Posts Tagged ‘artists’

The Magician

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

superstar

A still from The Magician, a video by Kate Greenstreet

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

“Magicians will always tell you the trick is the most important thing, but I’m more interested in telling a story.” Marco Tempest

Most artists are unknown or little known outside their neighborhood or town or small circle of friends. This is not a bad or good thing, but merely the way of the world. My favorite poets are known to only a handful of people, and many of the finest musicians and painters and actors I’ve had the good fortune to hear and see will never be known outside the little kingdoms inhabited by their personal friends and acquaintances.

All of the hundreds of artists I have known in my life, save for those rare few who for one reason or another succeeded hugely in the mainstream of our culture, either came to accept and even relish their relative anonymity in the greater scheme of things or they ceased to make art because the hope of great success was their primary motivation for making art.

A few of my books have sold thousands of copies, but none of my nine music CDs have sold more than a hundred copies. Many people unknown to me have read my books, but most of those who enjoy my music are known to me by their first names. And yet I have always been as dedicated to my music as I am to my writing, and I intend to practice and compose music for as long as I am able. Lovers of my music are few, but they are zealous lovers, and that is sufficient.

A few years ago I recorded an album of solo piano improvisations entitled Ceremonies, each piece an accompaniment to an imagined ceremony.

One of the pieces on the album is entitled “Dance of the Seahorses” and as I improvised that tune, I imagined the slow underwater dancing of those remarkable fish, a hypnotic enactment of a never-ending ceremony.

Another piece entitled “Blue Cathedral” is a churchy blues I imagined as a sacred processional in a cathedral bathed in ethereal light.

And my favorite piece on the Ceremonies album is entitled “The Magician.” As I played that mysterious tune, I saw in my mind’s eye a graceful mime performing a slow dance full of mystical and subtly humorous flourishes.

Fast forward to October 13, 2015, four days shy of my sixty-sixth birthday. An email arrived from my pal Max Greenstreet in New Hampshire informing me that he and his wife Kate Greenstreet had just released Kate’s video-poem The Magician, with my composition “The Magician” underpinning the narrative; and that short film is now viewable on Vimeo, a web site where filmmakers can share their creations with the world.

Words are inadequate to describe how thrilled and gratified I am that Kate chose my music for this video-poem she made in league with Cynthia King. I am a huge fan of Kate’s video-poems, Max her right hand man in the making of her films, and it is not hyperbole to say that having my music harmonizing with her words and imagery is a validation and encouragement that will sustain my musical pursuits for the rest of my life.

You can watch The Magician by going to https://vimeo.com/142189708

“It is the unspoken ethic of all magicians to not reveal the secrets.” David Copperfield

A large part of my joy about Kate and Max using “The Magician” in their exquisite film is that I have endeavored several dozen times over the course of my life to collaborate with other artists on a wide variety of creations, and the vast majority of those collaborations ended in creative or emotional or financial disaster, and usually some combination of the three. It would be convenient to blame my collaborators for these disasters, but since I am the only constant in these many failed equations, I suspect the fatal flaw lies with me.

Long ago in the days before digital cameras, I collaborated on the making of a short film I wrote and directed. The audio engineer on the project said he would only collaborate with me if everyone involved in making the film had his or her role in the process clearly defined, written down, and agreed upon, and that as the instigator and financier of the project, my judgment in all creative matters would be the final one, with everyone involved agreeing to that, too, with signed documents attesting to these agreements.

At the time, I thought such punctilious preliminaries unnecessary, but he was a superb sound engineer and I very much wanted to work with him, so I agreed to his conditions. My cameraman bridled a bit at the strict clarification of his role, but he signed his agreement as did the few other people involved, and we got to work.

No collaborative endeavor I have been involved with before or since ever went so smoothly. The potential clash of egos was dispensed with at the outset, and clashing egos, as I’m sure you know, make collaboration difficult if not impossible.

And though today my creative endeavors are solo flights—no one to argue with but little old me—I often fantasize about how grand it would be to team up with a drummer or filmmaker or singer or dancers who find my music and words exactly what they’ve been looking for to meld with their artistry.

This is why I am so thrilled that Kate and Max used my music in their movie The Magician. My music, in the words of Goldilocks, was just right—our collaboration arising from friendship and mutual admiration.

As I resume collaborating with myself, I imagine my novel-in-progress calling out to prescient publishers and daring movie makers, my latest piano explorations ringing through the global etheric in quest of people who will hear my music as soundtracks to bold new explorations of the light fantastic.

Stripes

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

this song's for you site

This Song’s For You by Nolan Winkler

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

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” Pema Chödrön

A friend recently sent me a link to a short movie about a high school art teacher in St. Paul Minnesota whose students are recent arrivals from other countries, refugees from military conflicts. Many of the students barely speak English, so this teacher has devised fun and creative ways to explore color theory without needing much language for the learning.

Watching the film reminded me of another short art-related movie made by a friend of mine in 1976 called Stripes, about stripe patterns in paintings and life. Dan Nadaner, now a professor of art and a successful artist, made the three-minute long film in those pre-digital days while doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. For the soundtrack, he wrote a ditty about the stripes that appear in paintings by famous artists, and he asked me to play guitar and sing his lyrics in the way he imagined, a kind of slow-going country song.

I was twenty-six and living in Medford Oregon at the time, working as a landscaper. I had stopped writing and making music entirely for a reason that may sound ridiculous, but which made perfect sense given the accumulation of neuroses characterizing me in those days.

I took up the guitar at the age of twenty when I needed a more mobile instrument than a piano. Three years later I was making a large part of my minimal living playing guitar and singing in pubs and cafés in Santa Cruz, and it was during this time I entered into a relationship with a woman who was studying piano.

My relationship pattern at that time and for much of my life was to choose partners and friends who were openly hostile toward my music and writing. Why would an artist repeatedly get involved with people who despise his art? The short answer is that my parents were contemptuous of my music and writing and violently opposed to my pursuing those art forms as my life’s calling. Thus as a child and teenager I became habituated to abuse and disdain for what I was passionate about, and as I progressed into adulthood I repeatedly and unconsciously chose people reminiscent of my parents to be my mates and friends. This continued into middle age when I finally broke free of that debilitating pattern.

But before breaking free, I spent much of my life enmeshed with people who thrived on disparaging the likes of me, and one of those people was my girlfriend when I was twenty-four and twenty-five and making part of my living as a musician and selling the occasional short story. My girlfriend hated the relative ease with which I made music, and by the end of our relationship she had convinced me that my desire to entertain people with my music and stories was an emotional crutch. She preached at me incessantly that if I ever wanted to become a whole and genuine person, I needed to quit making music and stop writing.

So I gave up writing and music, she and I broke up, I went to work as a landscaper, and I didn’t play a note or write a word for one long year until Dan called me from New York and asked me to play guitar and sing the soundtrack for his movie Stripes.

I clearly remember telling Dan that I no longer played guitar or sang or wrote stories, and I remember Dan calmly suggesting this was a passing phase, that I was a good musician and he was sure I would do a fine job singing his ditty about stripes.

So I borrowed a guitar and played and sang the Stripes song into a cassette recorder and sent the tape to Dan, thinking it would be something he could use to clarify his vision of the soundtrack, but then he called and said, “That’s perfect.”

