Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Bob Kevin Culture

Monday, November 7th, 2016

windmill two

Windmill Sky photo by Todd

“There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

For a few weeks this past summer people kept asking me what I thought about Kevin Durant deciding to leave Oklahoma City to come to California and play for the Golden State Warriors, and lately people keep asking me what I think about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now that the basketball season has officially begun, the Kevin Durant question has resurfaced, and yesterday two more people asked me what I thought about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize.

I learned a long time ago that a fan’s love of a musician or band or athlete or sports franchise is a form of religious fervor, and I don’t mess with religious fervor. So I dodged the Dylan question by saying tangential things like, “Isn’t it odd they don’t award the Nobel Prize posthumously?” or “They gave Bob a Pulitzer, too.” To the Kevin Durant question, I answered, “The guy can shoot,” and “What a handle, huh?”

But I’ll tell you in the privacy of this article that my initial reaction to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize was to recall when I was nineteen and driving through Hibbing, Minnesota on a hot muggy summer day, the mosquitoes ferocious, and I thought, ‘I know why Bob moved to California.’

The country I come from is called the Midwest. I was taught and brought up there, the laws to abide, that the land that I live in has God on its side.

My favorite Bob Dylan song is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ I know he’s written hundreds of songs since, but that’s still my favorite. I resonate with every syllable and I love Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version as much as Bob’s, though my favorite rendition is a slow bitter blues take by Eric Clapton recorded at some Dylan celebration twenty years ago. Tore my heart out.

That said, I know almost nothing about Dylan’s music after 1969, and I’m sure Bob would be okay with that, the Bob who wrote ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’

Over the intervening decades, several men have tried to convince me of Dylan’s ongoing genius. They insisted I listen to Bob’s later albums, with them watching me listen. And these experiences were always torture for me, though I never said so to my torturers because I don’t mess with religious fervor. I try to avoid it, but when I can’t, I feign reverent somnolence.

“There seem to be two causes of the deterioration of the arts: wealth and poverty.” Plato

Also over the last several years, several people have sent me links to advertisements Bob Dylan made for IBM, Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, and Chrysler. Some people sent me those commercials because they were outraged Dylan would sell out like that, though they didn’t say what he was selling out. And some people sent me the ads because they thought everything Bob did was fabulous. I did not watch those ads until I started writing this article, and now that I have watched them, I wish I hadn’t.

As for Kevin Durant choosing to leave Oklahoma City and move to California, I’m sure he made that choice for the same reason Bob Dylan changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan and moved from Hibbing to Malibu—in hope of having a more enjoyable life.

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

Now that’s an interesting and noble-sounding idea, but pragmatically nonsensical. It reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon dozens of people sent me before I managed to publish my first novel. Snoopy is sitting at his typewriter on top of his doghouse writing a letter to a publisher. “Dear Sirs, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, you will just have to come get it.”

Snoopy is elucidating every artist’s dream—to be recognized and rewarded for our creations simply because we created them. But the truth is, our ships can’t come in, so to speak, unless we send our ships out. Artists must take their wares to market or no one will ever know about them. And to succeed in a big way as a musician or artist or writer in America, the artist must convince those who control the avenues of distribution and exposure to give them access to large audiences; and once initial access has been gained, the artist must continue to convince those in power to give them such access.

Though they work in different sectors of the entertainment industry, Kevin Durant and Bob Dylan are both savvy business people adept at sustaining and improving the value of their brands. Kevin Durant’s salary for playing basketball is twenty to thirty million dollars a year, but the Kevin Durant brand makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from shoe sales and jersey sales and endorsements and advertisements. And the same is true of Bob Dylan. Making a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler was good for his brand, and so is winning the Nobel Prize.

“Though he played so sweet and high, they knew he had never been on their TV so they passed his music by.” Joni Mitchell

When I was thirteen I bought Harry Belafonte’s new album Midnight Special. On that album, a young guy named Bob Dylan plays a harmonica solo. Midnight Special came out right before Dylan released his first album, and Bob’s harmonica playing on Harry’s album is reputedly Bob’s first official professional recording.

Until that Belafonte album was stolen from me in 1980, whenever I found a fervent Dylan fan had made his or her way into my house, I would bring out the Belafonte, lower the needle on Bob’s solo, and watch the true believer listen in reverent awe.

