Archive for September, 2015

Assignments

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

GRACE UPON THE VISIT

Grace Upon The Visit painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley          

Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.

I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.

Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”

Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?

To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.” George Bernard Shaw

The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.

Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.

“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”

Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.

“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.

“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”

“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.

“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”

“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.

“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Spear takes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”

“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James

As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.

I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.

Ganesha

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Ganesha

Ganesha photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Arthur Conan Doyle

Ganesha, also known as Ganapati and Vinakaya, is the male Hindu god with a human body and head of an elephant. His Rubensesque androgynous form is most often represented with four arms, each arm with a five-fingered hand, though some drawings and statues of Ganesha have as few as two arms and as many as twenty. Revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom, he is also the patron deity of writers.

I knew nothing about Ganesha until nine years ago when Marcia and I got together, and Marcia revealed she was a devotee of the chubby multi-talented deity. She owns two small statues of Ganapati, one a handsome two-armed drum-playing fellow carved from wood, and the other an alluring six-armed dancing guy made of brass.

A remover of obstacles is my kind of deity, so with Marcia’s permission I placed her wooden Ganesha on top of my upright piano where he shares the lofty plateau with two statues of Buddha, one a happy standing fatso, the other a mellow lotus-positioned fellow with his thumbs and fingers touching each other in an intriguing mudra. The only other idol atop my piano is a tiny glass baseball player currently stationed in the shadow of Ganesha—my last gasp plea for the removal of the Dodgers from the path of our floundering Giants.

The more I learn about Ganesha, the more I like him, and when we recently removed the obstacle of an unsightly outhouse from a cirque of redwoods viewable from the eastside windows of our house, we decided to look for a large statue of Ganesha to stand in the grotto previously occupied by the ugly pooper.

And lo we were directed to Sacred Woods in Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, an impressive yard containing hundreds of statues imported from Thailand and Indonesia by Rachelle Zachary, the owner of Sacred Woods. After a delightful hour of statue shopping, we settled on an exquisite four-and-a-half-feet-tall white-stone statue of the elephant-headed god, hand-carved by a Balinese master, and a few weeks later the weighty objet d’art was delivered to our south-side deck.

Our plan was to have the redwood trees surrounding the proposed location for the statue limbed up before we engaged a trio of strong men to transport the statue to the grotto. However, after two weeks of gazing out the south-facing dining room windows at the magnificent statue standing on the far edge of our ground-level deck, we decided to move the statue just a few feet off the deck from where he was. We had fallen in love with seeing him from the dining nook, which is also where I do much of my writing.

And so I began clearing away the dense grass and brambles and vines and dead fern fronds clogging the ground where we envisioned Ganesha standing in the embrace of two stately ferns, and after a few minutes of work I uncovered a massive flat-topped granite stone butting up against the deck. We briefly considered placing the statue on top of the granite stone, but the top was too narrow and too close to the deck where rambunctious dogs and exuberant children and clumsy adults might unwittingly topple the statue.

When Marcia came outside to see how my work was progressing, I gestured at the mass of dead branches and fern fronds and chunks of old bricks and rotting abalone shells left by the previous owners and said, “The ideal thing would be a little brick pad right in there.”

Marcia nodded, winked at Ganesha, returned to her studio, and as I filled my wheelbarrow again and again with the brittle remnants of the past, I held in my mind’s eye an image of our magnificent Ganesha standing on a small brick pad surrounded by an expanse of gray gravel populated with large stones.

Then something astonishing happened, something a non-believer would call a fortuitous coincidence, and something a devout follower of Ganesha would call His doing.

As I clipped away the last of several dozen dead fern fronds from the lower reaches of a large fern, I espied the corner of a pink brick lying in the ground. Having previously removed several chunks of old brick from the vicinity I thought this might be another such chunk. However, upon removing more of the detritus, I exposed a perfectly level pad made of eight whole bricks.