The next day I woke up with a new song forming and I barely got the words written down and the chords figured out before another song began to emerge. Then the floodgates opened, I purchased the borrowed guitar, wrote dozens of songs, started playing the piano again, and haven’t stopped playing since.

Shortly after I began making music again, I wrote the first short story I’d written in two years and immediately sold it for five hundred dollars. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is entirely true. Dan asking me to play and sing for his movie, and his approval of what I created for him, lifted the curse and turned Toad into a functional writer and musician again.

“How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss

More than thirty years later, Dan sent me a DVD of Stripes, and when I watched the movie again after all these years, my gratitude to him was as big as the moon. The film is somewhat rosy now, having lain in a canister for three decades before being transferred to digital format, but I still find it a most beautiful creation. Our web meister Garth has posted Stripes on my web site so you can take a look. Just go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on Films.

Alas, my resumption of writing and making music way back when did not go hand in hand with an end to relationships with abusive people who hated my music and writing. That blessed day would not come until I was in my mid-fifties and I finally ended the last of those debilitating connections. What took me so long? I guess these kinds of transformations take time.

The Amazon Paradox

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

oasis-tales-conjuror

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

“Surrealism to me is reality.” John Lennon

My books are for sale on Amazon. New and used. So are my music CDs. My books and music are downloadable from Amazon, and that includes audio books of my work narrated by yours truly. Do I feel like a rat and an enemy of local bookstores and local music stores? No, because with the exception of a few extremely local bookstores where I am personally known to the proprietors, my books are not available in any local bookstores in America or even in the few remaining chain bookstores, and that is also true of my music. This is also true for the vast majority of writers and musicians (those who produce books and albums) in this country. Without Amazon and a few other online sites, most writers and musicians would have nowhere, practically speaking, to sell their work.

Ironically, local independent bookstores with their extremely limited shelf space carry almost entirely mainstream corporate product (i.e. imitative junk) because that is what most people buy. Amazon, on the other hand, has unlimited shelf space and carries everybody’s books and music, including works by the most esoteric poets and writers and musicians in the world, works no one else will carry. Amazon has also been a fantastic boon to used booksellers, many of whom were going out of business before Amazon provided a way for those used bookstores to reach millions of people who otherwise would never have known about them.

Before the advent of Amazon, many well-meaning people believed that shopping at chain bookstores would bring about the demise of local bookstores. However, my first five novels were only (albeit briefly) available in chain bookstores and not in local independent bookstores because the chains had shelf space for less known and less mainstream books and the independent stores only carried what the New York Times said was worth buying. If you don’t know it already, the New York Times only reviews and touts books published by their major advertisers, the giant corporate publishers, which are wholly owned subsidiaries of huge multinational corporations. Local bookstores thirty years ago, and local bookstores today, carry books, with very few exceptions, that get reviewed in mainstream newspapers and magazines owned by huge corporations who also happen to publish nearly all the books that get reviewed and advertised in America.

You see the problem. We are told to support our local bookstores in their selling of corporate product because…why? Doing so pays the salaries of a few local bookstore clerks? If local independent bookstores primarily sold books published by independent publishers, that would be a different matter, but if they did that they would immediately go out of business because most people, including hip savvy happening people, only buy books and music they’ve heard about through the corporate media, which includes National Public Radio and The New Yorker, and don’t kid yourself that NPR and The New Yorker aren’t corporate bullhorns.

What if, just for the sake of discussion, Amazon did exactly what it does, except Amazon employees were treated humanely, paid handsomely, given fabulous benefits and fat pensions, and worked in environmentally marvelous solar electric facilities sending forth goods in recycled biodegradable organic packaging material transported by environmentally fabulous systems of purveyance? Would it then no longer be a sin to shop at Amazon? Less of a sin? Is it how Amazon does what it does or what Amazon does that makes them so awful-seeming?

To sum up a prevalent notion of reality shared by way too many people who should know better: if you can’t get a gigantic corporation to publish your books and spend tons of money getting those books reviewed and advertised and distributed to local indie bookstores, you should just stop writing. And stop recording music, too. Just make a living some other way. Don’t even try to be an artist unless you can be immensely successful and have articles written about you in The New Yorker. To do otherwise is unfair to small businesses. Got it?

Am I a pimp for Amazon? Nay. I buy almost nothing from them. I walk everywhere and drive very little. My carbon footprint is a few toe indentations compared to the average American. Still, I struggle with the paradox of knowing that my books, the ones recently published and the ones long out-of-print, have lives (in the sense of being available to people) almost entirely because of Amazon. Nor were my books readily available before Amazon. Prior to the advent of Amazon, if someone asked where they could get a copy of one of my books, I would say, “Well, if you have a stupendous and well-endowed library system or access to the greatest used bookstores on earth, you might find a few of them.” Now all my books are readily available from independent used booksellers availing themselves of Amazon’s organizational system to sell their goods. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Could it be better? Of course. By the way, I don’t make a cent from the sales of used copies of my books and I make almost nothing from the sales of my new books, but I’m still happy that people have easy access to my work.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

This just in. The National Library of Norway is planning to digitize all the books in Norwegian by the mid 2020’s (hundreds of thousands of books). This will mean that if your IP (Internet Protocol) address proves your computer is in Norway, you will be able to access all the Norwegian books ever published, even those still under copyright, for free. The article did not say how publishers and authors are to be compensated for their work under this plan, but Norway is wealthy and socialist, with a highly literate population, so I imagine Norwegian writers will not be dissuaded from continuing to write because of this mass digitization.

It has never been easy for artists to make livings from their art, and for millennia now in the so-called advanced societies virtually every artist we’ve ever heard of was beholden to some king or prince or wealthy merchant or powerful editor or rich person to subsidize the making and dissemination of those famous artists’ art. Is this a bad thing? Is selling books and music and artistic creations on Amazon (because there is nowhere else to sell such things) any worse than beseeching (or having sex with) a powerful duke or prince so the big idiot will commission a sonata so you can pay your rent and buy food? Is getting in bed with Amazon worse than playing footsy (or having sex) with a Medici or two so they’ll pay you to sculpt David out of marble and paint the Sistine Chapel? You tell me.

When I published my first novel in 1978, I was invited to join the Author’s Guild, an esteemed organization that claimed at that time to represent some seven thousand American authors published by major publishers. I joined because my literary agent said it was a good idea, but I eventually resigned because the Author’s Guild was forever asking members for money to help writers from other countries while doing nothing to help American writers, including and especially their own guild members. However, before I resigned, I took part in a survey with my seven thousand fellow members of the Author’s Guild, and the results were that less than one-quarter of one per cent of the seven thousand writers surveyed made even a minimalist living from their writing. Some vibrant culture we’ve got, huh?

“Take away the paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.” Soren Kierkegaard

I am now publishing books at Zo, Mendocino’s finest and only copy shop. This does not preclude future offers from daring, creative, prescient publishers who wish to publish my work, but from now on the first editions of my novels will be Zo Editions, unless Zo goes out of business before I cease to produce books. My first venture, the novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, launched in November, has now sold thirty-one copies, and as of copy #28 my design and manufacturing costs have been covered, which means the last three copies I sold (through my web site) have brought me massive profit, easily enough to take Marcia out for lunch at the Mendocino Café, if we share one of the less expensive entrées and two large glasses of water, hold the bubbles.