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.”

Lost To Time

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Compound India ink on paper by Nolan Winkler

Compound drawing by Nolan Winkler

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

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

We just watched the movie Wild based on a memoir by a woman, played in the movie by Reese Witherspoon, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon to overcome her anger and sorrow about her mother’s death, and to end her addiction to heroin and frequent rough sex with nasty strangers. If ever a movie was made to convince people, especially women, never to go backpacking, this is that movie. From the beginning of her hike until the finish, a terrified Witherspoon runs a gauntlet of small-brained rapist alcoholics, though before she hit the trail she couldn’t get enough of those guys. If you enjoy stilted dialogue, confusing flashbacks, uninspiring views of wilderness, and a cute woman groaning as she hikes and flees from small-brained rapist alcoholics, you’ll love this movie.

“People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties. They are still being passed around—the music and the ideas.” Bob Dylan

In the summer of 1965, when I was fifteen, I went on a backpack trip with my fifteen-year-old pals Pierre and Nathan. Pierre’s parents drove us from Menlo Park to the end of Palo Colorado Canyon Road in Big Sur, we bid them adieu, and spent five glorious days hiking through the rugged wilderness to Pfeiffer Big Sur Sate Park.

Emerging from the wilds at the end of Day Five, we hitchhiked north from Pfeiffer about ten miles to a place named something I can find no reference to on contemporary maps or in descriptions of the Big Sur coast, all traces of the racist moniker lost to time. This rare piece of flat land on a coastline of steep slopes held a farmhouse and outbuildings inhabited by scruffy men and women, dirty children, cats, dogs, and chickens.

Why did we go there? Because Pierre was hot on the trail of Sheila, sixteen, who lived in the farmhouse with her mother Joan, the boss of the place. Joan was six-foot-five, curvaceous, muscular, and drop dead gorgeous. She had two other children on the premises, an eleven-year-old son Brian, already six-feet-tall, and a four-year-old daughter Desiree. She also had two husbands living with her, twin brothers with dreamy smiles and neatly trimmed beards, both a foot shorter than Joan.

Joan told us she was throwing a big party that night and we were welcome to partake. Shortly thereafter Pierre vanished with Sheila, many more scruffy men and women arrived, and wreaths of cannabis smoke graced the air. Sensing my unease, Joan’s very tall eleven-year-old son Brian said he would take us to an ideal camping spot far from the madding crowd.

“But first have some food,” said Brian, wise beyond his years.

So Nathan and I stayed for spaghetti and meatballs and cucumber salad, but eschewed the marijuana-infused desserts, mescaline punch, and LSD. Brian then led us up a steep track to flat ground high above the farm. Fog rolled in, darkness fell, and having hiked twenty miles that day, we crawled into our bags and slept like logs for twelve hours.

Waking to a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the morning sun, we hiked down to the farm to get Pierre and make our way north to Carmel where Nathan’s mother would meet us and take us home.

We found the place a trampled mess and Joan in the kitchen, inspiringly topless, making scrambled eggs. When we asked where Pierre was she said, “He’s with Frank in Carmel.”

She wrote Frank’s address on a scrap of paper and Nathan and I set off hiking north along Highway One where not a single car went by in either direction for what seemed like hours. Finally a badly wheezing Datsun stopped for us and the longhaired driver asked, “You at Joan’s party last night? I can’t believe I missed it.”

He then gave us a vivid secondhand account of the party at which, his source reported, a renowned LSD chemist shared his finest with famous writers and musicians and everyone else, the mescaline was mythic, everyone had sex with everyone, and mass enlightenment ensued.

Our ride ended in Carmel Highlands from where we hitched into Carmel proper and called Nathan’s mother from a pay phone, her estimated arrival time four hours.

We had no trouble finding Frank’s house, but we had trouble with Frank. A sallow fellow with lank hair, he stood defiantly in his doorway proclaiming, “Pierre is ill and going to be living with me from now.” He explained that while tripping together, he and Pierre had discovered a deep cosmic affinity spanning many past and future lives.

Returning to central Carmel sans Pierre, Nathan and I were photographed by dozens of tourists who felt certain we two filthy teenagers with backpacks must be that new kind of human they’d heard so much about: the hippy.

