Posts Tagged ‘books’

Tober’s Stones

Monday, December 17th, 2018

Tober's Stones

Tober Quincy is nine-years-old and quite tall for his age. Highly intelligent and intuitive and talkative, his dark brown hair has yet to be cut since he was born and nearly reaches his waist. Some mornings he captures his hair in a ponytail, and some mornings his mother braids his hair in a three-strand braid she ties at the end with a red shoelace.

Augie Quincy, Tober’s eight-year-old brother, is also very bright and intuitive and talkative, but not particularly tall for his age. Augie’s red hair has been cut many times since he was four, per his request, and much to his mother’s chagrin he insists on wearing baseball caps most of the time, his current favorite a neon-orange Houston Astros cap that really bugs her.

Sharon Quincy is Tober and Augie’s thirty-two-year-old mother. She is five-foot-three, weighs a hundred and five pounds, and is remarkably strong and agile for a person of any size. Blazingly smart with a wry sense of humor, Sharon speaks English with a strong New Jersey accent and is also fluent in French and Spanish, languages she learned from her fellow dancers when she was in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet Company from the age of fifteen until she was twenty. She has shoulder-length brown hair, dark blue eyes, a simply beautiful face, and at a distance is often taken for a teenager.

An excellent violinist and guitarist and a voracious reader, Sharon homeschools Tober and Augie on their remote farm three miles from the Pacific Ocean in the far north of California. Sharon and Tober and Augie grow nearly all the food they need in their quarter-acre vegetable garden and large greenhouse, and what food they don’t grow, they buy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna where Sharon works twenty hours a week as a checker.

Sharon has many friends, but she hasn’t been in a relationship since Tober and Augie’s father vamoosed when Tober was five-months-old and Augie was in utero.

Lance is Tober and Augie’s father. He told Sharon his last name was Vogelsang, but Sharon doubts this is true; and she wouldn’t be surprised if Lance is a pseudonym, too. Tober and Augie don’t know much about their father except the little Sharon has told them and what they deduce from photos he sends in a Christmas card every January along with a fifty-dollar bill, the amount unvarying since Lance made his getaway nine years ago.

The postmarks on the envelopes are usually from Arizona, the town name changing from year to year; and one year the card came from Bangor, Maine. Because Lance doesn’t write anything in the card or on the backs of the photos, Tober and Augie and Sharon have no idea where the photos were taken, though they guess Lance lives somewhere in Arizona.

Three photos came with last year’s Christmas card, and Tober and Augie have looked at these three images dozens of times in the eleven months since they arrived, not because they miss Lance—they don’t know him to miss him—but because they enjoy how the photos fuel their imaginings and supply details for the stories they make up about their father.

In the first of the photos in this most recent batch, Lance, a broad-shouldered man with muscular arms and a big paunch, is sitting sideways on the rump of a large brown horse standing in front of what looks like the wall of an old barn. Lance is shirtless, his blue jeans tattered, his feet bare. His head is shaved, he has a gold ring in his left nostril, and he has a tattoo of a cobra coiled around his left arm, the head of the cobra on the back of his hand. A tattoo of a Chinese dragon covers Lance’s right arm from his wrist to his shoulder, the dragon’s nose touching Lance’s collarbone; and a tattoo of the head of a roaring male lion covers Lance’s heart. Lance is smiling, but despite the smile, Tober and Augie agree he looks sad.

The second of these three recent photos shows Lance wearing a lime green tank top, blue plaid Bermuda shorts, and red flip-flops. He is standing on a scraggly lawn at dusk, holding a can of beer in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other as he gazes up at a cloudless sky, the camera’s flash reflecting off his shaved head.

In the third photo, Lance is wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie. His hair has started to grow back, revealing much of the top of his head is bald. He is standing beside a woman with unnaturally blonde hair wearing a scoop-necked yellow dress that shows off the tops of her breasts. She and Lance are smiling, but again, despite those smiles, Tober and Augie think Lance and the woman look sad.

Sharon makes a point of not speaking ill of Lance in front of the boys, though when Tober was six and Augie was five, and Sharon was feeling particularly upset about something, she referred to Lance as a charismatic jerk; and when the boys were eight and seven, while Sharon was talking on the phone to her mother in New Jersey and thought the boys were asleep, she characterized Lance as a narcissistic schmuck.

In both instances, Tober and Augie looked the words up in the dictionary, and the definitions they found for charismatic, jerk, narcissistic, and schmuck sparked long discussions with Sharon about who Lance was, why she partnered with him, how they ended up far from the nearest town at the end of a dirt road, why Lance went away, and why he never comes to visit.

Sharon decided to make a life with Lance and have children with him because she loved who she thought he was, only she didn’t know who he really was and didn’t love the person he turned out to be. But before she realized Lance was not who she thought he was, she was pregnant with Tober, and while pregnant, Lance convinced her to empty her savings and buy an old farmhouse on ten acres of land at the end of a dirt track known to locals as Snake Creek Road, and to firefighters and law enforcement officials as the nameless dirt road just past the three-mile marker on Highway 211.

When Lance, who claimed to be ten years older than Sharon, was wooing her in San Francisco, he boasted of a degree in Design from the University of Oregon and claimed to be a master organic gardener. He said he knew all about raising chickens and rabbits, could build virtually anything, and was an old hat at living off the grid with solar panels. He also claimed to be an expert woodsman and auto mechanic.

None of this turned out to be even remotely true.

By the time Lance left Sharon after two tumultuous years of involvement with her, she was well established on Snake Creek Road. She had a bountiful vegetable garden surrounded by a sturdy deer fence, a new roof on the old farmhouse, the old glass greenhouse was repaired and producing lettuce, kale, green onions, and chard year-round, she had thirty hens laying copious eggs to eat and trade, and she was the master of seven robust beehives. A large solar array was producing ample electricity to power her lights and freezer and refrigerator and the pump for her well; and she had a great store of firewood for her two super-efficient woodstoves.

Sharon accomplished all this and much more with the generous assistance of her knowledgeable neighbors and without a lick of help from Lance. There are twenty-two people in six households, counting Sharon and her boys, living on Snake Creek Road, and these hearty homesteaders know all about living off the grid far from the nearest town; and they were happy to help such a likeable and hardworking young woman with a delightful baby and another on the way.

For most of those two years that Lance figured so largely in Sharon’s life, he was not with her on Snake Creek Road. He said he was doing design work in Portland, and he would, every few weeks, return to the homestead and give Sharon some cash. On a few occasions, he gave her several hundred dollars, but usually he gave her a pittance, stayed for a few days, and then left again.

The day Lance departed for good, he waited for pregnant Sharon to drive off in her little pickup truck with baby Tober to go grocery shopping in Fortuna, and then he ransacked the house looking for cash and Sharon’s valuable musical instruments. However, he found no money or instruments because Sharon had anticipated his search for cash and valuables and had removed her money and instruments to a neighbor’s house the previous day while Lance was sleeping.

Fortunately, Lance was not a vindictive person, merely desperate, so he broke no windows and killed no chickens. Instead, he took most of the food in the refrigerator, several bottles of wine, a large ceramic salad bowl, a down comforter, and a lovely porcelain statuette of Kuan Yin.

Tober and Augie have only watched television twice in their lives, both times for just a few moments. The first time was two years ago in a house in Fortuna where they went with Sharon to procure a couple kittens. The middle-aged man and woman who lived in the house had large flat-screen televisions in nearly every room, and all the televisions were tuned to the same football game, so as Tober and Augie followed Sharon through the living room and family room and kitchen to reach the door that opened into the garage where the kittens were, they saw fragments of what to them was a fantastically colorful and otherworldly spectacle of dozens of armored men, some wearing red uniforms, some black, doing battle on a brilliant green lawn surrounded by thousands of cheering people wearing red sweatshirts.