My publishing experiment proves (to me) there are three kinds of people. By far the largest number of the three kinds are those who react with contempt and pity and varying degrees of disgust when they hear of my comb-bound individually hand-numbered and signed publishing venture, the second largest number are those who smile and say “Neato!” when they hear of my new old way of bringing out my fiction, and the smallest number are those who don’t hesitate to say, “I’ll buy one,” and they do.

The sad and undeniable truth is that most people in our society do not consider writing fiction or composing music or drawing or painting or any kind of art making to be real work. Ours is essentially an anti-artist culture, which is why most people need those corporate stamps of approval before they will believe something has value. Talk about a paradox. The Amazon Paradox is an easy ten-piece jigsaw puzzle for small children compared to the paradox of why so many seemingly intelligent people still believe the corporate media communicates anything other than advertisements for the products of huge corporations, and only by accident and once in a blue moon allows something so subversive as original art to reach a large audience.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

wildgardener2

Wild Gardener Black painting by Todd

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

“And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world—unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.” e.e. cummings

In those long ago days when I was invited to read from my novels in bookstores and libraries, and for college audiences and writers groups, I was frequently asked if I had any helpful advice for people who wanted to become writers and make their livings from writing. This was before the advent of personal computers and digital everything, before people began writing with their thumbs on phones, and before a new myth conquered the collective psyche. That new myth goes something like this: Writing novels is easy. Anyone can write a novel without any practice and without ever having written a short story or even a viable paragraph. Just do it! And then publish your novel online and…voila!

Myths take hold and become established because they reflect a strong collective belief or wish. The myth that writing a novel is easy reflects a strong collective desire for everything to be easy. The suggestion by e.e. cummings that even just beginning to master the art of writing a good poem may take many years of practice, is the quantum opposite of the new myth about how easy it is to write poetry and fiction. After all, poems are just stacks of lines of words, right? So say today’s college academics and snake oil merchants making millions running the thousands of Creative Writing MFA programs now extant in America, programs wherein the only requirement for getting an MFA is enough money to pay the exorbitant tuition.

How hard can stacking lines of words be, especially now that the latest vogue in academic poetics is for those stacks of lines of words to not make the least bit of sense—literal, symbolic, or otherwise. Indeed, making sense is now considered a bad thing by academic poetry professors. Logic and meaning and connectivity are clearly signs of enslavement to something or other and must be avoided at all costs. Strike out any combination of words that might be construed to possibly make some sort of sense. Embrace the random whatever. Okay! Let’s get stacking.

Contrast the new anybody-can-do-anything-with-ease myth with cummings suggesting, “If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.” Ten or fifteen years of hard work? Nobody gonna buy that app.

In any case, way back when I was presenting my published works to a public still abiding by the old myth that it takes years of practice and persistence to possibly succeed as a writer or an artist, I was forever being asked for advice about how to proceed on the artist’s path. After several bumbling attempts to give helpful answers, I settled on the following. “I have two words of advice for anyone who wants to be a writer or an artist in our society, and those two words are low overhead. The less time you must spend making money to pay for rent and food, the more time you will have, as cummings put it, to fight and work and feel your way to the beginnings of mastery.”

Ah but mastery of the art form is only part of the struggle if an artist hopes to make money from his or her creations. And it is on this trying-to-make-money-from-art leg of the artist’s journey when most artists give up their quests, for this is the part of the process largely controlled by others. This is the part of the journey when the artist learns the painful truth that making money from art in America has little or nothing to do with art and everything to do with selling one’s self.

How ironic! Having worked with hundreds of writers as a teacher and editor, and having known hundreds of artists, I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of writers and artists in our society are introverts, many of them extremely introverted and painfully shy. Yet nearly all the successful artists and writers in America, as measured by the amount of money made from their creations, are extroverts. Indeed, all the most commercially successful of my former students and clients are minimally talented, while none of the several brilliant writers I worked with has had any commercial success to speak of.

This was not always the case. American literature and music and art prior to the advent of television and mass media and the corporate takeover of culture, was peopled with many painfully shy introverts represented by savvy extroverted agents and publishers who recognized the value of those oddballs’ genius.

So what? What’s wrong with most of today’s popular authors being beautiful and handsome and sexy and coming off well on talk shows and infomercials? Sure their books aren’t very good, but some of the books are kind of okay. Aren’t they? And besides, who cares about making money from art now that anybody can publish his or her book online and no one will stop him or her. That’s great, isn’t it? Artistic freedom from the tyranny of corporate lap dogs. Power to the people. A global creative renaissance via YouTube and podcasts and cyber sharing! Right on!

Yes! Nowadays anyone can publish anything and record anything and draw anything and say anything and film anything and offer those anythings to the world. And I’ve studied many of the ways people do that kind of sharing and I think that’s…yeah, exactly. Okay. But because I am a painfully shy introverted techno doofus detached from all cyber social network sites, as well as being an old-fashioned diehard three-dimensionalite, and because shameless self-promotion is a necessity for the cottage-industry artist of our time to eke out a living amidst the new electronic digital smartphone e-everything reality, I offer the following for you to reject or embrace or ignore or respond to.

Shameless Self-Promotion Presents

Todd’s New Stuff For You and To Give As Gifts

Helloooo out there wherever you are. I’ve got two new creations for you to possibly buy along with lots of somewhat older goodies you may wish to consider buying. If you’ve never bought anything of mine, that’s okay. Please don’t let that stop you from doing something you’ve never done before. I hope you’ll buy multiple things from me and in so doing support the arts and stir the synergetic pot and be happily surprised at how good my books and music are. This my hope.

I just got my shipment of Incongroovity, my fourth piano-centric CD, and I’m selling this entrancing album for a mere ten bucks. I still call them albums and array the tracks to be listened to as an album, though the new norm of perception is random individual track downloads, and you can do the download thing with Incongroovity, too, from iTunes and CD Baby etc. But you might love the original art I made to package the disc. Talk about a neato stocking stuffer. This is it. Nine groovacious piano instrumentals, one song Real Good Joe (a stirring tune about coffee and love) and two evocative and sensual poems set to piano music.

And I just picked up my second batch of my novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror from Zo, Mendocino’s premiere copy shop. Illustrated by the author, each handsome comb-bound copy is individually and extravagantly signed and numbered by the author. Oasis Tales of the Conjuror is the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in creative and harmonious ways. The stories are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival. Only seventeen (17) bucks a copy, you may want to get several because…why not? To further whet your appetite, you can read the first three chapters of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror at Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.

At this same web site you can listen gratis to big chunks of audio versions of Todd’s novels and short stories, sample music from Todd’s music CDs, peruse his art, and buy books and cards and music with a credit card or email Todd to arrange to pay with check or cash. And no matter how many of these wonderful creations you buy, shipping is only five bucks. Such a deal!

So there it is, my shameless self-promotion for 2013—my response to the new digital age. I may be out of step, out of time, out of gas, and out to lunch, but as I climbed the steep hill from the village yesterday, my knapsack full of the next twenty copies of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, I felt some invisible power lift my pack so the load did not weigh too heavily upon me. And as I began to flag on the home stretch and to doubt the wisdom of my seemingly retrograde strategy, there came a delicious tail wind that propelled me onward.

