Archive for May, 2017

Paterson Jarmusch

Monday, May 29th, 2017

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.

Weekly Offerings

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

signed & numbered

Twelve by Todd

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

I was nearly forty when it first occurred to me to write anything other than fiction and poetry and plays. At thirty-nine, I still thought of myself as a moderately successful novelist and short story writer. Furthermore, I rarely read non-fiction; and so in 1989, when Melinda Welsh, the editor of the brand new Sacramento News & Review invited me to write essays for her paper, I accepted her invitation with little understanding of what such reportage entails. Now, thirty years later, writing essays is my most persistent writing habit.

When my fiction and screenwriting ceased to bring home the bacon, so to speak, writing essays became a source of much-needed income, and I have no doubt that without such financial incentive, I would never have become habituated to writing non-fiction. Which is not to say I ever earned vast sums writing essays. Melinda paid me one hundred and fifty dollars per essay for the Sacramento News & Review; and for the entirety of my eight-year tenure writing a weekly piece for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, I was paid twenty-five dollars per. Nowadays I am paid by the knowledge that at least a handful of people look forward to my weekly offerings.

Melinda Welsh was a wonderful editor. She generally liked my take on things, appreciated my senses of humor and irony, edited my lines with a light hand, and rewarded me for my non-fiction efforts by paying me relatively large sums to write the News & Review’s annual Christmas story (fiction!) for several years running. One of those Christmas stories, The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger, was syndicated after appearing in the News & Review, and appeared in dozens of weeklies and dailies across America. Eureka!

In those pre-internet days, I belonged to a lucky little population of writers in America who made actual money writing original works for actual three-dimensional publications. Then seemingly overnight (but really in a few shocking years) our numbers were reduced to virtually zero by the advent of the worldwide web and the simultaneous and astounding (to me) discovery by magazine and newspaper editors that most people cannot distinguish good writing from bad. Therefore, why should those editors pay good money to good writers when, for little money or no money, they can avail themselves of quasi-readable chunks of verbiage yanked from the internet?

When I moved to Berkeley in 1995, I submitted essays and stories to four different Bay Area weeklies, but found no editorial champions and so ceased writing essays for the next eleven years. Instead, I wrote hundreds of short stories, forty-two of which became my book Buddha In A Teacup (recently issued in a lovely paperback edition by Counterpoint Press), and another hundred of which became my novel of stories Under the Table Books, winner of the 2009 American Indie Award for Best Fiction.

In 2007, the year after I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley, I sent an essay entitled Sister to Bruce Anderson at the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and Bruce published the piece. He then invited me to become a regular contributor to the AVA, a regularity that produced four hundred essays and gave me the ongoing pleasure of hearing from readers who enjoyed my work, as well as the ongoing displeasure of hearing from readers who were adamant my essays were a blight on the AVA.

As of mid-May 2017, my AVA career a memory now, I continue to write a weekly essay and post it with an accompanying photo on my blog at Underthetablebooks.com. Shortly thereafter, Dave Smith does me the honor of presenting my article and photo on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

And today I am pleased to announce the birth of Sources of Wonder, a handsome coil-bound collection of eighty-three of my favorite essays culled from the aforementioned four hundred, available exclusively from Under the Table Books. Among the stories in Sources of Wonder are Sister, Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs, The Double, Three Presidents (and a First Lady), What’s In A Name, Her Children, and My Butt (The Musical)—all the essays in the collection having elicited heartfelt responses from readers.

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

Speaking of heartfelt, as I was putting the finishing touches on Sources of Wonder, I was given a book of essays by the Scottish poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie, and I was thrilled to discover an excellent living writer, writing in English, who is not even close to being old or dead—an experience for me akin to coming upon a living and breathing unicorn who allows me a good long look at her before she winks slyly and saunters away into the mystic. I highly recommend Jamie’s books Sightlines and Findings.

If you have never purchased any of my coil-bound self-published works, I hasten to tell you that each copy of Sources of Wonder is signed and dated and numbered, the whimsical numerals sketched and lavishly colored by the author to make each volume a collector’s item and an ideal gift for friends who love to read and enjoy pondering the divine and mysterious and hilarious and fascinating interconnectedness of everything.

