Posts Tagged ‘Aldous Huxley’

Afraid Of Silence

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Silence

Dahlia photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.” Jean Arp

I pruned trees for a woman in Berkeley who always had her television on. Loud. She would invite me in after I was done with my work, serve me lemonade, and write me a check while soap opera actors on her gigantic television screen emoted and spoke to each other as no humans have ever spoken to each other except in soap operas and bad plays.

“You make my garden look so nice!” the woman shouted over the projections of people talking on her gigantic television screen. “Tamed the wild jungle!”

The third year I pruned her trees, I felt I knew her well enough to ask if she wouldn’t mind turning down the volume on her television while we visited. She reddened and said, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those anti-television people.”

“I’m hard of hearing,” I lied, “and it’s easier for me to visit with you without the television so loud.”

She turned down the television and said, “Truth is I don’t even notice it.”

“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.” Francis Bacon

I was in the Mendocino Market a few days ago, the best sandwich shop in Mendocino, feeling lucky to have placed my order moments before a large mob of ravenous teenagers rambled down from the high school for lunch.

Three girls stood next to me, waiting for their sandwiches, and one of them said, “If they don’t fix my iPod today I’ll go insane.”

One of her compatriots opined, “I couldn’t deal with it. I’d feel so cut off.”

The third girl added, “That’s why I always have at least two I know are working. I totally freak when I don’t have my tunes.”

I was reminded of a woman I was once entangled with who could not bear silence. We would return to our house after being out for a few hours and before doing anything else she would rush to the stereo and turn on the radio or play an LP. If she chose to play a record rather than listen to the radio, the moment the record ended, and often before the last cut on the album was over, she would start another record or turn on the radio.

When she came home and found me sitting in silence, she would immediately turn on the radio or play a record. When we went on walks, she always wore a Walkman so she would have music to walk to. She ignited the stereo in the car before starting the engine and played music as we drove that was too loud to talk over. Whenever I turned the music down to say something to her, she would give me a pained expression to let me know she preferred I shout over rather than turn her music down. When we went to quiet restaurants she would give me a horrified look and say, “Creepy,” and we would leave and go somewhere loud.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Aldous Huxley

A friend who knows of my love of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant recommended the movie Le Plaisir, composed of three films based on three of Maupassant’s short stories. The longest of the three excellent films is about the madam of a popular whorehouse in a coastal city who takes her prostitutes with her to attend the communion of her niece in a little farming town, the six gaudy whores causing quite a stir in the rural village. The prostitutes find the deep quiet of the country so alarming they cannot sleep a wink during their one night there, so accustomed are they to the noisy brothel and the incessant sounds of the city.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” Khalil Gibran

A 2006 study by Luciano Bernardi to measure the effects of music on the brain revealed that impacts of music could be read in the bloodstream via changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. But his most striking finding came about when he randomly inserted stretches of silence between the music sequences. Two minutes of silence proved far more relaxing than “relaxing” music.

In 2010, while observing the brains of mice being stimulated with bursts of sound, researchers at the University of Oregon found that the onset of sound prompts a specialized network of neurons in the auditory cortex to light up, but when sounds continue in a constant manner, the neurons stop reacting.

In 2013, a scientist at Duke University examined the effect of sounds on the brains of adult mice by exposing four groups of mice to various auditory stimuli: music, baby mouse calls, white noise, and silence. The scientist’s expectation was that baby mouse calls, a form of mouse communication, might prompt the development of new brain cells. She used silence as a control and expected it to produce no effect. Yet she discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the seat of memory, whereas the baby mouse calls, white noise, and music produced no measureable cell development.

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” Elie Wiesel

Before I moved to Mendocino, expeditions to the ocean involved long drives through terrible city traffic before reaching the less traveled country roads leading to the sea. On one such expedition to Point Reyes with a friend, we found a lovely spot on a sand dune overlooking a pristine beach and sat quietly for an hour enjoying the revivifying effects of silence.

We might have luxuriated in that divine silence even longer but for the arrival of a couple with a boom box and a little boy who pointed at us and shouted over the blaring hip hop, “What’s wrong with those people? Why they just sitting there?”

Failure

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

redemption song nolan winkler

Redemption Song painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” Paul Cezanne

Last night I attended the Mendocino Music Festival’s third orchestral concert of this year’s festival, my wife a cellist in the most excellent orchestra. The second half of the program was Symphony No. 2 in E minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a massive work that lasted more than an hour. The third movement of the four-movement symphony was especially moving to me—the glorious music swamping my psyche and catalyzing several epiphanies about the novel I’m currently writing.

In the program notes written by Marcia Lotter, a fine local violinist, she wrote that the failure of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was so depressing to Rachmaninoff that he was unable to compose anything for ten years, and it was only after successful hypnosis, during which the hypnotherapist implanted positive thoughts about composing in Rachmaninoff’s subconscious, that the great genius was able to resume composing.