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet.” Will Holt

Lemon trees growing near the kitchen. What a wonderful idea. So we chose the perfect spots on the south side of the house for two goodly Meyers, the warmest and sunniest place on our property, only to discover that one of those perfect spots was home to the root mass, still very much alive, of a gargantuan shrub I removed nine months ago. Thus a Herculean task awaited me, one I would postpone until I brought the lemon trees home and their presence inspired me to extricate the massive tangle.

And so on a sunny Saturday, homeward bound after pruning a gorgeous green-leafed Japanese maple, a crab apple, and a plum, I stopped at the admirable Hare Creek Nursery on the south side of Fort Bragg and bought two little Meyer lemon trees. The friendly folks there cautioned me not to plant the lemon trees in the ground, but to grow them in tubs. However, Marcia and I are not after bonsais; we’re aiming for large trees festooned with hundreds of delectable yellow orbs, and I figure with global warming proceeding apace, the Mendocino climate should henceforth be perfect for growing citrus in the ground.

With the little beauties sitting nearby and crying for release from their plastic pots, I began digging around the root mass and confirmed that my nemesis was gigantic, well connected, tenacious, and uncooperative. To borrow from Bogart, I have met a lot of root masses in my time, but this one was really something special. After an hour of heavy labor using shovel, mattock, pick, trowel, axe and crowbar, the mass remained unmoving, as if I had done nothing. This depressed me, so I took a break, had some water and a handful of almonds and tried not to take the root mass’s indifference personally.

“The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.” Blaise Pascal

When I lived in Berkeley, and before I discovered a secret post office where I never had to wait, I frequently stood in long lines to mail packages and buy stamps. And on many such occasions, people in line with me would take it personally that they had to wait more than a few minutes to do their postal business, and they would say things like, “This is an outrage,” or “No wonder they’re going out of business,” as if the postal clerks were intentionally taking as long as they possibly could with each transaction.

Having made a careful multi-year study of the service in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and El Cerrito post offices, I have no doubt that the real cause of the slowness of service was the alarming number of befuddled and dimwitted customers who would, upon their arrival at the counter, act as if they had no idea how they came to be there or where on their persons they had secreted their wallets or how they wanted to mail whatever it was they wished to mail. The postal clerks would patiently explain the various shipping choices and how much each choice would cost, and the befuddled dimwits would stand in frozen dismay for minutes on end pondering such deep philosophical questions as “Priority or Media?”, “Would you like to insure that?” and “For how much?”

One day at the Albany post office, a man several places behind me in line shouted at the two harried postal clerks, “Has today’s mail been delivered into the boxes yet?”

The clerks had their hands full helping befuddled dimwits, so neither replied to the shouting man.

Their indifference enraged the man and he screamed, “Has today’s mail been put in the boxes? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”

One of the clerks said wearily, “Yes, the mail has been put in the boxes today.”

“Bullshit!” screamed the man. “I know a letter arrived for me today and you are intentionally keeping it from me. I demand that you give me my letter or I’ll call the police!”

The two clerks exchanged glances and one of them said, “Go right ahead, sir. Call the police.”

“Fascists!” screamed the man. “Thieves!”

Then the poor fellow ran out of the post office and the woman behind me murmured, “Thank God he didn’t have a gun.”

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Returning to the root mass, I resumed my digging and picking and chopping and clawing, and soon enough the mass began to move when prodded, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope of eventual success. After another hour of digging and chopping, there remained but one fat root connecting the root mass to the earth. I rose from my knees, took hold of my axe, positioned myself above my target, and was about to swing the axe high, when I felt a pang of empathy for the root mass and decided to wait a moment before severing that last life-giving tendril.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Kahlil Gibran

Speaking of roots, I was thinking about homegrown carrots the other day as I was making pancake batter using eggs we got from our neighbors Elias and Emily, who also provide us with exceptionally yummy goat cheese. Emily and Elias’s eggs come from their herd of happy-go-lucky free-ranging chickens whose eggs are so delicious they make the best organic mass produced eggs seem tasteless and tawdry in comparison. Indeed, these Emily and Elias chicken eggs make my gluten-free pancake batter so rich and tasty I dread the day when I have to resort to store bought eggs again. But why did Emily and Elias’s grandiloquent eggs make me think about homegrown carrots?

Because there are few things in the world as delicious as a well-grown carrot in its prime just pulled from the friable earth of a wholly natural garden. Indeed, so sweet and delicious is a just-pulled homegrown carrot, that the very best organic carrots money can buy are but pale imitations of the homegrown variety. Just-pulled is a large part of the answer to why homegrown carrots are so superior to even the best store or farmers’ market-bought carrots; the delectable sugar in just-pulled carrots has yet to turn to starch. Ergo, Emily and Elias’s eggs are to eggs what just-pulled homegrown carrots are to carrots.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

The roots of our culture nourished by art. Society setting artists free to follow their visions wherever those visions may take them. Can you imagine such a society?  Kennedy spoke those words on October 26, 1963, less than a month before he was assassinated, and I’ve often thought his words were prophetic of what was to come and ever after be called The Sixties, a brief era when more artists freely followed their visions than ever before. And it took the overlords of our society a good decade to get control of the situation and put a stop to most of that status-quo-threatening socialistic vision following.

“My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler

Who are your chosen ancestors? What are the roots of the decisions you make that direct the course of your life? The root mass got me thinking about roots, the ones we spring from and the ones we create for ourselves. Some root masses are inescapable, some allow for the intrusion of new roots, and sometimes we have to excise the present root mass to make room for the new.

I know I was emboldened by the poets Philip Whalen and David Meltzer and Lew Welch, the example of my uncle David, the movies The Horse’s Mouth and Zorba the Greek, and the powerful societal ferment roiling northern California in the 1960’s to drop out of college and follow my visions, much to the chagrin of my parents, speaking of root masses. My father and mother strove mightily to convince me to change my mind and return to the straight and narrow and safe, but I would not change my mind.

After two exciting, challenging and exhausting years of vagabonding, I found myself with a terrible cold, a worse cough, and barely surviving on rice and lentils in a badly insulated room in Ashland, Oregon. I was in the throes of writing my first novel and loving the work, but I was so lonely and sad and tired of being poor that I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel and return to the ease and comfort of college. And then at the absolute nadir of my despair, I received a letter from my father, the gist of which so surprised me I had to read the letter three times before I could even begin to believe what he had written.

My father wrote in black ink on light orange stationery that he was both jealous and proud of me for doing what he had always longed to do but never had the courage to attempt—to leave the straight and narrow and go a’ wandering with pack on his back, following only the whims of his heart and intuition—those words from my greatest critic providing the inspiration I needed to continue my uncharted course.

Some years later, I mentioned this remarkable letter to my father, and he snorted and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never have written such a thing to you because I have never for a minute been jealous of you and I am not proud of you pissing your life away on your delusional infantile fantasies.”

“Oh, but you did write that, Dad,” I said, not at all surprised he didn’t remember writing such words to me. “And you sent the letter, too, along with a twenty-dollar bill that bought me chicken and eggs and almonds and cheese and cookies and a wonderfully warm jacket from the Salvation Army.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and filling his wine glass yet again, “making shit up to fit your fantasies.”

