Posts Tagged ‘art’

There We Were

Monday, December 12th, 2016

La Entrada

La Entrada (Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company) ©2016  David Jouris / Motion Pictures

“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso

When Marcia gave me the news of the terrible fire and deaths of many young people in the Oakland warehouse that had become a haven for artists, I first worried about a few young people I know in Oakland who would have been attracted to such a scene. When I confirmed those few were alive and well, I settled into grieving for those who died in that conflagration.

Their tragic deaths are no more tragic than the thousands of deaths in Syria and other war zones around the world, no more tragic than those dying in shootings in cities and towns in America and many other countries, no more tragic than those dying from lack of access to decent healthcare, but the death of those dozens of young people hit me especially hard because when I was in my teens and twenties, the artistic ferment in that warehouse scene would have been highly enticing to me.

When I was twenty-two, I rented an old three-bedroom house in Santa Cruz with my friend Thom and we invited seven other people to live with us. The garage became a bedroom/potter’s studio, the sunroom off the living room became two bedrooms, the master bedroom became two smaller bedrooms, and the basement became a bicycle repair shop and art studio. We got an old piano to go with our many guitars. We often had several overnight guests, and we were the in-town mail drop and crash pad for two rural communes.

Our collective took shape spontaneously, was highly imperfect, and ultimately dissolved, but for a few years we provided a safe, warm, stimulating home for young artists and those intrigued by living in ways counter to the dominant cultural paradigm—none of us with much money.

Men’s groups and Women’s groups and musical groups used the living room for meetings and rehearsals, we dined communally, we had a big vegetable garden, we helped each other through illnesses, and we encouraged each other to pursue whatever it was we wanted to pursue. People came and went; we adjusted. We were trying to figure out how to be happy without following the dictates of our parents and societal norms aimed at making us obedient and unimaginative servants of the overlords.

Nowadays in California, nothing is cheap. That house the nine of us rented for four hundred dollars a month in 1972 is worth at least three million dollars today. For young artists and fringe dwellers without much money, California is no longer an easy place wherein to find a niche. And yet, there in Oakland, in that unworthy warehouse, something kin to our Santa Cruz communes tried to happen again in response to the exorbitant cost of living in the Bay Area.

We have an odd culture. In nursery school and kindergarten and through the first few grades in American schools, making art and music and inventing games and writing fiction and poetry are encouraged. These are the most formative years in our lives, so no wonder the seeds of making art take hold in so many. But then, strangely and abruptly, the message is reversed. Art is not practical say our parents and teachers. Making art, writing stories, making music, those are games, not real work. Furthermore, except for a lucky few, society and economic reality will not support those who try to make livings as artists.

But the seeds of artistry have taken hold, and happiness for many people is bound up in focusing their energies on being creative artists. Those who can be happy making art as a hobby while working at so-called real jobs will not be so conflicted as are those who identify themselves as artists in a society that does not support artists. Self-identity drives us. Those who must be artists will live in garages or derelict warehouses rather than take jobs that have no meaning for them.

This is not to suggest our society should be more supportive of artists, but to say I understand why those young people chose to live and dance in a death trap. I understand why I chose to live on little money and no health insurance and no car for much of my life: so I could be an artist first and foremost.

When I dropped out of college to pursue my dream of becoming a professional writer and musician, my mother was heartbroken. Several times over the next ten years, she urged me to go back to college and offered to pay my way if I would do so. In my thirties, she started suggesting I join a trade union and become a plumber or an electrician.

“Write for fun,” she would say. “Play music for fun. You don’t want to be poor when you get old. We are young for a short time and old for a long time. Being poor when you’re young isn’t easy, but when you get old, being poor is unbearable. A living death.”

But it takes all kinds. We do what we do. I think of those young people, many of them artists, dancing to original live music in that warehouse, and I am filled with sadness that they died so young. I see myself there, dancing with them. I see my artist friends dancing with them, too. I hear Joseph Campbell saying, “The path of an artist is one of great danger.” But so is it dangerous to stifle our passions, for that, too, can be a living death.

 

Your Bliss

Monday, May 30th, 2016

from the chair tw

From The Chair painting by Nolan Winkler

“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.” P. G. Wodehouse

Joseph Campbell used the expression “follow your bliss” when speaking about Jung’s discovery that reconnecting with a favorite childhood activity in adulthood was a great help in overcoming obstacles to his well-being. Sadly, this expression was immediately misinterpreted out of context, and Campbell was accused of promoting hedonism and other self-serving isms.

But the gist of what Campbell spoke about was, I think, a profound discovery, and one I have used to good effect as a writing teacher and to help puzzle my way through various emotional labyrinths. Campbell states the question Jung asked himself thusly (and I paraphrase): What repeated activity of my childhood was so involving, I lost all track of time when under the spell of that activity?

For Jung that childhood activity was building little stone houses and villages. So as an adult, following his remembered bliss, he undertook the building of a large stone house. As the house took shape, he had many dreams; and his interpretations of those dreams allowed him to move through a difficult time in his own psychoanalysis and successfully complete the process.

When I worked with teenaged writers, I would ask them to write responses to Jung’s question, and this proved a grand catalyst for their writing. Older writers were also inspired by this question, but many of them claimed they could not remember their childhoods; so I would ask them to imagine what their bliss might have been, and writing about that proved as inspiring as their actual memories.

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” MGM Executive reacting to Fred Astaire’s screen test in 1928

When I was a young writer in the days before online digital computerized anything, and before I learned that most publishing companies and magazines would only consider work sent to them by a literary agent, I mailed off rafts of stories and manuscripts to magazines and publishers, and got back rafts of rejection slips. In those days, relatively few people embarked on the writer’s path, and my housemates were curious about my career choice. One of those housemates, Maureen, was particularly fascinated by my persistence in the face of continuous and overwhelming rejection.

One day Maureen brought me my mail—a few letters from friends and a flotilla of rejections—and asked, “Why do you do this? Seems like you’re punishing yourself?”

I had never thought of sending out my stories for inevitable rejection as self-punishment, but the idea took root in my mind and I stopped sending my work to magazines and publishers. Almost immediately my desire to write began to wane, and I realized that submitting my writing was an important part of my process—a reason to rework and refine my stories. Without that intention, I was not inspired to write several drafts of each story, for I no longer had even an imaginary audience I wished to please, nor did I have the inspiration of the dream of being published and paid for my work.