Nathan’s mother arrived, we drove with her to Frank’s house, and when Frank tried to stop Nathan’s usually mild-mannered mom from rescuing Pierre, she shouted, “He’s fifteen! You want to go to prison for a very long time?”

So Frank allowed us to collect Pierre and we rode home with our comrade lying comatose in the back of the station wagon. Two days later, Pierre told me he remembered having sex with Sheila, but thereafter everything was a blur, which was probably a good thing.

Seven years later, in 1972, I told this story to a hippy guy from Big Sur. He knew Joan’s place by the name of which there is no record today, and he told me that party was now legend and considered by many people to be the Beginning of Everything.

Nowadays, circa 2015, most of the inhabitants of Carmel and Big Sur are wealthy non-hippies—the politically incorrect place names from olden times erased to expunge the grunge, and oh Kerouac was it ever grungy at Joan’s place in 1965.

Takeover Complete

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

triangle-orn

Triangle Eye drawing by Todd

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

“In individuals, insanity is rare: but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” Friedrich Nietzsche

The takeover is complete, and by takeover I mean the takeover of our collective ability to distinguish reality from illusion. We have been thoroughly conquered and now voluntarily carry devices on our persons day and night to keep us connected to the great corporate propaganda machine. Known as smart phones, these devices are not yet implanted in our foreheads, though I’m sure millions of people will voluntarily undergo such implanting when the propaganda machine tells them forehead implants are hip and super fast and greatly enhance video gaming and keeping up with the lives of celebrities.

Takeover? What am I talking about? Let me count the ways.

Among the tiny fraction of Americans who still read books, there is talk of boycotting Amazon for delaying sales and deliveries of books published by the media arm of the massive multinational corporation Hachette that owns television stations, newspapers, publishers, and aero-space companies and is doing all it can to hasten the annihilation of what little remains of our once thriving literary culture. Yet corporate television talking heads are celebrating this corporate behemoth as “the little guy” and urging book buyers to boycott evil Amazon and buy corporate junk elsewhere.

When will people realize that nearly all the books for sale in their so-called independent bookstores are published by corporations who would be every bit as bad or worse than Amazon if only they had gotten into Amazon’s position first? When will people realize that book reviews and their placement in various media are paid for by corporate behemoths in order to advertise books those corporations want people to buy? And when will readers realize that bestseller lists are lists of books that multinational corporations want to sell lots of, and virtually any new book you’ve heard of in the last thirty years was published by a corporation with politics that would make a fascist feel warm and fuzzy? Apparently never, now that the takeover of our collective intelligence is complete.

Boycott Amazon? How about boycotting Chevron or Chase or General Electric or Monsanto or any of the truly evil corporations?

“Democracy don’t rule the world, you’d better get that in your head; this world is ruled by violence, but I guess that’s better left unsaid.” Bob Dylan

Reading Will Parrish’s excellent and terrifying summary of the dams and reservoirs and pipelines to be built with many billions of our tax dollars in order to transport nearly all the state’s water—should it ever rain again—to southern California for the benefit of corporate farms and to provide water for twenty-five million people who shouldn’t be living there, is to read a declaration of insanity and is further proof of the completeness of the takeover. Our collective willingness to allow this environmental suicide is a testament to how thoroughly brainwashed we are.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The number of registered voters in Mendocino County voting in the June 3 primary was a historically low eighteen per cent, which is far less than the percentage of Iraqis and Afghanis who vote in their war torn countries where voting might easily get them killed. But here where anyone can vote at home and mail in his or her ballot, only eighteen per cent of the registered voters—a fraction of those eligible to vote—cast their ballots. Takeover complete.

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” George Bernard Shaw

The news is full of stories about corporate shill Hillary Clinton claiming that she and her philandering hubby Bill exited the White House in 2001, dead broke. Those are her words. Dead broke. And she says that is why she and Bill felt it necessary for Bill to charge 500,000 dollars per speaking engagement and Hillary 200,000 per engagement so they could struggle, as Hillary put it, to make payments on their two new behemoth houses and their various new cars and jets and things, and put Chelsea through Stanford. God, the suffering.

This poppycock is being reported as important news. Takeover complete.

“I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.” Edith Sitwell

Just about every day now, somewhere in America, someone goes on a shooting rampage and kills and wounds several people. For a while, these rampages were followed by cries from parents of the victims and from legislators calling for something to be done to keep guns from falling into the hands of certifiably crazy people, but now that these rampages have become so frequent we hear nothing in the news about the need for gun control. Takeover complete.