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” Aldous Huxley

When I lived in Berkeley a decade ago, I was, among other things, a babysitter specializing in taking care of children from two in the afternoon until their parents got home from work after five. Favorite babysitting activities included gardening, drawing, taking walks, making fruit smoothies, reading, story telling and playing the piano.

I frequently oversaw two five-year-old boys who were close friends, and one of our favorite things to do was take turns playing my piano for each other and responding with our playing to what we had just heard the other person play. Our music was entirely improvised; atonality and redundancy perfectly okay, with banging the only thing we agreed to keep at a minimum.

These two boys and I enacted our round robin piano concerts fifty times over the course of a year, and one of the boys prefaced every single one of his turns at the piano by saying, “I’m not very good.”

No matter how many times I and the other boy responded to this child’s music with genuine appreciation and applause, he would begin his every turn at the piano with, “I’m not very good.”

One evening I was having supper with this boy and his parents, two smart, funny upbeat people, and after the meal the boy’s mother requested I play a few tunes for them on their piano. I did so, and then the boy’s father said to the boy’s mother, “Play something, honey. How about that Bach you’ve been working on.”

She went to the piano, sat down on the bench, and before playing said, “I’m not very good.”

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Most American artists and writers, even famous successful ones, struggle with feelings of failure and inadequacy. The universality of this struggle speaks volumes about our punitive and hierarchical society and the endemic antipathy to original self-expression, not to mention the lack of understanding of art as a practice that is not inherently about the creation of commercial artifacts.

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Albert Schweitzer

Long ago, before the advent of personal computers and PDFs and Word documents attached to emails, I spent three of my fifteen years in Sacramento writing an epic poem in the form of a novel entitled Two Rivers. When I finished typing the final version, I made a dozen photocopies of the giant thing, gave them to friends and began work on my next novel. Over the course of the next few years, two valiant literary agents tried and nearly succeeded in selling the book, but ultimately Two Rivers was never published.

A decade after completing Two Rivers, having moved to Berkeley, I went to visit old friends in Sacramento and ran into a photographer I admired but did not know very well, and he asked with some urgency if I would accompany him to his studio. We went to a part of town that in former times had been an industrial area but had long been abandoned by the time I moved to Sacramento in 1980 and remained so until I moved away in 1995. Now the area was a thriving enclave of artists and entrepreneurs, with once derelict warehouses refurbished into studios and galleries and cafés and performances spaces. On a huge lot at the heart of the new mecca was the photographer’s spectacular two-story studio and gallery.

“I bought this place nine years ago right at the start of the renaissance around here,” he explained, walking me through the gallery space and out onto a brick terrazzo surrounding a large fountain burbling away in the bright sunlight. “I couldn’t afford to buy this place now in a million years, but it cost me next to nothing nine years ago.”

“Fantastic,” I said, dazzled by the sight of two red and green parrots perched on a towering cactus.

“I decided to buy this place after I read Two Rivers.” He turned to me and smiled. “I got the manuscript nine years ago from a friend of a friend of your friend Bob. I read it twice without stopping and I’ve read it two more times since. I keep waiting for it to get published but…”

“Never will,” I said, remembering little about the book. “Too dark, too crazy.”

“Yeah, but that’s what helped me get down to my shit, down to what I’d been afraid of my whole fucking life. There I was. You wrote me, man. When Carlo jumped into the river and was drowning and Madman saved him, I swear to God it felt like he was saving me. And when Carlo crawled out of the river, I was changed. Bought this place the next day, stopped taking pictures of dog food and office products and never looked back.”

Worlds Collide

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

worlds collide

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“There are only two emotions in Wall Street: fear and greed.” William Le Fevre

In search of good chicken for our once-a-week intake of animal flesh, I saunter into our magnifico Mendocino Market across the street from Mendocino’s blessed post office, my basket laden with the latest edition of the admirable Anderson Valley Advertiser, and I find the lovely little market and deli in the midst of a calm before the inevitable lunchtime arrival of legions of tempestuous teenagers and loquacious locals and inscrutable turistas.

Jeff, the jocular and unflappable co-master of Mendocino’s finest sandwich shop, has a few moments to wait on me, and as he rings up my purchase of four superb legs and thighs, he shares the following story.

“So yesterday, this guy comes in and I know he’s somebody famous, an actor, I’m sure. I’ve seen him on television. Has to be him, but I can’t think of his name. And then he uses a credit card to pay and his name comes up: Timothy Geithner.”

“Wow,” I effuse. “ Former Secretary of the Treasury, master criminal, and most definitely an actor.”

“I know,” says Jeff, smiling. “Amazing.”

“What did he buy?” I ask, guessing Timothy purchased a few bottles of expensive organic wine.

“Couple of chicken salad sandwiches,” says Jeff, nodding. “On a road trip.”