Nowadays, I write my stories and books to share with a handful of interested readers and to satisfy my curiosity about the intriguing characters inhabiting my imagination, though my dreams tell me that I am also still motivated by the idea of my books and stories finding a larger audience.

“Art does not come and lie in the beds we make for it. It slips away as soon as its name is uttered: it likes to preserve its incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets its very name.” Jean Dubuffet

In Oaxaca in 1970, I was wandering on the fringes of a large open-air market and heard beautiful music emanating from the maze of vendors. I followed my ears and came upon a blind woman playing a mandolin and a blind man playing the guitar, both of them singing. Their playing was superb, their voices gorgeous, their harmonies fabulous, and their intoxicating songs unlike anything I had ever heard or would ever hear again.

I sought them out every day of that week I was in Oaxaca so I could steep for hours in their fabulous playing and singing. They were in rags, received little money for their performing, and were dependent on a sighted boy to lead them around. I gave them what money I could spare, which was not much, and I still remember them and their marvelous music forty-five years after I last heard them.

I was twenty and just learning to play the guitar when I heard those remarkable musicians in Oaxaca. Three years later, I formed a group with a mandolin player and we played in taverns and cafés in the Santa Cruz, from which I made enough for rent and food—the songs I wrote infused with the music of those two musicians I listened to so avidly in Oaxaca.

“We make things for somebody. This idea of art for art’s sake is a hoax.” Pablo Picasso

I agree with Picasso, for even an imagined somebody is somebody. I once read a translation of a Lakota holy man who suggested we are never alone, never unheard, never unseen, because the nature spirits are always aware of us and ready to interact with us.

When I lived in Berkeley, my friend Katje came to visit for a few days. Katje was an opera singer possessed of a superb voice, and she would wait for me to leave on my errands before practicing the arias she was working on, practice requiring a great deal of repetition. Despite my declaration that I enjoyed listening to her practice, she was concerned about imposing on me with her loud and repetitive singing.

One afternoon, I returned from my wandering in the outer world and found four of my neighbors standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, listening reverently to Katje sing.

What Stood Out

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

Rembering What Spring Can Bring

Remembering What Spring Can Bring painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

Todd. Max here, writing from snowy New Hampshire.

At 7:30 this morning I went out the door of #518 on my way to work. I usually come and go via the stairs, but today, my hands full, and thinking the wood I was carrying might prove awkward in the stairwells, I came down by elevator instead.

I went into the elevator and pressed 2, but the elevator slowed to a stop at 3. When the doors opened, I waited for a fellow passenger to appear, but all that came in was some pleasantly warm air and the scent of perfume. The doors stayed open. Nobody arrived. I wondered: Had a woman on the Third Floor pressed the button and then remembered something she’d meant to bring and walked back to her apartment to get it? Or, while waiting, had she grown impatient and decided to just run down the stairs?

In any case, I rode down to the Second Floor accompanied by her hallway’s warmth and her fading perfume. Then I got off with my wood and walked down the long hall to #202.

In other news, Kate and I went to see the Joseph Cornell show, and after the show, Kate asked what stood out most for me, and I immediately said, “The women waiting for the light to come on in the dark owl box.”

This was my second time seeing the Cornell show, and I especially wanted Kate to see one particular box, one with an owl in it. I loved the quality of darkness this box had, a certain mystery. It was just so black and quiet. I hadn’t understood that most of what made me love this box was that no light illuminated it, unlike the other boxes in the exhibition.

Three women stood a couple yards back from that dark box, gazing intently at the mysterious piece as if it was speaking to them. They stood there unmoving for many minutes. Kate read the printed explanation on the wall next to the box and learned that a light only came on in this box for one minute every half hour.

We moved on to the next display, leaving the women still standing there. Then we heard voices behind us and turned: the box was lit and we went back to look. The women had moved closer, their steadfastness rewarded. A small, candle-shaped bulb inside the box cast a wonderful glow behind the owl and revealed a pattern like raindrops on the box’s old glass.

I wondered why this box required special handling. Did the curators fear too much light would harm the piece? How did the owner of this box find out about this vulnerability? How did the museum decide on the safe amount of light? I thanked one of the women, explaining that only because of their attention had I known there was something else to see.

When I told Kate that the owl box was what stood out most for me about the show, she asked, “Do you picture the box lit?”

I said, “No, I think of it dark. I liked it better dark. And mostly what stays with me is the way those women were willing to wait and wait so patiently for that light to return.”

Max. Your two stories reminded me of the day I went to the Whitney Museum in New York to see the Calder retrospective. My favorite piece in the show was an arrangement of seven orange bowls, two-inches-high and ranging in size from three inches in diameter to ten inches in diameter—the rims of the bowls curving inward slightly. The bowls were arrayed on the floor in a seemingly random way.

Suspended from the ceiling high above the bowls was a one-inch-diameter rod about four-feet long hanging parallel to the ground. Suspended from one end of the rod on a thin string was a round chunk of white clay about the size of a golf ball. This ball hung down to a foot or so above the bowls. Suspended from the other end of the rod and hanging down to about seven feet above the ground was a small leather sack filled with sand.

When a crowd of people had gathered around the bowls, a museum guard gave the leather sack a push, and the swinging of this sack caused the rod high above to both twist and seesaw up and down, which in turn caused the round chunk of clay to fly around above the bowls, rising and falling and occasionally tapping the floor and striking one or another of the bowls, each bowl sounding a different tone when struck.

Sometimes the ball of clay would come very close to striking a bowl but would miss. Sometimes the ball of clay would strike several bowls in succession. And best of all, sometimes the ball of clay would hop into a bowl and spin around for a moment before hopping out. A single push of the weighted sack kept the little ball dancing around the bowls for many minutes.

The emotions aroused in me by watching this ball strike, almost strike, get inside the bowls, and jump out of the bowls, were suspense, joy, disappointment, amazement, elation, admiration, hope, and satisfaction. At one point, the ball landed in the smallest bowl and whirred around for an instant before flying out. The crowd reacted to this fortuitous event with laughter and cheering. I watched the show for half-an-hour and was never bored.