The second time they saw television was just a few months ago in a Japanese restaurant in Eureka where they’d gone with the Bernstein’s, their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road. Sharon was in New Jersey visiting her parents, and Tober and Augie were staying with the Bernstein’s for the two weeks Sharon was gone. George and Lisa are the adult Bernsteins, Cecily, ten, and Felix, eight, their children.

Cecily is Tober’s best friend besides Augie, and Felix is Augie’s best friend besides Tober, and Cecily and Felix are being homeschooled and growing up without television, too. There are seven kids on Snake Creek Road being homeschooled, and George and Lisa and Sharon and four other adults on the road are the faculty.

The television in question was mounted on the wall above the sushi bar. On the large screen, a man with receding brown hair and a sunburned face was being interviewed about a movie he had made. The woman interviewing the man was small with short blonde hair and a voice that reminded Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix of the duck Camille who quacks long dissertations when the children come to feed her and the chickens.

When George and Lisa realized the kids were riveted by what was showing on the television, they changed tables so the kids could no longer see the screen.

Cecily summed up the children’s feelings about not getting to watch more of the show by saying, “We know television interferes with the proper development of our brains, but surely a tiny bit won’t hurt us.”

Hunting rabbits with their bows and arrows, fishing in the Eel River, and making blackberry sorbet from fresh-picked berries are near the top of Tober and Augie’s list of favorite activities, but going to the libraries in Fortuna and Eureka to check out books is at the very top of their list. And today they have come to the big library in Eureka with Sharon to return seventeen books and check out more.

While Augie scours the shelves for books about animals he and Tober haven’t read multiple times, Tober goes to use the bathroom, and on his way passes the open door of a conference room in which twenty people are listening to a handsome man with reddish brown hair speaking about Queen Elizabeth of England and the mysteries surrounding her life. The man, according to the name written on the blackboard, is Alex Redfield. He’s wearing a black jacket, a purple shirt, and black corduroy trousers; and he has an enchanting Scottish brogue that makes Tober grin.

Tober and Augie have learned a little about Queen Elizabeth, not the current queen of England but the long-ago queen of England, from Lisa Bernstein who co-teaches the homeschoolers History and Geography with Hank Carpenter who used to be a professor of History at Cal State Sacramento before fleeing academia to build a rammed-earth solar home on Snake Creek Road where he lives with his wife Ivy, an herbalist and astrologer.

Alex Redfield, however, is much more interesting to Tober than Lisa or Hank because he speaks so beautifully, almost as if he is singing his words in his deep Scottish-accented voice; and his sentences are the most beautiful sentences Tober has ever heard.

Tober stands in the doorway of the conference room for ten minutes, mesmerized by Alex, and when the presentation is over and the twenty people applaud, Tober writes Alex Redfield in his little notebook, goes to use the bathroom, and on his way back from the bathroom looks into the conference room and sees Alex is still there talking to a woman who attended the lecture. So Tober decides to ask Alex if he can recommend a book about the long-ago Queen Elizabeth suitable for a nine-year-old.

When the woman departs, Tober approaches Alex and says with his characteristic confidence, “Excuse me Mr. Redfield. I only heard the end of your speech about Queen Elizabeth, but you made me want to read a book about her. I’m nine, but according to the results of the last test we took to measure our reading and comprehension levels, I’m in Tenth Grade, though I’m not really in any grade because we’re being homeschooled and don’t have grades.”

Alex, who Tober guesses to be about the same age as George Bernstein who is forty-two, smiles at Tober and says, “Well, I suppose you could read my book about Elizabeth. There are a few racy passages, but nothing R-rated. The copy they have here is checked out to someone who attended my lecture today, but I know copies can be had on the Internet for mere pennies plus the shipping.”

“We don’t have a computer,” says Tober, handing his little notebook and pencil to Alex. “Would you please write the name of your book in my notebook and I’ll put my name on the waiting list here, and if the wait is much too long, I’ll ask my neighbor George to get a copy for me. He has a computer and buys lots of books that way.”

Alex takes the notebook from Tober, smiles at how neatly he printed ALEX REDFIELD in all caps, and says, “You know what? I’ll just give you my copy. How about that?”

“That would be wonderful,” says Tober, beaming at Alex. “I will trade you something for it. We have honey and eggs in the truck, and I have some beautiful stones I found at the beach two weeks ago at a minus tide. Do you like stones?”

“I do,” says Alex, enchanted with Tober. “Where are these stones you speak of?”

“Here,” says Tober, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a little pouch he made from the skin of a rabbit he killed with his bow and arrow. “Hold out your hands.”

Alex cups his hands together and Tober pours ten exquisite stones into Alex’s hands.

“They’re gorgeous,” says Alex, his eyes wide with delight. “Where is the beach where you found these stones?”

“Mouth of the Eel,” says Tober, picking out the red one that resembles carnelian. “North side. This is the one you want, isn’t it?”

“It is,” says Alex, nodding. “Though truth be told, I want them all. But you should certainly get more than one measly book for these.”

“I’m sure your book is not measly,” says Tober, gazing sternly at Alex. “I’m sure it’s very good. And you can have all these stones, and the pouch, too, and owe me two books. How about that?”

“Agreed,” says Alex, nodding graciously. “And how will I get those two books to you?”

“We have a post office box in Fortuna,” says Tober, putting the stones back into the rabbit-skin pouch. “ Box 347. My name is Tober Quincy. Tober is short for October, but everyone calls me Tober except my brother and mother who call me Tobe. Would you please sign your book for me?”

“I will,” says Alex, taking the pouch of stones from Tober.

At which moment, Sharon and Augie come into the room, and Sharon says, “Ah here you are, Tobe. Sorry to drag you away, but I’ve got to be at work in forty minutes.” She smiles at Alex. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“No problem,” he says, returning her smile. “We’re just exchanging addresses to facilitate our future correspondence.”

Dear Alex Redfield,

My name is Tober Quincy. We met at the Eureka library three weeks ago and you traded me your book Queen Elizabeth I: A Brief Introduction To A Most Complicated Life for ten stones and you owe me two more books. I have finally finished reading your book with the help of my mother and Hank Carpenter who was a history professor. I love your book even though some parts are confusing for me because I don’t know enough about the history of England. I love how you write sentences and I want to learn to write sentences the way you do.

The most interesting part for me is about who Elizabeth’s father was if he wasn’t Henry the VIII. You thought her father might be Mark Smeaton who was a musician who was friends with Elizabeth’s mother, and if Elizabeth looked like him that seems like a good clue. Probably because I’m only nine, I don’t understand why people wanted to kill Elizabeth when she was just a girl and not doing anything wrong and why Henry the VIII cut off Elizabeth’s mother’s head and Mark Smeaton’s head, too. Henry the VIII sounds like a very sad person with a terrible temper.

Hank tried to explain to me and my brother Augie, short for August, why people were so violent in those days and why everyone kept killing other people, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t agree on things without killing each other all the time. The book made me like Elizabeth, but she must have been afraid all the time about people trying to kill her and attack England.

Even Elizabeth who was very smart and spoke so many languages killed people when she didn’t like them. This is very primitive and not a good way to do things, but Hank says England in the olden days was very violent and history is complicated.