“We can end the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war once and for all. We really can do it.” Angelina Jolie

Reading about the four-day conference in London where representatives from 140 countries gathered with movie star and United Nations envoy Angelina Jolie to discuss the idea of possibly sort of maybe kind of trying to see about declaring sexual violence a no-no for armies and soldiers waging war, I thought Wait, is this a joke? Killing, bombing, and maiming is okay, war is okay, and it’s fine to use drones to blow up wedding parties and women and children, but while we are killing and bombing and maiming and blowing up women and children we must try real hard not to commit sexual violence. Okay. Takeover complete.

“Lust and greed are more gullible than innocence.” Mason Cooley

At noon the boys and girls from the high school spill into the village to buy their lunches at Harvest or Frankie’s or the Goodlife Café or the marvelous Mendocino Grocery across the street from the post office. All the girls clutch their phones, fearing to be untethered for even a moment. Can this be true? Surely there must be one girl not clutching her phone. If I stand here long enough I might see one, and maybe a unicorn, too.

The New Yorker

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

redwood rounds

 Redwood Rounds photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris

Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.

After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.

Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.

“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger

When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”

Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.

Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White

The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”

The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.

“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff

Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.

Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?

“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon

As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.

Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?

No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor.  Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.

“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan

When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.

“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”

“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.

Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

 

 

Tapestry

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Tapestry

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

“In individuals, insanity is rare: but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” Friedrich Nietzsche

My brother sent me an email with a link to a page at Amazon where one can purchase, for just three hundred dollars, a Parrot Drone Quadricopter. This drone weighs four pounds and is twenty-three inches by twenty-three inches small and is equipped with a video camera. The drone can be controlled using an iPhone, iPad, and android devices. The four-prop drone records and shares video while flying. There were three hundred reviews by people who have purchased this particular drone, but I did not read any of the reviews because I feared one or more of them would include complaints about the limited bomb-carrying capacity of the drone.

 “There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

A friend sent me an email suggesting I read something by a fantastically successful American novelist I had never heard of. I was not surprised I had never heard of this writer, as I read almost no fiction by living American writers. Why? Because nearly every time I give one of these writers a try, I am more than disappointed, I am horrified. I suffer from the knowledge of proper grammar and syntax, and when an author reveals in the first paragraph or first page of his or her novel or short story that he or she knows little about grammar and syntax, I find it impossible to proceed.

But when a friend emphatically recommends a writer, I will at least give that writer a look-see. Alas, this latest fantastically successful writer failed the grammar/syntax test before I was three sentences into his multi-award winning novel, and seeing that these failures continued regularly thereafter and were clearly not the fruit of an intentional stylistic choice, I gave up and went back to working on my own fantastically unsuccessful, but grammatically sound work.

“Democracy don’t rule the world, you’d better get that in your head; this world is ruled by violence, but I guess that’s better left unsaid.” Bob Dylan

A young professional football player named Aaron Hernandez has recently been arrested and charged with murder. The owner of the team he played for, the New England Patriots, assembled a group of reporters to announce that Hernandez had duped them by pretending for two years to be hardworking and polite while also proving to be a fantastic football player. Now it appears Hernandez was a gun-toting, drug and alcohol-using criminal who may have killed even more people than the one person he is accused of killing.

The owner of the New England Patriots was outraged that Hernandez was not the person that he, the owner, thought Hernandez was. Indeed, many people involved in professional football, a sport that celebrates violence and encourages players to try to severely injure each other, also expressed outrage that this young man, who grew up in an ultra-violent society listening to ultra-violent rap music and playing ultra-violent video games and watching ultra-violent movies that glorify gangsters and guns and senseless killing, might prove to be criminally violent.

“The two biggest sellers in any bookstore are the cookbooks and the diet books. The cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food and the diet books tell you how not to eat any of it.” Andy Rooney

Recent news suggests that the vast book-selling conglomerate Barnes & Noble may soon go out of business. In my youth there were only independent bookstores. Then the era of chain stores dawned and chain bookstores such as B. Dalton and Crown Books popped up everywhere and put many independent bookstores out of business. Then along came chains of giant bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders and they put the chains of smaller bookstores out of business and put many more independent bookstores out of business. Then along came the interweb and Amazon and the advent of e-books, and Borders was wiped out and now Barnes & Noble is collapsing, which should portend a few good years for the remaining independent bookstores patronized by a shrinking number of people who are still willing to pay full price for books and have not yet converted to e-readers.