When I emerged from the Whitney, I walked by a newsstand where the headline on the front page of the New York Times announced that Calder had just died.

What stood out for me most about Calder’s bowls and dancing ball of clay were the people watching so intently as the little ball interacted with those bowls—the cries of delight when the ball went into a bowl, the groans of disappointment when the ball would almost but not quite land in a bowl.

Seymour

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Cat and jamming

The Piano Lesson photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“If you play an instrument or sing, you will no doubt agree that life’s experiences influence the way you practice. But has it ever occurred to you that the opposite may also be true: that the skills gained from practicing—namely, the refinement and control of your emotions, your thoughts, and your physical responses—can influence your life?” Seymour Bernstein

Last night Marcia and I watched Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about the pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, who was eighty-five at the time the film was made and is eighty-eight today. The film, directed by Ethan Hawke, the actor, is certainly about classical music and pianos and playing the piano, but the movie is also a fascinating and ever-surprising portrait of an extremely thoughtful person with an extraordinary talent for teaching.

The previews for the film made me worry that Ethan Hawke would be too much in the film, but his presence is minimal. Most of the film brings us into intimate closeness with Seymour, who is delightfully erudite and eccentric. I felt we were having a visit with a favorite uncle, and whether I agreed with everything he said or not, it was big fun hanging out with him.

A most unlikely veteran of the Korean War—and there is a great segment of the film devoted to his military experience in Korea—Seymour grew up in an entirely non-musical family, but began playing the piano when he was five, having begged his parents to buy a piano. His disapproving father used to say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” but Seymour was born indivisible from music and so was not deterred by his foolish father.

At one point in the movie, Seymour is in the piano rental room downstairs in the Steinway building in Manhattan, working with a brilliant young pianist on technique, and the young pianist says, and I paraphrase, “Everything in my life is about music.” And we see Seymour responding to the young man’s pronouncement with a look that says, “Yes. You are a younger version of me.”

Several scenes in the film take place in this Steinway rental room—Seymour looking for a grand piano to use for the recital Ethan Hawke has scheduled for the denouement of the film. As a piano player, these scenes made my mouth water and re-ignited my lifelong desire to have a super duper grand piano—not that there’s anything wrong with my trusty upright. But when one hears those bass notes played on a superlative grand piano, and one’s entire body begins to hum along, well…

Seymour goes from grand piano to grand piano, looking for one that sounds good to him even when played softly. He plays a few chords on one piano and crows, “Horror of horrors!” and then dashes away to try one he declares “not bad”, until at last he finds a piano he proclaims the finest he has ever played, and this from a man who has undoubtedly played hundreds of the finest pianos in the world.

My favorite scenes in the movie are when we get to watch Seymour giving private lessons and master classes, all of his students accomplished pianists. Again and again, we hear these pianists play parts of pieces that sound wonderful, and then we watch Seymour adroitly help them noticeably improve their playing of the part, either by explaining the music to them in a way they have not considered, by demonstrating what he wants them to do by playing for them, or by physically taking hold of them and altering their postures as they play. And everything he does and says is freighted with love for the music and for the musicians. Inspiring!

Hawke decided to film a number of conversations Seymour has with a variety of people: two pianists, a British guy claiming to be a mystic, and a man in his fifties who has been Seymour’s student since he was five-years-old. The self-proclaimed mystic struck me as entirely superfluous to the film, and I had the feeling Seymour thought so, too. The two pianists are useful echoes to some of Seymour’s ideas about practicing and self-discipline, and his middle-aged student poses a question that made me want to smack the guy, but Seymour handles the question with equanimity.

The guy, peeved that Seymour gave up performing when he was fifty, says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t you think someone with your extraordinary talent has an obligation to overcome his aversion to performing in order to give your gift to the world?”

Seymour’s answer is, “I poured my gift into you.”

And really a large point of the movie, and apparently the main reason Ethan Hawke wanted to make this film, is that Seymour is indivisible from his art, and this indivisibility is what he models for his students. Seymour’s bliss, if you will, springs from helping others become the best musicians they can be, regardless of their level of talent or whether they will ever perform for anyone other than themselves.

In his youth, Seymour did concert tours and wowed the critics, but none of that for him compares to the joy he feels in exploring music on his own terms, including composing, and helping others overcome their obstacles to playing better.

At one point, Hawke is shown trying to elucidate why he feels so conflicted about himself as an artist and a person. He says his best work as an actor is often not successful, and his largest successes, in terms of money, are his worst work. Seymour, who has lived in the same little one-room apartment for sixty years, suggests by everything he does and says that the solution to Hawke’s problem is to stop making crappy movies and make good movies instead. In making Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke has certainly taken Seymour’s advice.

It may also be, that like Seymour, Ethan will eventually discover his greatest gift when he ceases to take roles to make big money and gives his all to the art of acting, perhaps as a teacher.

Just Old

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

if my head sinks beneath the sea site

If My Heads Sinks Beneath The Sea painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Samuel Ullman

A friend suggested that the reason I find contemporary American movies and books and plays and music to be largely junk is that I am just old.

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Crosby, and many other older musicians aver that contemporary popular music today is inferior to the popular music of their day, but that’s just because those guys are old.

Every writer I know over fifty decries the deplorable state of writing and editing today, but that’s just because we’re old. And when older poets recoil at the poetry of younger poets whose verses are rife with clichés, void of subtlety, and might be lyrics to rap songs, they are recoiling because they are just old.

If you ask young people about the movies of today, they will name dozens of films they think are light years better than movies we thought were great when we were younger. Young people are certain I cannot see and hear and understand what they are seeing and hearing and understanding because my eyes and ears and mind are just old, and they might be right about that, though I don’t like to think so.

My mother plugged her ears and shouted, “Turn that off!” when she caught nine-year-old me listening to Ray Charles. Maybe Mom was just old. She liked The Mills Brothers and Artie Shaw, and so did I, but she didn’t like Sam and Dave and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield because she was stuck in the musical aesthetics of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Little.

“Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.” Andy Serkis

I am sixty-five-years-old at last count. Depending on your view of things, I am middle-aged, old, or real old. Yes, contemporary cultural aesthetics are in constant flux, and yes, I am not enamored of most of the latest fluctuations. However, my estrangement from American culture did not begin when I qualified for Medicare and Social Security. No, my disaffection began when I was in the prime of my life, otherwise known as my twenties and thirties, and coincided with the lightning-fast conquest of America’s publishing industry by a few massive, politically conservative, morally bankrupt multi-national corporations.

To echo Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds in the publishing business fired by soulless corporate operatives and replaced by Yes people who only follow orders from the unimaginative number-crunchers above them, those orders being: publish books exactly like the books we already know sell lots of copies. Do not buy anything that might be too sophisticated for a poorly educated ten-year-old. Buy nothing remotely original. And only consider things sent to you by literary agents who agree to follow these same orders.

That merciless corporate blitzkrieg of America’s publishers began circa 1972 and the conquest was complete by 1980. Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think this takeover was part of a conscious effort by the ruling elite to snuff out the fires started in the counter-culture renaissance known as The Sixties, with the election of Ronald Reagan a direct result of their coup d’état.

Publishing was not the only branch of our cultural tree thoroughly infected by the corporate fungus during that same decade. Record companies, movie studios, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks were also conquered and gutted by the same multinational consortium, and we have lived in a culture shaped and controlled by this mind-numbing corporatocracy ever since.

I don’t hold this view of history because I am just old, but because I experienced this cultural takeover firsthand when I was a young and successful writer and screenwriter. When I refused to acquiesce to the new cultural guidelines imposed by the recently installed corporate managers, my career was effectively ended.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Before I was just old, I founded the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. Every summer for five years, my faculty and I would greet the fifty young writers we had selected from many hundreds of applicants, and we would invariably discover that all these bright young people were starving for something to read other than Anne Rice or Stephen King or To Kill A (expletive deleted) Mockingbird. I use the word starving because the nincompoops running our schools in collusion with the corporate overlords intentionally deprived those young people of varied, original, challenging and nourishing literature.

One of our first acts of compassion for these bright young people was to give them long reading lists of our favorite novels, short story collections, plays, and non-fiction works, as well as the names of hundreds of excellent writers and poets, most of those authors dead or just old. And for this simple gift of sharing the names of books and writers we admired, we were looked upon by our young peers as angels descended from heaven to end the vapidity of their cultural experiences.

Now that I am just old, I sometimes delude myself, just for fun, by imagining another totally neato renaissance happening in my lifetime. Or maybe, as a friend who is also just old opined, “The renaissance is always here, but like a whale, she dives deep for food and we can’t see her most of the time unless we happen to be watching when she comes up for air.”

Completion

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Kindling Pile

Kindling Pile photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the AVA entitled When Is It Done? in which I recounted my meeting with the poet William Everson in Santa Cruz circa 1971. I was hitchhiking on the coast highway, Everson picked me up, and being an aspiring writer and a devotee of his poet compatriot Philip Whalen, I asked William, formerly known as Brother Antoninus, a question I immediately regretted: how do you know when a poem is done?

Fortunately for me, he did not stop the car and tell me to get out. Instead, he thought for a moment and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

Now I am older than William Everson was when he gave me that ride way back when, and his reply to my youthful question still seems a good answer. There’s no rule about it. Something shifts in your awareness. You come into harmony with your feelings, and you just know.”

Or you don’t know. I know writers and artists who say a book or painting or recording project is done when they can’t bear to work on it any longer. I suppose that could be called a shift in awareness and coming into harmony with your feelings.

“The writer of any work must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”” Annie Dillard

One of my favorite paintings by Picasso is Paul In A Clown Suit, a portrait of Picasso’s young son wearing a harlequin costume and sitting on a chair. The upper two-thirds of the chair is black and makes a potent background for the boy, his costume composed of blue and yellow triangles, his reddish brown hair crowned by an odd black hat, his beautiful child’s face expressionless.

The bottom of the chair, however, is a bare charcoal sketch. This is also true of Paul’s feet, and there seems to be a remnant sketch of another leg and foot, unpainted and superimposed over the sketch of the bottom of the chair. Why did Picasso leave these parts unfinished? Or put another way: why did Picasso feel the painting was done?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that if Picasso had painted every part of this painting and removed the remnant sketch of another leg, the painting would be lovely, unremarkable, and would not incite me, as it does, to consider the countless fleeting moments our brains transpose into notions of reality.

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

For the last several months I have been writing the third volume of a fictional epic entitled Ida’s Place. Book One is subtitled Return, Book Two Revival, and Book Three Rehearsal. Set in a place reminiscent of where I live on the north coast of California and peopled with foreigners, artists, visionaries, brilliant children, and just folks, this is my first attempt at a multi-volume work—the process quite different for me than writing a single-volume novel.

Entering my fourth year of involvement with this large cast of characters, I no longer think about where the saga is heading or when it will end, and as a consequence I have been experiencing a wonderfully uninhibited writing flow.

“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Georges Braque

A couple weeks ago, Marcia went away for five days, and my usual three or four hours of writing each day became seven and eight, the momentum of the Ida saga lasting from morning until late at night. When I took breaks from writing to eat or work in the garden or go to town on errands, the story continued to speak itself, oblivious to my lack of pen and paper.

I thought the flow might slow when Marcia came home, but the pace never faltered. Then a few nights ago, I finished writing a scene, put down my pen, and felt something, a tangible something, sink from my head into my stomach, like an elevator going down and stopping abruptly—with something definitely in that elevator. And I wondered if the first draft of Ida’s Place Book Three was done.

So I posed the question to my muse: has everyone in the story arrived at a good pausing place? Yes. Okay.

I typed the last fifty pages of longhand into the IDA 3 document on my computer and printed out the entire opus to begin, as William Everson would say, working the lines. I have only a vague notion of what has gone on in these several hundred pages, and I am keen to find out. But first I will take a few days off from the adventures of Ida and her people to revel in the glorious spring.