We are having a potluck party at our house for everyone on the road and other people, too, starting at noon on the seventh day of Hanukkah. Would you like to come? It would be great if you could come. If you want to come, call my mother Sharon Quincy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna and she will give you directions. I hope you can come.

Thanks again for your wonderful book.

Your Friend,

Tober Quincy

At 11:30 in the morning on the seventh day of Hanukkah, the day sunny and clear and very cold, Tober and Augie and their two big mutts Bozo and Nina arrive at the unmarked junction of Snake Creek Road and Highway 211 to await the arrival of Alex Redfield. Sharon told Alex to be on the lookout for the boys and Augie’s neon-orange baseball cap, and though Alex said he would aim to arrive at noon, Tober and Augie wanted to be at the junction a half-hour early to make absolutely sure Alex doesn’t miss the turn.

To pass the time, they play Frisbee for a while, both boys expert at flinging the disc, and when they tire of Frisbee, they sit side-by-side on a gray boulder and take turns reading aloud from a book about pumas the Bernsteins gave them for Hanukkah Christmas Solstice; and in the middle of a fascinating passage describing how pumas hunt by surprising their victims rather than chasing them, Alex arrives in an old forest green Volvo station wagon.

He makes the turn, comes to a stop, and rolls down his window. “Hello Tober. Hello Augie,” he says, grinning at the boys. “Thanks for coming to guide me. Jump in. I’ll drive you up to the house.”

“The dogs won’t get in your car,” says Augie, shaking his head. “And we can’t be sure they’ll follow us home and we can’t leave them here.”

“You go ahead,” says Tober, pointing up the road. “We’ll run after you. It’s one-point-four miles to our house at the very end of the road. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

By the time Tober and Augie get to the house, Alex is inside being introduced to everyone by Sharon; and Augie and Tober agree, without saying anything aloud to each other, that they will probably have to be quite aggressive about prying Alex away from the adults if they want to show him all the things they intend to show him.

However, this turns out not to be the case because after an hour of chatting with people and sampling scrumptious hors d’oeuvres, Alex finds Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix in the kitchen cutting up apples for the two big pans of apple crisp Sharon is making to go with homemade ice cream, and Alex asks the children if they’d like to give him a tour of the house and the farm.

“We’re eating in an hour,” says Sharon, making eye contact with each of the children, “so don’t take him too faraway, please.” Now she looks at Alex. “Have you got a watch?”

“I do,” he says, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a beautiful silver pocket watch. “I shall sound the alarm in forty-five minutes, if necessary.”

“Good man,” says Sharon, mimicking his Scottish accent. “And good luck to you.”

The tour takes the children and Alex around the house and up the hill to the grand old oak where Tober and Augie and Abe Peoples, an excellent carpenter who lives on the road, built a tree house with three walls on a sturdy platform about fifteen feet off the ground. After climbing the rope ladder to the platform and exclaiming about the spectacular view, Alex climbs down the rope ladder and follows the kids from the grand old oak to an outcropping of red rock the children call Lizard Point, and from Lizard Point they follow a slender trail down a steep hill through a copse of pines to the Bernstein’s house, a two-story beauty made of oak and river rock.

In the Bernstein’s house, after introducing Alex to their three cats, Cecily performs part of a Bach partita on the grand piano, Felix holds forth on the contents of two of the eleven cigar boxes comprising his insect collection, and they show Alex the large woodshop where George makes exquisite furniture sold in art galleries.

From the Bernstein’s house, the quintet climbs back up the hill to the Quincy place where Alex is shown the verdant young cover crops in the vegetable garden before being led to the chicken coop wherein forty hens are roosting and where Alex is encouraged to gather eggs to take home with him. And for the final outdoor part of the tour, Tober and Augie each demonstrate their considerable skill with an axe in the splitting of rounds and the creation of kindling.

Returning to the farmhouse, the boys show Alex their bedroom, their collection of animal skulls and feathers, their hundreds of books, and their guitars and violins, which they play a little to prove they are both quite good musicians.

They leave Alex alone while he uses the bathroom, and after giving him a peek into their mother’s bedroom, they lead him to the dining room just as the midday meal is about to be served.

A half-hour before dusk, Alex says his goodbyes to everyone, and Tober and Augie accompany him to his car.

“I had a wonderful time with you today,” says Alex, opening the car door. “And I brought you two books, Tober, to complete our trade. One is a book of stories I read countless times when I was your age. Tales of a Knight Errant. And the other is Island Reveries, essays by a very good writer about the islands and birds off the west coast of Scotland where I spent many a happy summer. I think you and Augie will both love these books.”

“I know we will,” says Tober, taking the books from Alex. “And…” He wants to say more, but words won’t come out.

“And what?” asks Alex, smiling warmly at Tober.

“Will you come visit us again?” asks Augie, nodding hopefully.

“I will,” says Alex, giving each of the boys a gentle hug. “I’ve been at the university in Arcata for a year now, and I was despairing of ever making any good friends, and now I’ve met you and your mother and your wonderful neighbors, and they’ve all asked me to come again, so I will.”

“When?” asks Tober, cradling the precious books.

“When would you like me to come again?” asks Alex, touched by Tober’s interest in him.

“Tomorrow,” says Tober, nodding assuredly. “It’s not supposed to rain and there’s a negative tide at eleven in the morning, and we could go to the beach on the north side of the mouth of the Eel and have a picnic. I know we’ll find some good stones. I’m sure we will.”

“Come for breakfast,” says Augie, taking Alex’s hand. “We’ll make pancakes and then we’ll go to the beach.”

“Don’t you think we should see if this fits into your mother’s plans for tomorrow?” asks Alex, looking toward the house where Sharon is coming out the door to see what’s keeping her boys.

“Hey Mom,” says Tober, calling to Sharon. “Can Alex come for breakfast tomorrow and then we’ll go to the beach for low tide and hunt for stones?”

“Fine with me,” she says softly. “If that’s something he’d like to do.”

“I’d love to,” says Alex, letting go of Augie’s hand. “And now I must be on my way before it gets too dark. Long drive home and I’m not a great driver in America. Everything about driving here is the opposite of England, and I’m especially not a good American driver in the dark.”

“Spend the night,” says Sharon, matter-of-factly. “If you don’t mind sleeping on the sofa.”

“It’s a very comfortable sofa,” says Tober, nodding emphatically. “I can barely sit on that sofa and not fall asleep.”

“Me, too,” says Augie, nodding in solidarity with his brother.

“Well then that’s decided,” says Alex, walking with the boys back to the house. “And lucky me, the party’s still going.”

        fin

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.

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.”

Watching and Listening

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

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beats thinking ©John Grimes fizzdom.com grimescartoons.com

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

“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel

Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.

By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.

Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.

As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.

“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige

Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.

Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra

Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.

Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.

A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.

Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”

That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.

Father Christmas

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

cardthang

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

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” William Shakespeare

My father was extremely neurotic. A psychiatrist by profession, one of his more pronounced neuroses was the inability to complete anything, which made psychiatry the perfect profession for him. Our house and yard were minefields of my father’s unfinished projects, some of which became entangled with other unfinished projects, so that large areas of the domestic terrain were rendered useless except as depositories for the stuff of projects he would never complete.

When I was twelve, my father gave me the task of clearing away a great mass of blackberry brambles that was smothering our one and only apricot tree and made accessing the delectable fruit impossible. After many hours of hacking and cutting and carrying loads of brambles to the burn pile, I discovered that my father had pruned the apricot tree some years before, left the pruned branches lying around the tree, and in a subsequent year positioned a wooden ladder amidst the pruned branches in order to prune the tree again, left the newly pruned branches atop the older pruned branches, and then left the ladder surrounded by those multiple layers of pruned branches. Blackberry bushes then sprouted in the fertile soil and employed the framework of dead branches and wooden ladder as armature for their rampant growth.