“Wow,” I say, “Timothy Geithner. God of the one percent. Stood right here and handed you his credit card.”

“Yeah,” says Jeff, chuckling, “we’ve got this Recession Special I was going to tell him about, but I decided not to.”

“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.” Aldous Huxley

Thinking about Timothy Geithner buying sandwiches in our very own Mendocino Market, I try to imagine being so powerful and important that the President of the Unites States would appoint me Secretary of Anything, but my imagination fails me. However, I do have a vivid fantasy of shopping at Corners and bumping into Timothy Geithner in front of the broccoli and saying to him, “How could you? Have you no conscience?”

And that fantasy and the questions I asked therein, remind me of Obama’s recent appointment of billionaire Penny Pritzker to be Secretary of Commerce, which reminds me of my encounter with Penny’s father, Donald, at a fundraiser in Atherton, California just a few months before he died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine while playing tennis at a Hyatt Hotel in Honolulu, the Hyatt Hotel chain being one of several corporations owned by the Pritzker family, Donald the CEO.

Believe it or not, I met Donald Pritzker at the very same gathering where I met Daniel Ellsberg. What sort of gathering was this? And what was I doing there? I’ll tell you. The year was 1972 (Penny would have been thirteen at the time) and Daniel Ellsberg had recently become very famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and thereby seriously messing with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and the ruthless rulers running the Vietnam War. I happened to be friends with a guy, a zealous anti-war activist, who had convinced his mother, a minor Pritzker, to host a private fundraising soiree for Daniel Ellsberg, who needed funds for his ongoing legal travails and anti-war activities. When I heard about the soiree, I begged my friend’s mother to let me attend so I could listen to the great hero, and she said, “I’ll need kitchen help.”

So I donned white shirt and bow tie and black slacks and showed up at the snazzy Atherton digs at the appointed hour, at which point it was decided I would ply the crowd with champagne and hors d’oeuvres before Ellsberg spoke and then manage the groaning tables of food and carve the roast beef after Ellsberg spoke. And while he spoke, I could listen from the kitchen with the swinging door propped open a few inches.

There were about twenty people in attendance on that sunny afternoon, the females outnumbering the males two to one, everyone in attendance fabulously wealthy. The women were dressed elegantly, the men wore suits and ties, and the accents of these loud-talking folk were predominantly Chicago from whence the Pritzker clan sprang, though many of them had relocated to California. I remember being struck by how handsome and strong all the women were, and how nondescript the men, and whether it was true or not, I concluded that this clan of Jewish siblings and cousins was a powerful matriarchy, the men mere sperm donors.

I also remember being keenly aware that I was serving people who were used to being served and that I was invisible to them because I was a servant. I had met a few super wealthy people in my life, and it was my impression that extremely wealthy people were void of humor, but I had never before been in the company of so many wealthy and resoundingly humorless people. Or so it seemed.

After the preliminary wining and dining, everyone took a seat in the large living room and Daniel Ellsberg rose to speak. I positioned myself at the kitchen door where I had a view of the daring whistleblower, and just as Ellsberg began, a short bullish man rose from his living room seat and came charging into the kitchen.

“Phone,” he barked at me. “I need a phone.”

This was Donald Pritzker, red-faced and pissed off, and this was 1972, long before the advent of cell phones. So I directed him to the phone on the kitchen wall from which he proceeded to make call after call, buying and selling, cursing and commanding, threatening and cajoling—running his empire—while in the other room Daniel Ellsberg spoke about the ongoing atrocities being committed by our rulers and our armed forces in Vietnam. What a disconcerting dichotomy!

Despite the proximity of Donald’s torrent of vitriol, I managed to focus on what Ellsberg was saying, and I realized he was speaking to his audience as if they had never heard of Vietnam and knew nothing about the war that had been going on for almost a decade, which may have been largely true. These were not people troubled by distant wars. Indeed, they were prime beneficiaries of a most successful imperialism and a booming economy.

Halfway through Ellsberg’s talk, Donald Pritzker snapped his fingers at me and said, “Coffee. I need coffee. With sugar.”

I prepared his coffee and set it on the counter next to him as he growled into the phone, “You tell that sonofabitch he’d better come through or…”

He was purple with rage, the veins in his neck swollen, his knuckles white as he clenched the phone in a death grip—not a happy person.

I returned to my post at the kitchen door just as Ellsberg finished his talk and asked, “Are there any questions?”

No one said a word. Not one of the handsome women and non-descript men raised a hand, and Ellsberg stood there for a short infinity, looking very sad and tired. Finally, the hostess, the mother of my friend who had arranged for me to be present at this strange soiree, leapt to her feet and cried, “Eat, eat, eat!” and the Prtizkers rose to begin their feasting.