In the course of this swiftly evolving bookstore landscape, the personal computer became as ubiquitous as television, cell phones took over the world, and the proper use of grammar and syntax became a dying art, not quite yet entirely dead, but nearly so. And the amazing thing (amazing to me) about the pervasive misuse of our beautiful language in most of the books published in America today is that very few people are aware that anything is amiss with the writing they read.

Several people have responded to my lamenting the demise of good writing with eerily similar proclamations along the lines of, “I don’t care how good the writing is so long as I like the story.” This strikes me as deeply ridiculous, as ridiculous as saying, “I don’t care if there’s any water in the river, so long as I can catch some fish.”

“The one thing the public dislike is novelty.” Oscar Wilde

On July 9, 2013, NBC news reported: “New research shows the more pollution, the higher the health risks.”

That startling news brings to mind those feature articles that appear in Lifestyle and Home & Garden sections of Sunday newspapers everywhere and have been appearing in those sections every few months since the 1960’s, articles about an amazing new phenomenon called organic gardening. These articles invariably feature smiling people who have been gardening in this revolutionary new way for at least a year or so and just love the results. These radical gardeners don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers yet somehow still manage to grow vegetables and fruits that taste wonderful.

I wonder why it is that organic gardening is forever being characterized in the mainstream media as something new. I find this to be one of the great mysteries of my lifetime, every bit as mysterious as the constant rediscovery that walking is good for us.

“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” William Shakespeare

When I was a young man, I read an obituary that had such a profound impact on me that I can still see the entire layout of the obituary in my mind’s eye. The large black and white photograph accompanying the long article was of a slender man with a long white beard sitting at a table and writing with a pen on a large piece of parchment. This man (I can’t remember his name) was famous for three things. The first thing he was famous for was that he had been one of several dozen people involved in a renowned (now forgotten) research project concerned with the relationship between human health and walking. The second thing he was famous for was the invention of a simplified English alphabet (now forgotten) that he believed would usher in an era of universal literacy that would in turn lead to universal prosperity. And the third thing he was famous for was that he lived until he was a hundred and seven and was mentally and physically fit as a fiddle until the last day of his life.

I don’t remember much about his simplified alphabet except that he had eliminated the use of most vowels, which struck me as a bad idea since I loved vowels, a love that continues to this day. I do, however, remember the details of the research project he was involved in that evaluated the effect of walking on human health. According to the obituary, when this man was in his sixties, he was in such poor health that his doctors declared he would soon be dead. He was obese, his heart was failing, he was anemic, pre-diabetic, his liver was shot, on and on. It was at this point in his life that he got involved in the research project with several dozen other elderly people who had also been declared hopelessly ill by the medical establishment.

The project required that these people take long walks every day, and by long walks I mean walks of ten and fifteen and sometimes twenty miles, with only occasional days off from walking. According to this obituary, nearly all the people in the study not only got completely well—theretofore incurable diseases and ailments literally disappeared from these people—but they all lived well into their nineties and beyond.

“There are seven different souls in each person: the mineral soul, the vegetable soul, the animal soul, the human soul, the angelic soul, the secret soul, and the soul of the secret of secrets.” Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak

Last night I dreamt I was helping Aaron Hernandez clear away branches hanging down into a small meadow where Aaron was going to be acting as a psychotherapist for people coming to him for help. We worked in silence, I doing the pruning and Aaron dragging away the branches. I felt peaceful and optimistic, and I had no doubt that Aaron would be a great help to the people who came to see him. Strangely, the more branches I pruned, the more branches there were to prune, yet I felt confident that we would soon get the branches cleared away and Aaron would be able to proceed with his work.

Tenuous Grip

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Desert Dance Nolan WInkler mix med

Desert Dance by Nolan Winkler

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

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Lewis Carroll

Have you ever had a day when you heard the same out-of-the-ordinary word or phrase over and over again from a variety of seemingly unconnected sources? Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, I wrote a piece for the Sacramento News & Review entitled Recurrence of Ninja, a true story of a single day in which I encountered the word ninja several times in a variety of contexts, spoken and written. Why ninja so many times on that particular day? I came to no conclusions, but I felt certain the unfathomable universe was trying to tell me something.