When I was sixteen, my father and I attended an auction of government property, ostensibly to find a cheap filing cabinet for my mother, but really because my father loved hunting for old junky things to bring home. Among the items to be auctioned were several three-wheeled postal vans, their engines on the verge of dysfunction, their aging bodies pockmarked and rusty.

“I will buy one,” declared my father, “paint it a pleasing color, and use it to go to and from my office. Think of the money I’ll save on gas.”

My father did, indeed, make the highest bid on one of those vans, drove the cute little thing home, and parked it about ten feet to the left of my beloved basketball hoop and backboard, thereby rendering the court no good for basketball games until my pals and I pushed the little van some twenty feet from the hoop. And there that wreckage sat and rotted for thirty years until, as a gift to my mother, I had the heap hauled away.

“An overflow of good converts to bad.” William Shakespeare

Another of my father’s manias was book buying, and his favorite bookstore was Kepler’s in Menlo Park, both a fantastic bookstore and a groovy Bohemian hangout. I remember many an evening when my mother called Kepler’s, as other women might call the pub, to inquire if her husband was there. “He is?” my mother would say, exasperated. “Would you please tell him to come home? Immediately. He was supposed to be home two hours ago.”

Thus our house was not only a museum of myriad unfinished projects, but we lived in an ever growing topography of stacks of books—the dozens of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jammed with thousands of books—and piles of magazines and newspapers and junk mail, all of which my father was adamant my mother not throw away because, “I’m going through them this weekend,” which never happened once in fifty years.

“It’s true, Christmas can feel like a lot of work, particularly for mothers. But when you look back on all the Christmases in your life, you’ll find you’ve created family traditions and lasting memories. Those memories, good and bad, are really what help to keep a family together over the long haul.” Caroline Kennedy

When Marcia and I got married, I explained to her that Christmas was highly problematic for me due to the emotional scars I carried from my parents’ various neuroses coming to a boil, so to speak, in and around the holiday season. Never mind that my mother was Jewish, but had been raised to hide any connection to Judaism (which was one of the reasons she married my non-Jewish father.) Never mind that my father always put off buying a Christmas tree until the day before Christmas and then would get staggering drunk before he put the lights on the tree, after which he couldn’t remember where he’d put the really tall ladder he needed to get the ornament box down from the half-finished platform he had affixed to the rafters of our high-ceilinged house with twine and duct tape in lieu of the screws he would use when he got around to finishing the platform, which he never did.

No, what made Christmas such an unhappy time was the terrible tension resulting from my father having bought hundreds of books and things we didn’t want, and all those books and things had to be wrapped by our unhappy parents and put under the tree so we would have lots of presents to open on Christmas morning—the quantity of gifts being very important to my father, who always waited until Christmas Eve to start wrapping things, and as he wrapped he drank and my mother would lament, “You’ve had enough already,” and we would hang our stockings and go to bed and…joy to the world.

“And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.” William Shakespeare

When I was nine, my siblings and I gathered in the living room on Christmas morning, our parents having stayed up until the wee hours wrapping presents and stuffing our stockings with tangerines and candy and decks of cards (not again!) to keep us busy until they finally crawled out of bed some hours later to have their coffee and oversee the opening of the gifts. We noted the hundreds of presents under the precariously tilting tree, and my little brother gave voice to our collective fear, “I think it’s mostly books.”

That was the year my father gave me a seven-hundred-page (small print) biography of Thomas Jefferson and a book entitled How To Make Home Movies. Coincidentally, Santa gave my mother a home movie camera, which she promptly handed to my father, and my sister Wendy got a film editing and splicing contraption, my father expressing surprise and delight that Santa had given us these things that he, my father, had always wanted and would be happy to share with us. Yes! For a person who could never finish anything, a movie camera in those pre-digital days was the perfect thing for making huge messes and never completing anything. You go, Dad!

But the camera and associated film stuff was just the beginning of that year’s surprises. I received an electric soldering iron my father was quick to point out would be just the thing for assembling the Heathkit stereo tuner kit Santa brought my four-year-old brother, as well as the unassembled stereo speakers Santa brought my sister Kathy that would go perfectly with the Heathkit stereo tuner—none of which would ever be fully assembled but would reside partially assembled for many years under piles of useless junk on a large table in the room that eventually became my mother’s office after the defunct Heathkit project was finally added to the horror show known as our garage.

 “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Charles Darwin

As an adult, I returned to the old homestead every Christmas to visit my parents, and I frequently found the presents I’d given my father the previous year gathering dust on the floor not far from where he opened them. And it finally dawned on me that the best gifts for my father were bottles of wine he would drink that very day, though I needn’t buy good wine because my father, who was the world’s authority on everything, loved to remind me that “it has been scientifically proven there is absolutely no difference between cheap and expensive wine, except the price.”

Until he died at eighty-four, our father continued to give us books for Christmas that he thought we ought to want, and as he became less energetic, he took to buying all his children the same books from palettes of bestsellers at Costco. Three years in a row he gave me the same massive and impenetrable tome about Shakespeare by a famous Harvard professor, and each year he would ask me as I unwrapped the gnarly opus, “Have you heard of this book? Supposed to be fantastic.”

Then I would return to wherever I was living, and when sufficiently recovered from my Christmas ordeal, I would take the books my father had given me to a good used bookstore, get cash for them, and go to a café for coffee and cheesecake, both of which I really wanted. I would sip my coffee and savor the tangy cake and raise my cup in honor of my father, the great lover of books.

Unpublished Work

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Multiple Moons painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

They haunt me, the dozens of novels and novellas and stories I’ve written that have never been published—those relatively few survivors of my periodic assaults on bookshelves freighted with my collected unpublished fiction, each manuscript a Sleeping Beauty, alive yet so deeply asleep she might as well be dead; her only hope the kiss of some fairy tale publisher prince or princess who discovers the comatose fable despite the impenetrable forest surrounding her and despite the curses of the wicked witches and sorcerers and evil schmucks who rendered her, for all intents and purposes, lifeless.

“Why do you think we chose to speak ourselves through you, Todd?” ask the stories and novellas and novels and plays and screenplays. “So you would give birth to us and spend years shaping us and then pile us on your shelves to collect dust until you murder us? No! We chose you to bring us into the world so we can do our work—the work of inspiration and healing and love. How can you leave us here, moldering in our living graves?”

“Well,” I retort, “you cannot say I haven’t tried with all my might and guile (such as they are) for the better part of my sixty-three years to bring you to a larger audience, larger, that is, than the few friends I’ve shared you with. I’ve spent whatever money I managed to accrue to make copies of you and mail you to myriad publishers and magazines of every size and shape, and I have kissed the asses of far too many so-called literary agents who wouldn’t know a work of literature if it bit them on their much-kissed butts. And I have managed to publish several books and stories, however brief their appearances in bookstores and on the literary stage. I’ve even self-published two of my most vociferous volumes—Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books—and gone bankrupt in the process. So you cannot say I haven’t tried.”

Still, they haunt me, my unpublished works, especially the ones most recently born. The older manuscripts rarely shout at me these days, but the books I’ve written in the last decade, they squawk and yell as I walk by them or when I see their titles in the Writing folder on the screen of my computer. “Todd! What have you done today to find my publisher, to share me with your society, to bring my boon to the world? I’ve got work to do, people to touch, minds and hearts to open. What’s holding up the show? I’m ready!”

“Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” Jessamyn West

My most recent work of fiction (longer than a short story) is a novella entitled Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, a book I feel certain would be a big help in the crusade to save our planet while providing exciting and gratifying entertainment for millions of readers. Here is the brief synopsis that has accompanied my submissions of the manuscript to publishers hither and yon.

Oasis Tales of the Conjuror tells 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 exciting and creative and harmonious ways. The tales are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival.

I have now sent the manuscript to twenty publishers—small, medium, and large—as well as to three so-called literary agents, and the swift and universal response has been, “Never!” However, the thirty copies I gave to friends and my most clamorous readers elicited quite the opposite response. “Yes! You must publish this book! Couldn’t put it down! Riveting, gorgeous, powerful, important! Quick! There’s not a moment to lose!”

Ah, but that is the great divide I have encountered all my life—the responses of far-thinking and creative people as opposed to the responses of publishers. “So, Todd,” say more and more of my correspondents of late, “if the old ways won’t serve you, why don’t you publish Oasis Tales of the Conjuror as an e-book available online, and help save the world that way?” To which I reply, “I am such a colossal techno doofus, I not only don’t know how to do such a thing, I would be incapable of doing so even if I theoretically knew how. Besides, how would anyone know the book exists simply because I’ve added it to the billions of other e-things collecting digital dust in the ethers?”

That said, I do resonate with the idea of posting Oasis Tales of the Conjuror on my web site so people can read the story and send a link to their friends, though I still think an actual three-dimensional version of the book would be the best way for the tale to live in the world. To that end, I suppose I could make photocopies for those who wish to read hard copy (and pay for such) and post the manuscript online for people to read. That would eliminate the possibility of earning any money for my work, but given the urgency of the ecological and economic crises confronting us, perhaps aspiring to earn money while trying to help save the world is counter-productive if not downright silly.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling

Though I began to sell my short stories to men’s and women’s magazines in the 1970’s through the tireless efforts of the late great Dorothy Pittman, a saint disguised as a literary agent, and I eventually published several novels with big New York publishers and made my living as a novelist and screenwriter for some years, I continued to submit my short stories to literary magazines. Through thick and thin, success and failure, minor renown and major anonymity, I have never ceased to send my stories to itsy bitsy magazines and great big famous magazines and every size of magazine in between—for nearly fifty years. I would guesstimate I have now mailed (snail mail) over three thousand packets of stories to editors at hundreds of magazines and have made another three hundred electronic submissions since the advent of the interweb, yet I have never had a single one of those stories accepted for publication. True, I have published stories in a few little literary magazines, but those were stories solicited by editors who were fans of my writing or were introduced to my work by mutual acquaintances.

Just today, for instance, I received three rejections of stories I submitted electronically to so-called literary magazines, and I received a rare snail mail rejection (a form letter in the self-addressed stamped envelope I included with my submission) of a story I was sure would be taken by a miniscule quarterly with a circulation of seventy-five—photocopied, folded, and stapled in the editor’s garage. The form rejections from all these magazines said the same thing: Due to the thousands of stories and poems we receive each week, we regret that we cannot respond personally to your submission. Even so, how could they not want my stories? Such funny and piquant and timely tales, and I was absolutely certain that…

But then I have always been absolutely certain that every story and novel and novella and play and screenplay I have ever sent out is going to be published or produced or filmed. Indeed, over the decades, through agents and on my own, I have submitted more than a hundred short stories and humorous essays to the New Yorker, and with each and every submission I have been absolutely certain that my phone will ring (any minute now) and some wonderful guy or gal New Yorker editor (smart and funny and good) will say, “Todd, Todd, Todd. This is such a great story. Gads! (I just know they’ll use the word gads.) Where have you been all our lives?” Which is a question I will take great delight in answering.

And over the course of those same decades, I have had my astrological chart interpreted by four different astrologers, and each of those seers noted something in my chart indicating that the sun and the moon and the planets have collaborated with the earth to predispose me to be preternaturally optimistic, no matter what befalls me. This astrological indicator is, so far, one of only two plausible explanations for why, despite the formidable and ever-growing odds against me, I continue to campaign on behalf of my unpublished works. The other explanation is that several times in my life, and always just as I am about to give up the fight, someone writes or calls to let me know that my words got through to them and they were moved to reach out to me.

Falling Behind

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become a mediocre company.” Bill Gates

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing career, commercially speaking, was turning steeply downward, my third-rate Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages; and people seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change the messages because they never wanted to hear them again. So I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days; and then people complained I was erasing really good messages before their friends got to hear them. Thus art mirrored life.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral even existed. I’m speaking about a time before the advent of the interweb, which was not very long ago but seems prehistoric. If I still had that particular outgoing message and put it on YouTube today as the soundtrack to beautiful scantily clad women dancing on the beach or swimming in lagoons or sprawling on bearskin rugs or walking through sun-dappled forests, I have no doubt my message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from all the hits and links and apps and downloads from clouds and kindles and everywhere.

Sadly, I only remember the feeling of the message, not the words. The feeling was of being exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which was telling an entrancing story or expressing some deeply satisfying feeling or describing a most delicious way of being—something so alluring that the caller was overcome with a full body sensation of life being a lovely adventure, a sexy samba on a warm summer day, and that their calling me and listening to my message was exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Yes! The experience of listening to my message was a holy act, a miraculous give-and-take, a blessing, a multi-dimensional, emotionally, physically, and spiritually fulfilling orgasm free of even the slightest attachment to outcome or length or reason. Hallelujah!

I got hundreds of calls. Telephone calls. Not emails or hits or links. I’m talking about actual human beings calling my number and listening to my message—hundreds of people from all over America and around the world. Friends told friends and their friends told their friends, and so on. A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated as, “I am so very much wanting to have the child you are the father.” Another call came from a bunch of people having a party in England, and after hearing my message they applauded and shouted “Bravo!” Calls came from bars and cafés all over America and Canada where the callers held the phones up so everyone in those joints could listen and respond. I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words, their order and tone and cadence, made people laugh and cry and rejoice. Some people left delightful replies—impromptu poems full of love and hope that brought tears to my eyes. I tell you, that message was an elixir, a salve, and a great big answer to the gigantic question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger of a message on my answering machine for months until one day a friend who had heard that psalm too many times said, “Enough already,” and I hit the Erase button. Honestly, I had no idea what I was erasing because I had not listened to the blessed thing since the moment, all those weeks and months before, when I hit the Record button and fell into a reverie from which flowed those now forgotten words.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

My wife Marcia and I are both self-employed and have web sites whereon we display our wares and talents in hopes of enticing people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs two chamber music camps each year for adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her marvelous camps and sells her CDs and sheet music. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD that has sold three thousand hard copies and is being downloaded at an enviable rate each month, I being the envious one. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to new customers. She also sells her album of wonderful cello-centric songs Skyward, sheet music of her original compositions, and three CDs she’s made with her husband Todd (that would be moi).

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell my books, music CDs, story CDs, birthday cards, and cards and posters of my zany paintings. Visitors can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) for free, and sample tunes from my albums. My most successful creation, commercially speaking, is the lovely little hardbound book (signed by the author) Buddha In A Teacup (just ten bucks!) I am currently most enamored of my solo piano CDs and dream of one day rivaling Marcia’s enviable download business, though for now I’m thrilled when I make .0013 cents from someone in Poughkeepsie taking a listen on Napster.

And, yes, my previous experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering machine message and a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again. My new CD Mystery Inventions, piano and bass duets, for instance, might be just the creation that inspires those hits to keep on coming. Or not.

