Posts Tagged ‘Alan Bates’

Precious Dream

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Marcia and Stella at the Mendocino Coast Hospital

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2012)

Last night I had a precious dream,

dreamt I woke into the dawn,

walked out of my little cottage,

found a newspaper on the lawn

When I picked up that morning tribune,

and it opened to the very front page,

the headlines they told me

it was the dawning of a brand new age

Several years ago, I wrote the song Precious Dream, and three years ago when Marcia and I recorded So Not Jazz, our CD of cello/piano/guitar/vocal duets we included the song on the album. A few months after the CD was released, a DJ in Astoria, Oregon used Precious Dream as her theme song for several weeks, and that about sums up the commercial life of the song.

I wrote Precious Dream to elucidate my hopes for the world and human society, and I like to think of the tune as a campaign song in search of a candidate. I have yet to find such a candidate, though the Greens come closest to embodying the gist of my reverie; and since we are about to find out who our next President is and how far to the right of the mythic center our Congress and state houses will be, I thought this would be a good time to share the lyrics with you.

Yeah, the rich folks had all decided

to share their money with the poor

The movie that most influenced my thinking about the human world when I was a little boy was The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. Marcia and I recently watched that old movie again and I loved it as much as I did when I was a child. The most powerful scene in the entire film for me was (and still is) when Robin takes Maid Marion to meet a group of poor people who have been savaged by the amoral rich. Robin is helping these people with money and food he steals from wealthy villains, feeding and sheltering and protecting these innocents who have nowhere else to turn for safety and sustenance. Meeting the victims of the rapacious overlords, Maid Marion has one of those great cinematic aha moments wherein she really gets that her life of privilege and luxury is built entirely on the backs of the poor.

I was an avid archer from age six to twelve, and many of the countless arrows I let fly in those years were loosed while imagining I was Robin Hood stealing from the rich so my band of merry men and I could give to the poor.

 and the leaders had disbanded all the armies,

not another dollar spent on war

Another hugely important movie in my life was King of Hearts, a gorgeous bittersweet movie that came out in 1966 when I was seventeen and the war in Vietnam was escalating. As my age peers and I lived in daily terror of being drafted to fight in that senseless war, along came this sexy, sad, funny movie about a soldier, played with comic innocence by Alan Bates, who ultimately chooses to hide away among the officially insane rather than spend another minute aiding and abetting the senseless slaughter of and by the so-called sane people of the world.

Let us never forget that the lion’s share of the income taxes we pay go to fund the creation and deployment of deadly armies and weaponry, money that might otherwise be used to make the world into a life-affirming utopia.

 and they’d stopped building prisons,

put that money in our schools and neighborhoods

Many comprehensive studies have proven conclusively that the healthier and safer and better-educated people are, the less likely they are to commit crimes. So why do we spend so little on vitalizing our communities and truly educating our children, while spending so many billions building prisons and locking people up for crimes committed out of economic necessity? Our justice and prison systems are nothing less than ongoing crimes against humanity.

and instead of making bombs and guns and things we do not need

we were all of us working for the greater good

Frank Capra was in love with the idea of people working for the greater good, an archaic-sounding concept involving people subsuming their selfish tendencies in order to help others—the greater community—and through helping others finding happiness and meaning. It’s A Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington tug at our heartstrings, I believe, because they resonate with our inherent nature, which is to share what we have with others.

 Yes, they’d stopped clear-cutting the forests

and killing all the animals,

stopped dumping poison in the ground and the rivers and the sea,

When I was thirteen I went on a high Sierra backpack trip with two good friends and our three fathers to the Cathedral Lakes out of Tuolumne Meadows. On our second night at Upper Cathedral Lake, we shared that holy place with a big troop of Boy Scouts who made their camp on the opposite side of the lake from us. The scouts had a huge bonfire, though wood was scarce, and they even chopped down some small living trees (highly illegal) to fuel their fire. When we woke the next morning, we discovered that the scouts had festooned the trees and bushes and granite all around the lake with toilet paper; and when they hiked away they left garbage everywhere.

We spent that day and the next cleaning up the enormous mess as best we could and wondering what could possibly have inspired those young men to wreak such havoc on that pristine place. Fifty years later, I still sometimes think of that sickening mess as I read of manufacturers dumping poison into rivers to save a few dollars and when I study the latest reports on the ongoing meltdowns at Fukushima nuclear power plant and the resultant poisoning of the Pacific Ocean. What happened to these people to render them so drastically and ruinously disconnected from the very source of our lives? Such behavior is not natural. Someone or something is teaching human beings to poison our own nests.

the cars ran clean, trains ran smooth and fast, the air was clear,

food and shelter, health-care guaranteed

I have friends in Canada and Ireland and England and Denmark and Germany who have been emboldened to start interesting businesses and launch new careers and undertake exciting creative projects largely because they live in countries that provide free and excellent healthcare for their citizens. As long as we don’t have free and excellent healthcare in America, we are not a free people.

and the movies were about fascinating people

with real problems, you know, the real stuff

and our heroes were bright and generous,

pioneers of truth and love

My brother just sent me the last words of advice Kurt Vonnegut wrote for an audience: “And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one. I’m out of here.”

 When I woke up, my heart was pounding,

and I prayed my dream had all come true,

but I knew as well as you do

that that’s really up to me and you

Yes, we have it in our power to change the way we live

we have it in our power to take no more than we give

we have it in our power to love instead of hate

we have it in our power to make these changes

before it’s all too late

If you would like to hear Precious Dream in its entirety (absolutely gratis) with Marcia’s gorgeous cello and my guitar and mellifluous tenor, go to UnderTheTableBooks.com and click on Listen. If you enjoy the song, we hope you will share the link with your friends.

Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”