Archive for October, 2017

Three Bananas

Monday, October 30th, 2017

297did

did diptych by Max Greenstreet (click on image to make larger)

The laboratory of Luigi Idano and Tamara Whozat. Various experiments underway. Luigi, male, hirsute, portly, prone to sweating. Tamara, female, burgundy hair, pleasingly curvaceous, only sweats in saunas, left eyebrow tastefully pierced with shard of amethyst.

Luigi: I know it’s a small sample size, but…

Tamara: Miniscule.

Luigi: Granted. But the implications are staggering.

Tamara: Hyperbole.

Luigi: Granted. Promising?

Tamara: Three nights, Luigi. Three times. You call this science?

Luigi: I never called it science. I called it a possible breakthrough of epic life-changing potentiality and I want to put out an all-points bulletin post haste trumpeting our discovery to the entire world.

Tamara: All points bulletin? What era do you think we’re living in?

Luigi: Well…then a tweet thing or a face thing.

Tamara: How can you be so out of synch with the way people communicate now?

Luigi: Out of synch? I happen to like all-point bulletins; they point in every direction. I like landline phone connections. I like letters arriving in my post office box. Envelopes with stamps on them. Pieces of paper with writing on them inside the envelopes.

Tamara: Fine. But why not wait until you try your little experiment a few more times? Why tell the world something that might not be true?

Luigi: Because I feel certain it is true. And besides, what could it hurt? We’re talking about bananas here. Who could object to bananas?

Tamara: I know several people who do not like bananas unless cooked in banana bread.

Luigi: How sad.

Tamara: Yes, but the point is…bananas may be too specific.

Luigi: Then food? What if I said food?

Tamara: Not specific enough. Food might include chocolate, and that would be antithetical to your hypothesis, assuming your hypothesis is the one I assume you have.

Luigi: But I must do something. This discovery could make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people, and in the lives of those who sleep with those people. Oh please let me put out an all-points bulletin and a tweet thing and a face thing. Please?

Tamara: I’m sorry, Luigi. I can’t be a party to this.

Luigi: Who said anything about a party?

Tamara: I thought you’d appreciate the archaic-ness of that expression.

Luigi: I do, actually. Okay, I’ll go it alone.

Tamara: You understand it’s not that I don’t want your discovery to be true. I do. But I don’t want another fiasco befalling our enterprise like that whole gluten-free-diets-raise-your-IQ thing we suffered through last year.

Luigi: Well, going gluten-free certainly raised my IQ.

Tamara: There you go again. Extrapolating from insufficient data.

Luigi: Does this mean I can’t use our official laboratory stationery for the all-points bulletin?

Tamara: That’s what it means. Your findings do not come from the Laboratory of Luigi Idano and Tamara Whozat. This is your own wholly unfounded personal unscientific conjecture based on three nights and three bananas. For all we know the ripeness of the bananas may be a major factor, as might your desire for the bananas to be effective. The positive result you attained could be nothing more than a placebo effect, and you know how rigorously we study placebo effects in all our experiments.

Luigi: What if I characterized my results as anecdotal?

Tamara: Yes, do that. But not on lab stationery.

Luigi goes to his desk and writes the following letter.

To Whom It May Concern

For many years now I have had trouble sleeping at night. That is, I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but after a couple hours of slumber I will wake and not be able to go back to sleep. I have tried various herbal sleep aids, sleeping pills prescribed by doctors, hypnosis, psychotherapy, and myriad other cures for what ails me with no good results.

When I recently mentioned my difficulty to my acupressurist, she responded by asking, “Did you know it actually takes energy to sleep?”

I said I did not actually know this, but having slept with people who snore such that they sound as if they are wielding a chainsaw for eight hours without stopping, I can see how sleeping requires energy.

My acupressurist then said she had another client who also used to wake every night and was not able to go back to sleep; and this client, upon learning that sleeping requires energy, decided to keep a banana beside her bed so when she woke in the night and could not go back to sleep, she would eat the banana to give her energy, but not the kind of energy that kept her awake, rather an energy that helped her sleep. And verily it came to pass that eating a banana in the middle of the night worked wonders for her—the wonders of adequate sleep.

So these last three nights I had a banana at the ready beside my bed, and when I woke in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep, I ate the banana and fell back asleep. The first night, I had a dream about putting the wrong address on a package. The second night, I dreamt my funky childhood home turned into a palace. The third night I dreamt I was lost in a fog-enshrouded city. I was dressed as a clown with a tiny top hat and enormous shoes.

Who knows what my dreams mean, but I sure as shootin’ know what falling asleep means; it means I will have a banana by my bedside again tonight and tomorrow night and the night after.

Luigi shows the letter to Tamara.

Tamara: Good for you, Luigi. Send your message forth. Tell the world.

Luigi: I will. And would you post my message on your tweeting face thing?

Tamara: No.

