Archive for February, 2018

Foreign Accent Syndrome

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Todd and Abi

Abi and Todd photo by Marcia

In case you missed this widely disseminated news report from a few days ago, a woman in Arizona woke up speaking with a British accent, though she was born in the United States and has never been to England and doesn’t have British relatives. She went to bed with a blinding headache and woke up sounding British. Previously, the woman went to bed with blinding headaches and woke up sounding Irish and Australian. She has been diagnosed by actual licensed medical doctors as having Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS).

I know what you’re thinking. This is a spoof, a lampoon, a bit of silly whimsy. Yet this story was reported as fact in dozens of reputable newspapers and news outlets, several medical experts were interviewed about the woman’s condition, and these medical experts testified with straight faces that she manifested these foreign accents as the result of Foreign Accent Syndrome.

In less widely disseminated news, I have FAS. In spades. Two of our good friends, Marion and Abi, are from England. They were born in England and raised by English parents. Thus they are, in technical terms, totally English. When I’m around either one of them for more than, oh, thirty seconds, I begin to speak with a British accent. So convincing and authentic-sounding is my British accent that neither Marion nor Abi snickers when they hear me speaking in the manner of their native tongue, though they do occasionally snort.

Furthermore, my grammar becomes British when I speak with my incredibly real-seeming British accent, my sentences grow longer, and I feel eloquent and wise and…British.

I’ve had FAS since I was a wee tyke, the malady erupting, minus the headaches, hundreds of times in my long and checkered career as a human. Many years ago, I had a fling with a Serbian siren, and for the entire seven weeks we were involved, I spoke English with a Serbian accent so credible that the siren not only didn’t snicker or snort, on multiple occasions she gave me incredulous looks and said, “How do you do that? You sound exactly like my Uncle Boris.”

When I’m with Mexican people, I speak English with a Mexican accent. When I’m with French people, I speak English with a French accent. When I’m with Texans, I speak with a Texan’s drawl. When I’m with Jewish people from New York, I speak with a New York Jewish accent. I can’t help myself. I have FAS and I’m not ashamed to let the whole world know.

In seemingly unrelated news, my web site has undergone a transformation and I invite you to visit the new-look site and enjoy the goodies thereon. One new addition I think you’ll especially enjoy is on the Films page. Along with Bums At A Grave and Stripes, I am proud to present Kate Greenstreet’s videopoem The Magician, featuring my piano piece “The Magician” from my solo piano CD Ceremonies.

The Ceremonies CD and all our other CDs are available from my web site for a mere five dollars each, plus a flat rate shipping charge of six dollars, so order lots of CDs and books and cards to make that shipping charge seem like practically nothing. Or listen to “The Magician” on YouTube as often as you’d like.

Did I put “The Magician” on You Tube? No. All the tunes from my five piano CDs, and all the tunes from the two CDs I made with Marcia, So Not Jazz and When Light Is Your Garden, were posted on YouTube by CD Baby.

The individual drones from Marcia’s Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation are massively popular on YouTube. Thousands of people are hooked on her groovacious drones.

In more seemingly unrelated news, the stock market recently lost a whole bunch of value and subsequently gained back much of the value it lost. There are many theories about why the stock market went down, a favorite theory of silly people being that the Fed is going to raise interest rates. But if that were the cause of the decline, why did the market suddenly go back up? I’ll tell you why.

The stock market goes up and down based on the collective mindset of those who invest their money in the stock market, not on Fed interest rates. When the collective mindset becomes doubtful or fearful, the stock market goes down. When the collective mindset is optimistic, the stock market goes up. Since the big crash of 2008, most of the stocks, as in virtually all of them, have been bought and sold by the richest people in the world, otherwise known as the 1 per cent. Their collective mindset has been, “Everything is for us. We control the government. We get everything we want, including tax breaks and bailouts and loopholes and gobs of free money from the Fed.” Thus the stock market has gone up and up and up.

Recently, however, more and more not so wealthy people have been getting back into the market. Many of these newbies to the current historic market upswing are the same people who were ruined financially in 2008, and these newbies were also the investors most hurt by the recent downturn in the market, so much so that many of them left the market completely once again.