I was reminded of that day of many ninjas by what happened yesterday. I woke early (for me), had toast slathered with sesame butter accompanied by a banana-kale-flax seed-chia seed-apple juice-rice milk smoothie with Marcia, she the smoothie engineer, I the toaster, my bread free of gluten, her bread infested with the stuff. Then I answered a few emails, posted my Anderson Valley Advertiser article on my blog (I like to wait until the piece is in newsprint before I send the words into the ethers, silly me), worked for two hours on my new novel, and then set out on my walk to town—the day windy and cool.

Not far from home, I came upon a man in a bathrobe standing in front of his house and frowning at the sky. I said hello as I walked by and he replied, “I have a tenuous grip on reality today.”

I might have taken his self-assessment as an invitation to engage in conversation, but I did not. In the past, more often than not, I would have inquired further, but of late I am less drawn to strangers professing emotional fragility than I used to be. So I walked on and did not look back.

“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.” Voltaire

The wind off the ocean was fierce and the air was full of smoke from a number of burn piles unwisely lit on such a blustery day. I crossed Highway One, the road blanketed with smoke, and said hello to a tall bearded man standing on the corner gazing into a cell phone.

He frowned at me and proclaimed, “They chose a very bad day to burn.”

“Yes,” I said. “Ill-advised.”

“Because they have a tenuous grip on reality,” he said, lighting a large hand-rolled cigarette and taking a prodigious drag.

“Indeed,” I said, so amazed by his choice of words that I almost told him I had just heard someone else use the very same expression. But because I had seen this tall bearded man on previous occasions lecturing loudly to companions invisible to me, I was not greatly tempted to enter into a lengthy discussion with him.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

At the post office, I mailed two small packages and was heartened to find a few actual letters in our post office box along with the latest AVA. As I was sorting out our real mail from the junk, I overheard two women talking on the front porch of the post office, one of them saying, “So I said, ‘Rick, you gotta get a grip,’ and he said he was hanging by a thread and…”

There it was again, not the exact phrase, but the word grip and the implication that Rick’s grip was tenuous.

“Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” Tupac Shakur

In Corners, buying several fundamental comestibles, the lovely woman at the cash register made a few unforced errors (as they call them in tennis), laughingly corrected her mistakes and explained, “I’m still kind of…not all here today. Stayed up way too late last night. Haven’t had my coffee yet.”

“A somewhat tenuous grip on reality?” I ventured.

“Exactly,” she said, nodding. “Life is but a dream.”

 “For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.” Jean Dubuffet

Walking home from town, the recurrence of the phrase tenuous grip on reality put me in mind of my eleven years in Berkeley where I enjoyed life without a car and patched together a minimalist living as a writer, editor, ghost writer, arborist, and babysitter. I was single for many of those eleven years and on the few occasions I found myself mixing it up, so to speak, with women more affluent than I, there always came a time, usually around the fourth date, when the question of my economic viability became the focal point of conversation and I was recurrently judged to fall far short of what was minimally acceptable to these attractive pragmatists.

One of the women, bless her heart, who I had theretofore thought to be a wild and crazy gal in the best sense of those words, interviewed me as if I was applying for a house loan. At the end of the interview, she opined, “The only difference between you and a homeless person is that you currently rent a house and don’t walk around pushing a shopping cart.”

“I beg to differ,” I replied. “I am gainfully employed, I…”

“You’re very nice,” she said, rising to go, “and we get along wonderfully well, if you know what I mean, but you’re poor and I’m not about to jeopardize my life savings by hooking up with some medical crisis waiting to happen. Better to end things now before I like you too much.”

The last of the women I dated who was more affluent than I, a successful psychotherapist who sure seemed to like me, terminated our connection after the recurrent financial disclosure date by telling me that my lifestyle choices were, well, indicative of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, though she didn’t use those exact words. She said that someone as intelligent and personable as I, with so many marketable skills, who chose to live without a car or health insurance or a viable retirement strategy, must be at least somewhat delusional and possibly a borderline personality. Ouch.

I remember replying that as far as I was concerned anyone who judged other people solely on the basis of their economic status was either insane or a member of Congress, which I knew was redundant, but I was trying for a bit of levity as she ran out the door.