As Mr. Laskin says to Derek at the end of Under the Table Books, “I refer to it as chumming for synergy. There is nothing the universe appreciates more than action. Do you know why that is? Because action is the mother of the whole kit and caboodle.”

Bill and Ted Arrive

Monday, May 15th, 2017

129things

129 Things photo diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Four score and…seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure, conceived by our new friends: Bill and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition, which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other and Party On, Dudes!” Abraham Lincoln in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

We recently watched the movie Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve. Arrival is a well-meaning and humorless look at the arrival on earth of beings from another solar system, and how contemporary humans might react to such an arrival. Denis Villeneuve is also the director of the soon-to-be-released Blade Runner sequel, and he has recently been signed to direct yet another movie-version of Dune. Based on how Denis did with Arrival, I’m not optimistic his Dune will be much better than the previous Dune disasters.

In any case, we enjoyed Arrival, though the sound was problematic and the transitions from one scene to the next were often jumpy and confusing. Much of what the characters said to each other was partially or completely drowned out by competing noises. Thus we could not depend on the dialogue to let us know what was going on. I think this was the director’s attempt to simulate what he believed to be sonic realism, but I found the muted dialogue annoying.

When Arrival ended—as I was trying to make sense of the more confusing parts of the movie—I had the following epiphany: the underlying idea propelling the plot of Arrival is identical to the underlying idea propelling the plot of the super great 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. To wit: time is not linear and future events influence the present as profoundly and immediately as do events from the past. Once I had this epiphany, the puzzle pieces composing Arrival fell into place and I ceased to be annoyed and bewildered.

Amy Adams is the star of Arrival. Her character not only saves the world in the movie, her performance saves the movie. She plays the part of a brilliant linguist surrounded by a mob of not-very-bright men trying to figure out what the aliens are doing here. Thus I found her easy to identify with. Hers was also the only character in the movie appropriately awed by, and respectful of, the big octopus-like aliens. And her character was also the only human believably afraid and troubled by the challenge confronting her. Everyone else in the movie seemed void of emotion, one-dimensional, and superfluous. I suppose it could be argued that the entire film was Amy’s character’s dream, but that would be silly.

Nevertheless, I really liked what the movie gave me, which is the message that to overcome our fears we must move toward them with open arms. Trying to run from our fears or kill them or deny them won’t do the trick. We must embrace them and transmute them as we allow them to transmute us.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, on the other hand, has excellent audio and is filled with humor. Keanu Reeves is stupendous as Ted and will never again be so good in a movie. Alex Winter as Bill is also great, and never again has done much of anything in the movies. And the late great George Carlin is supremely excellent as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor and guardian from the future.

Disclaimer: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of several movies I love that many of my friends and age-peers do not like. For this reason, I will not recommend the movie except to say that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works wonderfully well if you need help making sense of Arrival.

Speaking of movies, we also recently saw and enjoyed the 2013 Chilean-Spanish movie Gloria, written and directed by Sebastien Lelio and starring Paulina Garcia. I first saw and admired Paulina Garcia in the marvelous American movie Little Men, written and directed by Ira Sachs, and so I was eager to see more of her work. Gloria is both comic and tragic, and felt ultra-real to me. Paulina Garcia’s portrayal of a lonely middle-aged woman riding the ups and downs of a difficult relationship with a narcissistic sociopath is so moving and believable, this otherwise depressing story becomes a luminescent homage to the resiliency of an inherently good person.

I was reminded by Paulina Garcia’s performance in Gloria of Sally Hawkins’ stellar performance in Mike Leigh’s extraordinary film Happy Go Lucky.

Thank goodness for foreign movies and foreign directors (and American directors who might as well be foreigners), else what would the likes of me have to watch?

Meanwhile, I have recently completed work on two stupendous screenplays—The Magic Pen and Larry Story—and eagerly await inquiries from imaginative movie producers, brilliant directors, and superb actors interested in making fabulous cinematic art with excellent audio and unforgettable dialogue.