You see where I’m going with this? The collective mind of the 1% got adulterated by a bunch of not-so-confident investors, and the market went down. Now that those less than super-wealthy people have been chased out of the market, the collective mind is pure optimistic greed again.

As one very rich person told me long ago, “When the market crashes, the smart money is already out of there.”

Or, as was the case in 2008, when the market crashes, “We will have the government we control bail us out and make everybody else pay for our greedy gambling.” And that is what the Obama administration did. They gave trillions of dollars to the thieves who ruined the lives of millions of people and then they did nothing for those millions of regular folk who were so badly hurt by the folks who are once again stealing trillions annually from the national coffers.

By the way, I wrote all that about the stock market with an indignant British accent, which made me feel certain I knew what I was talking about. But now, writing with an apologetic Brooklyn accent, I opine, “How should I know? Do I look like a stock analyst? With these shoes? Don’t make me laugh.”

Recipes of Alexander Skåll

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

th_recipesofalexa-257

I am very happy to present here the first two chapters of my new novel The Recipes of Alexander Skåll. In a nutshell: Andrea Valeraine, a French photojournalist, has been searching for the legendary chef Alexander Skåll for over a decade, though many people think Alexander is dead. When Andrea finally locates the elusive chef, he agrees to meet with her on one condition: that she not reveal his whereabouts to anyone. The Recipes of Alexander Skåll is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California—a comedy drama love story rife with cooking and drinking and eating and philosophizing and picture taking and personal transformation. Handsome coil-bound copies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered by the author, may be purchased via my web site.

September 27

Whereabouts

Dear Alexander Skåll,

Hans Ryder gave me your mailing address and said he would contact you on my behalf. My name is Andrea Valeraine. I hope you will allow me to photograph and interview you in your kitchen and garden. Over the last eleven years, I have photographed and interviewed forty master chefs, seventeen of whom will appear with you in my book to be published by Tantamount Press.

I understand you do not like to be photographed. I hope you will make an exception in my case. I will only use photographs of you that meet your approval. I hope to visit you in October when it is convenient for you.

Andrea Valeraine

*

Dear Ms. Valeraine,

I’m only responding to your note so you will know Hans followed through on his promise to contact me on your behalf. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I cherish my privacy and do not wish to be included among your chefs. I’m sure your book will be a success without me.

Evasively Yours,

Alexander

*

Dear Alexander,

I understand your reticence. I, too, cherish my privacy. Having interviewed many chefs, I think you may underestimate your importance in the pantheon of famous chefs of the last half-century. Your whereabouts will not be divulged in my book. For that matter, we could write that you live in Canada or Europe now, not in California. Thus your appearance in the book will enhance your privacy.

Andrea

*

Clever Andrea,

I can assure you I am of no importance as a chef or anything else. My celebrity results from the bizarre nature of our culture, a mass psychosis that creates deities out of people who step in buckets of shit and come out smelling like roses. Not that I smell like a rose. More like a sachet of bitter herbs.

However, I like the idea of your book throwing the crazies off my trail. Let us connect at Harmony Books & Luthier in Fort Orford on October 22 at 1 PM. The north coast of California can be quite chilly and rainy in late October so I suggest you dress warmly and be prepared for rain.

If Hans can come with you, I would love to see the old idiot again.

Alex

*

Alex!

Thank you so much. As you know, Hans rarely leaves his apartment now, but I will implore him to come with me.

Gratefully,

Andrea

 

October 22 

History Of Sex

Twenty-five years ago, Harmony Books was the cultural epicenter of Fort Orford, a town on the far north coast of California. Today Harmony Books is two bookcases in a luthier shop—a few hundred vestigial volumes of poetry and fiction—and the legendary bookshop next door to the luthier has been replaced by three shops: pizza parlor, hair salon, and marijuana dispensary.

Twenty years ago, the luthier shop employed three luthiers. Today there is only one luthier in Fort Orford: Harmon Green, fifty-eight, six-feet-tall, his longish brown hair going gray, his handsome face detailed with smile wrinkles and lines of sorrow.

Wearing brown trousers and a faded red T-shirt—Harmony Books writ across the chest—Harmon sits on a cushioned stool at his large worktable putting new frets on a seventy-year-old Gibson guitar, his close-up vision enhanced by green-framed magnifying glasses.