Thereafter the few women I did get involved with beyond the fourth date were as financially deficient as I and didn’t worry about their nest eggs because they didn’t have nest eggs. And, yes, those sweet paupers did at times seem to have a somewhat tenuous grip on reality, but who doesn’t now and then?

Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” Bob Dylan

As I thought about the recurrence of the expression tenuous grip on reality I found myself wondering: is the universe asking me to examine the current state of my grip on reality? And what came to mind was a night when I was thirteen and attending a ballroom dancing class with forty other boys and forty girls, an ordeal my mother insisted I undergo once a month for the two years preceding high school. To attend the class we were forced to wear a suit and tie, which meant I had to learn to tie a tie, which I did, and I had to wear shoes that required polishing, which I also did.

Upon our arrival at the country club where the ordeal took place, the boys would stay away from the girls, who were wearing long frilly dresses, and the girls would stay away from the boys. Then our instructors, a champion ballroom dancing couple, would somehow get the boys paired up with the girls and try to teach us how to fox trot, waltz, cha-cha, and swing. After an hour or so of rigorous practice with a variety of assigned partners, the ordeal would conclude with a half-hour of dancing without instruction. Boys were supposed to ask girls to dance, not the other way around, unless one of the champions announced that the next dance was a Sadie Hawkins (role reversal) dance. For those boys too fearful to ask girls to dance, our adult overseers would arbitrarily pair such boys with those unlucky girls remaining to be asked.

And one night, when the four or five girls I knew from school (so they were not terrifying to me) were paired up with other boys, and I was just about to make a break for the bathroom where I hoped to remain undetected for several minutes, a gorgeous young woman (as opposed to a girl) named Luisa Hernandez asked me to dance with her, though it was not a Sadie Hawkins dance! Luisa was by far the best female dancer in our mob and was often called upon to dance with one of the better male dancers to demonstrate a fox trot variation or a cha-cha turn or whatever those things are called that our champion instructors wanted us to see done well.

“I have two left feet,” I said, anxiously. “I’m no Fred Astaire.”

“You move beautifully,” said Luisa, looking deep into my eyes. “You just need a good partner.”

So we danced the next several dances together, and I can truly say that until I danced with Luisa I had never really danced with someone. I had gone through the motions with others and simulated dancing, and even had a little fun going through those motions, but with Luisa I danced, and our dancing was divine. And what I learned from her was that dancing with someone didn’t have to be about gripping the other person or being gripped by them, but was a way for two people to move together in harmonious time. Holding each other facilitated fueling off each other while enjoying the synchronous flow—the dancing never about trying to control the other—and so our physical connection was light and sure and flexible and tender.

My Butt: the musical

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

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

“If a man love the labor of any trade, apart from any question of success or fame, then God has called him.” Robert Louis Stevenson

So…some extremely wealthy and astoundingly unimaginative people have now spent over seventy million dollars concocting a musical version of Spiderman, with songs by Bono and Edge of the middle-aged boy band U-2. The Spiderman musical is apparently so bad, pundits cannot find words sufficient to describe the awfulness of this thing, though neo-fascist icon Glenn Beck apparently loves the show and has seen it twice. Yet despite universal media damnation, the musical is expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. And why am I wasting my breath on such trivia? Well, because seventy million dollars would cover the Mendocino County budget shortfalls for many years to come, only we don’t have that seventy million. And why don’t we? Because we haven’t had a surefire way to get it. Until now.

My Butt: the musical. A two-hour extravaganza about buttocks. With songs by Bob Dylan. And if we can’t get Bob, I’m thinking Justin Bieber. And if we can’t get the Biebster, then Paul McCartney. And Sting. Yes! Paul and Sting. They certainly don’t need the money, so no one can accuse them of doing it for the money. No way. They’ll write the songs for My Butt: the musical because they believe in the project.

My Butt: the musical will require the construction of enormous and incredible theaters in dozens of cities around the world where the show will run for decades. From the outside, the theaters will look like, well, someone’s butt. On the inside of these palatial pleasure domes (and each building will, indeed, be a double dome), the special stage(s) will feature huge flesh-colored mounds that rise and fall with the action. What action? I don’t know. That’s irrelevant at this point in the creative process. What’s relevant is a boffo idea combined with a team of famous artists and celebrities combined with expenditures of hundreds of millions of dollars stolen by Wall Street hucksters and used to create a useless spectacle for morons.