So…from what I’ve just said you might get the impression we’re a fairly techno-savvy household. In truth, Marcia is a computer enthusiast and gets better at cyber software stuff all the time. I, on the other hand, am a technophobe. Even simple procedures involving software are to me as Everest is to one with high blood pressure. After nearly thirty years of owning a personal computer, the contraption remains for me little more than a typewriter with a screen, a way to send and get mail, and a pseudo-television for watching sports highlights and movie previews—all else digital is baffling to me.

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.” E.F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful

So yesterday I’m reading the newspaper, the actual paper, not a projection, and I come to an article the likes of which I usually skip, an article about a man who has an app design software company that is growing so fast he just rented another 150,000 square feet of office space in the hottest sector of downtown San Francisco, and he thinks he’ll quadruple that space by year’s end.

I could not understand anything this man said or anything he is reputed to have done. He said that twelve million people have downloaded one of his apps that empowers them to paint on their cell phones, thus “unleashing an avalanche of pent up creativity.” Twelve million people are painting on their cell phones? Are they finger painting? What does a painting made on a tiny screen look like? Then the guy goes on to say that everything he and anyone in the know are doing today is “all about the cloud.” The cloud. I’ve heard about this cloud, some sort of virtually unlimited cyber space computing zone making possible the instantaneous transfer of jillions of bytes of digital information per nanosecond times a jillion squared. This cloud, according to this billionaire cyber wizard, “will unleash the creative potential of humanity.”

And my gut reaction to that is, “I hope so, but I doubt it.”


Three Musketeers

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Oh, the women, the women!” cried the old soldier. “I know them by their romantic imagination. Everything that savors of mystery charms them.” Alexandre Dumas

Last Thursday evening, as I was about to go to bed, I had a moment of panic because I had nothing to read. Yes, there are millions of books; and hundreds of new volumes flood the world every day; but I was hungry for a particular literary food I’ve cultivated a taste for over a lifetime, nothing else will do, and I wasn’t sure I had anything of the kind in the house I hadn’t too recently read. Alas, I am allergic to science fiction, murder mysteries (save for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), fantasy, horror, mainstream fiction, exposés of the depredations of the oligarchic octopus, and odes to the coming collapse, thus new prose is, for the most part, of no use to me.

Stumbling into my cluttered office, I espied a volume recently procured from Daedalus Books, that goodly purveyor of publishers’ overstocks—a happily inexpensive Dover edition of the 167-year-old The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I had attempted to read the book as a teenager and found the language too rich for my fledgling taste buds. I had seen a movie based loosely on the book (there have been more than twenty movies made from the novel) and I have always liked myths in which a group of characters compose a collective being, each character a distinct aspect of the whole—Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck; Groucho, Harpo, and Chico; D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. And so with hope in my heart, I lugged the ample paperback to bed, settled in for my customary bout of reading before sleep, and was relieved to find the first two chapters of The Three Musketeers exactly the food I craved.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

Three months before I began to read The Three Musketeers, I was inspired by various twists of fate to begin a series of large and colorful drawings (large for me, small for Picasso), 20 x 16 inches. I have been making pen and ink sketches since I was a child, but it was only two years ago at the age of fifty-nine that I went public for the first time with my artwork by introducing each chapter of my novel Under the Table Books with a pen and ink drawing. When these illustrations were mentioned favorably in reviews, I was emboldened to create seven zany black and white birthday cards (you can color them or not) that failed to cause a commercial ripple, much less a splash. Thereafter I contented myself with using the myriad scans of my drawings to decorate the instant stationery that computers and laser printers make possible.

What do my drawings have to do with The Three Musketeers?

“My heart is that of a musketeer; I feel it, Monsieur, and that impels me on.” Alexandre Dumas

Nine months ago I was invited to submit a short story to the Consumnes River Journal, a literary magazine of Consumnes Community College near Sacramento. I sent the editors a provocative story I was sure they would publish, but they disappointed my hopes. However, they were enamored of a drawing I included with the story, and to this drawing they dedicated an entire glossy page of their journal. Then about two months ago, shortly after the publication of the journal, I was contacted by a curator of an annual art show in Sacramento, a show of visual art created by writers, and this curator asked if I would like to present a few of my drawings in the next such show.

As it happened, the day I received the curator’s communiqué, I had just completed a series of three (large for me, small for Picasso) pieces I hoped to enter in a juried show at the Mendocino Art Center. However, I failed to have these beauties framed in time (they are still not framed) for the day of judgment, and so I will never know if I would have won a place in that show or not. Nevertheless, my sketching juices were flowing nicely when I received this invitation from Sacramento, and so there ensued a flurry of pen and ink inventions resulting in the birth of a family of colorful characters named Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Mystery, Mischief, and Merlin.

“D’Artagnan was amazed to note by what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of nations and the lives of men are suspended.” Alexandre Dumas

The central hero (sometimes anti-hero) of The Three Musketeers is a daring young man named D’Artagnan. Whenever Dumas found himself at a cul-de-sac in the plot, he arranged for D’Artagnan to accidentally stumble upon an important someone or something to get the action moving again. These recurring “accidentals” are among my least favorite things about the novel, along with much of the final third of the mighty tome, though when I learned Dumas wrote the novel in serial form (The Three Musketeers was first published in a French magazine over the course of several months in 1844) I was more forgiving of these implausible plot twists, having myself authored a serial work of fiction for a Sacramento weekly in the 1980’s.

And, in fact, we do frequently stumble upon and over things that propel the plots of our lives, so in that sense D’Artagnan embodies the Sufi mystic who goes forth with an open heart and open mind to discover what the universe has to offer. As Paladin’s business card said Have Gun, Will Travel, so D’Artagnan’s card might have read Have Sword, Will Duel, and my card might say Have Pen, Will Make Large (for me, not for Picasso) Drawings.

Speaking of propelling the plot…lacking a studio I have commandeered the dining table for purposes of making my larger-than-usual drawings, and Marcia, my wife and boon companion these last five years, is now privy to my works-in-progress. To my great relief, she likes my drawings and even makes cogent suggestions about color choices and composition, all of which I strictly obey. (Not)

One recent evening Sandy Cosca came over and Marcia said to me, “Show Sandy your drawings,” which I did.

Sandy chuckled at the drawings (because they are funny) and asked, “Are these illustrations for a story?”

And though I heard myself say, “No,” I wondered if they were illustrations for a story. How long a story? A novella? A novel? A serial?

Two days later, Marion Crombie, freshly returned from England, viewed the drawings, smiled brightly, and asked, “Do these go with a story?”

So at last we come back to that fateful evening I alluded to in the first sentence of this article, when I, in a D’Artagnan-like moment of desperation, stumbled into my office, found The Three Musketeers, and began to feed upon that tale. Having gobbled the first two chapters, I fell asleep and had a vivid dream in which the Magician family came to life and revealed themselves to be a complicated and compelling collective being, each character a distinct aspect of a fantabulous whole. The dream, clearly, was the beginning of a story: Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Merlin, Mystery, and Mischief, though what the story is about and how long it turns out to be remain to be seen.

I have only written the first two chapters, and so far the tale seems less about dueling with the forces of evil ala D’Artagnan, and more about parents and children and their struggles to separate and individuate and ultimately come together again to take meaningful action against the larger forces of greed and avarice. The Magicians, though not great swordsmen or the darlings of wealthy queens and kings and cardinals, seem to be social activists of a most unusual kind, and they seem to pose the question: how will we, you and I, give aid to our friends and our communities in the face of the terrible and growing inequities engendered by a ruling class of narcissistic psychopaths hell bent on turning back the clock to feudal times when the likes of D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers served a tiny minority of wealthy people whose pathological selfishness kept all but the luckiest few enslaved by poverty and fear?

