Archive for November, 2016

Two Love Stories

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

love story

love story photo by Todd

Here are two brief love stories from my new novel Magenta.

Henry’s Story

When I was a senior in high school at Fort Orford High and causing my God-fearing parents great distress by playing the guitar, I fell in love with Iriana Ceja, a beautiful Mexican woman three years older than I.

Iriana was a waitress at the North End Café, now Dave’s Donuts, and believe me, Iriana was the only reason anyone knowingly went to the North End Café. The food was bad, the coffee uniformly bitter, the décor ugly and uncomfortable. But Iriana was so lovely, so friendly, and such a sparkling conversationalist, hundreds of people made the North End Café a daily part of their lives, and I was one of those people.

I went there after school to gawk at Iriana and listen to her talk and laugh. I would buy a stale cookie and a cup of bitter coffee and stay for hours, supposedly doing my homework, but really just reveling in Iriana. My life at home was torture because my parents were so fiercely opposed to everything I loved, especially my playing the guitar and writing songs. School was drudgery and my peers were largely disinterested in the poets and artists I admired.

Iriana was my solace.

She called me Hank—no one else did—and when I finally got up the courage to ask her why she called me Hank, she gave me one of her darling smiles and said, “Como Hank Williams, por supuesto. I heard you playing your guitar at the beach. I love your music. Why don’t you bring your guitar here and play for us?”

Us meant Iriana to me, so I started bringing my guitar to the café and playing for her when she took her breaks. She would sit at the picnic table under the oak tree behind the café, smoke a cigarette, and listen to me play. She sang harmony if she knew the song and hummed harmony if she didn’t know the words.

After every song, she would say, “So beautiful, Hank,” or “I love that song, Hank,” or “You’re so good, Hank. Bueno bueno.”

So of course I wrote songs for her, and after I played her the third song I’d written for her, she kissed me and we were officially a dyad.

We had a hundred passionate tussles under that oak tree and at the beach, but whenever I asked her to make love with me, she would say so sweetly, “When we are married, I will make love with you every day.” So I vowed to her that when I turned twenty-one, if she hadn’t found someone else, I would marry her.

My parents were terrified I would fulfill my vow to marry Iriana. They were racists, not violently so, but they wanted me to marry a white woman, not a Mexican. I graduated from high school, turned nineteen, and went on a hitchhiking trip to Canada with my pal Gunnar Digs. Not long after we got back, I joined the Army.

When I came home from Germany two years later, the North End Café had turned into Dave’s Donuts and Iriana was married to Fernando Viramontes and pregnant with the first of their two kids. She was working at Stuyvesant’s by then and would work there for the next forty years. It was Iriana who encouraged me to go to Nashville and try to sell my songs.

“You have to go and try, Hank,” she said, sitting across the table from me at Stuyvesant’s, just a few weeks before she gave birth to her daughter Veronica. “God gave you a special gift. Maybe you won’t succeed, but you will never be happy if you don’t try.”

When I came home from Nashville three years later and hid my guitar away and took up the chainsaw, I ate at Stuyvesant’s three or four times a week. The food was good, but that’s not why I went there.

I went to be in the presence of Iriana, my dear friend who never stopped believing my music was beautiful.

Theodore’s Story

When I was living in Santa Cruz and working in a bookstore, my greatest joy was attending poetry readings in San Francisco. I enjoyed the adventure of hitchhiking up the coast to that great metropolis, but more than the journey, I loved the atmosphere of those readings and how everyone was so curious about new and original ways of using words to convey feelings and ideas. And I was most intrigued by the couples who came to these readings, for they often seemed, at first glance, to be fantastically mismatched.

One such couple was Janice Cleveland and Rufus Borenstein. Janice was a buxom black woman in her forties with short hair and red glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She wore blouses made of colorful fabric from Nigeria, tight slacks, and high heels. Rufus was a tall slender white guy in his fifties with a pointy white goatee and a monocle that was forever falling out of his eye. He wore a gray tweed jacket over a black T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and white high-top tennis shoes decorated with red and yellow polka dots.

I first met Janice and Rufus at the intermission of a poetry reading starring two of my idols, Kate Fetherston and D.R. Wagner. Janice came up to me and said, “We heard you read at the open mike after Jane Blue’s reading last month. We totally dug your poems. You gonna read tonight?”

“I am,” I said gleefully. “And I want to kiss you.”

So she puckered up and we kissed.

“What’s going on here?” asked Rufus, joining us with two glasses of cheap white wine, one for him and one for Janice. “Hey, it’s you. Your poem about waiting for a ride on the coast highway. Brilliant. Can we get a copy?”

“Of course,” I said, giddy from their flattery. “Where do I send it?”

