Posts Tagged ‘David Jouris’

Mirror Neurons

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Trailers

Shadow photo by David Jouris

I was sitting in the Mendocino Taqueria waiting for my tacos when a man and woman came in, the woman carrying a three-month-old baby boy who was being fussy and crying. The woman jiggled and bounced the baby and cooed reassuringly, but the baby was not to be consoled. The man ordered their supper and went to use the bathroom, and the baby continued to fuss and whimper despite the tender cajoling of his mother.

I smiled at the woman to communicate my support for her efforts to soothe her baby, and the baby saw my smile, locked eyes with me, and stopped crying. My eyes widened and I said “Hello,” to the baby, and the baby gurgled a reply, and we continued to look at each other for a minute or two until the mother turned away, breaking the connection between her baby and me. This breakage caused the baby to start fussing and whimpering again, which caused the mother to jiggle and bounce the baby again, but the baby was not to be consoled until his mother happened to turn toward me again, and the baby subsided into fascination with me and I with him—the baby’s mother unaware of what was causing him to stop fussing.

When I say “locked eyes” what may have happened, according to recent neurological discoveries, was that the baby’s mirror neurons and my mirror neurons engaged with each other, and this engagement created what some neuroscientists call a conjoined neurological system—the sharing of our two minds.

Mirror neurons are a fairly recent discovery, and there are different kinds of mirror neurons, and there is intense debate among psychologists and neurologists about how mirror neurons work, but what I’ve read about them has made me a devout believer in conjoined neurological systems.

I’m sure you’ve had many experiences similar to my hookup with that baby boy in the taqueria, and I have no doubt that conjoined neurological systems make possible the pleasure and sense of completeness that so many new mothers experience in relation to their babies, the feelings of satisfaction that so many parents experience while relating to their children, and the phenomenon of people falling in love with each other.

I’ve had thousands of such transcendental hookups with babies, children, dogs, cats, and other humans in my life, and now that I have read multiple texts about neurobiology and mirror neurons, I am hyper-aware of how quickly these mind melds can occur when I and my fellow animals are open to such unions.

According to Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, optimal human health—mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—depends on frequent positive interpersonal brain hookups. Our brains and nervous systems—our minds—evolved specifically to interact with other brains. We are inherently cooperative animals, and when we don’t have enough interaction with other animals, our brains atrophy and die.

This is why solitary confinement in prison is so damaging to a person’s health and sanity. It is one thing to choose to be alone for a day or two or three, but to be forced into isolation with no hope of connecting healthfully and meaningfully with other people or animals or living things is truly terrible torture.

I am a social isolate, not by nature, but in response to my abusive parents who combined individual abuse of their children with aggressively disallowing my siblings and I to unite in order to weather the ongoing misery. This made it necessary for each of us to emotionally fend for ourselves, and as a result, all four of us became social isolates in our own unique ways.

When I chose to pursue writing as a career rather than becoming an actor, I was unaware that my tendency to isolate was the largest determining factor in that choice. I was not a gifted writer, but I was an excellent actor; yet after high school I chose to pursue writing instead of acting because my lifelong habit of self-isolation was too strong for me to overcome. Thus, as Gabor Maté discusses so compellingly: what began as a childhood coping mechanism became my habit, and my tendency to self-isolate, which was my salvation until I left home at seventeen, made group activities much more challenging for me than for people who grew up in families that supported and encouraged the healthy inclination to interact and cooperate and collaborate with others.

Despite my tendency to self-isolate, I have always been a person who other people, including complete strangers, feel comfortable confiding in, and I’ve often wondered why this is so. As the result of some experiments I’ve been conducting, I understand that when I interact with other people, I emanate the vibe of someone safe and enjoyable to talk to.

As the result of my reading about how our neurological system works, I know that most human brains are ready, one might even say eager, to hook up with other brains if, and this is a hugely important ­if, those other brains communicate: I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding.

Prior to my recent experiments, I must have been unconsciously emanating this message. In my experiments, I consciously think (and feel) I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding when I start up a conversation with someone in line at the bakery or I bump into someone at the post office or I engage with the checker at the grocery store.

The results have been astounding. Not only do nearly all randomly selected people open up to me as if I am a dear and trusted friend, but their bodies relax, their faces soften, and my body and face relax and soften, too. These physical and emotional changes occur so predictably in the course of our interactions, if I hadn’t read volumes of neurobiology I might think I’d stumbled on the trick of emotional hypnosis. But what I’ve learned is that humans are hardwired to connect in this way if given the opportunity.

We live in a society that produces highly defended people, defended internally and externally. But being so intensely defended is not our true nature. Our true nature, our genetic heritage, is to be closely connected—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually—with the other members of a band of people. We are designed to be part of conjoined neurological systems.

And when we meet others of our kind and we feel/hear/believe/trust that the other is friendly and wants to interact with us so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding, then our true natures are awakened.