“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Carl Jung

Now the little lemon trees are planted in the good earth and sending forth their new roots—the gargantuan root mass gone. Emily and Elias’s chickens are foraging in the meadow, their just-laid eggs awaiting discovery in the coop. Carrot seedlings are emerging in my carrot patch, and soon I will thin the rows of promising babies, only one in a dozen to be spared to grow beyond the first culling.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Creative Paradox

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
garth hagerman

Photo by Garth Hagerman

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

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Nadia Boulanger

During the four years in the early 1990’s when I ran the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I oversaw the work of two hundred teenaged writers and worked intimately with fifty of those talented scribblers. Three of the two hundred were, in my estimation, brilliant and original and highly accomplished writers; yet these three were so deeply introverted I predicted they would never succeed as professional writers. Sadly, so far, my prediction has proved true. In the publishing world of today, ambition entirely trumps talent, and believe it or not, ambitious imitators rule the narrow roost of your favorite bookstore, independent or otherwise.

We recently watched the first two-thirds of Robert Altman’s excruciatingly painful film Vincent and Theo about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo—two-thirds of the movie being all we could bear, and even at that I was an emotional wreck. Whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of the real Van Gogh, the movie conveys the very real suffering that many visionary artists feel in the absence of lasting emotional connections to other people and society, emotional connections these artists desperately want to make through their art. Yet because society is largely a manifestation of well-established perceptions and carefully regulated protocols for the presentation of those perceptions, most creative introverts are doomed to commercial failure unless they are rescued through the intervention of a sympathetic agent (catalyst) in the body of a functional extrovert.

The few moderate successes of my own writing career occurred because of the divine efforts of an extraordinary literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, the likes of which no longer exist, for she was wholly concerned with quality and originality, while caring not a whit about commerciality or the emotional idiosyncrasies of her clients. When Dorothy died, I was left to my own devices, which, for the most part, proved unacceptable to corporate operatives who care not a whit for quality and originality, and care only about their bottom lines showing large profits.

We want to think those elegant hardbacks awaiting us on the New Arrivals table at our favorite bookstore are the cream of a diverse cultural crop, the work of artists and original thinkers, but this is rarely true, for the source of nearly all of these books is corporate fascism, the antithesis of everything we wish our culture to be. Thus the most original of our writers and musicians and artists survive on the fringes of our cultural mix and remain largely unknown to you or to me or to anyone, save for a few friends, if they are fortunate to have friends.

This systemic isolation of original artists has probably existed since the dawn of urban life, when for the first time in human evolution large numbers of people came to live together in relatively small geographical areas. Certainly without the untiring efforts of Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother and agent and only friend, we never would have received the enduring gift of Van Gogh’s genius. And because in the course of my life I have been fortunate to read the unpublished work of a handful of contemporary geniuses that few others will ever read, I assume there are thousands of such writers and artists toiling away in anonymity; which assumption brings to mind the cultivation of carrots and how of the several hundred seedlings that sprout in the carrot patch only a lucky few will survive the seemingly random act of thinning so they may attain full carrotness, with only the rarest of carrots attaining carrot magnificence.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

Having published ten books with nine different gargantuan publishing houses, eight works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, and having had essentially the same dreadful experience with each of these corporate behemoths, I, the former Executive Oddball of the International Order of Barely Functional Introverts, finally decided to embark on the path of a self-publisher. Succeed or not, I would at least have some small control over my creations (if only to be in charge of hiding them); and best of all I would never again have to watch as my years and years of toil were relegated to the trash heap with the wave of some moron’s hand, before or shortly after what should have been publication days of joy and celebration.

Though it may seem incredible, even unbelievable, to those unfamiliar with mainstream American publishing, the entire system has, for over forty years, been based on the buying and publishing of thousands of books every fiscal quarter with the foreknowledge that most of these books will be intentionally killed before or shortly after their official dates of publication. How could such a bizarre system have taken hold in a field that most people still think of as a creative part of our cultural framework? A thorough explanation of how this self-annihilating practice came to be would fill a fat volume, but I will use the brief tale of one of my own books as an example of how the system operates.

In 1995, having gone nearly a decade since publishing my fourth novel, I sold my fifth, Ruby & Spear, to Bantam for a 25,000 dollar advance. A rousing contemporary myth, Ruby & Spear is about an impetuous white sports writer, Vic, and his adventures with a fabulous black basketball player named Spear, a sexy feminist named Greta, and Spear’s tough old mystical grandmother Ruby. When they purchased Ruby & Spear, Bantam was owned by Random House, which in turn had been swallowed by a massive multinational corporation that now owns most of the previously freestanding publishing houses in America. In truth, there are only three gigantic publishers left in America, each masquerading as several publishing houses, each in reality a tiny division of a multinational behemoth.

Why did Bantam buy Ruby & Spear? I would like to say it was because their editors and sales people were eager to bring forth an entertaining literary gem; but that would be untrue. Bantam bought Ruby & Spear because they were guessing (gambling) that the movie rights to the book would be optioned for the movies before the book was published, which optioning would result in thousands of dollars of free publicity for the book; and if, indeed, a movie of Ruby & Spear was made there would be millions of dollars of free publicity. Bantam hoped the book might be sold to the movies because another of my novels, Forgotten Impulses, was on the verge of being made into a major motion movie, and because my first novel Inside Moves had been made into a film during the Pleistocene, which film caused many copies of that book to be sold.

But when Forgotten Impulses was ignominiously dropped by the movie people, and that dropping coincided with a few stupid studio execs complaining that Ruby & Spear was strangely void of violence and chock full of strong complex women and atypical men (and it wasn’t set in either New York or Los Angeles, but in Oakland, for godsake!) Bantam decided not to bring out a hardback version (ending hope of widespread reviews); and then they decided to kill the paperback edition on publication day.

To kill a book, a publisher declares the tome out-of-print and ceases distribution before that book has a chance to live. This is the fate of the vast majority of books published by large publishers, and is especially the fate of literary fiction, a rare kind of writing that does not fit into any obvious target genre such as murder mystery, sci-fi, teen vampire, adult vampire, teen wizard, or bodice-ripping historical romance. 25,000 dollars, to a corporation making most of its billions from strip mining and manufacturing cell phones and buying and selling governments, is not much of a gamble, so….

So here I am, an introverted self-publisher, my first two self-published books winners of multiple independent publishing awards, yet almost no bookstores in America carry my books, and that includes those revered independent bookstores. Why? Simple. Many people who buy books have seen and heard myriad advertisements for the latest bodice-ripping historical vampire fantasy, and many of these same people enjoyed the previous seven volumes in that marvelous series, so they very much want to read the latest regurgitation; and they have not heard of Buddha In A Teacup or Under the Table Books, nor have the bookstore people heard of my unclassifiable tomes, neither of which contains a single vampire, though both volumes are mysteriously sensual. Thus we live with the painful irony that independent bookstores generally carry only the most popular mainstream gunk because they don’t have the shelf space for (or the knowledge of) less popular books.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

Long ago I had supper with one of the most powerful publishers in America who happened to be married at the time (ever so briefly) to the editor of one of those novels I published in the Pleistocene. And when this famous publisher was nicely lit after downing a few goblets of breathtakingly expensive wine, she raised her glass and proclaimed, “Every book that really deserves to be published eventually does get published.”