  “There is only one way to endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” Alan Paton

I think of Timothy Geithner and his wife driving south on Highway One, enjoying their excellent chicken salad sandwiches from the Mendocino Market and superb lattes from the GoodLife Cafe, just, you know, having fun being far from the madding crowd, enjoying the view of the shining pacific and the passing fields rife with mustard flowers and the cerulean sky dotted with puffy white clouds. For just a little while, a rare little while, Timothy and his wife forget all about the millions of less fortunate people who are, in essence, paying for Timothy’s fun. Yes, for just a little while, Timothy might be anybody.

Austerity

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

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

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.

Crazy Memory

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

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

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” Aldous Huxley

I used to know a loquacious drunk who punctuated his pontifications with the disclaimer, “Of course, memories are, at best, only fair approximations of what actually happened, so please don’t quote me.” At least I think that’s what he said. And I took his disclaimer to mean that his memory was not so sharp, whereas my own recollections were essentially photographic and therefore highly accurate. Silly me.

A few nights ago we watched the movie Bedazzled (the original work of genius, not the execrable remake) created by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with a stirring cameo by the preternatural Raquel Welch, and we laughed so hard at some of the scenes I felt five years younger at movie’s end. I hadn’t seen Bedazzled in thirty years and feared the sarcastic romp might not stand the test of time, but it did with ease. However, what did not stand the test of time were my memories of favorite scenes from the film, for they were, as the drunk foresaw, only approximations of the actual scenes.

Indeed, I was crestfallen that my most favorite scene (as I remembered it) only barely resembled the actual scene in the film. Which scene? The one in which Raquel Welch brings Dudley Moore breakfast in bed. In my misremembered version, Raquel’s seduction of the hapless Moore lasts a good ten minutes and features the nearly naked Raquel erotically enunciating each syllable of the expression, “hot buttered buns” as part of an excruciatingly slow build to an orgasmic finish; when in actuality Raquel spat that delectable phrase rapid fire in the midst of a badly blurted speech prelude to seductus interruptus. Yet thirty years ago my brain seized on those three little words and made them the centerpiece of a seduction scene far more lurid and glorious than the one they filmed.

“Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.” Pierce Harris

During one of my many stints as a single man, I attended a party featuring scads of married couples and two single women, one seven-feet-tall, the other a midget, though now I’m not so sure about their heights. I am sure I fell into conversation with a vivacious married woman and ere long her jealous husband joined us. To assure him I had no designs on his wife (though she certainly inspired several marvelous designs) I asked them how they first met.

Vivacious Woman: We were working on the same float for the Rose Bowl parade and…

Husband of Vivacious Woman: No, honey. Rex and Sally set us up on a blind date a couple weeks before the parade.

Vivacious Woman: No, dear, you’re thinking of Tom and Rita. And it was two weeks after the parade. And it wasn’t a blind date because we already knew each other. No. You approached me ostensibly to borrow some pink flowers, but I knew you just wanted to get a closer look at me.

Husband of Vivacious Woman: Honey. Come on. You think I don’t remember how we met? It was only four years ago.

At this juncture, we were joined by a beautiful pregnant woman and her dumpy bald husband, and before Vivacious Woman and Husband of Vivacious Woman could come to blows over their divergent Rose Bowl memories, I asked Pregnant and Bald how they first met.

Pregnant: I was dating his brother…

Bald: You were not. We met long before you ever dated Jack. At the bowling alley. Remember? Then you went out with Jack a couple times, and then…

Pregnant: A couple times? I went out with your brother for a year, and if he hadn’t been transferred to Atlanta…

Bald: Ten months is not a year.

Pregnant: That’s true. Ten months is technically not a year.

“


Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.” Austin O’Malley




Speaking of crazy people and what we think we remember, in my former life as an author of books published by large publishers, I often performed in bookstores, cafés, theaters, and college auditoriums. And though I enjoyed performing and my audiences were generally appreciative, I eventually shied away from such public exposure because crazy people kept coming to my performances and zapping me with their psychic toxins. Here are two such encounters as I remember them.

Encounter #1: I am in a large old bookstore standing on a small dais facing an audience of sixty people. I have sung a couple songs, accompanying myself on guitar, and read a few stories, and the laughter and applause have been raucous. The master of ceremonies (the owner of the bookstore) announces a fifteen-minute intermission, various people thank me for my performance, an aggressively attractive woman hands me her business card and suggests we meet for coffee, and an old friend hugs me and whispers, “Watch out, buddy, she’s crazy as a loon.”

As I make my way outside for a breath of fresh air, a big man with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard approaches me. He is wearing a red plaid shirt, gray slacks and brown hiking boots, and I recall seeing him smiling at me during my performance—smiling gigantically. I stop walking when this man is within six feet of me and I fully expect him to stop at a reasonable distance from me, but he doesn’t stop until his face is within a few inches of mine.

“You kept looking at me,” he snarls. “Why were you looking at me?”

