Archive for February, 2016

What Stood Out

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

Rembering What Spring Can Bring

Remembering What Spring Can Bring painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

Todd. Max here, writing from snowy New Hampshire.

At 7:30 this morning I went out the door of #518 on my way to work. I usually come and go via the stairs, but today, my hands full, and thinking the wood I was carrying might prove awkward in the stairwells, I came down by elevator instead.

I went into the elevator and pressed 2, but the elevator slowed to a stop at 3. When the doors opened, I waited for a fellow passenger to appear, but all that came in was some pleasantly warm air and the scent of perfume. The doors stayed open. Nobody arrived. I wondered: Had a woman on the Third Floor pressed the button and then remembered something she’d meant to bring and walked back to her apartment to get it? Or, while waiting, had she grown impatient and decided to just run down the stairs?

In any case, I rode down to the Second Floor accompanied by her hallway’s warmth and her fading perfume. Then I got off with my wood and walked down the long hall to #202.

In other news, Kate and I went to see the Joseph Cornell show, and after the show, Kate asked what stood out most for me, and I immediately said, “The women waiting for the light to come on in the dark owl box.”

This was my second time seeing the Cornell show, and I especially wanted Kate to see one particular box, one with an owl in it. I loved the quality of darkness this box had, a certain mystery. It was just so black and quiet. I hadn’t understood that most of what made me love this box was that no light illuminated it, unlike the other boxes in the exhibition.

Three women stood a couple yards back from that dark box, gazing intently at the mysterious piece as if it was speaking to them. They stood there unmoving for many minutes. Kate read the printed explanation on the wall next to the box and learned that a light only came on in this box for one minute every half hour.

We moved on to the next display, leaving the women still standing there. Then we heard voices behind us and turned: the box was lit and we went back to look. The women had moved closer, their steadfastness rewarded. A small, candle-shaped bulb inside the box cast a wonderful glow behind the owl and revealed a pattern like raindrops on the box’s old glass.

I wondered why this box required special handling. Did the curators fear too much light would harm the piece? How did the owner of this box find out about this vulnerability? How did the museum decide on the safe amount of light? I thanked one of the women, explaining that only because of their attention had I known there was something else to see.

When I told Kate that the owl box was what stood out most for me about the show, she asked, “Do you picture the box lit?”

I said, “No, I think of it dark. I liked it better dark. And mostly what stays with me is the way those women were willing to wait and wait so patiently for that light to return.”

Max. Your two stories reminded me of the day I went to the Whitney Museum in New York to see the Calder retrospective. My favorite piece in the show was an arrangement of seven orange bowls, two-inches-high and ranging in size from three inches in diameter to ten inches in diameter—the rims of the bowls curving inward slightly. The bowls were arrayed on the floor in a seemingly random way.

Suspended from the ceiling high above the bowls was a one-inch-diameter rod about four-feet long hanging parallel to the ground. Suspended from one end of the rod on a thin string was a round chunk of white clay about the size of a golf ball. This ball hung down to a foot or so above the bowls. Suspended from the other end of the rod and hanging down to about seven feet above the ground was a small leather sack filled with sand.

When a crowd of people had gathered around the bowls, a museum guard gave the leather sack a push, and the swinging of this sack caused the rod high above to both twist and seesaw up and down, which in turn caused the round chunk of clay to fly around above the bowls, rising and falling and occasionally tapping the floor and striking one or another of the bowls, each bowl sounding a different tone when struck.

Sometimes the ball of clay would come very close to striking a bowl but would miss. Sometimes the ball of clay would strike several bowls in succession. And best of all, sometimes the ball of clay would hop into a bowl and spin around for a moment before hopping out. A single push of the weighted sack kept the little ball dancing around the bowls for many minutes.

The emotions aroused in me by watching this ball strike, almost strike, get inside the bowls, and jump out of the bowls, were suspense, joy, disappointment, amazement, elation, admiration, hope, and satisfaction. At one point, the ball landed in the smallest bowl and whirred around for an instant before flying out. The crowd reacted to this fortuitous event with laughter and cheering. I watched the show for half-an-hour and was never bored.

When I emerged from the Whitney, I walked by a newsstand where the headline on the front page of the New York Times announced that Calder had just died.

What stood out for me most about Calder’s bowls and dancing ball of clay were the people watching so intently as the little ball interacted with those bowls—the cries of delight when the ball went into a bowl, the groans of disappointment when the ball would almost but not quite land in a bowl.

Jewish Like Bernie

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

* * So. CA trip clouds on I-5 12x18 email 

Clouds on I-5 photograph by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

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

Reveling in the fantastic news that Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by a landslide, my eyes were drawn to an article in the New York Times with the headline As Bernie Sanders Makes History, Jews Wonder What It Means. Stop wondering already. It means he won the New Hampshire Primary. It means he kicked Hillary’s tuckus. It means he espouses what most Americans want: truly affordable healthcare, raising taxes on the rich, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, ending massive fraudulent banking Ponzi schemes masquerading as our economy, and getting corporate money out of politics.