The Source

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

 The Source Cropped

Snail Mail photo by Yogini Lena

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

“The fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” Vincent Van Gogh

Every now and again I will come across an article or a documentary or a book about an artist no one ever heard of until that artist died and it was discovered she left behind paintings or drawings or sculptures or musical compositions or novels or poems or mathematical equations or architectural designs hailed by some authority or another as works of towering genius. This kind of art is nowadays referred to as Outsider Art, which I think is a silly name for the work of artists who are anonymous while they’re alive, either by choice or through the exigencies of fate, since that definition includes nearly all the artists there have ever been or ever will be—outsiders.

And just what are these creative people outside of? This is a good time of year to be asking that question, as we are in the thick of the annual awards season, when members of our tiny cultural elite give each other awards for being members of the tiny cultural elite that jealously guard and control the spigots of what most people in our culture watch and read and listen to. Those who win Oscars and Pulitzers and Golden Globes and Grammys and Emmys and Tony’s and MacArthurs are the visible insiders, and they owe their memberships in that exclusive club to the less visible but much more powerful members of the ruling elite. Everyone else is an outsider.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve known many writers and artists and musicians in my sixty-four years of stumbling around, and though I cannot prove scientifically with double binding cross lateral placebo control group studies what I am about to aver, I know this to be absolutely true: insiders imitate, outsiders innovate. Which is not to say innovators don’t become insiders—they do. And then, no matter how hard they resist the ferocious forces governing the inside, they become imitators of themselves or imitators of other insiders—the only cure a return to the outside.

“So impossible

The odds against it

Too high and yet

We must feel free to do with it

Whatever we can, for laughs

or for serious” Philip Whalen

Once upon a time a long time ago I’m minding around sitting my own business when I get a call from Crazy Cat, and I mean in-and-out-of-mental-hospitals-on-a-semi-regular-basis Crazy Cat, and he says, “Tawd, I got this space, man, a big space, a huge space, a magic space, a miracle, you’ll see, and I want to put on a show, you know, poets and musicians, and Larry and Lisa said they’ll paint a huge like backdrop of stars and unicorns and shit with glow-in-black-light paint, and Tim said he can light the place like Las Vegas, you know, neon tubes and spotlights and sparklers, and Twilby said he’ll do the sound with those same gigantic speakers he used for the famous concert he did at the Esquire, and Margot is jazzed out of her mind about running some modern dance between the readers, and Eric and Gino and Jessica said they’d play music all fuckin’ night, and the only thing is…I kinda already told everybody you were doing the show, and they said if you were doing the show they would definitely do it, too, and so I kinda already printed up the posters and put them up around town and put your name at the top so…”

Now I had told this Flipped Out Feline if he ever did this kind of thing to me again I would not only boycott the show, I would call every peep he used my name to con (because I am known hereabouts to have a verifiable fan base numbering well over three) and blow the whistle on his crazy ass…but for some unforeseen undoubtedly mystical reason at that particular moment on that particular day I was feeling especially outside of everything including myself, you know, and feeling gruesomely grim about the dearth of original anything in our kicked-to-shit culture, and I was longing for some kind of zany collaborative improvisational happening to lift my suicidal gloom, so I say to Crazy Cat, “Okay, I’ll do it, you sneaky lunatic, but we have to meet right now and put a stop to you promising every cock and pussy you meet star billing on a roster that by now may number in the dozens.”

I take a quick shower and dress in artfully stained blue jeans and a Ludwig Von Hendrix T-shirt (pink with red lettering) and try not to think about the last time this psycho duped me into headlining a happening in an underground garage we absolutely packed with hundreds of peeps ready to partake of the random ferment of artists chosen by dumb luck to strut their stuff when Crazy Cat took the stage before anybody else had a chance, and he snarled so ingloriously for such a murderously long time about the genius of his penis and his intimate relationship (on the astral plane) with Kerouac and Ginsberg and Marilyn Monroe that those hundreds ran away like someone had set the place on fire with noxious gas.

And if not for the intercession of Crazy Cat’s insanely cute intelligent gorgeously ultra-reasonable girlfriend Kitty (why was she with that maniac?) I would have slugged that crazy jerk just so I could say, “And then I slugged that crazy jerk!” But Kitty purred me out of my violent impulse with paragraphs of libido-tickling innuendo and actually made a viable case that Crazy Cat’s garage-emptying diatribe might have been culturally significant, however immeasurable, and there was no telling what kind of poetry and music and new thinking his outburst inspired (subtext: please imagine sex with me, frequently and deeply satisfyingly, okay? Okay!)

So we meet at the Big Buzz Bistro, Crazy Cat unshaven, unwashed, and ugly as sin, Kitty clothed in a pleasingly prurient purple paisley cleavage-celebrating dress clinging to her every glorious curve, and we drink lattes out of huge green bowls and get so high I’m sure the barista must have spiked my java with at least cocaine and maybe opium, and with Kitty taking notes in a gigantic sketchpad full of superb Renoir-like nudes she’s drawn of men and women and women and women, her postmodern handwriting maddeningly abstract yet entirely readable, we design the show and I have Crazy Cat sign in blood that he will perform dead last and I retain the right to kill him before during and after the show for any reason whatsoever and he waives his right to haunt me in perpetuity etc.

Then we go to the huge old warehouse that Crazy Cat scored for the happening, a former hotrod hangar smelling vaguely of motor oil and not so vaguely of wino piss and we walk around in a state of wonder, for truly this is the Sistine Cavern of the Forgotten Grandchildren of the Lost Beatnik Tribes of Brooklyn, and we are Diaghilev and Barnum and Colette imagining the divine transformation with a soundtrack by Miles and Cannonball and Satie, and I envision the baby grand bathed in a baby blue spotlight as I appear in a baby turquoise T-shirt and baggy black corduroys and red ballet slippers, adjusting the piano bench to fit my tush while a big silver potato of a microphone descends from the rafters on a silver chain glittering in the soft white spot that frames the poets I accompany with quietly tasty noodling.

And after weeks of honing the unhonable, the mythic night of nights finally arrives as fierce winds howl and shake the roof of the old hangar mobbed with ugly beautiful young old hip square white black brown stoned drunk straight lucid sad happy crazy good souls yearning for even just a phrase of inspired something to hang onto as they make their way through yet another tomorrow on the battlefield of what who where why how will we find our way to love? And will she be waiting? How will he know me? How will I know her? Etc. And most important: will we be brave enough to fight through those bloody roadblocks of self-doubt and dare to say to whomsoever it may concern, “You! Yes you! Wanna dance?”