“I beg your pardon, but…”

“Don’t deny it,” he spits. “You kept looking at me because you thought I liked you, didn’t you? You saw me laughing when everybody else was laughing and you thought I was laughing because I liked you but I was only laughing because I wanted you to think I liked you when I don’t like you. I hate you. And if you don’t stop looking at me, I’ll kill you.”

“Now you’ve gone too far,” I say, looking around for help. “And I’m gonna call the police if you don’t leave on your own.”

“Fuck you!” he shouts, running away into the night. “Fuck you famous writer asshole motherfucker piece of shit!”

Encounter #2: I have just finished performing for a good little audience in a small café, (by good I mean they laughed at the funny parts and cheered at the end, and by little I mean more than ten but less than twenty) having larded my reading with improvisations rendered on a remarkably in-tune old upright piano. I am making my way toward a table where a half-dozen people are waiting to buy my books and home made cassette recordings, this being in the days before the advent of CDs and digital everything, when a slender cowgirl blocks my path, her red velvet cowboy hat dotted with silver sequins, her blond hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her black cowboy shirt detailed with creamy white embroidery, her skirt rawhide brown, her shiny boots lime green, her age somewhere between thirty and forty-five.

“Hey,” she says, her voice as breathy as the wind they call Mariah (not really, I just couldn’t resist using that expression), her accent distinctly Serbian, “can I speak with you for little moment?”

“Sure,” I say, happy to see the people waiting to buy my books have fresh drinks in hand. “What can I do for you?”

“You are so generous,” she says, staring at my lips—her eyes shattered blue marbles. “I can hear how generous in your music, and…well…I can see things. Is my special gift. To see things. You know what I mean? What can be and what cannot be when certain things don’t or do fall into place, or not.”

“I think I have an inkling about what you mean,” I say, imagining her face without cowgirl war paint and guessing she is way more than cute. “What do you see?”

“I see you must stop writing.” She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and nods prophetically. “You must give everything to music or gift will be taken away.”

“But why? I like doing both. Music and writing.”

“Maybe you like doing both, but they don’t like you doing them both.” She opens her eyes and glares at me. “Just as I would not like you doing me and doing somebody else, too. I could not stand it. I would go crazy.”

“But music and writing are not people,” I say, relieved to see no holster, no gun. “And I like doing both.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, sudden tears spilling from her eyes. “You are afraid to give yourself completely to music because…such intimacy terrifies you. I can see clear as day. I can see your life on one path or another path. And if you do not stop writing and give yourself only to music you are doomed to play in junky rat holes like this for rest of life begging people to buy your shitty little books and shitty little tapes, when you could be huge.”

“Maybe so,” I say, wondering what it is about me that attracts such cuckoo birds, “but if not for this junky little rat hole, I never would have met you.”

 “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

What are we without our memories?

When I was forty-three, my seventy-year-old mother led me away from the Thanksgiving feast, made sure we were not overheard, and whispered urgently, “I’m losing my mind and it’s not coming back. I’m in a nightmare and I want it to end. You have to help me kill myself.”

I realize now that my mother’s request was perfectly reasonable, but at the time I couldn’t imagine abetting her suicide, which I felt would make me a murderer. Twenty years gone by, I can easily imagine seeking the proper pill to curtail the horrendous suffering I watched my mother endure for twelve long years until finally, blessedly, at the age of eighty-two, she died in the skilled nursing facility where she had spent her last few years, having spent the previous eight years in a storage facility for those suffering from the brand of dementia known as Alzheimer’s.

Every few weeks for the years of my mother’s internment, I would take the train from San Francisco to Menlo Park and walk the half-mile from the station to that pea-green warehouse where Avis was a favorite of the friendly staff of Mexicans. They pronounced her named Ah-vees and identified her as ella que andando: she who walks, for my mother did little else when she wasn’t sleeping.

One day, after my mother had been in the joint for three years, I found her—lank white hair, plaid slacks inside out, yellow blouse wrongly buttoned, mismatched shoes—walking down a dimly lit hallway speaking to no one.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, catching up to her.

“They wanted fifty-seven and I told them where do you think?” she said, frowning at me. “How did you get here?”

“I took the train,” I said, holding her hand.

“You’re allowed to do that?” she asked, shaking her head. “I don’t trust him. Hiding under the mattress over his bandana.”

I took her outside where we could amble along the cement walkway that outlined the facility, my mother trying the locked gates to see if they might open—the air scented with stink from a nearby car fire.

“Would you like to go somewhere else?” I asked, hopelessly. “Into the village for an ice cream cone?”

“I sleep in a refrigerator,” she said, sitting on a bench and looking at her hand. “What a funny fig.”

I sat beside her and she jumped as if shocked.

“It’s only me,” I said, making light of her surprise.

“Who are you?” she asked, frowning suspiciously. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your son. Todd. I came on the train.”

“How dare they,” she said, pouting. “I gave him fifty-seven and he spilled nobody over again.”

“Are you thirsty?” I asked, wanting only to soothe her.