The Huffington Post trumpeted Bernie Sanders Just Made History As The First Jew To Win A Presidential Primary. The article reports that Sanders parents were Jewish and Bernie says he believes in God but does not participate in organized religion. Bernie further elucidated that when he says he believes in God, he means, “All of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Now there’s a motto I can get behind.

CNN asks: Bernie Sanders could be the first Jewish president. Does he care?

Bernie answers, “I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me. So my spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my very strong spiritual feeling.”

The guy sounds like a Buddhist. I can see it now. Bernie Sanders appoints Pema Chödrön to be our next Supreme Court justice. Why not? Imagine someone humane and thoughtful and extremely intelligent and free of prejudice on the Supreme Court. Now imagine five of them. Every day would be Yom Kippur.

So there’s this priest sitting in the booth, a slow day in the confession business, when in comes an old guy who kneels at the little window and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned. I’m seventy-four years old. Yesterday I won the New Hampshire primary and I’m feeling terrific.”

The priest cautions the man about the dangers of arrogance and pride, and then asks, “How long has it been since your last confession?”

The old guy replies, “Oh, I’ve never confessed.”

“You’re a Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”

“I’m not Catholic. I’m Jewish.”

“You’re Jewish? So why are you telling me?”

“Telling you?” says the old guy, “I’m telling everybody!”

“He was part of a whole, a people scattered over the earth and yet eternally one and indivisible. Wherever a Jew lived, in whatever safety and isolation, he still belonged to his people.” Pearl S. Buck

I don’t know, Pearl. Had you lived another fifty years, you might have changed your tune. My mother was Jewish, so according to Jewish law, I am Jewish. She was non-religious as were her parents, but I can still become a citizen of Israel because of my bloodline. Ironically, I’d love to become a citizen of England or France or Canada, but they won’t consider me unless I promise to move there with several million dollars to spend or if I have some super-valuable skill that will greatly benefit their economies, a skill I don’t have.

When I was in my forties, I had some helpful therapy and decided I would let my friends know I was Jewish, ancestrally speaking, because hiding that fact was not good for my psyche. I had some fun telling people I was Jewish, and one of the people I told, a man born to Jewish parents, asked me if I wanted to study some Jewish texts with him to connect with the fundamental ideas of my ancestral religion.

About a half-hour into my one and only study session with my friend, I said, “This is primitive misogynist racist ignorant stuff. Want to go for Chinese?”

“I’ve got a hankering for pastrami and cheese on rye,” said my friend, tossing the prayer book away. “Let’s go to Max’s.”

“Deli it is,” I said, leaping up. “I’m too old to imbibe the dogma, but I love the food.”

Several other articles about Bernie Sanders being Jewish hint that at some point in the campaign his Jewishness will become an issue. Why should Hillary care if Bernie is Jewish? He’s not beating her because his parents were Jewish. He’s beating her because she’s a corporate stooge, a bad liar, and changes her opinion about everything every five minutes to try to sound good in front of whichever audience she’s talking to.

Do you know what Hillary said after Bernie crushed her in New Hampshire? “I need to do more to reach young people.” Puh-leez. Suddenly she wants to reach young people? What about five minutes ago? Oh. Young people love Bernie because he honestly wants to do things as President of the Unites States that will help young people. So now Hillary says she wants to do things to help young people, too, in order to steal voters away from Bernie. Listen to me, Hillary. Any young person who believes anything you say for even a small portion of a fraction of a second is nobody I want to have lunch with.

Will Donald Trump care that Bernie’s parents were Jewish? I don’t think so. In fact, Bernie’s Jewishness, such as it is, protects him from his saber-rattling opponents who might otherwise try to cast him as not being pro-Israel enough.

Come on, people. We all came from somebody who came from somebody. Go back far enough and we find every human being on earth is descended from a woman who lived in southern Africa 172,000 years ago. This genetic fact has been proven multiple times now by multiple teams of scientists. Our primal mother was brown-skinned, loved to sing and dance, and is, as Bernie likes to say, connected to all of us.

Two Good Movies

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

Calliope of Hope

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

calliope-coverD1

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

On Saturday February 20 at 6:30 PM, I will be at Gallery Books in Mendocino reading from the new Counterpoint Press edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup. I self-published the book seven years ago, and now the book will have a life in the larger world, so to speak. The paperback of Buddha In A Teacup from Counterpoint is beautifully designed and fits well in the hand.