You can view Todd’s zany birthday cards (and soon his Magician family drawings) at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Whales & Predictions

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

Sunday. The second of January 2011. My wife Marcia and I are sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean a few miles south of the village of Mendocino, the pale blue sky decorated with flat clouds, grays and whites, the celestial artist in no mood for billowy today. The sea is relatively calm and several pods of whales are passing by close enough for us to see them clearly without binoculars, their impressive water spouts presaging glimpses of their even more impressive enormity, our excitement at seeing them giving way to ongoing joy that the leviathans (my favorite synonym for whales) are right there, sharing the world with us, and saying hello so delightfully.

We have come to this promontory above the deep to give back to the ocean some forty pounds of stones and shells we’ve collected over the last five years for the decoration of windowsills and table tops; and as we throw the pretty gifts into the depths, we send with them our hopes and intentions for the year ahead.

The news of late has been full of predictions by economists and financial prognosticators about what may befall the national and global economies in the coming year, with the dopiest among them predicting an economic recovery, the centrists predicting a general flatness in the growth graphs, and the doomsters predicting the slopes becoming so steep as to render the pyramid an obelisk. Intellectually, I side with the doomsters, and I certainly urge everyone to avoid the stock market like the plague, but I have a hunch the master manipulators, the people with their hands on the big valves, may do several things along the lines of artificially raising and lowering oil prices to keep the Titanic from submerging completely, not that the bottom two-thirds isn’t already underwater.

Locally there is palpable relief that marijuana was not legalized, the buzz being that pot prices remain high for quality boutique bud, and thus cash will continue to flow around the county, though not into the coffers of our bankrupt local government. Despite the boon of illegality, if one may call it a boon, Mendocino real estate is putrefying, with many houses being taken off the market because they’ve been on so long the perception is they must be haunted or toxic not to have sold, when, in fact, they are merely grossly overpriced. Selfishly, I hope prices tumble so the likes of us can actually buy something for the purposes of truck farming and survival in the coming era of ten-dollar-a-gallon gas, but that scenario may not take hold until 2013.

That said, the presence of so many whales and a splendiferous Red-tailed hawk swooping by not ten feet in front of us, fill me with hope that 2011 will bring myriad opportunities for fun and possibly profit.

Throw high risers at the chin; throw peas at the knees; throw it here when they’re lookin’ there; throw it there when they’re lookin’ here.” Satchel Paige on Pitching

And speaking of leviathans, I would be remiss if I did not include among my predictions an early surmise concerning the upcoming baseball season and the fate of our World Champion San Francisco Giants. Savor those words with me, will you? We Are World Champions. Yes. So. I predict our team, having fulfilled the dream of generations of fans, will play with such ferocious confidence to begin the new season that before they are felled by a mid-season identity crisis, they will be so far ahead of their nearest rival in the division that timely psychotherapeutic intervention will save them from total collapse, we will win the division, claw our way into a showdown with the Philadelphia Phillies, beat those overpaid jerks in six games, and face the Yankees in the World Series, wherein Jonathan Sanchez will pitch a no-hitter, not a perfect game, but one featuring fourteen strikeouts, five walks, and two hit batsmen, to win the seventh and deciding game.

“There is, of course, a certain amount of drudgery in newspaper work, just as there is in teaching classes, tunneling into a bank, and being President of the United States.” James Thurber

I am perhaps overstating the case to call my contributions to the Anderson Valley Advertiser newspaper work, but I do sometimes like to fancy myself a reporter, having always identified with Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter, and not the man of steel. Could I be worthy of a press pass? And I very much appreciate Thurber’s take on the varieties of human labor because having made my living as a landscaper as well as a pen pusher and a teacher and a musician and an arborist, my experience has been that each form of work requires focus and determination; and the more we practice, the better we get.

My experience of drudgery has been limited to work I did not want to do, which, blessedly, I have largely avoided in my life. I do not consider physically repetitive work—chopping wood, shucking peas, juicing apples, washing windows, digging ditches—drudgery, but rather forms of movement necessary for the completion of tasks, movements I can think of as dances when I get into the swing of things.

“The only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic.” John Dewey

The continuing absence of a large anti-war movement in our country is both troubling to me and understandable. I went on my first anti-war march in 1963, when I was thirteen. I marched up Market Street in San Francisco with my father and a small contingent of Doctors Against The War. I carried a handmade sign that said Get Out Of Vietnam. There were several hundred demonstrators and several dozen vociferous hecklers calling us commies and traitors—Vietnam still unknown to most Americans. By 1966, however, getting into college was as much a way to avoid jungle combat as it was a means to getting a well-paid job, and most teenage boys in America knew this and were unhappy to be so threatened.

I think it is important to recall that the Vietnam War was a purely American endeavor, a war our government hoped to win entirely. But we lost. And when America withdrew from that demolished country, the supranational overlords were mightily displeased and decreed, “Never again.” Never again would the mass media report what actually goes on in corporate-sponsored wars. Never again would the corporate propagandists describe America fighting alone for freedom and democracy, but rather the lie would be about coalitions of democracies (NATO and Coalition Forces) fighting dark, dirty, desperate insurgents and terrorists in order to bring democracy to oppressed people who just happen to live on top of vast oil reserves or where it would be good to route a pipeline.

And there would be no draft, no declaration of war, no serious debates in any congress or parliament, no substantive information or truth told to the benumbed population; and the people would, indeed, be numb and dumb and desperate and confused, so much so that the fates of strange brown-skinned people living far-away wouldn’t mean anything in the swirl of trying to keep our heads above water as the Titanic (there’s that big boat again) floundered in such treacherous economic seas that a single serious health challenge could send a person or a family into poverty and homelessness.

Yet until the wars are curtailed and eventually ended, we will never free sufficient resources to solve the environmental and social problems already eclipsing the cost of imperial conflicts. Surely the overlords are aware of the oncoming disasters; or do they imagine that endless and interconnected wars will ultimately provide the framework for controlling the flow of resources in a world of social and environmental chaos?

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

The bulletin boards and fences in the commercial sector of the village of Mendocino are shockingly empty of content these cold winter days, vast swaths of empty space awaiting flyers advertising concerts, firewood, yoga classes, art classes, food classes, classes on giving classes, and families of four with two dogs and three cats looking for a commodious place to rent, can pay approx 700 a month, partial trade for weed pulling and folk singing. Oh not yet, my darlings, but soon such bargains may come your way if the fences on Ukiah Street and the walls of Moody’s java haven prove to be valid economic indicators.

And the one and only bookstore in our village offering new books (not mine, alas) for sale is so quiet the place might be a library; and I fear such stores will soon go the way of the dodo, weakened by Amazon and finished off by Kindles and their digital ilk.

Yet even as I predict the demise of bookstores, I simultaneously predict that quite soon the making and selling of good old bound pages covered with symbols decipherable by those who can still read will once again become the way of literature. But why in the face of such overwhelming digitalization do I predict the resurrection of the Old Way? Because I have an inkling, a hunch, a premonition, that the moment is fast approaching when we will collectively wake to find that all the newfangled digital gizmos no longer work, and that the gazillions of bits of ethereal data assembled by everyone for the past thirty years have vanished into thin air—memory clouds entirely dissipated. And thus we will have no choice but to resort to, and take pleasure in, real things.