“I had fifty-seven overviews with red disasters,” she said, shaking her head. “But they couldn’t get over the river. Kaput.”

An old man, bent and grizzled, came around the corner, walking with mincing steps and peering intently at the ground.

My mother leapt up, embraced the old man, and kissed him on the lips.

The old man stuttered, “I haven’t…I don’t…why…who…okay.”

My mother took the old man’s hand and walked away with him, forgetting all about me.

“They hid under the milkshake and stayed there,” said my mother, kissing the old man’s cheek. “And pretty soon the shit was dry.”

Occupy Yourself

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Photo of Todd by Marcia Sloane

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

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Quentin Crisp

In 1972, when I was in my early twenties, I founded a commune in Santa Cruz, California, a collective of eight people (with numerous and frequent overnight guests). We were disenchanted with American society, with America’s wars of aggression, with America’s pyramidal scheme of things, and with America’s environmentally disastrous use of the land, so we decided to explore new (to us) and regenerative ways to interface with the world rather than follow in the destructive footsteps of our parents and forefathers.

To that end, the eight of us shared a house built for a family of four, created a large organic garden (some of us having worked with Alan Chadwick in the university gardens), and pooled our minimal resources for the good of the group. Our experimental community lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of selfishness, immaturity, and a profound lack of preparation for such an undertaking. Our intentions were flawless; our skills and execution abysmal.

Nevertheless, I learned many valuable lessons from that adventure, and my next communal experience was vastly more successful, though it, too, died a sorry death for lack of skills, experience, and commitment by the majority of the participants. We were children, after all, though we had attained the age of adults in other societies; and children, with rare exceptions, eventually need guidance from elders to make the transition from play into self-sustaining living.

A few nights ago, after watching a raft of Occupy Wall Street videos sent to me by fascinated friends, I was reminded of a night in that first commune, when several of us were gathered by the fire in the living room, rain pounding the roof of the house owned by an opportunistic university professor with a penchant for young hippy chicks, the owner of several houses he rented to gangs of youthful experimenters, many of whom I have no doubt would have flocked to the Occupy happenings of today—for the fun and adventure if nothing else.

So there we were discussing Marx and Sartre and Steinem and the tyranny of patriarchal theocratic monogamy mingled with visions of interconnected communes and solar organic farms and grassy walkways instead of cement sidewalks; and mass transit and bicycles instead of poisonous factories and cars and freeways—utopia manifesting in clouds of cannabis—when Pam appeared on the threshold connecting the kitchen and living room and said, “Hey, I totally dig where you guys are coming from and where you’re going, too, but who’s on dishes tonight? The kitchen is totally gross.”

“To heal from the inside out is the key.” Wynonna Judd

A psychotherapist once said to me, “The problem with blaming others for our unhappiness is not that those others aren’t important in the history of our sorrow, but that blaming them for everything interferes with our taking responsibility for what we have done and are doing now.” And one of my problems with blaming Wall Street and Washington and the wealthiest people for the woes of the nation (and the world) is that though many Wall Street operators and politicians and excessively wealthy people are unscrupulous jerks and thieves, blaming them for all our social and economic problems seriously interferes with taking responsibility for what we of the so-called 99 per cent have done and are doing now.

I find it maddeningly simplistic to suggest that we of the 99 per cent are not profoundly involved in the socio-economic systems of our towns, counties, states, and nation. As I read history, until the most recent collapse of the gigantic Ponzi schemes that kept our false economy bubbling along at least since Clinton took office in 1992, many of the people (or their parents) now bemoaning the economic imbalance of our society were perfectly happy to reap the rewards of that fakery, including the promises of fat retirements based on their 401 Wall Street retirement plans, and to hell with the rest of the world and those less fortunate than they. And I am certain the so-called one per cent know this about the 99 per cent, which is why they, the one per cent, do not take the 99 as seriously as they should.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” Carl Jung

Shortly before Obama became President of the United States, I wrote that unless Obama moved quickly to institute Single Payer Healthcare and nationalize the banking system, within two years we would see massive social unrest. I was wrong. When the Occupy happenings began I thought they might be the start of that massive unrest, but now I doubt anything immediately massive will be sparked. I hope I’m wrong. But when someone sent me a link to an Occupy Kauai YouTube, and thirty seconds into the silly thing I was guffawing, I had the feeling the Occupy phenomenon might be well on its way to self-parody. Can the Occupy clothing line and Occupy Café chain and Occupy app be far behind?

“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez successfully employed non-violent protest, resistance, and boycott to further their political, social, and economic aims, and we are all beneficiaries of their courage and strategies. I assume some of the Occupy folks have studied the methods of Gandhi and King and Chavez, and I remain hopeful they will eventually decide to emulate those visionaries. Discussing my hope with an avid fan of the Occupy Wall Street folks, I asked, “So would you say the strategy of the occupiers is to not have a strategy?”