Speaking of self-publishing, I just completed my first large work of fiction since finishing the four volumes of the Ida’s Place saga, and the new tome is now available from my web site. As with the Ida’s Place quartet, I present Calliope of Hope tales of the road in a handsome coil-bound photocopy edition, each copy signed and colorfully numbered by yours truly.

Calliope of Hope—tales of the road is both a collection of short stories and a novel. Any of these stories may be read as a stand-alone work, or you may read the book from start to finish and experience the stories as chapters of a novel.

Part of the inspiration for Calliope of Hope came from the late poet and translator Taylor Stoehr who was keen for me to write a companion collection to Buddha In A Teacup with a Sufi bent, which many of the stories in Calliope of Hope have, and many of the stories involve hitchhiking.

Here is the beginning of one of the stories/chapters from Calliope of Hope entitled Henry’s Expotition.

On a sunny morning in April, Henry Abbot, fifty-nine, tall and sturdy, his sandy brown hair cut short, his brown eyes full of mischief, stands on the east side of the coast highway at the north end of Fort Orford, hitchhiking to Portland, Oregon. Henry, who was born and raised in this town of three thousand hearty souls on the far north coast of California, is so well-liked, if he ever ran for mayor—which he will never do—he would win by a landslide, no matter who ran against him.

The last time Henry hitchhiked was forty years ago when he and his pal Gunnar Diggs, who was also born in Fort Orford, made it all the way to northern British Columbia before turning around and heading back to Fort Orford. Shortly after they got home, Henry joined the Army and spent two years in Germany fixing trucks, while Gunnar got a job driving a bulldozer for a local paving contractor, a job he still has today.

A few weeks after coming home from the Army, Henry moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he spent three years working as a truck mechanic and peddling his heartfelt ballads to record companies and recording artists large and small, to no avail. Upon his return to Fort Orford at the age of twenty-five, Henry embarked on a twenty-year career as a lumberjack, and for the last fifteen years he has been the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the one and only hardware store in town.

A widower with two teenaged daughters, Henry has never spent a night away from his girls, and though he only intends to be gone a few nights, this trip to Portland feels to him like the biggest adventure of his life.

Henry is dressed exactly as he does for work: brown work boots, red plaid socks, khaki pants, a black T-shirt, a blue jacket with a zipper, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. His luggage consists of a blue canvas knapsack and a large brown leather briefcase, and per the suggestion of the woman he is going to visit, he is holding a neatly-lettered sign: Portland.

Ten minutes after Henry takes his stand, who should pull up beside him in an old blue pickup but Arnold Collison, Henry’s neighbor.

Arnold leans across the seat and says out the passenger window, “Where you going, Henry? Car break down?”

“No,” says Henry, showing his Portland sign to Arnold. “I’m going to visit Jolene. Remember Jolene? Stayed with us for ten days last November?”

“Sure, I remember her. Pretty gal. Played the mandolin and sang like a bird. Why aren’t you driving?”

“Marie Louise is staying with the girls while I’m gone,” says Henry, laughing at Arnold’s stupefied expression. “Her car died and I want her to have my truck while I’m gone in case she needs to take the girls somewhere.”

“Borrow our car,” says Arnold, wondering why Henry didn’t think of that. “We hardly ever drive the damn thing. Practically new. We can get by with the pickup until you get back. How long you going for?”

“A few days.”
“Get in,” says Arnold, authoritatively. “I’ll drive you up to the house and you can take our car.”

“Well, actually, Arnold, I want to hitchhike.” Henry waits a moment for this to sink into Arnold’s famously thick skull. “I want to see how Jolene has been getting around for the last several years, and…I want the adventure.”

Arnold frowns. “Sounds pretty weird, Henry. You never know what kind of nut might pick you up. Better to drive. You’re almost sixty.”

“If I’m still here this afternoon, I’ll borrow your car,” says Henry, holding up his sign as a fancy sports car speeds by. “How does that sound, Arnie?”

“Sounds nuts,” says Arnold, shaking his head. “Seems like visiting Jolene in Portland would be adventure enough. Don’t you think?”

“Apparently not,” says Henry, losing patience with Arnold. “I’ll see you this afternoon or in a few days.”

Arnold drives away and Carlos Gomez pulls up in his ancient brown Malibu. “You hitchhiking, Henry?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, nodding.

“Car break down?” asks Carlos, the longtime chef at Rosa’s, the best Mexican restaurant in Fort Orford.

“No, I’m going on an adventure.”

Carlos nods. “That’s cool. I was in Stuyvesant’s having breakfast and Pablo came in saying you were out here with your sign, so I came to see if you were okay. You okay?”

“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, realizing half the town will soon be parading by to get a look at him standing by the road. “Can I ask a huge favor?”

“Of course,” says Carlos, nodding. “What do you need?”

“I need you drive me to Gecko?”

“Sure. When you want to go?”

“Now.”

Carlos smiles. “I get it, Henry. Get in.”