Luigi: Fine. But take a moment to consider a person, possibly a good friend of yours, someone you really like, having trouble sleeping and reading my anecdotal evidence on your face tweet thing and gaining a new lease on life. Think about that, Tamara.

Tamara: No. Now can we get back to work on our will-flax-seeds-in-your-cookie-batter-make you-happier experiment? Our control placebo group of ravenous stevedores will be here in twenty minutes.

Luigi: Roger that. As soon as I send off my banana news to the far corners of the earth I will pop the non-flax-seeded cookies in the oven.

Tamara: Good. And I’ll make the coffee.

Do I Know You?

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”

Moronic Individualism

Monday, October 16th, 2017

newrealityM

“We are in crises where we are finding that the old systems don’t work. But that sort of disillusionment is only discovering that what you thought was so, isn’t. It’s the first step in learning. So I celebrate disillusionment.” Buckminster Fuller

The United States spends a trillion dollars a year on war.

We are told that several of the terrible fires raging in northern California this October were started by downed power lines sparking dry brush. How is it that in the year 2017, the richest nation on earth still has most of its power lines above ground? Part of the answer is that this nation spends a trillion dollars every year on war. Another part of the answer is that the state of California has a tax structure favoring wealthy people and corporations who do not feel they need to contribute to the greater good, so the state government lacks the muscle to compel the owners of those power lines to bury them.

We live in Mendocino, and every winter, often several times per winter, we are without power because of downed power lines that should not be suspended above the earth so they can be downed by annual winds and falling trees, but should be safely buried below ground. But because our utilities are not publicly owned, this endemic idiocy continues year in and year out. Why are our utilities not publicly owned? Because wealthy corporations control our government.

We wonder when the electorate will wake up to the inadequacy of our system of governance and taxation? Judging from the responses to the catastrophes that have befallen Puerto Rico and Texas and Florida and California, the answer is Never. We have evolved into a society of shortsighted self-serving stupid people, capable of bravery and bursts of generosity, but mostly we fend for ourselves in the face of a social system that punishes us for cooperating with each other.

That we do not have Single Payer healthcare, free healthcare for all our citizens, is conclusive proof of our collective myopia and disregard for the wellbeing of others. People may rant about how horrible our current President and Congress and Supreme Court, but our deplorable representatives did not come to power through a violent insurrection. They rose to power through the will of a society composed of profoundly self-serving people. Not bad people, but people trained from birth, and from generation to generation, to prize the individual, the self, above all else.

I recall when I was involved with a group of people in the 1970s planning to buy land and create a rural commune. At the initial meetings, I and a few others made the case that our first orders of business should be the establishment of a dependable water supply, a good road, an excellent septic system, and a reliable source of electricity for the entire community, to be followed by the construction of a community center with a kitchen adequate for the needs of the entire commune. Thereafter, we would turn our energies to building our separate dwellings.

No, said the majority of those involved. First we build our separate houses; then we’ll do that collective stuff.

I could not understand why these seemingly intelligent people thought this way, but I have since come to understand that they were simply being Americans. In America the needs of the individual, however absurd, always come first. And this is why we don’t have Single Payer Healthcare and why Donald Trump is our President and why we spend a trillion dollars every year on war and why we don’t have trains going everywhere instead of roads that are constantly deteriorating and why power lines are still above ground and why everything that has made our country the giant mess it is today continues to hold sway over our lives.

We know several people who barely escaped with their lives in the Santa Rosa and Redwood Valley fires, people who lost virtually everything they owned. Their losses are tragic, but such losses can also present us with opportunities to make changes in our lives we might not otherwise make that can ultimately benefit us.

I say this because I read a fascinating study done of people who lost everything in the great Oakland firestorm of 1991, and the gist of the study was that many of those people came to feel the loss of their material possessions was the beginning of much improved lives. And more personally, in 1980, shortly after moving to Sacramento, my house was broken into and thieves took virtually everything I owned including the food from the refrigerator, art from the walls, records, books, camera, typewriter, manuscripts, vacuum cleaner, clothes, bed sheets—only my piano and mattress remaining.

For some days after the robbery I was in a state of shock, but eventually the shock gave way to myriad realizations, one of which was that there were people in my life who were emotional thieves and robbing me blind. In my new state of awareness, I was able to eliminate those emotional burglars from my life.

This is not to suggest that catastrophic disasters are good, but that sometimes we can, individually and collectively, learn from experiences of loss and make changes—such as burying power lines—that will benefit us in the future.

And in the midst of the terrible political and economic wildfire that is the Trump presidency and the Congress of Selfish Monsters and the many state houses controlled by sexist racist gun fanatics, I hope previously asleep people will wake up to realize that the old way of the Demopublicans and Republicrats is moribund and always leads to psychopathic presidents serving the corporate overlords.

The meaningful alternative to our corporate totalitarianism is to build a system with housing for everyone and healthcare for everyone and safety and food and meaningful work for everyone, with a small efficient defensive military, and a system of taxation that does away with a small percentage of the population having most of the goodies and everybody else living on the verge of losing what little they have.