The little bronze bell atop the front door jingles and Harmon removes his glasses to inspect his visitor—a woman, long-limbed and graceful, her reddish-brown shoulder-length hair touched with gray, her eyes bluish green, her lips voluptuous—her face expressionless. She is wearing a purple parka over a black turtleneck, gray trousers, brown walking shoes, and she is carrying a gray canvas camera bag.

“Excuse me,” she says, her accent French. “I’m hoping to meet someone here. Do you mind if I wait?”

“Not at all,” says Harmon, glad of the company. “You will find either armchair comfortable, the blue somewhat firmer than the green, there are books of poems and stories to peruse if you are so inclined, or you may chat with the luthier who is, incredible as this may seem, capable of conversation while he works.”

“My name is Andrea,” she says, smiling ever so slightly as she approaches the large worktable on which two guitars, a ukulele, and a violin are in various stages of repair. “Andrea Valeraine.”

“Harmon,” he says, receiving her attention as a kiss. “Harmon Green. Welcome to Fort Orford.”

“I am a photographer,” she says, admiring the ensemble of instruments and tools spread out on the big table. “Would you mind if I take pictures while you work?”

“I don’t mind,” he says, though he does a little. “I am often photographed by tourists. Must be something irresistible about a scruffy fellow engaged in pre-industrial handwork.” He chuckles at his self-description. “May I offer you a cup of coffee? Tea? Cocoa? Wine?”

She fishes her phone out of her camera bag and checks the time—12:37. “I would love some coffee. Thank you.”

Harmon rises with his characteristic ease, and Andrea is alarmed to feel sexually aroused, a feeling she has kept at bay for many years.

“Please make yourself at home,” says Harmon, gesturing to the entire store before he disappears behind the large shoji screen that divides the room.

“Merci,” she says, moving to the front of the store where she takes off her parka, settles into the blue armchair, and tells herself she is not attracted to this man but merely excited about the prospect of finally meeting Alexander Skåll.

Perusing the books on the shelves, she is pleased to see several volumes published by Tantamount Press, her publisher. Now she startles at the name Harmon Green on the spine of a slender volume from Tantamount, removes the book from the shelf, and cringes at the title—History of Sex.

Despite her aversion to the title, she opens to a random page.

 

calling

Comfortable together in their aftermath she says I never

come the first time with a new partner. But I came so hard

with you. Maybe you’re the one I’ve been waiting for.

Next day he calls her madly in love and she says

I made a mistake. Don’t ever call me again.

His heart aches for days until one morning she calls to say

Am I crazy? Get over here you wonderful guy.

Astride him she shouts God you are the best, the best ever!

Next day he leaves a love poem on her answering machine

and when she doesn’t call him back he goes to her house

and she growls Go away. Don’t ever call me again.

For weeks every sound murders him

until one morning he wakes to her

leaving a message on his answering machine:

Ready to go again?

 

Andrea reads calling a second time and finishes just as Harmon emerges from behind the screen with two steaming mugs.

“Would you like your coffee way over there?” he asks, sounding sad about her being so far from him. “Or will you join me at my table?”

“I will join you,” she says, bringing History of Sex and her camera bag to the worktable and sitting on the chair closest to Harmon.

“I guessed you’d like yours black,” he says, pleased she chose the chair nearest to him. “Yes?”

“What else did you guess about me?” she asks, sipping her coffee and humming a note of approval.

“You are French, not Swiss,” he says, setting his coffee down. “You are fifty-two, six years younger than I, you’ve lived in North America for a long time, in a city, you are a successful photographer, currently single, the wedding band a ruse to dissuade suitors, and you just read one of my poems and did not dislike it. I wonder which one. Old poems. Haven’t read them in twenty years. Maybe I’ll read them again now that you’ve awakened the book. You may have that copy if you’d like.”

“Merci,” she says, reddening ever so slightly. “I hope you will sign it for me. I didn’t like the title at first, but now I do. And I agree, we do awaken books when we read them, just as we awaken paintings and photos when we look at them.”

“Instruments, too,” he says, indicating the wall decorated with violins, guitars, ukuleles, and one intriguing tenor balalaika. “They love to be touched and played.”