And though from a career-building point of view I should have raised my glass and cried, “Hear, hear!” instead I retorted, “Methinks you are rationalizing the actions of unscrupulous corporations,” which only made her hostile. Oops. Silly me.

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Gazing back thirty-five years through the telescope of hindsight, I realize that my editor’s wife, a great and powerful publisher (who was just a person, after all) was giving voice to what we all fervently want to believe, which is that great new creations will eventually find their ways into the lives of more than a few lucky people. And I think we harbor this belief in the inevitable ascendancy of excellent original art (which hasn’t been the case for thousands of years) because for most of human evolution, when our kind were much fewer and farther between, when we lived in bands and tribes and everyone knew everyone else, that when a good new creation came along, that song or story or painting or dance or myth or spear or drum or flute stood out like the only black horse in a herd of white horses, or vice-versa, so there was no way the glorious thing could be overlooked.

Both At Once

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

“Truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Morning: A beautiful day in Mendocino, the rhododendrons madly blooming, the headlands a riot of wild roses and wild irises and wild mustard, while across the ocean a terrible thing is happening: four nuclear reactors in Japan are out of control, melting down, and turning vast areas of that nation into dead zones for thousands of years to come.

“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world.” Allen Ginsberg

Noon: A friend writes to say his business is doing well, his daughter about to get married, and he hasn’t felt so well in ages. In the same mail is a note from another friend telling me about his neighbor, a fellow from Japan, who now has five relatives living with him in his tiny apartment in Berkeley, the hope being they can somehow figure out a way to stay here once their tourist visas expire, because as far as they’re concerned there is no going back to Japan unless they want to die much sooner than later.

“There is only one answer to destructiveness and that is creativity.” Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Afternoon: I weed my burgeoning beets. Oh how they loved all the recent rain; and oh how they love the fulgent sunshine. Making tea, I turn on the radio and listen to Michio Kaku, the renowned physicist speaking to Amy Goodman. He believes the ongoing meltdowns of the nuclear power plants in Japan, along with the massive releases of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, must be dealt with promptly and thoroughly or there will soon be catastrophic consequences far beyond the already catastrophic consequences. When Amy asks him what the Japanese government should do, Michio says they should call out the army and do everything necessary to entomb the power plants as quickly as possible.

“The only thing you can believe in a newspaper is the date.” J.B.S. Haldane

Night: The Giants win a great game in the bottom of the tenth inning—a real thriller, the winning hit causing me to hoot for joy. On my way to bed, I check the interweb for news of the nuclear meltdowns, though I know such news might mess up my sleep, and I find a recent statement from Barack Obama saying nuclear power is definitely the way to go because nuclear is clean energy and won’t contribute to global warming.

“The fool has one great advantage over a man of sense—he is always satisfied with himself.” Napoleon Bonaparte

Morning: I make a pot of coffee and turn on our local public radio station and listen incredulously to a show purporting to be about energy. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The hosts, two self-proclaimed experts on energy, are both extolling the virtues and safety of nuclear power. Having just read the latest nightmare news from Japan, I am about to call the show, when they take a call from a guy who says, “Hey, all power is nuclear, right? Solar power is nuclear, right? Comes from the sun, which is nuclear. Right? So…”

And the hosts agree. “That’s right, all power is nuclear. So…”

They take another call. A woman. I’m hoping she’ll say what I want to say, which is, “Are you out of your minds? There are four nuclear power plants in Japan in full meltdown, radiating the entire earth, sewing the seeds of millions of cases of cancer, and you dare call nuclear power safe?” But she says something about life being a beautiful dance “…and, like, so…enjoy the dance.”

I turn off the radio and do the dishes. I vacuum the house. I chop kindling. I mulch the potatoes. I grab my bucksaw and go down into the woods and find a fallen fir. I cut the tree into draggable lengths and lug them up the steep hill to the woodshed where I saw the logs into firewood. I chop some more kindling. I drive to town and park at Big River Beach and walk into town along the beach and up the stairs to the Presbyterian. I am so angry at those people for saying nuclear power is safe, I’m about to explode, and I figure if I keep working and walking and using the energy of my anger to get things done, I won’t explode.

At the post office, Sheila and I talk about the Giants. We’re both sorry De Rosa hurt his wrist, but, hey, the guy was a dead weight on the team, bad mojo, and without him we’re winning again. We’re both looking forward to Pablo coming back. I buy some Gregory Peck stamps. I didn’t know Greg was dead. Did you know a person has to be dead before he or she can be on a postage stamp? The one exception to this I know of was the stamp (3 cents?) commemorating the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. Apparently, one or two of the men in that famous (staged) photograph were still alive when the stamp was issued.

Part of the official reason for America dropping not one but two atom bombs on hundreds of thousands of defenseless Japanese civilians at the end of World War II was so our armed forces wouldn’t have to invade Japan “Iwo Jima-style” and suffer thousands of “unnecessary casualties.” This was not the real reason the bombs were dropped. I don’t know what the real reasons were, though I have my suspicions. What I do know is that anyone who says nuclear power is safe and clean should immediately go to Japan and help entomb the nuclear power plants that are in full meltdown and radiating the planet.

“The two divinest things this world has got,

A lovely woman in a rural spot.” Leigh Hunt

Marcia just came home from a three-week vacation in England, her first vacation in a very long time. She is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. We laugh sometimes about being artists and how people, lots of people, think artists have it easy and don’t work as hard as, say, dentists or hedge fund criminals. But we work seven days a week from morning until night. Yes, we take breaks and eat meals and go on walks and run errands, but we put in ten to sixteen hours of labor every day for which we may or may not get paid a cent. That’s our life. We work because to not work is to not answer the call of whatever is calling us, however esoteric that whatever may be.

One of the hardest things for me and probably for you, too, is not letting all the horrible terrible frightening sickening news depress us so much that we can’t work. Thus I intentionally limit my intake of news when I feel overwhelmed with fear and anger. A few days of ignorance may not create bliss, but it usually clears the lobes and allows me to focus on the few things I have some control over.

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

Buddha understood that fear was the great obstacle to peace, both personal and societal. When we’re afraid, we don’t fully experience the present moment, and therefore we are not fully alive or fully aware of what’s really going on. When we’re afraid, anger arises and seeks release. War might be said to be a massive release of anger masking fear.

“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” William Sloan Coffin

I’m reading a letter from a friend full of news about his five-year-old daughter. I grin as I visualize his brilliant, beautiful child racing around, singing, talking, learning, when suddenly these big drops of water splat down on the page. I look up into the clear blue sky. How can it be raining? Oh. I’m weeping for joy at hearing about the miracles of his daughter’s happy childhood, and weeping for sorrow about the world we are leaving her—weeping about both at once in the same breath.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com

Young Pot Moms

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Youth is wasted on the young.” George Bernard Shaw

When I and my middle-aged and elderly Mendocino Elk Albion Fort Bragg peers convene, talk often turns to the paucity of younger people coming along to fill the local ranks of actors and musicians and writers and artists and activists. The excellent Symphony of the Redwoods plays to audiences of mostly white-haired elders and is itself fast becoming an ensemble of elders, ditto the local theater companies, ditto the legions of Mendocino artists and social activists. People under fifty in audiences and at art openings hereabouts stand out as rare youngsters; and the question is frequently asked with touching plaintiveness, “Will it all end with us?”

