Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’

Crisis & Opportunity

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


* Sally holding Molly 9-1 - 10-6 & 12-15-2013 email

Sally Holding Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy

According to Chinese philologists, President Kennedy’s famous assertion about the Chinese word for crisis is either untrue, not entirely true, or true under certain linguistic circumstances but not under others. In any case, this now popular idea always reminds me of challenging situations in my life that proved to be opportunities for creative inventiveness.

“I’m trying to use the language of today to express a general existential crisis that I think the world and I are going through.” Sean Lennon

In 1967, when I was a senior in high school and intending to grow up to be a star of stage and screen, I landed one of the leads in the Woodside High production of the not-so-great musical Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neil’s play Ah, Wilderness. The musical ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1960 and starred Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon. I got the Walter Pidgeon part and Joe Tiffany got the Jackie Gleason part, though I was far more Jackie Gleasonish than Joe, and Joe was far more Walter Pidgeonish than I. However, this was a high school production wherein teenagers impersonated middle-aged adults suffering midlife crises; thus the entire play was miscast.

You may recall the title song Take Me Along because the tune became an annoying advertising jingle for United Airlines in the 1960’s. Take Me Along was the show’s only remotely memorable song, though I enjoyed singing my big solo number I’m Staying Young, a song in which my character laments everyone else growing old while his character is determined to stay young, speaking of ironic poignant existential hokum sung by a horny seventeen-year-old virgin hoping to seem convincing as a fifty-five-year-old grandfather.

Existential hokum aside, the climax of the entire show was the song Take Me Along performed as a bouncy upbeat duet sung by the Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon characters while they executed a good old smile-provoking tap dance routine. I don’t know about Jackie and Walter, but Joe and I were vomitously bad dancers, and no matter how many hours we put in with the choreographer (the sweet but wholly inept Miss Stewart) we sucked. Or as we liked to say in those innocent days of late adolescence, “We sucked raw turkey eggs.”

The rest of the production was pretty okay, and our singing of Take Me Along was fine, our harmonies solid. But our dancing was beyond awful, so much so that we never once made it through the entire routine without screwing up, and that included our dress rehearsal performance, which was so painfully grotesque that even the two-hundred drama groupies assembled by the director to cheer us on were stunned and horrified by our colossal ineptitude.

“The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” H.G. Wells

So we spent two more hours after that dress rehearsal and two hours just prior to the opening night performance practicing the dance routine, but rather than improve, we got worse. Miss Stewart smiled bravely and declared, “I’m sure it will come together when you do the dance in the context of the play.”

When Miss Stewart was gone, I said to Joe, “It will never come together, and we both know it. So here’s what I propose. We do our best not to fuck up, but when we do, we improvise. Okay?”

“But we almost got it,” said Joe, giving me a terrified look. “Let’s just…try to get it.”

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.” Charles de Gaulle

The first act of Take Me Along went off without a hitch. The orchestra sounded plausibly orchestral, no one forgot his or her lines, and the audience seemed mildly appreciative. Yes, the production was deadly dull, but the second act rambled along without disaster until we came to that moment we’d been dreading—our climactic Take Me Along duet and tap routine.

Joe and I moved to the front of the stage, the curtain closed behind us, and we were illumined by spotlights that would follow us around the stage for the duration of the number. Joe winked at the conductor and said, “Maestro, please,” and as the orchestra began to play, two straw boater hats and two white canes were handed up to us from the orchestra pit. We popped those hats on our heads at rakish angles, tucked those canes under our arms, and off we went.

After a few moments of roughly synchronized approximations of tap dancing, and as predicted…we fucked up. Badly. So I launched into a goofy Groucho Marx kind of dance, spinning and sliding and twirling my cane and hamming things up, while Joe doggedly and gracelessly tried to remain faithful to Miss Stewart’s clunky dance routine. And something about what we were doing—perhaps the ridiculous juxtaposition of elements in tension—struck the audience’s funny bone and we brought the house down. Thunderous laughter shook the auditorium, and as we hit the harmonic bull’s eye with the last notes of the song, five hundred people jumped to their feet and applauded for so long we had to come back out for an encore of me sliding and twirling around while Joe relentlessly butchered Miss Stewart’s dance and the orchestra repeated the last few bars of the song.

And though our ridiculous pas de deux unquestionably lifted the show out of the trough of mediocrity into the realm of sublime silliness, Miss Stewart was terribly upset by our failure to adhere to her choreography. Joe apologized profusely to her and promised it (whatever it was) would never happen again. Fortunately, it happened five more times and saved five more shows. Sadly, the one and only time we managed to sort of get through the routine as we were kind of supposed to, the response from the audience was exactly what we’d gotten at the dress rehearsal—embarrassed silence followed by a smattering of disingenuous applause. But every time we fucked up and I improvised and Joe doggedly tried to get the steps right, the audience went insane with laughter and stomped and clapped and cheered until we had no choice but to come out for a curtain call.

 “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger

Darwin suggested that evolution is a progression of genetic responses to environmental crises; and most scientists, until quite recently, believed that those genetic responses resulting in new physical traits and new behaviors were chemical and random. But now a growing number of epigenetic researchers posit that some or all of these genetic responses are actually choices made by something (what, where, how?) that directs genetic potentiality in a less than purely random way, even, perhaps, as a conscious response to crisis.

Nonsense, Todd, you magical thinking dimwit. Go wash your mouth out with soap and write five hundred times: The Universe does not think. Everything that happens is the result of random chemical centrifugal fractal accidents guided by unfaltering principles that we narcissistic humans actually think we understand, even though we don’t.