And that is where our statue stands today, surrounded by an expanse of gravel populated with large granite stones. We have no idea what stood on the brick pad prior to the coming of Ganesha, nor are we certain the brick pad was there before I suggested to Marcia and Ganesha that such a pad should be there. Judging from several other artifacts left behind by the previous owners, I would guess a statue of John Wayne or possibly Ronald Reagan stood where our Ganesha now lords it over the ferns and stones.

I was inspired to write about Ganesha today, remover of obstacles, after a visit to Main Street in Mendocino to view the sturdy white fence recently erected on what is now the end of the sidewalk just to the west of Gallery Books.

A public servant, or as A.A. Milne might have written, a Person Of Very Little Brain, is no doubt behind this blood clot, so to speak, in a major artery of our little town, and as I stood at the ridiculous fence and gazed out over the headlands and Big River Bay, I thought of Monty Python and Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers, for this travesty of a mockery of a sham is a hilarious commentary on how far we humans, collectively speaking, have not come since we climbed down from the trees millions of years ago and sallied forth to people the earth.

Oh Ganesha, Ganapati, Vinakaya—we implore you to help us remove the Dadaesque obstacle on Main Street.

Refugees

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Homage to the Kumulipo

Homage to the Kumulipo (Na Lei Hulu) © 2012 David Jouris / Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

Number of people displaced internally in Syria: 6 million

Syrian refugees registered in other countries: 4 million

Mediterranean Sea crossings by refugees so far in 2015: 300,000

Expected asylum seekers in Germany 2015: 800,000

Refugees United States will accept in 2015: 70,000

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the ongoing wars in the Middle East have walked and are walking to Western Europe. Thousands of Africans have traveled through Spain into France and reached Calais where they hope to walk or ride through the tunnel under the English Channel to get to England. Thousands of Libyans and Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean in boats, hoping to find food and shelter in Greece and Italy and Spain.

Germany reports they have accepted a million refugees in the last few years. Austria is receiving thousands of Syrian refugees who rode buses from Hungary because Hungary lacks the financial resources to take care of tens of thousands of refugees. Hungary is erecting a huge fence along its entire border with Serbia from whence the Syrian refugees are coming. Iceland and Finland say they will accept Syrian refugees. France has taken in millions of migrants from Africa in the last few decades, many of them now living in poverty, the social infrastructure of France inadequate to support the vast numbers of migrants, many of them unemployed and unemployable.

The prevalent narrative is that the refugees are fleeing war and squalid refugee camps where they lacked adequate food, shelter, and medical care—families desperate for a better life willing to risk everything to reach the more affluent countries of Europe.

What is not much discussed in the mainstream news is that this refugee problem is but the tip of a crisis so vast, the mind boggles when one reads what climate scientists are predicting. As many parts of Africa and the Middle East become too hot and drought-stricken to support human life, and with those areas now grossly overpopulated, 50-200 million people will attempt to migrate into Europe in the coming decades, depending on how quickly the earth heats up and drought causes massive crop failures.

In other words, what was predicted twenty years ago is now underway. Yes, wars have exacerbated the crisis at this moment in time, but social chaos resulting from skyrocketing food prices, lack of water, and inevitable famine will make the current refugee/migrant situation thousands of times worse.

And the governments of the world are doing nothing substantive to address the underlying problems causing this now irreversible crisis.

I find it incredible that the German government in collusion with Goldman Sachs is willing to torture the entire population of Greece in order to keep the international financial Ponzi scheme going, yet Germany is going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to take in millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Why not take in millions of refugees from Greece? Or better yet, why not leave Greece alone so the Greeks can recover from economic brutalization and stay in Greece?

Here in California, the ongoing drought threatens to change our social and economic reality so dramatically our state may not be recognizable a decade hence. People from southern California are moving to northern California in droves, and every other person I know in northern California is moving to Oregon or Washington. Ere long, the Canadians will find millions of Americans trying to cross the border into those cooler northern climes where scientists tell us wheat and other grains will still be able to be grown when southern North America becomes uninhabitable a decade or so hence.