Afterwards in the wreckage of whatever we did, our collective heart dancing to an irresistible bossa nova beat, scores of peeps hurrying home to get laid with the fantabulous energy of what just transpired, and with our ideas of the possible expanded way beyond our ideas of the possible, Kitty more beautiful than (name your favorite goddess) is packing up her flashlights and ukulele and harmonica and tambourine and masks of comedy and tragedy and making ready to leave with Crazy Cat though I know she’s gotta love me more, I ask her, “Why you going home with him and not with me?”

To which she replies in a husky honeyed voice that makes me love dizzy every time she speaks, “Because he’s the one puts on these shows, honey pie sugar pea cute boy piano guy. He puts on these shows with nothing but chutzpah. From nothing came the universe. From nothing came you. From nothing came me. He is the gritty unwashed source, I his sorceress. Mazel tov! See you in your dreams.”

Aht & Cultcha

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

andmischief

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Their Son Mischief painting by Todd

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

“A triptych (three related paintings) by the artist Francis Bacon sold for $142,405,000 on Tuesday, breaking the record as the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, according to the auction house Christie’s.” CNN

I was curious to see this creation that someone, ostensibly a human being, paid 142 million dollars for, and when I found the image online and made the triptych large and clear on my computer screen, I was surprised by how unremarkable I found this work to be. I’m sure there are academics and art experts galore who can babble at length about why “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” painted by Francis Bacon in 1969 is of great importance in the history and evolution of modern art, but to my eyes this is yet another case of the emperor’s new clothes, as opposed to innovative, revolutionary, or masterful art. The work left me cold, both emotionally and intellectually. Please don’t tell me it was Bacon’s intention to leave the viewer cold. Or…go ahead and tell me that was his intention and I will respond, “Phooey.”

I have no doubt that “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is a work of art. An artist painted the thing. Beyond that I will leave the analysis and debate to others, except to say that if I hadn’t been told the work was valuable I would never have guessed “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” had any value at all, save for those super duper matching gold frames. The expression “student work” came to mind when I looked at the three very similar paintings, followed by the thought “needs practice.”

I say this as an art-loving person who was once a voracious reader of art history, art reviews, art theory, and artist biographies. I was also a frequent visitor to art galleries private and public in California and New York and Los Angeles, I have many artist friends, and I have been making art for most of my life, with the intention of leaving my viewers warm in some way or another.

“The only thing that happens overnight is recognition. Not talent.” Carol Haney

My sister, a professor of Biology, was for some years in the 1970’s a weaver of spaciously abstract wall hangings and big puffy pillows. Having pursued her art in the privacy of her home for several years, she decided to make her pubic debut by getting a booth at the KPFK Christmas Faire in Los Angeles. I helped her build her booth, we hung her weavings, arrayed her pillows, and sat back to see how people would respond to what she’d made. To my sister’s surprise and delight, people bought every last one of her pillows and all but two of her wall hangings. By the second day of the faire, she had almost nothing left to sell.

To make a long story short, inspired by her initial success, my sister spent several months creating a new body of work, got a booth at the KPFK Summer Faire, and sold almost nothing. A year or so later, she told me she no longer considered herself an artist. I asked her to explain. She said that having lived through a terrible mudslide that destroyed many of her possessions and forced her to move out of a house she loved, she made a weaving that captured her frazzled and emotionally upset state. “It was ugly,” she said. “Truthful, but ugly, and I realized I don’t want to make anything ugly, which means I’m a craftsperson and not an artist.”

“There is only one way to treat a cold, and that is with contempt.” Sir William Osler

I currently have a cold and a runny nose and a nagging cough. Feeling awful, I looked in the mirror this morning and thought, “If I film my face looking dreadful and forlorn as I talk about how crummy I feel and how that crummy feeling infects my perception of everything, and I put the film on YouTube, I can probably get quite a few people, thousands maybe, to watch the film if I call it A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. The search engines will find my little movie and list it on the first page that people come to when they Google Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, only I’d better make the movie right away while the news of the 142 million dollar sale is still a hot topic.”

Later over coffee I thought, “Then I could make a second film of me sitting in a chair in the manner of the human figures in ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ and I could call that second film Responding To the Avalanche of Comments About A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. And so on. Would that be art? Absolutely. Would it leave people cold? I don’t know about other people, but it would certainly leave me cold, so I’m not going to do it.”

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

When I was eight-years-old, my parents took me to the De Young Museum in San Francisco to see a big show of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Fifty-five years later, I still remember how I felt when I stood in front of The Potato Eaters—amazed and frightened and sad and overwhelmed.

“Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.” Laurence J. Peter

I was ten when I first leafed through a book of paintings by Picasso. I vividly remember two things about the experience: I kept referring to the Table Of Contents because I was sure the paintings in the book were by several different artists and not just one person named Picasso, and after looking at Picasso’s paintings for a long time, I got out my colored pencils and crayons and a pile of blank paper and made dozens of colorful pictures.

The only DVD I have ever purchased (other than the DVD of the movie based on my first novel) is The Mystery of Picasso. Made in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Mystery of Picasso was officially declared by the French government in 1984 to be a national treasure, and if that doesn’t impress you, Pauline Kael called The Mystery of Picasso “One of the most exciting and joyful movies ever made!”

Imagine you are looking at a blank canvas filling the entire movie screen. On the other side of the canvas, invisible to the viewer, stands Picasso, the actual artist, fully alive and raring to go. As Picasso begins to draw, his strokes instantly bleed through the canvas so we may watch his creation come into being stroke by stroke. For anyone who draws or paints or creates things, the experience of watching Picasso work in real time is mimetic heaven. Later on in the movie Picasso paints in oils, and Clouzot uses stop-motion animation to capture the step-by-step evolution of several paintings. In the course of this feature-length film, we witness Picasso create dozens of stunning masterworks, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who would call Picasso’s creations poo poo. Such is the subjective nature of taste.