“You got one of our cards, Rufe?” said Janice to Rufus.

He fished in the pocket of his tweed jacket and brought forth two volumes of poetry—Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth—a rubber band, three small crystals, and a somewhat banged up business card:

Janice Cleveland & Rufus Borenstein  Tarot & Psychotherapy

I took the card and said, “If only I could afford you.”

“You can,” said Janice, laughing. “You give us some poems, we give you tarot and psychotherapy.”

So I sent them some poems and the next time I was in San Francisco, I had a fantastic tarot reading from Rufus and some incredibly helpful talk therapy with Janice, after which we went out for spaghetti. They became my good friends and remain my friends to this day, though sadly they got priced out of San Francisco and moved to Victoria, Canada five years ago.

Solar Postage Socialist

Monday, November 21st, 2016

goldens

Goldens photo by Todd

“At a time when the Post Office is losing substantial revenue from the instantaneous flow of information by email and on the Internet, slowing mail service is a recipe for disaster.” Bernie Sanders

I recently sent a little book, not much more than a glorified pamphlet, to Switzerland. The least expensive way to send the little thing was via the Post Office for twenty-three dollars.  Not very many years ago, the postal service offered inexpensive international mail service, but that was eliminated because…

No one seems to know or remember why the slow boat option was eliminated, but I suspect the cessation went hand-in-hand with all the other things Congress, in service to the Evil Ones, did to wreck our once great postal service.

As a cottage industry artist who sells my books and CDs via my web site, and then ships those goodies to lucky buyers, I am grateful for the wonderful and inexpensive Media Mail option offered by our postal service, with free tracking, but I lose several international sales every year because the cost of shipping books and CDs abroad is more than the value of my products. International postage turns a twenty-dollar book into a forty-five dollar book, and a five-dollar CD becomes a fifteen-dollar CD.

Well, Todd, if you’d make your books available as e-books…no, I don’t want to. I understand why large publishers make e-book versions of books, but the books I sell are limited edition, signed and numbered, actual three-dimensional coil-bound books. Original intriguing well-written fiction. What a concept. I rarely sell more than fifty copies of each book, and I rarely make a profit. And with international postal rates being what they are, I rarely sell to people abroad who express interest in my work. Such is modern life.

Speaking of modern life, I’ve been reading about Morocco, specifically the Moroccan government, turning to solar and wind power to free the country from a dependency on imported energy. In just a few more years, Morocco will go from importing 97% of their fuel and electricity to importing less than 50% of their fuel and electricity. This government subsidized conversion is not only creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economy, but eliminating pollution, saving billions of dollars a year and…sounds like socialism to me.

Why can’t we have a massive conversion to solar and wind and tidal power in the United States? And why can’t we have affordable international postage? And why can’t we have Single Payer Healthcare? Well, we can. But we won’t.

Many people I know are still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I find it fascinating that most of these folks see the election of Trump as some sort of wholly unexpected and surprising event, rather than the inevitable conclusion to a long-developing process, the effect of a cause. This has been coming for a long time, and I think it behooves us to look beyond the person who got elected and remember (know) his election is the end result of a long-developing process of privatization and the decimation of our foundational socialist institutions.

Next in line for demolition are Social Security and Medicare. The Evil Ones encountered little resistance to wrecking the postal service, and they are having no trouble stalling the conversion to solar, wind, and tidal power. And now that they control Congress and the Presidency and will soon control the Supreme Court, we will watch them attempt to privatize/destroy Social Security and Medicare. Will we stand by and let them do it? I think we probably will, in the same way we stood by and let them do all the other rotten things they’ve done since 1980.

So now millions of Americans are looking into migrating to Canada to escape the corporate takeover of the United States. Canada, however, does not want Americans moving there and taking advantage of Single Payer Healthcare and other groovy socialist programs that benefit everyone. Create your own socialism, they say, but we won’t.

Ten years ago, I was contacted by a Canadian movie director who wanted to make a movie of my novel Forgotten Impulses, from a screenplay by an American writer, the movie to be set in Canada. The Canadian government was considering funding the project, but after much preliminary excitement, they decided there were too many Americans involved to qualify for Canadian government funding. Darn.

However, a few weeks ago, I was contacted by that same Canadian director, and he said he was interested in making a movie from an original screenplay of mine. He thought if the film was set in Canada and I was the only American involved in the project, perhaps the Canadian film board would this time be open to funding the project. Turned out not to be the case, but for a few days the possibility got me interested in the script again.

And while I worked on the script, I kept wanting to feel excited by the possibility of a movie being made from my screenplay, but after so many near misses with movie producers and publishers over the last thirty years, I found I was far more interested in my latest coil-bound creation that will actually come out into the world and be read by actual people. What a concept.