None of what I have written is hyperbole. Nor can the ongoing insanity of our national policies be exaggerated. When a recent New Yorker article described what might happen to Washington and Oregon and northern California should a massive earthquake and tsunami strike the area, millions of people bought survival kits, and contractors were besieged with calls from people wanting to bolt their houses to their foundations. Yet permanent life-ending disaster from climate change barely causes a ripple of concern.

Thus, I suppose, it has always been. Many times in human history our species migrated north and south and east and west in response to climate change. Our arboreal hominid ancestors came down out of the trees when climate change caused forests to become veldt, and fifty thousand years ago our ancestors moved out of Africa into Europe en route to becoming Vikings.

The difference today is that the world is divided into hundreds of nations with borders and unwieldy governments and armies possessed of sophisticated weaponry, none of which makes mass migration as natural and doable as it must have been when much of the earth was uninhabited.

Chaos may soon be the new norm everywhere, as it is in vast areas of Africa. A recent National Geographic article about the illegal ivory trade reads like a post-apocalyptic horror story, describing in gory detail how most of the slaughter of thousands of elephants for their ivory tusks is being carried out by guerilla soldiers fighting against the governments of Sudan, Darfur, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The illegal sale of ivory is the primary funding source for the guerrillas’ war efforts, which involve raping and slaughtering thousands of women and children and men. Meanwhile, the soldiers of those corrupt and barely functional nations frequently collude with the elephant-killing guerillas to supplement salaries inadequate for survival.

On a hot sunny day last week, I stood in front of the Mendocino post office talking to a man who moved here in the early 1960s. He opined, “Most of the people who moved here in the last fifteen years would not want to live here if the weather was like it was back in the 60s and 70s. Long wet winters. Freezing cold from November to April.”

Which reminded me of my first winter here ten years ago when it rained eighty inches and the days and nights were icy cold. On many a morning I found the water in the cat’s bowl frozen solid and the front steps covered with ice. I would hunker down by the woodstove and gaze out at the tempest and wonder if I’d made a big mistake coming to this place of perpetual rain and cold.

Giants & Dodgers

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Giants Mendo Hardware

Giants Hardware photo by David Jouris

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

In my dotage I am willing to admit that my loathing of the Los Angeles Dodgers is irrational, primitive, and downright silly, but I loathe them nonetheless and have hated them with a vengeance since the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958 and I was infected with an incurable Giants virus that not only causes blind devotion to my team, but inflames the adrenal glands whenever the Los Angeles Dodgers are mentioned on the radio or in print.

The recent three-game series in Los Angeles between my Giants and the hated Dodgers was very likely the coup de grace to the Giants’ hopes of making it into the post-season this year, 2015, with the first-place Dodgers winning each of those three games by one run. Their all-star pitchers, Greinke and Kershaw, two humorless, hateful, cheating, balking twits, beat us with their amazing array of dirty rotten borderline pitches in collusion with umpires obviously in the employ of the Dodgers.

To amplify my already enormous hatred for the highest-paid bunch of jerks in all of baseball, several questionable calls by the bought-off umpires tipped the balance in each of the three games in favor of the Dodgers. Every crucial close call, not surprisingly, went the Dodgers’ way to the delight of the hordes of blood-sucking Dodger-loving philistines attending the game in that den of iniquity known as Dodger Stadium, home of sudden updrafts of icy cold air that routinely knock down no-doubter home runs hit by opposing teams so those would-be homers drop harmlessly into the gloves of the Dodgers’ computer-controlled genetically-modified superstar outfielders masquerading as humans.

So how do I explain the Giants winning three World Series in the last five years? The same way I explain my few and wholly implausible successes as a writer and the brief cultural renaissance known as the 60s and that time I found a twenty-dollar bill and a nice pair of sunglasses on the beach—a brief fleeting triumph by the severely underfunded forces of Good over the obscenely well-financed forces of Evil.