Oregon

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Rita

Rita photo by Todd

“He walked joyously, triumphantly, through the peace and beauty of springtime in California.” Katharine Grey

My great grandmother Katharine Grey wrote a pair of novels Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold, published by Little Brown in the 1930s. Based loosely on the experiences of my paternal ancestors, Rolling Wheels is about a family coming to California from Indiana via wagon train in the years before the Gold Rush of 1849, and Hills of Gold is about that same family living in California during the Gold Rush.

Throughout my childhood, my father impressed upon me that we were real native Californians, being descended on my father’s side from people who came here before California was even a state—never mind the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before my Anglo ancestors arrived, or the Mexicans who settled here hundreds of years before the first Anglos came to California.

I was also repeatedly told that my ancestors came to California in the same large wagon train that included the ill-fated Donner party, except my ancestors made it over the Sierras before the onset of winter and founded the town of Fremont while the Donners starved and ate each other.

And this is some of why when I travel to Oregon, I think of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and the Oregon Trail and pioneers and the wilderness that was Oregon and California before cars and freeways and computers and everything that has transpired in the last little while of human history.

Marcia and I just returned from an eight-day drive-about in Oregon, and the trip was a Big Deal for the likes of me, one who rarely leaves our watershed here on the Mendocino coast and rarely rides in a motorized vehicle for more than a few minutes at a time every few days. We spent two nights on the Oregon coast, four nights in Portland, a night in Bend, a night in Eugene, and another night on the Oregon coast before returning to California. We took many hikes, ate many good meals, communed with good friends, and saw many sights, some marvelous, some not so marvelous—a fine trip all in all.

The biggest motivating factor for making the trip was to visit our friends Bob and Rita who recently moved to Portland from our neck of the woods. They have both become adept at navigating the byways of Portland and were marvelous guides and hosts as we explored that sprawling metropolis full of trees and roses and bridges and breweries and cafés.

On our last full day in Portland, we took the light rail from a station near Rita and Bob’s house to the center of downtown. A few decades ago, Portland became the first large metropolitan area in America to begin using most of the monies returned to them by the federal government (from the federal tax on gasoline) to create an urban transportation system that would make a good life possible for city people who don’t drive cars. Thus Portland has an excellent and ever-expanding light rail and trolley system second to none west of the Atlantic seaboard.

While riding the light rail into downtown Portland, I became aware that everyone in the crowded car, save for Marcia, Todd, Bob, and Rita, was staring into some sort of portable computer and occasionally diddling the keyboard: small and large smart phones, pads, and laptops. Everyone. No one was looking out a window or at another person. The young woman sitting in front of me was scrolling through photographs of tattooed naked women posed provocatively; and the man sitting beside her was playing a violent video game and snorting every time he killed something.

When we detrained downtown, I noticed that many of the people walking around and sitting in cafés and on benches were also staring into portable computer screens and jabbing them with their thumbs. In fact, save for the legions of homeless people occupying downtown Portland, almost everyone who was not walking fast or riding a bike was staring into a screen and diddling. For some years now I have been aware of the entrainment-to-screens phenomenon in America, but I had never before seen this mass entrancement on such a huge urban scale; and I was both astonished and weirded out, if you know what I mean.

A few days later in Eugene, we were eating good Indian food with our friends David and Joan and Eileen. David is an elementary and middle school music teacher who combines song, dance, comedy, marimbas, ukuleles, drumming, improvisation—you name it—to create exciting and engaging musical experiences for his students culminating in fabulous group performances.

“But,” he said, while telling me about various aspects of his work, “I now feel the most important thing I can do for my students is give them time to engage with me and each other and their own creative impulses without interfacing with their diddle boxes. Because interfacing with their diddle boxes is the main thing most of them do all the time now.”

“If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.” Alan Watts

There is a square in downtown Portland, one of the main squares, that has lots of places to sit and gawk at passersby, and in one part of this square there is a small parabolic amphitheater made of bricks. If one stands in the center of the parabola facing the ascending tiers of brick half-circles, and one speaks aloud at a normal volume, one’s voice sounds incredibly loud and clear in one’s ears—a totally neato auditory experience.

So I’m standing in the center of the parabola facing a young woman who is sitting slightly above me in the amphitheater and facing in my direction, though not seeing me. She is hooked up to her smart phone with wires connected to tiny earphones plugged into her ears, and she is diddling her screen.

I say, “Hello there,” and the words sound loud and clear in my ears. And then I say to the young woman, “You’re doing this aren’t you? You’re making this happen.”

She frowns quizzically at me and takes the earphone out of her right ear. “Are you talking to me?” she asks, her voice remarkably sonorous.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “You’re doing something to make my voice sound loud and clear in my ears, aren’t you?”

After a moment of silence between us, a sweet smile claims her face and she nods in agreement.