However, the fact that I was dealing with socialists, as opposed capitalists, gave me a nice tingling feeling—so I let my imagination run wild. I saw myself taking a train to Montreal to watch the filming of my script, the movie became an international sensation (with a cult following in America), and the Canadian government invited me and Marcia to become Canadian citizens so long as I promised that all my future books and screenplays would be set in Canada.

In reality, Trump really did win the election and I’m sending out my annual holiday shopping reminder to my few avid fans, reminding them that no matter how many books and CDs or art cards they purchase, shipping to anywhere in the greater United States will only cost them five bucks. Socialism strikes again.

Cali Nation

Monday, November 14th, 2016

last little carrots

Last Little Carrots photo by Todd

Marcia and I woke the morning after the election to the sounds of Waste Management trucks picking up the recycling cans, and my first words to Marcia were, “Apparently total collapse of the system has been delayed.”

I find I am not surprised Trump won. He is the fruit, if you will, of forty years of economic policies that destroyed the manufacturing infrastructure of the nation and stole trillions from the lower and middle classes to fatten the rich; and people who were hurt economically and emotionally by that destruction and thievery elected Trump.

When I traveled around America in the 1960s and 70s, it became clear to me that America is a union of regions as different from each other as the countries of Europe are different from each other. Because of the physical enormity of our country, the design of our union encourages states to make their own laws and create their own operating systems, and that is what California needs to do now, more than ever, in the wake of Trump’s election and Congress becoming overwhelmingly Republican.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California, our state legislators twice passed a bill that would have created a statewide Single Payer Healthcare plan to provide all Californians with truly affordable healthcare and save the state tens of billions of dollars every year. Arnold vetoed those bills in service to the pharmaceutical and insurance companies who gave him millions of dollars in exchange for his veto.

Now that Trump and Paul Ryan plan to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, this is a golden opportunity for California’s legislators to again pass a Single Payer Healthcare law. We can also create a state bank to help us weather the inevitable economic downturns ahead. There is much talk about a progressive movement to take back Congress from the Republicans, but I suggest more substantive change can be implemented, and much sooner, on the state level.

Much is also being made of Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote but losing the electoral count, and how that needs to change. Good luck changing that system, and good luck implementing a parliamentary form of government that would free us from the dastardly two-party system that makes a shambles of democracy. The overlords will allow no such things as long as such trickery insures their continuance.

After I got up and got going today, I spoke on the phone to a friend in Canada who said he and many of his fellow Canadians were in shock over the election results. A large part of their dismay arises from a sense that the Republicans will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but rather accelerate global warming and catastrophic climate change, something Canadians are apparently more informed and concerned about than most Americans.

When I ventured out into the world to take advantage of the 10%-off-everything sale at Harvest Market, I wondered if the vibe in town would be one of sorrow and dismay. The grocery store was doing a brisk business, though there did seem to be a certain solemnity in the air, and I noticed several people gazing into space and slowly shaking their heads.

I came home to a good email from my friend Max in New Hampshire. He had hopeful things to say about how change happens and I was put in mind of when I moved to Sacramento and quickly learned that for those who worked for the state, the worst thing that could happen was the completion of a project.

The name of the game for those working in state government was Get An Extension. I attended several lavish parties thrown to celebrate new two-year and five-year funding extensions on profoundly nonsensical projects. Project completions meant people had to scramble to get repositioned, had to have the right connections, had to start over, and had to struggle for power. Quality and functionality were largely irrelevant in the maintenance of the vast ongoing bureaucracy.

Human systems tend to quickly adopt maintaining-the-status-quo as a top priority. That’s equally true for theatre companies and corporations and governments and public radio stations and universities. Book publishers tend to publish the work of their friends rather than look for new outsider talent. We tend to be most comfortable with the familiar.

Thus human systems can quickly ossify to the point of dysfunction and breakage is often the only way such ossification can be overcome, even if the aftermath of the breakage is messy. Trump’s election breaks many things. The big question is: how will we, the people, deal with the breakage?

A friend emailed from San Francisco, “What’s your take on our family’s new stepdad?”

To which I replied: Things are not looking good for the nation or the planet. More and more I think our collective responses to dire situations speak to the limitations of the human species. I know many intelligent people who equate knowing with doing; but those aren’t really the same things. From my days as a physical laborer, I know that working class people view the world in much different ways than do white collar folk and intellectuals.

For a working class person, life is a fairly straightforward process, though often a struggle, to make enough money for sufficient food and to pay the most pressing bills. Many working class people in America are suspicious of anything labeled socialist because they listen to and believe the Limbaughs who are forever equating socialism with Stalinist communism. Many working class people actually have no idea what socialism is, but many of them responded positively to Bernie Sanders and his socialist ideas because those ideas were about helping everyone, not just the wealthy.