Further Architectural Notes: These buttocks theaters would be mass produced in China to guarantee precise sameness and then airlifted to their ultimate resting places, each Lowering of the Buttocks (in London, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, etc.) a culture-specific Christo-like event eating up two or three years of media coverage that otherwise might go to covering war and famine and icky things like that. Tens of millions of dollars will be spent in each metropolitan area on design conferences and political forums and other nonsense related to preparing a major urban area for the landing of a fifty-thousand-ton building made in the image of human buttocks. Wow. Just imagine a butt that big slowly descending to earth from the sky. Gigantic blimps will be used to transport the gargantuan buttocks from China to wherever, colossal blimps resembling you-know-whats that presage the sequel to My Butt: the musical.

Which brings us to the inevitable question: whose butt will be the butt in My Butt: the musical? Choosing that iconic butt will require a talent search that will make American Idol look like a Mendocino potluck. Remember: these buttocks will not only adorn millions of provocative and painfully ugly posters and billboards and screensavers and shower curtains, these buttocks will figure prominently in hundreds of animated advertisements, Super Bowl ads, refrigerator magnets, and coffee mugs.

But now that we’ve broached the question of whose butt will be used for the butt, here come those sibling questions of ethnicity, gender, size, and why not say it, age. Should the buttocks be white or brown or one of each? Mauve? Should the buttocks be male or female or one of each? Should the buttocks be young or middle-aged or one of each? Large, small, medium? And how much of the buttocks should we show? From the waist down to the back of the knees? From just above the crack to just below the bottom of the big downward curve? Something in between?

And just who is the I of My in My Butt: the musical? Oh, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Details like plot and character are way down the To Do list. Remember: stupidity must forever reside at the top of the To Do list, which point cannot be overstated, no matter how hard we try to overstate it. Everything about My Butt: the musical must take the wasting of human potential to new all time lows. That’s what makes the plays and movies and literature of America peerless in the world today, and unless we want to be seen by potential investors as uncool wimps we must prove ourselves to be a powerful force in the downward trend.

My Butt: the musical will be designed to appeal to people of all ages and religious persuasions and therefore must contain a modicum of romance, tons of violence, hints of teenage alienation, sexual frustration, and implications of illicit drug use imbued with maudlin sentimentality jarringly juxtaposed to moronic sadism masquerading as comedy. And, of course, every minute of the dizzying spectacle will be punctuated by state-of-the-art special effects involving butts morphing into, I don’t know, different things.

Music Note: One or two of the songs should be vaguely melodic, but most will require shouting hoarsely over deafening mechanical rhythms.

As for costumes: less is more.

As for dance numbers: think lascivious strip tease culminating in tableaus falling just short of sexual intercourse. Just.

As for the lead roles, the key here will be to give everyone in the audience someone to identify with and/or lust after: a handsome older man with a lost childish air, a verging-on-older woman with the body of a twenty-year-old swimsuit model, a slender young man just barely no longer a boy, and a heartbreakingly beautiful girl barely a woman with the moves of a seasoned pole dancer.

Should they be a family? Should they be a multi-racial family? Should they be human? Should they be aliens? Vampires? We are leaning toward a self-referencing play-within-a-play family-within-a-family multi-layered multi-dimensional presentation that pushes the N in narcissistic several type sizes larger than the rest of the word. Something like Narcissistic. That is to say, My Butt: the musical will be about a family that is not a family going to see My Butt: the musical in a My Butt: the musical theatre where the lines between actors and audience are so blurred, and we are so profoundly confused and bewildered (yet continuously titillated and visually and sonically overwhelmed), that by musical’s end we have no idea what we’ve seen or what has been done to us.

In short, we won’t know anything. And that will be the point of My Butt: the musical, except, wait, we will know one thing. We will know that even though My Butt: the musical makes absolutely no sense and leaves us feeling shattered and lost and inferior and questioning everything, including how good or bad or wrong or right our butts are, at least this thing, this awesome spectacle, exists; and that, in itself, is something.

I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day

When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May

I guess you’d say, what can make me feel this way

My butt, talkin’ ‘bout my butt, my butt…

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.