There We Were

Monday, December 12th, 2016

La Entrada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Just Us

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The Magician

The Magician (Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company) ©2016  David Jouris / Motion Pictures

“In 1978, Proposition 13 passed with almost 65% of those who voted in favor and with the participation of nearly 70% of registered voters. After passage, Proposition 13 became article XIII A of the California Constitution.” Wikipedia

We’ve been picking up our neighbor’s Press Democrat while he is away in Idaho hunting elk. The headline article of the Sunday edition is about the shortage of rental properties in Mendocino and all over California and America due to so many people choosing to go the Air B&B route with their rental units rather than rent long term to locals.

What does that have to do with the famous Proposition 13? In my view, the Airbnb phenomenon is the grandchild of Proposition 13, and the election of Donald Trump is a sibling of Airbnb.

There once was a concept known as the Greater Good, otherwise known as our community. Before the passage of Proposition 13, California had excellent schools, universities, parks, healthcare, mental healthcare, and public libraries, along with many other public goodies, too. Ten years later, those public systems were collapsing as the wealthy fled the public sector for private systems only they could afford—to hell with the middle and lower classes.

I recently fell into conversation with a woman who, upon finding out I owned a house in Mendocino, asked if I had a cottage to rent? “Or even a garage that doesn’t leak?”

She was expensively dressed and driving a new BMW, so I doubted she was looking to rent something diminutive for herself. “We decided to go Air B&B with our cottage,” she explained. “So now we have to kick our renter out and I’m hoping she can find another place around here so she doesn’t have to relocate. She’s the greatest person. I hate to do it, but we need the money. She’s paying twelve hundred a month. We can make five thousand a month doing the Air B&B thing.”

“Lot of work,” I said, smiling wanly. “Sheets to wash, cleaning up after…”

“With the money we’ll be making, we’ll get someone else to do that,” she said, shrugging. “Really hurts. She’s the best renter we’ve ever had.”

Yes, for some people doing the Air B&B thing is a necessity, but for many people doing the Air B&B thing is simply a way to make more money than they were previously making. And making more money at the expense of a vibrant community and great people is precisely what people did when they passed Proposition 13. In the short term, property owners got to keep more of their money for themselves. In the long term, they wrecked our society.

The great appeal of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton and the Georges Bush and Ronald Reagan, who might be called the Uncle of Proposition 13, was the message: you affluent folks can have anything you want and need not worry about the less fortunate people we destroy here and abroad so you can have your anything.

The appeal of Bernie Sanders was that he reminded people who remembered or had heard about that Other Time, the time of The Greater Good. And he suggested we could have another such time if we designed our systems of governance and taxation so everyone paid their fair share of the cost of a system benefiting everyone.

Alas, too much time had passed since the days of fair taxation, since the days of banks being banks instead of gambling dens, since the days of stock markets reflecting the actual worth of companies and commodities, since the days of high school graduates knowing how to read and write, since the days of superb public libraries, since the days when, truly, there were no homeless people—so in this last election most of those who voted opted for a continuation of privatization, voted for continuing to deny what is really happening to our world and our society, voted for a fantasy that capitalism can bring prosperity to more than a fraction of the population.

Now there is a movement afoot to recount the votes from the Presidential election and prove, some people hope, Trump didn’t win and Hillary did. And I marvel at the outpouring of money and support for this ultimately futile process, as if the system as it is now constituted would allow for a reversal of a national process predicated on the fantasy of fairness.

Fantasy. My hobby of monitoring movie trailers and ensuing box office results show that the most successful movies of the last two decades are fantasies about wizards and super heroes and invulnerable strong people (mostly men) battling the forces of evil. The public can’t seem to get enough of Harry Potter and the aftershocks of that pre-adolescent fantasy of kids using magical powers to conquer the nasty meanies of life, magical powers gained not through practice and wisdom and insight, but just because, you know, wizards are, like, granted magical powers because, you know, because they’re, like, chosen.

This pre-adolescent fantasy stuff is profoundly related to the election of Trump, for if we grow up believing important things only happen because of magic (luck) and not through clear intentions and hard work, we cannot possibly understand how things actually happen in this reality, nor do we know how to make things happen. And we grow up believing wizards or Super People will save us, save society, make things better.

I think we, the people, are now so passive and misinformed and entrained to stare at screens projecting fantasies, the spectacle of Trump versus Hillary was the best we could hope for. Bernie Sanders was too down to earth (and I don’t mean Middle Earth) and what he envisioned would have required us to share, to be part of a larger community, a society of equals. No wizards. No waving of wands for the easy fix. Just us working together and sacrificing together for the greater good.

Two Good Movies

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

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

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

Glimpsing the Future

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet 2014

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet) © 2014 David Jouris Motion Pictures

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

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene

I like that quote, but I think for me there were many moments in childhood when doors opened and the future came in.

When I was six, having arrived mid-year in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade class at Las Lomitas Elementary, I won my first friends by telling them stories at recess, stories I made up. And there came a day when Mrs. Bushnell was desperate for a nap and asked us to put our heads down and nap with her, but Donny Dorset protested, “We’re not tired, Mrs. Bushnell. Couldn’t Todd tell us a story?”