In any case, Bill and Hillary Clinton and their clique of neo-liberals were leaders in implementing policies and laws that ruined the lives of hundreds of millions of working class Americans, and those millions have elected Trump, whoever he turns out to be.

Bob Kevin Culture

Monday, November 7th, 2016

windmill two

Windmill Sky photo by Todd

“There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

For a few weeks this past summer people kept asking me what I thought about Kevin Durant deciding to leave Oklahoma City to come to California and play for the Golden State Warriors, and lately people keep asking me what I think about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now that the basketball season has officially begun, the Kevin Durant question has resurfaced, and yesterday two more people asked me what I thought about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize.

I learned a long time ago that a fan’s love of a musician or band or athlete or sports franchise is a form of religious fervor, and I don’t mess with religious fervor. So I dodged the Dylan question by saying tangential things like, “Isn’t it odd they don’t award the Nobel Prize posthumously?” or “They gave Bob a Pulitzer, too.” To the Kevin Durant question, I answered, “The guy can shoot,” and “What a handle, huh?”

But I’ll tell you in the privacy of this article that my initial reaction to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize was to recall when I was nineteen and driving through Hibbing, Minnesota on a hot muggy summer day, the mosquitoes ferocious, and I thought, ‘I know why Bob moved to California.’

The country I come from is called the Midwest. I was taught and brought up there, the laws to abide, that the land that I live in has God on its side.

My favorite Bob Dylan song is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ I know he’s written hundreds of songs since, but that’s still my favorite. I resonate with every syllable and I love Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version as much as Bob’s, though my favorite rendition is a slow bitter blues take by Eric Clapton recorded at some Dylan celebration twenty years ago. Tore my heart out.

That said, I know almost nothing about Dylan’s music after 1969, and I’m sure Bob would be okay with that, the Bob who wrote ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’

Over the intervening decades, several men have tried to convince me of Dylan’s ongoing genius. They insisted I listen to Bob’s later albums, with them watching me listen. And these experiences were always torture for me, though I never said so to my torturers because I don’t mess with religious fervor. I try to avoid it, but when I can’t, I feign reverent somnolence.

“There seem to be two causes of the deterioration of the arts: wealth and poverty.” Plato

Also over the last several years, several people have sent me links to advertisements Bob Dylan made for IBM, Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, and Chrysler. Some people sent me those commercials because they were outraged Dylan would sell out like that, though they didn’t say what he was selling out. And some people sent me the ads because they thought everything Bob did was fabulous. I did not watch those ads until I started writing this article, and now that I have watched them, I wish I hadn’t.

As for Kevin Durant choosing to leave Oklahoma City and move to California, I’m sure he made that choice for the same reason Bob Dylan changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan and moved from Hibbing to Malibu—in hope of having a more enjoyable life.

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

Now that’s an interesting and noble-sounding idea, but pragmatically nonsensical. It reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon dozens of people sent me before I managed to publish my first novel. Snoopy is sitting at his typewriter on top of his doghouse writing a letter to a publisher. “Dear Sirs, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, you will just have to come get it.”

Snoopy is elucidating every artist’s dream—to be recognized and rewarded for our creations simply because we created them. But the truth is, our ships can’t come in, so to speak, unless we send our ships out. Artists must take their wares to market or no one will ever know about them. And to succeed in a big way as a musician or artist or writer in America, the artist must convince those who control the avenues of distribution and exposure to give them access to large audiences; and once initial access has been gained, the artist must continue to convince those in power to give them such access.

Though they work in different sectors of the entertainment industry, Kevin Durant and Bob Dylan are both savvy business people adept at sustaining and improving the value of their brands. Kevin Durant’s salary for playing basketball is twenty to thirty million dollars a year, but the Kevin Durant brand makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from shoe sales and jersey sales and endorsements and advertisements. And the same is true of Bob Dylan. Making a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler was good for his brand, and so is winning the Nobel Prize.

“Though he played so sweet and high, they knew he had never been on their TV so they passed his music by.” Joni Mitchell

When I was thirteen I bought Harry Belafonte’s new album Midnight Special. On that album, a young guy named Bob Dylan plays a harmonica solo. Midnight Special came out right before Dylan released his first album, and Bob’s harmonica playing on Harry’s album is reputedly Bob’s first official professional recording.

Until that Belafonte album was stolen from me in 1980, whenever I found a fervent Dylan fan had made his or her way into my house, I would bring out the Belafonte, lower the needle on Bob’s solo, and watch the true believer listen in reverent awe.