I first saw The Mystery of Picasso on a big screen in a movie house in Sacramento in the 1980’s when the film was being revived after being out of circulation for many years. The audience was composed largely of artists, and the experience for me was thrilling and joyful and wild, with people spontaneously shouting their feelings in response to the intuitive and uninhibited moves of a master painter. However, as I left the theater, I overheard a woman I knew to be a professor of Art at UC Davis say to her companion, “Narcissistic show off parading around in his underwear.”

“President Obama is asking Americans to give money to help the Philippines recover from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.” USA Today

The record high price paid for the Francis Bacon triptych is but a small part of a recent explosion in record prices being paid for art created by dead or soon-to-be-dead American and British artists who are famous for being famous, and not really for their art. For instance, an insignificant piece by Andy Warhol recently sold for 105 million, and a lesser work by Basquiat sold for 55 million. Who has that kind of money? Could real people actually be spending these incredible sums of money? Or is this “art bubble” some sort of money laundering scheme for the super rich? Based on my wholly subjective opinion that most of the art fetching these billions is not particularly great or remarkable or of historic or stylistic importance, I would guess this “art bubble” is, indeed, some sort of lucrative scam.

However, if by some miracle the selling of piles of mediocre art for billions of dollars is not a money laundering scheme, and actual real people are in a frenzy to buy art for huge amounts of money, I wonder if they, these incredibly rich people, would like to buy some of my neato drawings. That would be so cool, wouldn’t it, if they would give me millions of dollars for my art? I could then pay half the money in taxes to fund military and corporate imperialism and to nibble away at the interest on the national debt and subsidize oil companies and carbon-emitting corporations responsible for creating more and more devastating storms and droughts and environmental disasters. And I would still have some left over to give to the Philippines.

Still Moving

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

selfport2

Todd self-portrait

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

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Mark Twain

If you find yourself in the village of Mendocino on Friday August 30 a few minutes before 6:30 PM, and you happen to be walking by Gallery Bookshop on Main Street, I do hope you’ll enter that oasis of three-dimensional books because I will be there talking about and reading from my recently reissued novel Inside Moves. Originally published thirty-five years ago, my first novel has been out-of-print for thirty-two years, and this wholly unexpected revival has inspired in me myriad dreams and memories, some of which I hope to share with whoever shows up to listen.

“Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” Kahil Gibran

I wrote Inside Moves in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended, the novel’s narrator a young veteran wounded and disabled in that war. I was spared from military service by a medical condition, ankylosing spondylitis, and when the book was published in 1978 I wondered if I would be taken to task for daring to write in the voice of someone who had been in combat when I had not. But just the opposite occurred, and I met many veterans who loved the book, in part because they saw themselves in the narrator and felt empowered by his story. Many people with disabilities were also pleased to have one of their own as a narrator, and when the movie based on the novel came out in 1980, though not a box office success, it was quite popular among the disabled and remains so to this day.

The folks who made the movie of Inside Moves, despite my many protests, changed Roary, the teller of the tale, from a man crippled by war to a failed suicide, and I heard from several veterans who were outraged by that change. I remember in particular a man I’d hired to do some hauling for me around the time the movie came out, an immensely strong man who had miraculously survived several harrowing fire fights in Vietnam and had read my book many times. The day after he saw the film, he came to visit me and tearfully asked why they had changed what for him was the most important aspect of the book. I tried to explain as best I could, but he left me saying, “Maybe someday they’ll make it again and get it right.”

 “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

An original work of art is a wild thing, and once that wild thing goes out into the world, it is impossible for the artist to control what that wild thing will do and how that wild thing will interact with other things in this mysterious universe.

The new edition of Inside Moves was published because when Sherman Alexie, the charming and famous author who chose the book to be reissued, was fifteen, his father gave him a paperback edition of the book and, as Sherman wrote in the copy of the new edition he signed for me, “This book was formative in my life.” In a panel discussion in Seattle celebrating the launch of Pharos Editions, of which the new edition of Inside Moves was among their first titles, Alexie said he has read Inside Moves more than twenty times; and in his introduction to the new edition, he calls the book, “the best novel about basketball ever written.”

Having labored in obscurity for all but a few moments of my life, I find such praise from the likes of Sherman Alexie quite surreal. I’ll take it, of course, and rejoice that my work had a positive impact on such a good and renowned writer, but with my literary career reduced to making photocopies of my last several creations so I can share them with a handful of interested readers, and with publishers large and small universally indifferent to me, I cannot help feeling somewhat removed from the writer Alexie is referring to.

His love of the book reminds me that teenagers adore Inside Moves. During the few years when the book was widely available, I received letters from junior high and high school teachers all over the country telling me that Inside Moves was the first book that many of their students had ever eagerly read and written about. One teacher sent me the first two chapters of a novel that two boys, theretofore troublemakers and non-readers, had written together in the voice of Roary—an ambitious attempt at a sequel to Inside Moves. I do hope the new edition will be discovered and utilized by English teachers, for Roary connects exceedingly well with rebels and outcasts and those who feel misunderstood, which most of us at one time or another feel we are.

As it happens, I did write a sequel to Inside Moves in 1985 entitled Still Moving that was almost but never published, and I doubt very much I have a copy. I wrote that book hoping to restart my faltering career, and I think it likely I destroyed the manuscript some years later in one of my raging attempts to exorcise my unhappy past. I suppose there might be a copy lurking in one of those boxes filled with heaps of my unpublished work, but I fear I would find the sequel dreadful—a reflection of my life at that time.

“One of the most feared expressions in modern time is ‘The computer is down.’” Norman Augustine

Another of the many things that Inside Moves brings to mind is the writing of books before the advent of personal computers. I wrote three drafts of the novel longhand and three typed drafts, and my redoubtable agent Dorothy Pittman showed the book to thirteen publishers over the course of two years (in a time when simultaneous submissions to multiple publishers was verboten) until Sherry Knox, a rookie editor at Doubleday convinced her powerful editor-in-chief Betty Prashker to take a chance on the book. I then wrote two revised drafts in longhand and two typed drafts before the manuscript was ready to be copyedited.