“The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them.” Robert Graves

A few days ago I was waiting my turn at the one and only cash dispensing machine in the picturesque and economically distressed village of Mendocino, my home town, and I couldn’t help noticing that the woman using the machine was young (under forty), expensively dressed, and pushing the appropriate buttons with an ambitious energy that made me tired.

When it was my turn to stand before the cash dispensary, I noticed that the young woman had declined to take her receipt, which hung like a punch line from the slot of the robot. Being a hopeless snoop, I took possession of the little piece of paper, affixed my reading glasses, and imbibed the data. Did my eyes deceive me? No. This young woman had a cash balance in her Savings Bank of Mendocino checking account of…are you sitting down?…377,789 dollars.

In a panic—dollar amounts over four figures terrify me—I turned to see if her highness was still in sight, and there she was climbing into a brand new midnight blue six-wheel pickup truck the size of a small house, her seven-year-old companion, a movie-star pretty girl, strapped into the passenger seat.

“Did you want this?” I cried, wildly waving the receipt.

She of great wealth slowly shook her head and smiled slyly as if to say, “That’s nothing. You should see the diamonds in my safety deposit box.”

Staggered by my encounter with this local femme Croesus, I wandered toward Corners of the Mouth hoping to find my eensy teensy rusty old pickup parked there, and further hoping a little overpriced chocolate would calm me down. My truck was not there, but I didn’t panic. I only park in one of four places when I drive into the village, so I was confident I would eventually find my truck: somewhere near the Presbyterian church or adjacent to the vacant lot with the towering eucalypti where I gather kindling or in front of Zo, the greatest little copy shop in town (the only one, actually, and not open on weekends.)

In Corners, the cozy former church, I came upon three young (under forty) women, each in jeans and sweatshirt, each possessed of one to three exuberant latter day hippie children. These lovely gals were gathered near the shelves of fabulous fruit comparing notes on diet, marriage, motherhood, and who knows what. Beyond this trio of young moms, and partially blocking my access to the chocolate bars, were two of the aforementioned latter day hippie children, a very cute snot-nosed four-year-old redheaded girl wearing a bright blue dress, and an equally cute roly-poly snot-nosed five-year-old blond boy wearing black coveralls and red running shoes.

The boy, I couldn’t help but overhear, was trying to convince the girl to secure some candy for him because his mother wouldn’t buy candy for him, but the girl’s mother would buy the candy because, according to the boy, “Your mom let’s you have anything you want, and my mom won’t,” which, the boy indignantly pointed out, was not fair.

“But my mom will know it’s for you,” said the girl so loudly that everyone in the store could hear her, “because I don’t like that kind.”

I reached over their innocent little heads and secured a chunk of 85% pure chocolate bliss flown around the globe from England, and feeling only slightly immoral to be supporting the highly unecological international trafficking of a gateway drug (chocolate is definitely a gateway drug, don’t you think?) I headed for the checkout counter where two of the aforementioned young moms were purchasing great mounds of nutritious goodies.

Remember, I was still reeling from my encounter with she of the massive blue truck who had enough money in her checking account for my wife and I to live luxuriously (by our Spartan standards) for the rest of our lives, should we live so long, when Young Mom #1 took from the front pocket of her form-fitting fashionably faded blue jeans a wad of hundred-dollar bills that would have made a mafia chieftain proud, and peeled off three bills to pay for six bulging bags of vittles.

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, ceremoniously held each bill up to some sort of validating light, and made small change.

Meanwhile, Young Mom #2 had stepped up to the other checkout counter and proceeded to pay for her several sacks of groceries from a vast collection of fifty-dollar bills which she pulled from her pockets like a comedic magician pulling so many handkerchiefs from her coat that it seemed impossible she could have crammed so much stuff into such a small space.

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

Further frazzled by the sight of so much filthy lucre, I stumbled to the post office to buy stamps and see if Sheila wanted to talk a little Giants baseball. Ahead of me at the counter stood a beautiful young (under forty) mom with one of her cute little kids sitting on the counter picking his nose, her other slightly larger cute little kid standing on the floor, embracing his mother’s leg while sucking his thumb. The beautiful young mom placed a pile of brand new hundred-dollar bills on the counter, a pile as thick as a five-hundred-page novel, and proceeded to buy a dozen money orders, each order (I couldn’t help but overhear) for many thousands of dollars, and each order duly noted in a leather-bound notebook.

The thumb-sucking lad clinging to his mother’s leg looked up at me and I made a funny face at him. He removed his thumb and half-imitated my funny face. So I made another funny face. He laughed and patted his mother’s leg. “Mama,” he gurgled. “He funny.”

“Not now Jacarandaji,” she said, keeping her focus on money matters. “We’ll go to Frankie’s in just a little while.”

Jacarandaji smiled at me, daring me to make another funny face, which I did. Jacarandaji laughed uproariously, which caused his nose-picking brother to stop picking and ask, “Why you laughing?”

“He funny,” said Jacarandaji, pointing at me.

At which moment, the beautiful young mom turned to me, smiled sweetly (ironically?) and said, “You want’em? You can have’em.” And then she gave each of her boys a hug, saying, “Just kidding. Mama’s only kidding.”

“Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.” Norman Cousins

Who are these young (under forty) moms? They are pot moms, their wealth accrued from the quasi-legal and/or illegal growing of marijuana and the almost surely illegal sale of their crop to feed the insatiable appetite for dope that defines a robust sector of the collective American psyche. Many of these moms have husbands. Many of these moms have college degrees. And all of these moms have decided that it makes much more emotional and economic sense to grow and sell pot than to work at some meaningless low-paying job.

And let them grow pot, say I, so long as they don’t carry guns and shoot at people, and so long as they don’t have dangerous crop-guarding dogs that might escape and attack me or my friends as we’re riding by on our bicycles or walking by minding our own business. What I care about is this: will their children grow up to fill the ranks of the aging musicians and actors and artists and writers and activists who define the culture of our far-flung enclave? Or will those snot-nosed cuties grow up spoiled and arrogant and not much good for anything except growing dope, which will almost surely be legal by the time they’re old enough to join those aforementioned ranks, so then what will they do to make easy money?

Hear me, ye young pot moms. The lives you are leading and this place where you are leading those lives are rare and precious beyond measure. Thus it is your sacred duty to strictly limit the garbage your children watch on television and on computers. It is your sacred duty to give your children plenty of Mendelssohn and Stevie Wonder and Mozart and Joni Mitchell and Brahms and Cole Porter and Eva Cassidy and Richard Rogers and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and Nina Simone and Gershwin, to name a few. And beyond Harry Potter and the corporate guck that passes for children’s literature, at least give them Twain and Steinbeck and Kipling. Beyond today’s execrable animated movie propaganda, give them O’Keefe and Chagall and Picasso and Ver Meer and Monet and Van Gogh. Use your pot money to give your children not what the corporate monsters want to force them to want, but great art that will engender in them the feeling and the knowing that they were born into this life and into their bodies to do something wonderful and special and good.