 “There are two principles inherent in the very nature of things—the spirit of change, and the spirit of conservation. There can be nothing real without both.” Alfred North Whitehead

A few years into my eleven-year sojourn in Berkeley, I ran out of work, ran out of money, and found myself the sole support of a woman slowly recovering from a nervous breakdown and her unemployed teenaged daughter and two cats, not to mention moi. As a consequence of this wholly unanticipated crisis, and with three weeks to earn enough to pay the usurious rent while continuing to buy groceries, I spent three days and nights trying to drum up editing work. Failing there, I wracked my brains to think of someone, anyone, I could borrow money from, and when I could think of no deep pocket to implore, I got so panicky I ran out the front door, down the nine steps, and along the sidewalk until I was out of breath and slowed to a walk and asked the unseen powers of Universe, “What am I going to do?”

Then I stopped, turned full circle, took a deep breath and turned full circle again. And as I made that second revolution, I saw not one, not two, but five fruit trees in need of pruning. I had not pruned trees for money in nearly two decades, but as I walked home to get my notebook, I felt overjoyed at the prospect of resuming that line of work. I then slipped handwritten notes under the doors of the three houses attached to those five trees in need of pruning. The notes mentioned the specific trees I felt needed attention, identified me as a neighbor who would expertly prune those trees at a reasonable rate and/or be happy to give advice and free estimates for my services. Universe apparently dug where I was coming from because the phone began to ring and I never lacked for work again.

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.

Travels With Frisbee

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Fredrick Morrison, the inventor of the Frisbee, died at the age of ninety on February 11, 2010. I still carry a Frisbee in my knapsack as I have since 1965 when I bought my first one at Woolworth’s for 69 cents, a flimsy little thing much smaller than the smallest Frisbees sold today.

Though it may seem a preposterous boast, I am very likely the first person to introduce Frisbee to the University of California Santa Cruz in 1967. If perchance someone came before me, I was certainly one of the pioneer users there, and took it upon myself to teach dozens of young men and women the fundamentals of tossing the holy disc. I used to joke that I majored in Anthropology and minored in Frisbee, but the reverse is true. The happiest hours of my two years in college were spent running over hill and dale in pursuit of far-flung Frisbees, my college buddy Dick Mead capable of prodigious tosses across the Elysian Fields of that cattle ranch turned university.

In 1970, a year after I dropped out, I traveled through Mexico and Central America as a translator for a marine biologist and his family. I brought along a dozen Frisbees because they were easy to lose and I thought it would be fun to introduce new friends to the delights of the floating disc. Little did I anticipate the sensation we would cause whenever and wherever we started flinging our Frisbees.

Perhaps our most memorable demonstration of the art took place in the central park of San Salvador, the capitol of El Salvador. We happened to arrive at the height of a massive protest we later learned was the beginning of the horrific civil war instigated by the CIA that would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Salvadorans and the subsequent ruination of that tiny country.

As a result of my tireless tutelage, the eight-year-old son of my employer was by then capable of flinging a Frisbee an accurate thirty yards, and so we positioned ourselves on a spacious greensward and commenced to fling the disc back and forth. As usual, we first attracted children, then adults; and on this day, moments after we began, we were surrounded by hundred of onlookers roaring their approval of our every toss and catch. Cheap thrills, but so what? Darwin, it is chronicled, traveled about South America on his famous Beagle expedition blowing minds wherever he went by using a magical thing called a match to start fires.

So we brought out a few more Frisbees and proceeded to run a clinic for the countless folks who wanted to try their hands at throwing and catching the discs. I will always remember the laughter and gaiety and enthusiasm of those people. We were rewarded for our labors with an invitation to join a group of schoolteachers for a picnic.

At the picnic, we asked about the many placards showing the faces of two handsome young men, and were told that these were the medical student martyrs whose deaths had inspired the protest. We had heard nothing about the political situation in El Salvador except that El Salvador was at war with Honduras—the so-called Soccer War. To reach El Salvador, we had to traverse the war zone between the two countries, and I had negotiated our way past several roadblocks manned by scary soldiers armed with scarier guns, wartime profiteers extorting extra-legal money from tourists and truck drivers willing to pay.

Meanwhile, the CIA-backed despots of El Salvador had ordered the killing of these two medical students for leading a protest of their fellows against the bogus public health clinics that were closed more often than open and lacked adequate medicine and supplies. For their impudence, these young medicos were assassinated by a paramilitary death squad, and their bullet-ridden bodies left on the steps of the university as a warning to other would-be dissidents.

This protest was a spontaneous and wholly peaceful uprising of working and middle-class folks decrying the violent response of the government to the reasonable complaints of the murdered medical students. Tragically, most of the people at this event were themselves murdered or forced into exile during the decades-long CIA-funded genocide that followed.

I eventually returned to the United States. Years went by. Larger Frisbees eclipsed the original Frisbee. Ultimate Frisbee was born. Frisbee Golf came into being. The Aerobie was invented, a plastic ring that can be thrown like a Frisbee and travels hundreds of yards with ease. Frisbees with LED night-lights embedded in their rims appeared. Frisbee competitions proliferated. Frisbee-catching dogs now star at halftimes and during the seventh inning stretch at ballgames everywhere. Over 200 million Frisbees have been sold. So far.

And I, at sixty, stand on Big River Beach and fling my disc into the teeth of a steady incoming breeze, the disc banking off that strong flow of air and returning to me as if on a long and invisible yo-yo string. Adult passersby rarely stop to watch my mastery of disc and wind, but children do, wanting to try their hands at the magical thing, and I am reminded of those bygone days when the world seemed a safer and happier place than it is today, but only because of what I didn’t know.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com