Say what one will, pro or con, about the quality of literature since the advent of writing and editing on computer screens, but the lack of such groovy technology eliminated a good 99% of would-be writers from the field and selected for seriously dedicated wannabes as opposed to everyone and her uncle. Writing a novel in those pre-computer days was a hugely daunting undertaking, and when the writer was done he could not click a mouse and email a PDF hither and yon or self-kindleize or any such thing, and so most people, even many of those who burned with desire to be writers, did not set forth on that perilous path.

In those days before the advent of personal computers and laser printers, I never met a single person who thought she could write a novel without first learning to write a good short story. Today there are millions of people who think they can write novels without being able to write proper paragraphs. The mind, my mind at least, boggles at such monumental delusion, yet the world is awash in unreadable books born of such delusion, many of which are for sale in your local bookstore. What a woild!

“Even in a perfect world

Where everyone was equal,

I’d still own the film rights

And be working on the sequel.” Elvis Costello

“Still writing?” people are forever asking me, even people who should know better. And then they smile wistfully, their wistfulness suggesting they know of my long running lack of commercial success and the hopelessness, as far as they are concerned, of my situation.

“Yes,” I say, smiling bravely. “Seems to be my habit now, kin to breathing and sleeping and eating. And farting.”

“Good for you,” they say, for they wish to be encouraging and positive, though they really think I ought to give up writing and focus on growing especially fat carrots or something along those more edible lines. After all, how many unpublished works does one need to create before one finally…

But what they don’t realize is that I write with the firm belief that my work is so good, so interesting, so timely, and so important, in some unfathomable way, that I must keep writing, and the world will somehow some day be compelled to take notice. One might argue that I am as delusional as those who think they can write novels without knowing how to write proper paragraphs, but I would argue that since I do know how to write proper paragraphs, I am not entirely delusional.

What I do know is that the trouble begins at Gallery Books on August 30, 6:30 PM. Remember: it is never too early to sock away a few Christmas gifts, signed by the author, and it is always a good time to support your local bookstore, that rare and vanishing species of place we really don’t want to do without.

Inside Moves is also available as a downloadable audio book and in various e-formats.

Signs Of Spring

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.

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

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Claes Oldenburg

Harbor seals have returned to the mouth of Big River, sleek silver gray cuties with childlike faces and spindly white mustaches, as curious about me as I am about them. When the wind is right and the sun is out, I will sometimes toss my Frisbee up into the offshore breeze and the disk will boomerang back to me, and the seals will cease their fishing to follow the flight of the disk to and from the sky, just as humans might watch the ball going back and forth in a tennis match.

The harbor seals of Big River are curious about singing, too. I recently had a wonderful experience singing to the seals, an experience witnessed by two people visiting Mendocino from Los Angeles. The tide was way out and the sun was shining when I stopped on the edge of the river to commune with a seal who had popped his head out of the water to take a look at me. Thinking he might enjoy a tune, I started to sing, knowing from past experience that high notes held for a long time are more intriguing to seals than low notes held briefly; and shortly after I commenced my singing, the aforementioned couple from Los Angeles, a middle-aged woman and man, stopped to watch the seal watching me.

After a minute or two of listening to my impromptu song, the seal sunk below the surface and swam away, but I kept on singing. The middle-aged woman opined, “Guess he didn’t like your song, huh?” And then she and her mate laughed. No. They cackled. At which moment, the seal returned with a friend, and the two seals listened to me for quite a long time.

The couple from Los Angeles conferred with each other about what they thought was going on, and decided to come a little closer.

Seal #1 then swam away again while Seal #2 stayed to listen, and then Seal #1 returned with two more friends, the four seals bobbing in the water close together and only fifteen feet away from me, listening intently and seeming themselves about to break into a four-part rendition of Take Me To the River. I’m thinking of Al Green’s Take Me To the River, not the song of the same name by Talking Heads, though one can never be sure about harbor seals.

Then the man from Los Angeles proclaimed, “This is impossible.”

And the woman from Los Angeles said, “It can’t be his singing. He must feed them.”

Well, I thought, marveling that anyone could doubt that these four lovely seals were listening to me sing, there are all kinds of food.

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” T.S. Eliot

I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977, hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want the letters anymore he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.

But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence. We were having a long distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.

In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. (This would become the pattern of our lives, giving each other money when we perceived ourselves richer than the other.) In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly madly deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later nothing has changed and everything has changed.

I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.

But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970’s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amidst the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein; and plays and stories and books I wrote and subsequently lost were talked about as the most important creations of my life; and tales from my days as a working musician were in there, too. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.

Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.

And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body/mind/spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?

Miraculously (or matter-of-factly if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for forty-five years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso

We are nearing the end of pruning season. The plum trees, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are in their full glory of blossoming, the apples steadfastly approaching their blooming time. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people alerted by the blossoming plums that they need their gangly apple tree pruned, their recalcitrant pear tamed just a bit; and these people want to know if I think it’s too late for me to help them this year.

I tell them it is never too late and it is always too late. There is never enough time and there is always enough time. I tell them that nearly everything we used to think we knew about pruning trees is not what we think we know now and that the secret to taking care of a tree is to listen to that tree and allow her to tell you what she needs. A few of my clients have a wee bit of trouble with the idea of listening to a tree, perhaps because they can’t imagine how a tree would talk to them, or if their tree did talk to them, how they would understand what their tree was saying; but most of my clients enjoy the concept of interspecies communication. What’s not to enjoy about a talking tree?

I wrote a novel some years ago, not yet published, the main character a man who prunes fruit trees and is also a poet. I append a poem this character wrote about pruning. I like this poem, though I would have written it differently if I, Todd, had written it. This is one of the trickiest things about writing fiction, at least the way I write fiction, and that is allowing characters to be who they are and resisting the impulse (conscious or unconscious) to make them into thinly disguised versions of the author, though one could argue that every fictional character is a version of the author, that we, you and I, are actually versions of each other, and that separateness is an illusion, not to mention the cause of all suffering, according to Buddha. In any case, here is Edward’s poem.

Pruning

Before I touch blade to branch

I walk around the tree,

stopping every step to study

the relationships of the boughs.

 

When I have gone round twice,

and know what I know from the outside,

I climb into the tree and memorize how

the branches emanate from within.

 

So when at last I begin my cutting,

I know how I will enrich

the tree with spaciousness.