Yay verily, I say unto you young pot moms, every last one of you beautiful and smart and good women, your children, and you, too, have come unto this bucolic place far from the madding crowd so they and you will have the chance to fully blossom. Feed your family well. Yes. Excellent organic food is good for their bodies, but do not neglect their precious minds and their generous hearts, for we oldsters desperately need them to fill our ranks when we are gone.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.

Getting Well

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

“Programming our intelligence with illusion and fantasy of there’s something wrong with us and enough isn’t enough and too much isn’t too much then turning us loose on ourselves and the world.” John Trudell

My folks are no longer alive, but the shame I feel for doing what I love still surfaces now and then to remind me of how terribly jealous my father was of his own children and how angry my mother was about having her creative ambitions so painfully thwarted. The famous quote by Carl Jung, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent,” elucidates a big part of my mother’s influence on me, while Jennifer James sums up my father with, “Jealousy is simply and clearly the fear that you do not have value.”

My parents were relentlessly verbally abusive of me, and on a few terrible occasions my alcoholic father resorted to physical violence that severely injured me. When I was eleven years old, he nearly killed me. I blocked all memory of this most vicious assault until my fortieth year when a vivid movie of the attack emerged from the archives of my memory. Watching that old footage sent me racing into therapy for the first time in my life.

Therapy saved me, and that does not overstate the case. My savior was a down-to-earth woman who could read in my facial expressions and physical mannerisms the unspoken text of my self-doubt, and she would bring my attention to these physical cues so I might become aware of them and explore the deeper feelings they were attached to.

Of the many discoveries I made in therapy, the most overwhelming one was that I was so entirely acclimated to being told I was worthless, I created most of my relationships to support my parents’ foundational message: no matter what you do, Todd, it isn’t good enough. Which meant I wasn’t good enough. For anything or anyone. So why go on living?

“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.” Malcolm X

Having known many struggling artists, I am well aware that my back-story (as they call the past in Hollywood) is hardly unique. Indeed, I have yet to meet an artist whose memoir could truthfully begin, “My parents lovingly supported me in all my artistic pursuits.” This is not to suggest that abuse and the resultant self-loathing are prerequisites to becoming an artist, though certainly such emotional history typifies the lives of many American and European artists, especially those artists creating things that don’t fit neatly into the stifling little boxes maintained by our corporate-sponsored academic/cultural mafia.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! 
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
 the meat it feeds on. 
William Shakespeare

When I lived in Berkeley I was in the habit of listening to the radical pinko radio station KPFA. Shortly before the most recent American invasion of Iraq, in anticipation of a huge anti-war demonstration, one of the radio hosts invited two of the demonstration’s organizers onto his show to talk about the upcoming march. To my chagrin, though not to my surprise, these two fellows spent twenty minutes of the half-hour show arguing about which of them was the more authentic (for lack of a better word) radical. As I listened to these two “revolutionaries” demean each other and recite extensive proof of their radical pedigrees, I recalled an old friend saying, “The Right has nothing to fear from the Left because we would much rather fight amongst ourselves than actually unite in any substantive way.”

A related phenomenon is that of outsider artists and musicians (outside the mainstream) attacking and undermining each other rather than joining forces ala The Impressionists to collectively bring their creations to a larger audience. As a former devotee of open mike nights (vaudeville enacted in pubs by anyone wishing to perform), which I’m guessing grew out of the egalitarian poetry and folk music scenes of the 1960’s, I have experienced love fests wherein every performer of every imaginable level of talent was resoundingly applauded for simply having the courage to perform, and I have suffered through hateful competitions where the audience might as well have been a mob thirsting for blood, applause begrudged, the more talented the performer, the more openly despised she was.

My favorite thing to do at open mikes, in either scenario, was to interview my fellow performers, to learn their back-stories, and to ask them what they hoped to accomplish with their performances. And I was fascinated to discover that virtually everyone who came to these open mikes—old and young, hopeful amateur and fallen professional, men and women, talented and tone deaf, told tales kin to mine and containing the same essential elements.

1. Missing or disapproving parents

2. An abiding sense of being different, not fitting in

3. Finding solace in their art

4. Idolizing social and artistic renegades

5. Criticized and rejected for their art and lifestyle choices

6. Fierce determination to succeed and prove the naysayers wrong

7. Choosing poverty over giving up or compromising their art

8. Substance abuse to numb the pain of failure and rejection

9. Lousy relationships

10. The dream/belief they will be discovered by someone who makes of them a star

Based on my open mike experiences and interviews, I eventually wrote a screenplay for a musical comedy/tragedy entitled Open Mike, though #10 (see above) has yet to befall my opus.

“Depression is rage spread thin.” George Santayana

When I turned fifty I was at the lowest point in my career as a musician and writer, and I sank into the deepest and longest lasting depression of my life. After a tortuous year of living under what felt like the gravity of Jupiter, and desperate to understand what was happening to me, I came upon a book of essays by the psychiatrists Sylvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad with a title that minced no words: Severe and Mild Depression. One of the essays by Arieti presented a case study of a novelist with a life so like mine I gasped at every sentence.

Prior to his most severe depression, this novelist only exhibited mild symptoms of depression when he was between novels, at which times he would quickly launch himself into writing a new novel. Thus he, as I, managed to outrun and subsume his depression by pouring his energy and attention into his novels for thirty years until exhaustion and failure finally caught up to him. Furthermore, his sustaining fantasy, and mine, was that he would eventually write a novel so great and successful that he would be lifted out of his dreary life into a realm of exquisite happiness wherein his previously rejecting mother and/or father, as well as their embodiment in his wife or lover, would at long last love him.

Reading Arieti’s words, I had an epiphany. I must henceforth give up the unreasonable hope of winning the approval of people incapable of approving of me, for they will never approve of anyone, least of all themselves, and I must learn to accept myself for who and what I am here and now, and not for what I fantasize about becoming.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Without question, the most hateful critics of my writing and music have been fellow artists. Before I got well, to the extent I have, I maintained relations with several angry and deeply bitter artists to whom I gave money I could ill afford to give, and praise, often false, I hoped would soothe them. Our rules of engagement were that I would support and encourage everything they did, and never dare offer suggestions about their music or art. In exchange, they would feel entitled to denigrate me, and to spit on any of my creations I was foolish enough to share with them. These relationships were such obvious re-enactments of my relationship with my father and mother it seems laughable I was unaware of the parallels, but before the veil is lifted we are blind.

After many years of working hard to reform my psychic operating system, I thought I had successfully exorcised the last of these destructive folk from my life, but a few days ago I was made aware of one such person I had overlooked. Having just released my first CD of solo piano music, 43 short Piano Improvisations, the culmination (so far) of forty-five years of piano practice and exploration, I received a letter that ranks among the most sickening and cruel attacks I have ever experienced. This letter was not a critique of my music, but reviled me for daring to make music at all, and as such recalled my mother’s rage and my father’s sense of worthlessness they both so diligently impressed upon me.

“Fortunately,” I wrote to my assailant, “I am finally well enough to trust my own judgment about what I wish to share with others, so that your most unkind words will not deter me.”

Todd’s CD 43 short Piano Improvisations is available from iTunes and UnderTheTableBooks.com

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2010)