 “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” Dale Carnegie

Speaking of the forces of evil, many years ago when I was spending way too much time in Los Angeles trying to get Hollywood sociopaths to make my books and screenplays into movies, I attended a Dodgers-Giants game at Dodger Stadium with my childhood friend Colin Vogel.

Colin was infected by the Giants virus in 1958, too. However, the particular strain of the virus that got him was slightly different than the one that got me because Colin now lives in Glendale. Nevertheless, he is still a diehard Giants fan and regularly risks his life attending games at Dodger stadium when the Giants come to town. What makes his behavior even more bizarre is that he is an excellent psychotherapist. Surely he should know better.

In any case, long before Colin completed his psychoanalysis, he and I arrived at the Dodgers’ den of iniquity wearing our Giants caps. This was several decades before the Giants won their three World Series and millions of people who had never given baseball a second thought suddenly announced they had been diehard Giants fans from the get go. No, in those days there were but a handful of us Giants crazies among the forty thousand attending that Dodgers-Giants game in Los Angeles where we were treated as if we were infected with a deadly virus.

Our seats were so far from the field, the players looked like gnats wearing uniforms. At one point in the game, the corrupt home plate umpire had a mental lapse and allowed the Giants to score two runs and take the lead. Colin and I stood up and cheered. This rash act of loyalty caused hundreds of stylishly dressed and perfectly coiffed wannabe movie stars to glare at us with undisguised hatred.

And then a woman sitting in the row in front of us, a stunning brunette with dark brown hair in a page boy, her silky blue blouse alluringly unbuttoned to the tops of her admirable breasts, her makeup applied so tastefully I wanted to comment on how exquisitely understated yet effective it was, turned to me and said with convincing sincerity, “What is wrong with you? You look like a perfectly nice guy. How can you be a Giants fan?”

Without much thought, I replied, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t look like a complete moron. How can you be a Dodgers fan?”

And who knows where our snappy repartee might have led had the alluring brunette’s large and muscular and superbly tanned boyfriend not turned to me and said, “Nip it, Bud. Unless you want to get seriously hurt.”

Colin nudged me and gave me a meaningful look, so I nipped it, the game went on, the Dodgers won, and I was permitted to live another day.

“There are people who have money and people who are rich.” Coco Chanel

Nowadays, my irrational devotion to the Giants is devotion to a team of multi-millionaires and their billionaire owners, which was not the case when I was a boy. In the early days of my obsession with the Giants, I read every scrap of news and information about the guys on our team, and one of those scraps has stayed with me for a half century.

From 1959 to 1965, the Giants had a big burly pitcher named Jack Sanford. The article about Jack I still remember had a picture of Jack wearing a plaid shirt, a baseball cap, and pants held up by suspenders. He was splitting firewood with an enormous ax. The article said that Jack stayed in shape over the winter, not in California, by cutting down trees, cutting the trees into rounds, and splitting those rounds into firewood, which he sold to supplement his baseball salary.

I’ll bet no stinking Dodger ever did something like that.

Ida Four

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

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(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

Two hours into tonight’s Open Mike at Club Muse, a dumpy old pub on San Pablo Avenue in Richmond California, most of the eighty-seven patrons have ceased to pay attention to the performers—the music awful, the comedians worse, hope of anything good fading fast.

Now the master of ceremonies, Tony Glick, a sweaty guy with scraggly gray hair and a huge beer belly, his yellow T-shirt sodden, his skinny blue belt barely holding up his saggy gray pants, steps to the microphone on the treacherous little stage and says, “Okay, yeah, thanks for that, Fred. Tell it like it is. Okay. Now we got a special treat, chick came all the way from Fort Orford to sing for you. Please welcome Nai O’Reilly.”

“Don’t call her chick,” says a bleary-eyed woman in a wheelchair near the stage. “Sexist pig. You want us to call you cock?”

“Whatever,” says Tony, rolling his eyes. “Here she is. Nai.”