“How did you know those things about me?” she asks, frowning. “You are correct, but…how did you know?”

“I don’t know how I knew,” he says, shrugging. “Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve had a knack for guessing people’s ages and birthplaces and other things about them, the information arriving in my brain once I get a good look at them and hear them speak.”

“Are you always right?” she asks, this talent fascinating to her.

“Pretty much always, yes.” He frowns and nods. “Strange, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think so,” she says, liking him very much. “You are just highly intuitive and extremely intelligent, and this is one of your gifts.”

“Yeah,” he says, his frown turning to a smile. “A gift.”

A pleasant silence falls.

Harmon puts on his magnifying glasses and resumes his work.

Andrea gets out her camera, stands up, and takes several pictures of the worktable.

Now she frames Harmon in the center of her viewfinder and asks quietly, “What are we striving for?”

“Do you mean why are we striving?” he asks, looking up at her, his magnified eyes frog-like. “Or do you mean…what are we striving to accomplish?”

“Mostly I mean why are we striving. But also what are we trying to accomplish?”

“You go first,” he says, comically arching an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” she says, laughing at his funny face. “That’s why I asked you.”

“Ah,” he says, removing his glasses and setting them beside the old Gibson. “We strive because we are habituated to striving and because there’s a certain joy in striving. We strive to get money for food and shelter and warmth for ourselves and those we love.”

She lowers her camera and says, “I’m tired of striving.”

“Well to quote my old pal Tyler Gray,” says Harmon, thinking of his friend who died some years ago, “a little striving goes a long way.”

“I don’t know how to strive just a little,” she says, thinking of Alexander Skåll and the completion of her book. “I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people.”

“Somehow I knew that,” he says, his eyes narrowing. “There’s nothing tentative about you.”

She sits downs and says, “No one has ever said anything like that to me before. Why would you say such a thing?”

“Because that’s how you strike me.” He gazes at her, unafraid. “You seem undisguised and wonderfully calm and very sure of why you’re here.”

“But now I’m not so sure,” she says, meeting his gaze. “I thought I was meeting someone else here, but now I think…” She takes a deep breath. “Maybe I came here to meet you.”

“Ah, but who am I?” He laughs self-consciously. “No need to answer that.”

“Oh but I want to. You are someone I’ve longed to meet. Someone…a man…who will be my good friend for the rest of my life.”

“Case in point,” he says, folding his arms. “Nothing tentative about you.”

“But you are not so sure if you want to be my friend,” she says, giving him a comical smile. “You who know so many things about other people so quickly.”

“I’m sure I like you,” he says, enjoying the intimacy of their exchange. “I’m just not in the habit of entertaining rest-of-my-life scenarios with people I’ve known for less than ten minutes.”

“Nor am I,” she says seriously. “I have never in my life been so forward with anyone, man or woman. But I feel powerless not to say these things to you.”

“Yet you are so obviously powerful,” he says, matching her seriousness. “Not to mention frighteningly attractive.”

“I am not attractive,” she says, looking away. “Nor am I powerful. If I were powerful…”

The bell above the door jingles and a young Mexican woman enters the shop—red parka, blue jeans, long black hair in a ponytail—a singular beauty.

“Hola hija,” says Harmon, raising his mug. “Come meet the enchanting Andrea Valeraine. Andrea, my daughter Dolores, known far and wide as Dolly.”

“Hola Dolly,” says Andrea, reddening at Harmon’s flattery.

“Hola,” she says, smiling shyly. “I came to bring you to Alex.”

Andrea gasps. “He sent you?”

“Yes,” says Dolly, glancing at her father. “He sent me.”

Thinking

Monday, February 5th, 2018

jennysletter

Perception pen and ink by Todd

Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Which is the English translation of the French “Je pense, donc je suis.” Which is Descarte’s translation of the Latin, Cogito ergo sum.

I remember the first time I thought about my existence being a matter of thinking I existed, and feeling a bit confused. I was twelve. What if I stopped thinking I existed, would I stop existing?

Lately I’ve become convinced by reading books about neurobiology and being in therapy again after eons of not being in therapy that: I sometimes feel how I think I feel, and sometimes I feel fine because I’m not thinking; but I’m not sure I exist because I think I exist.