Todd has yet to Kindleize or iPadize his books because he is a techno doofus, otherwise he surely would.

Art Rant

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Books

Rae’s eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor.” from Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott

The silence of the eyes rings true, and the eyes being side-by-side seems plausible, but how in heck did those eyes get onto that couch without Rae?

I was thirteen and had devoured a thousand books before I discovered the first typo of my reading career, an error that struck me as a scandalous affront to the artistry of writing. I was an insatiable reader, and wanting to be a professional writer I did not skim, but read every word. And when I found passages that wowed me, I copied their lines longhand to teach my sinews the feel of great writing.

“The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.” from Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Nowadays I am surprised if I read a book from a corporate press and don’t find grammatical errors galore with typos sprinkled throughout. I was recently told I must read the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, a current darling of the New York literati, a writer with myriad awards to her credit, including a Pulitzer. I dutifully ordered her most revered collection of short stories, and after wading through several introductory pages of praiseful blurbs from influential magazines and newspapers—the word miraculous appearing in several of the blurbs—I entered a grammatical minefield that rendered her half-baked stories unreadable for the likes of me.

I complained of Ms. Lahiri’s failings to Marcia, my wife who is so patient with me when I rant about the decline and fall of our culture. Marcia calmly considered my condemnation of the writer and said, “Maybe you just don’t like her style.”

Indeed. Clunky composition featuring profligate use of the word “it”, pronoun confusion, place confusion, time confusion, inadequate descriptions of people and places, and lame depictions of action do add up to a particular style, but who needs it? And why would reviewers describe such stuff as miraculous? In two words: culture collapse.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Lamott and countless other contemporary authors contracted by the corporate presses should be ashamed to publish books that have not been thoroughly and thoughtfully edited. Why aren’t they ashamed? You tell me.

Radio

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” Marilyn Monroe

In 1966 I was lead singer in a rock band of sixteen-year-old boys. By our third rehearsal we knew we were fantastic and would soon be opening at the Fillmore for our favorite bands Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Joy Ride, though I was never certain if we were The Joy Ride or simply Joy Ride.

This was long before the advent of cassette tape recorders (now obsolete) so we recorded our loud songs on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the one-of-a-kind tapes to Warner Brothers and Columbia Records so we would be discovered and made famous and have beautiful wonderful girlfriends who wanted to have sex with us day and night while maintaining their brilliance and creativity and innocence.

We had one gig before (The) Joy Ride broke up. The gig was a battle of four bands in a cavernous high school gymnasium. We were awesome, yet we lost the battle. The only possible explanation for our defeat was that the airheads didn’t get where we were coming from. Our one stalwart groupie said we reminded her of Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds rolled into one. No wonder we knew we were fantastic.

Embittered by our rejection by the airheads, I joined forces with a guitar player and wrote eleven amazing songs. We recorded our masterworks on that same reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the tape to A&M Records because a friend of ours had a friend who knew someone’s friend’s cousin or uncle who worked there. Maybe the tape got lost in the mail, but more likely the record company airheads just didn’t get where we were coming from. In any case…

Fast-forward forty-five years. Having just produced two new CDs, I have been questing for likely DJs at likely radio stations to send our music to, my goal being to send forth a hundred packets, each containing our CDs and a heartfelt handwritten letter aimed at a specific DJ. So not Jazz is my collaboration with the aforementioned patient wife Marcia, her exquisite cello improvisations elevating our jazzy instrumentals and songs into the sublime, while 43 short Piano Improvisations is my solo adventure in musical haiku.

Whilst pursuing those rare DJs who might be open to music from the likes of us, I have visited over a hundred public radio station web sites and scrutinized several hundred DJ profiles and play lists. As of this writing, I have sent out sixty-seven packets and gained three DJ fans: one in Fort Collins, Colorado, one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Astoria, Oregon. They have each played a tune or two of ours, and promise to play more. We are, in a word, thrilled.

As a result of my copious research, I have learned that if a radio station is an NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate and airs All Things Considered, they will probably be a kind of public radio Clear Channel with canned programming and zero interest in independent artists. But if a station airs Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, there is a fair chance they will harbor one or more zany, curious, eclectic programmers. And then there are the entirely student-run college stations. I do not intend to approach any of these stations until our hip-hop metal reggae album Dread Metal YoYo is ready for release.

Movies and Plays

“Television has raised writing to a new low.” Samuel Goldwyn

John Simon is the author of my favorite one-sentence film review. In response to the movie Tommy, he wrote in Esquire, “Anyone who has anything good to say about this movie has nothing to say to me.” I feel this way about nearly all the American movies I’ve seen in the last thirty years, and that is because I have not been programmed to digest contemporary theatrical offerings.

Contemporary movies and theatre in America are now entirely conflated with television, the essence of which is physical and psychic violence, emotional superficiality, sexism, the deification of morons, verbal abuse disguised as humor, and non-stop brainwashing. Because I ceased watching television in 1969, the programming of my brain has not kept pace with the changing cultural mores. Thus contemporary American plays and movies, even those purported to be brilliant and deep and meaningful, almost always strike me as trivial and/or toxic.

I remember the precise moment I decided to forego television for the rest of my life. I was nineteen and on the verge of dropping out of college—academia antithetical to the likes of me. I was wandering the halls of my dorm looking for someone to accompany me on a late night stroll when I came to a lounge wherein a dozen young men and women were watching television. As I stood in the lounge doorway and watched the watchers, I was struck by the realization that these promising young people, four of them my best friends, were being lobotomized by the rays emanating from the television, their faces fixed in helpless idiocy.

Over the last thirty years, I have attended some two hundred plays in theatres large and small in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco, and most recently Mendocino, and I cannot bring to mind a single contemporary play written by an American that I believed in for more than a moment or two. Of the few hundred American movies I’ve seen since 1980, I can think of a handful I would call good, only a few great. Thank goodness we have access to foreign films (I consider the British foreign) so I do not entirely starve for good movies, though I am frequently hungry.

I am certain (having been privileged to read such manuscripts) that fine plays, books, and screenplays are still being written in America, but they are not, as a rule, produced or published or widely disseminated. And, yes, I have on rare occasions over the last forty years watched television, usually at the request of friends urging me to sample shows they say are fabulous, only to have my sense of the ongoing devolution confirmed.

Renaissance

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

If you so desire, you can overcome the televisionization of your psyche and revitalize your aesthetic taste buds. Having worked with many teenage and adult writers who were initially incapable of writing original stories with non-stereotypical characters and natural-sounding dialogue, and knowing the causes of their dysfunction to be television, corporate fiction, and contemporary American movies, I found that if I could convince my charges to eliminate these influences from their lives, creative rebirth was a virtual certainty. For teenagers, such rebirths may occur within weeks of their ceasing to imbibe the media opiates. For adults, such rejuvenation may take months. And I suppose the modern variants of television, iPads, cell phones, YouTube, etc. should be included in the list of influences to be minimized.

Our brains, in much the same way as ecosystems, will regenerate once persistent toxics and stresses are removed, and once you end your addiction to the opiates of the masses you will be astonished by the dramatic shift in your perceptions. However, there is the strong possibility you will feel left out of the cultural discourse about celebrities and the latest movies and books you can’t remember shortly after you ingest them, and you may feel isolated and lonely and desperate in the absence of all that you have become accustomed to. Fear not. Falling off the wagon is but a click of the On button and a badly written bestseller away.

[Todd reads books written by dead or very old or unknown authors and watches foreign films (and the occasional teen flick) in Mendocino.]

This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010