The low roar of drunken blabber dies down a bit as a tall young woman sporting a ruby red guitar steps onto the stage. Wearing a creamy white long-sleeved shirt tucked into black jeans, her long brown hair in a ponytail, Nai scans the crowd to get a sense of her audience—the blabber falling to murmurs as the truth sinks in: this pretty gal is way too young to be here legally, yet here she is, standing at the microphone as if she’s been doing this since she was a baby, relaxed and unafraid.

Now she plays a slow progression of minor chords and sings a funny sad country lament, her voice strong and tender and perfectly pitched—even the most jaded of the patrons falling silent to listen.

Six-foot-one in my stocking feet,

still only fourteen years,

I tried to stop my growing

with an avalanche of tears.

Five-foot-seven ‘fore I made it to ten,

I was five-foot-ten at eleven.

Six-foot-even when I turned thirteen;

Cousin Day stopped at five-foot-seven.

Yes, I’m six-foot-one in my stocking feet,

still only fourteen years,

I tried to stop my growing

with an avalanche of tears.

***

That is how the just-published coil-bound photocopy edition of Ida’s Place Book Four—Renegade begins. Naomi, nicknamed Nai, is conceived in Book One, is five-years-old in Book Two, nine-years-old in Book Three, and fourteen-years-old in Book Four. For forty years I wrote single-volume novels focused on less than a year in the lives of their characters, and now I am writing the fifth volume in a series of novels collectively spanning, so far, twenty years.

One reviewer of my published novels described them as contemporary explorations of the lives and interactions of complicated people in various stages of overcoming or not overcoming emotional obstacles to their happiness. The Ida’s Place books certainly fit that description, but because the lives of the many characters unfold over decades, the explorations are of a different nature than those in my single-volume novels.

Had I introduced fourteen-year-old Nai in a single-volume novel as she appears in Book Four, the reader would not have experienced her childhood and be privy to many formative moments in her life. I would attempt to fill in her back story in the course of that single-volume work, but there would be no way to duplicate the depth and complexity of her character as it evolves over four volumes unless I made her the primary character for most or all of a single volume.

I do endeavor to write each volume of the Ida series so it may be read with satisfaction as a single-volume work. Indeed, a few avid followers of the Ida series encountered the second volume first.

Shortly after I brought out Book One, readers suggested I append a Character Glossary at the back of the book so they might refresh their memories of the many characters before, during, and after reading each volume. I have done so, and the glossaries are now a big help to me as I write each subsequent volume.

For Book Four, we enlarged and bolded the frontispiece announcement of the Character Glossary after two readers reported that while reading Book Three they longed for a character glossary, only to finish the book and find the Character Glossary awaiting them.

Please don’t imagine thousands of people are reading the Ida series. Nor are hundreds of people reading this series. Indeed, with each subsequent volume, readership has fallen precipitously. As of this writing, Book One has sold 120 copies, Book Two 66 copies, Book Three 35 copies, and Book 4, just printed at Zo, the best and only copy shop in Mendocino, 22 copies—those twenty-two stalwarts already pounding the drums for Book Five. Most amazing to me is how my enthusiasm for the saga has never waned, and I’m sure the ongoing encouragement of those twenty-two devotees is the main reason I continue.

The satisfactory completion of a single-volume novel requires the author to wrap everything up at the end, everything important, and I often found such labor exhausting and somewhat artificial. In writing the multi-volume Ida’s Place, I feel no compulsion to concoct a grand denouement for each volume, but rather allow the various story threads to reach satisfying and enticing and natural-seeming preludes to what might come next.

Here is a one-paragraph snapshot of the café from Book Three.

Ida’s Place, a splendiferous bakery café housed in a gigantic old building made of purplish-red bricks and massive redwood beams, has been likened to a cathedral by many a restaurant reviewer and postcard writer—the great room endowed with eight large skylights and fourteen gigantic windows through which the ever-changing light comes numinously streaming.

You may read the first three chapters of Ida’s Place Book One—Return on my web site, which is the only place Ida books are sold, each copy signed and lavishly numbered by the author. Who knows? Perchance you are someone for whom the Ida saga will be elixir.