halfway down the stairs and murmured hopefully, “Perhaps a spot of tea.”

Watching and Listening

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

1215beatsthinking350col

beats thinking ©John Grimes fizzdom.com grimescartoons.com

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)

“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel

Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.

By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.

Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.

As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.

“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige

Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.

Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra

Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.

Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.

A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.

Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”

That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.