Bumble Buzzing

Monday, May 8th, 2017

spider web

Spider Web photo by Todd

“That buzzing-noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing-noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without it’s meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee.” A.A. Milne

Yesterday I went out to the woodshed to get firewood. The shed is fourteen-feet-wide and sixteen-feet-long with a high ceiling and a plywood floor. When I picked up a few pieces from the Small Log section, I heard the sound of small waves crashing on a distant shore. Then the sound stopped. So I picked up another couple little logs and the sound came again, only this time it sounded more like a choir of Tibetan monks singing far in the distance.

I carried the wood into the house and wondered what could be making those strangely beautiful sounds. So I returned to the woodshed and removed a few more small logs, and the sound came again, but only for a moment; and for the first time I thought the makers of the sounds might be bees. I then retrieved wood from another part of the shed, and this removal did not cause the bees to sound. Thus I was able to say with some assurance that the hive, if that’s what I had disturbed, was located in the southeast corner of the shed behind firewood created from a few small redwood trees we had felled last year.

Thinking Marcia might enjoy hearing the strangely beautiful sounds, I fetched her from her studio and we went to the shed where my removal of a log caused the loudest humming sounds yet. Marcia backed out of the shed and said, “I’m scared.”

And the moment she expressed her fear, a bee flew in through the open shed door and disappeared into the stack of wood. I was fairly certain this bee was not a honeybee or a yellow jacket, but a bumblebee of some sort. Yellow jackets and wasps are extremely aggressive defenders of their nests, whereas these buzzing beings seemed fine (for the time being) with my getting wood from the shed. However, we need to get at the wood where the hive is, so we called the local pest-control folks to come have a look.

The friendly woman who answered the phone at the pest-control place explained that they did not exterminate honeybees because honeybees are an endangered species. If they determined our buzzers were honeybees, they would refer us to a Beetriever who would come and capture the hive and give the bees a new place to live. I feared our bees were not honeybees, though they were probably valuable pollinators.

In the early afternoon, a pest-control guy arrived and I led him to the woodshed and demonstrated how moving a log or two caused the bees to sound. Thinking our bees might be carpenter bees, the pest-control guy asked if the bees I’d seen were solid black. “No,” I said, “the bees I saw were definitely yellow and black.” With that in mind, the pest-control guy began removing handfuls of little logs from on top of where the buzzing sounds were coming from, and out flew two bumblebees. This emboldened the pest-control guy to remove a few more logs, which allowed him to shine his flashlight onto the outer edge of a small hive of bumblebees.

By this time, several irate bees were zooming around us, so we stepped out of the shed and the pest-control guy said, “Here’s the situation. These bees are not usually much trouble. They don’t want to sting you because if they do, they’ll die, so they really have to feel attacked to attack you. If you’re not allergic, I’d suggest you just gently harass them a couple times a day by removing wood, and they’ll probably leave in the next few days. If they don’t leave and become a problem, we can come back and treat them.”

So that is the plan: daily gentle harassing and avoiding being stung.

Shortly after the pest-control guy left, Marion dropped by for tea, and when I told her about the bees in the woodshed she said, “That reminds me of a story Ann told me.” The story goes something like this.

One day when Ann was living in Oakland, she opened the kitchen cupboard where she kept her tea and found a large spider in residence there, a non-poisonous kind of spider. Rather than remove the large spider from the premises, Ann decided to let the spider live in the tea cupboard. She then informed the human members of her household about the resident arachnid, and the humans named the spider Lipton.

Lipton lived contentedly in the tea cupboard for several years until one day it became necessary for the humans to have the house fumigated to eradicate legions of voracious termites. The day before the exterminators were to arrive, Ann opened the tea cupboard and said to Lipton, “Dear friend, due to unfortunate circumstances and our desire to keep our home from turning into sawdust, we are having the house fumigated with a terrible poison that will kill you if you stay in the house. So I am going to open the window right here over the sink and hope you will skedaddle so you can keep on living.”

And Lipton did, indeed, skedaddle out the open window before the exterminators came to douse the house with poison.

With this story in mind, I now speak to the bees in the woodshed whenever I go to gently harass them. I say, among other things, “As you may have surmised, we’re starting to clear out the wood in here and I’m hoping you will take advantage of the lovely spring weather to find a new place to hang out. We greatly appreciate your pollinating efforts and want you to continue pollinating and proliferating—just not in our woodshed. Many thanks.”

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.