“Absolutely,” said my friend, “because to have a strategy is to commit to an ideology, which could quickly become vertical and therefore inherently divisive. This is a horizontal movement so no one is excluded.”

“Excluded from what?”

“From protesting how unfair the system is. That’s the beauty of saying we are the 99 per cent, because that’s totally inclusive except for the few people who have everything.”

“But a few people don’t have everything and the situation is much more complicated than some infantile delusion that one per cent of the population is determining everyone else’s fate. Among many other things, we do elect the charlatans passing the laws favoring the fat cats, don’t we?”

“Of course, but we don’t want to make this too complicated. By keeping things simple no one feels excluded.”

“I feel excluded.”

“That’s because you like things complicated. You want everyone to push for taxing corporations and socialized medicine and free education and shrinking the military. Talk about divisive.”

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” Aldous Huxley

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I wrote the end of this article. In the dream I was madly in love with the Occupy Wall Street people and compared them to the disenchanted rebels and counter culturists of my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I compared Occupy Wall Street to the Be Ins of those mythic times, and I wrote eloquently (as one does in dreams) about how the only agenda anyone had at those Be Ins was to “be there now” for whatever might go down, so to speak. Then, still in my dream, I thought of the television show Laugh In starring the young Goldie Hawn and Lili Tomlin; and in that marvelous way of dreams, Laugh In and Occupy Wall Street merged, and the protests became funny and sexy and good.

I think my dream was partly inspired by a slide show I watched before going to bed. Marcia sent me a link to a Huffington Post slide show of the Wall Street Occupation, a montage of compelling images that might have been shot in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the mythic Summer of Love in 1968, though I’m not saying the Occupy folks are a bunch of latter day hippies, but rather that they are as disenchanted (yet hopeful) as we were forty years ago, and they are passionately seeking alternatives to the earth-killing system that currently holds sway over our country and the world.

The article in my dream ended with lyrics to a beautiful song that made me cry. I wish I could remember the words, but they did not survive the transition to my waking state. What did survive was the feeling that just as we didn’t have an agenda forty years ago when we waved goodbye to the old ways and set out to figure out new ways that made more sense to us, neither do the Occupy people have an agenda other than to take things one day at a time, to be there now, to be good to each other, and to see what might evolve. So hurray for them, and by association, hurray for us.

Attention Deficit Nonsense

Friday, November 26th, 2010

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley

1957. Las Lomitas Elementary School. Menlo Park, California

“I invite those people with ants in their pants,” proclaimed Mrs. Davenport, my third grade teacher, “to run to the oak tree and back before we get to work on our projects.”

Those people always included me, so I and several of my cohorts, boys and girls, walked sedately to the classroom door from where we bolted into sunlight and fresh air to run across the playground to the gigantic oak that overshadowed the playing field. Upon our return, Mrs. Davenport would say, “Todd, Jody, Wendy, I invite you to circumnavigate the oak one more time because I can see you’ve still got a little jitterbug in you.”

Mrs. Davenport was from Oklahoma and proudly one-eighth Cherokee. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in all my eight mortal years. She was astute, funny, musical, athletic, and she enjoyed using words somewhat beyond the official Third Grade vocabulary. We loved Mrs. Davenport because she loved us and had great empathy for our collective predicament: being eight-year-olds.

In 1957, may the fates be eternally blessed, there was no such thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, nor were hideous drugs routinely and epidemically administered to children with ants in their pants. Thus I was spared the pharmaceutical suppression of my true nature, which was, as our beloved Mrs. Davenport so aptly put it, “To jitterbug.”

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela

1969. Oakland, California

“You’re kidding,” I said to my friend, a Third Grade teacher at an elementary school with an entirely black student body. “All the kids in your class take Ritalin?”

“Every single one of them.”

“That’s insane.”

“There’s no other way to control them. Forty wild kids in a dinky classroom. Believe me, the ones who skip their meds stand out like sore thumbs.”

Lest you think the situation in that Oakland elementary school was an anomaly, think again. A monumental takeover of America’s schools was underway in the late 1960’s and continued through the 1970’s and 80’s, and is now complete. Today millions of our children are, for all intents and purposes, forced to take prescription drugs if they wish to attend school. And what saddens me most is knowing that had such drugs existed in my antsy childhood, and had my school been run by agents of the pharmaceutical corporations as most schools are run today, my parents would have dutifully signed the requisite forms allowing my jailers to drug me.

“Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.” Aldous Huxley

In 1974 I worked as a teacher’s aide and janitor at a day care center in Palo Alto. All but three of our twenty-seven kids, ages two to five, came from single parent homes with the dads missing, the moms working as secretaries or nurses or maids or salespeople. The children were dropped off at the center between seven and eight in the morning and were to be picked up by a parent between four and five in the afternoon. For all sorts of wrong reasons, I was often left alone to care for several of these little people from two in the afternoon until the last of their very tired mothers arrived long after five.