Several times in my life I’ve been rushed to hospital emergency rooms in cars and ambulances, and whilst en route and feeling my life force ebbing, I felt I existed because my body was alive and if my body stopped being alive I wouldn’t exist. I’m alive, therefore I’m alive.

About two years ago, due to a nasty run-in with some incompetent medical doctors, I began to experience panic attacks for the first time in my life. If you’ve never had a full-blown panic attack, trust me, you don’t want to have one, not even just to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had one of those.” I would describe a panic attack to you, but such a thing is beyond the power of words to describe. I might say: Imagine you are hurtling on a plank down a steep hill toward jagged rocks and your body is vibrating so tremendously you feel you may explode before you hit the jagged rocks, and that would not be the half of it.

The idea that: I think I’m having a panic attack, therefore I am having a panic attack, might be true, but doesn’t help much in the midst of a panic attack. Or maybe it does help. Or could help. Maybe if one could convince one’s self that the panic attack is merely a figment of thinking, and one could stop thinking in that way, then the panic would subside. That is how drugs made to quell panic attacks work. They interfere with the brain thinking we’re panicking, so we stop panicking.

Anyway, I’ve been having all sorts of helpful feelings and experiences and shifts in self-perception as a result of therapy, and I’ve actually gone some months without too much anxiety impinging on my life. So when visitations from the old anxiety tendrils began anew recently, I was not thrilled.

I wrote to my therapist: Last night, first time in a long time, my anxiety returned. Dreadful feeling, like the return of someone I really don’t like and hoped never to see again suddenly walking into my house. I was physically exhausted, so I knew that had something to do with my vulnerability to feelings of anxiety. At one point, I felt so angry about my ongoing anxiety, I shouted, “Get out of my life. Let me be happy. Just get out of my life.” And I was greatly relieved, a kind of mini-rage release. I couldn’t bring to mind parents or abusive people from my past. It was more a feeling of being victimized by the idea that for some reason it is not okay for me to have a happy healthy life.

My therapist wrote back, and I paraphrase: “This actually sounds very ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) to me and I want to say, “So, what’s the problem?” Yes, you have a habit or a propensity for anxiety.

“Stop narrating your mood. Feelings come and go like the tide. Let them move through you without judgment. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! Perhaps you want the narrator to get out of your life?

“I understand it is not a pleasant feeling. Stop fighting with it, though, because that just gives it more power over you. Do you check the weather as much as you check your mood and feelings? Do you try to control the weather? Do you judge it? Your feelings are your own atmospheric experience. Let them be what they are and keep on living and Being!

“Who are you? What are you without the narrative? Who is aware of the anxiety? What is the experience of the experiencer? Put your awareness on itself and let everything else take care of itself. Make sense?”

I was reminded by those words from my therapist of a time twenty years ago when I was going through great physical difficulties, and I went to a body worker and she would be working on my shoulder or my hip, and the pain would be tremendous, and I would inform her of my pain, and she would say, “Stay with the pain. Go into it. Really try to experience everything that composes the pain. Really stay focused on that pain.”

And if I put my awareness on the pain, by golly, the pain would either go away or jump to another part of my body, which amazed me and made me wonder: what is pain?

Twenty years later, I regularly go to a superb acupressurist who invariably discovers blockages in my meridians and unblocks them so that for a few days at least I feel vastly improved compared to how I felt before she manipulated those points of interest.

The truth is, I would benefit greatly from a thorough massage every few days, weekly acupressure, weekly psychotherapy, and a sauna every day during the winter and twice weekly during the summer. Who wouldn’t benefit from that regimen of healing help? Who has that kind of money?

I remember during an anti-war demonstration long ago, a speaker reported calculations made by smart people at a renowned university that for the same amount of money the United States spent every year building weapons and waging needless wars, every person in America could afford a full-body massage every few days, weekly acupuncture treatments, weekly psychotherapy, free healthcare, free education from nursery school through graduate school, free food, and so much more. Every American. And if you don’t think creating a system providing such goodies for everyone would cure our social and economic and emotional ills, you and I would not be in agreement.

How’s this for a variation on the basic Descartes? I receive vast amounts of physical and emotional tenderness and approval and love, therefore I am happy and not at all anxious, and I want the same for everyone else.