My strategies for safely overseeing seven to fifteen antsy little kids all by myself for three or four hours included story telling, snack providing, and running my charges back and forth to the oak tree, so to speak, until they were too tired to do anything other than nap or draw or play quietly until their mommies came to get them. Several of these children, according to the school’s director, exhibited propensities for Attention Deficit Disorder; but not one of these angels suffered from any such thing under my care.

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.” George Bernard Shaw

In 1989, as I began my third year of running the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, the school’s director hired a renowned academic authority to conduct a workshop for the department heads. I was skeptical about the value of the workshop, Strategies for Working With Contemporary Teenagers, because after two years of working with contemporary teenagers I had yet to discern any differences between contemporary teens and the teenager I had been; and my skepticism proved justified the moment that overpaid fraud opened his mouth.

He began with the proclamation that due to the pernicious effects of comic books and MTV, “the teenagers of today are incapable of sustaining focus and interest in a subject for more than a few minutes at a time. Therefore, you must design your curriculum to accommodate their limitations.”

I raised my hand, for I was swiftly approaching the limits of my capability of sustaining focus and interest in what this jackass was saying.

“I will complete my initial presentation,” he snapped, “and take questions after.” He glanced at his watch. “In twenty-four minutes.”

“I will not wait twenty-four minutes,” I said, rising from my seat. “Or even one minute. Your premise is erroneous. The young people we work with are easily able to sustain their focus and interest for hours on end, so I will leave you to your nonsense and hope my colleagues will have the good sense to leave with me.”

Needless to say, the director of the school was displeased with my boycott of the renowned academic, but life went on and our young writers and artists proved themselves illimitably attentive. Of course, we weren’t training our students to jump through hoops and remember meaningless bits of data pursuant to passing tests pursuant to becoming docile members of an emotionally stifled population of neurotic consumers. We were providing them with opportunities, inspiration, and techniques for expressing their original visions, while modeling for them adult versions of what artists might be.

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.” Frank Zappa

2010. There is today, the authorities tell us, an epidemic of autism sweeping America; and though no one has a definitive explanation for the dramatic upturn in the incidence of autism, massive quantities of barely tested drugs are being administered to our nation’s hapless children in the name of managing the growing problem. Autism is a highly non-specific term, almost as non-specific as the word human, and may refer to a child incapable of even minimal self-maintenance, to a teenager with abnormal speech patterns, or to an adult incapable of making eye contact with other human beings, to name just a few of the thousands of autistic behaviors found under the vast umbrella of the so-called autistic spectrum.

“Yes, well, we have administered the appropriate tests and come to the conclusion that your daughter falls somewhere on the spectrum of being human. Her particular manifestation of humanness indicates she might be more easily controlled were she to take two hundred milligrams every four hours of the drug Freedonia, an absurdly expensive drug cheaply manufactured and available exclusively from one of the unregulated and amoral pharmaceutical giants. This giant multinational corporation claims to have thoroughly tested Freedonia on several thousand unsuspecting peasant children in India. Only a small percentage of those peasant children died or went insane as a result of taking the drug, and despite a notable percentage of the subjects experiencing dizziness, loss of appetite, and an irrational fear of the color blue, a viable percentage of those taking Freedonia showed a noticeable reduction in those symptoms of humanness similar to the symptoms unfortunately exhibited by your daughter. Therefore, we strongly recommend that your daughter take the recommended dosages of Freedonia if you wish for her to continue attending Sweetness and Light Elementary School.”

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer

Most people find it hard to believe that it was common practice for medical doctors in twentieth century America to prescribe cigarettes for patients suffering from anxiety, but they, the medical doctors, did just that for many decades. My father, a medical doctor, smoked cigarettes until 1957 when the Surgeon General gave his first official warning about the “probable link” between cigarettes and lung cancer.

I have several friends who feel that life would not be worth living without the prescription anti-depressants they take, and I am relieved they have something to help them feel good about being alive. I am not against the use of all drugs. But I am against the use of drugs in place of discovering and working on the underlying causes of what ails us and what ails our children.

A growing body of research suggests that the accepted truth in the not too distant future will be that the exponential rise in the occurrence of autism is at least partially related to the chronic use of computers and cell phones by children who should not be using (or exposed to the rays from) those brain-altering devices until their brains have had the opportunity to fully develop as our brains are genetically intended to develop. Crucial synaptic connections are very likely not being made in the brains of millions of young people who are texting and gaming and cyber surfing before their brains and psyches and bodies are fully and healthfully formed.

Have you ever entered a café where several people are peering into cell phones and twiddling their thumbs on miniature keyboards? These people are modeling several of the fundamental symptoms of autism: disconnection from reality, self-isolation, repetitive physical mannerisms, and avoidance of direct contact with other humans. Or to put it another way, they seem to be missing out on what we old farts call life.