So while dear Mrs. Bushnell slumbered, I stood before the class and told a story about a boy who befriends a talking alligator named Albert and a smart aleck parrot named Cocolamoko and the adventures that ensued from their friendship. And as I gazed out at my classmates and saw them hanging on my every word and laughing at the goofy voices I gave Albert and Cocolamoko, I saw what I might be one day: an actor playwright.

During the summer after First Grade, I fell madly in love with my classmate Diana Fernandez who lived just up the hill from me. She was the fastest runner in our class and the most fearless of girls, and to my eyes she was exceedingly beautiful and I wanted to kiss her. To that end, I started a neighborhood Science club, a fancy name for catching bugs and lizards and looking at drops of pond water through my father’s microscope and discovering the strange creatures therein. When I invited Diana to join my club and she unhesitatingly said Yes, I immediately scheduled our first field trip.

Looking back on this scheme to be alone with Diana in the forest, I marvel at my ingenuity and perspicacity, for I never again was so ambitious and calculating in my wooing of anyone or anything.

The blessed day of our expedition arrived and Diana came to my house in a darling blue dress, her long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, a bag of freshly baked cookies in her knapsack for our luncheon in the field. And then, with each of us carrying a large glass jar and notebook and pencil to record how and when we captured our specimens, we ventured into the forest of giant oaks a quarter-mile from my house.

Several of these ancient oaks had branches so long and thick that over time they had bent down to earth under their own weight without breaking and snaked along the ground before rising up again to become entangled with other massive branches.

Thus it was possible to simply step up onto one of these branches and walk along and up until we were high above the ground. This is what Diana and I did in the name of science, though we both knew we were aiming to find the perfect place for kissing, which we did. I remember feeling confident we were in no danger of falling, though I cannot quite picture our perch. I do remember looking down at my dog Cozy who had followed us, and how small she seemed so far below.

Then we gazed into each other’s eyes, and Diana hypnotized me, and I was no longer a boy but a man, and she was a beautiful woman, and we kissed for a short infinity, during which I glimpsed a future where kissing Diana or someone like Diana would be a primary motivating factor in my life. I also glimpsed (or certainly sensed) the steamy jungles of adult sexuality, though I had no ready place to file that glimpse in my emotional file cabinet, though I must have filed the sensation somewhere because I remember those moments with Diana vividly sixty years later.

And then there was the poetry reading I attended with my friend Rico in a little church in the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. I was sixteen. To quote from my novel Ruby & Spear (available for a penny plus shipping online):

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

“I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.”

Ego & Muse

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Independent:Dependent Lily Cai Dance Company © 2015 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

Independent/Dependent (Lily Cai Dance Company) copyright 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

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

“When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything.” Shunryu Suzuki

As I was sitting by the woodstove last night—this November much colder than last—scribbling away on my latest something, I was struck by how little connection I feel to the books and stories and plays I’ve written over the last forty years, or even to the book I finished writing earlier this year.

How does it happen that something I thought about constantly and worked on for several hours every day for months on end is now but a vague memory? How can something that meant so much to me, mean so little now? Can the creative heart really be so fickle?

Then this morning our neighbor came by with a dozen beautiful blue and brown and white eggs just laid by his prolific chickens, and I thought I’m a hen, and the egg I’m laying right now is the most important egg in the world to me, but a few eggs hence I won’t remember this egg at all.

That put me in mind of when I was a young writer and would spend a year or two furiously working on a novel, my work fueled by a palpable visceral erotic majestic sense of how staggeringly great the story was. When at last the first draft was finished, I would let it cool for a few weeks before reading the entirety; and more often than not, I found the story and writing less great than I had sensed they were while in the throes of creation. And often that was the end of the process, the novel stillborn. But sometimes there was enough mojo in that first draft to inspire a rewrite, and once engaged in remaking the story, I would again be filled with certainty I was birthing a masterwork.

As I got to know more artists and writers, I learned that they, too, were often taken over by a sense of the importance and brilliance of the things they were creating, and when the things were done, the veils of grandiosity would be lifted, and they would see their creations in a wholly different light. So I came to think of this recurring self-delusion as a necessary trick of the mind enabling artists to complete creations requiring hundreds or thousands of hours of work. If the inner critic became engaged too early in the process, the flow might stop.

But what is that trick of the mind? How do we fool our egos again and again into thinking something is great when it isn’t yet great, and may never be great?

“What I love about the creative process, and this may sound naïve, but it is this idea that one day there is no idea, and no solution, but the next day there is an idea. I find that incredibly exciting and conceptually actually remarkable.” Jonathan Ive

I have spent the last three years writing a quartet of connected novels called Ida’s Place, and when I completed Book Four in August, it never occurred to me the saga was at end. I was so much in the habit of writing these books, so emotionally enmeshed with the large cast of characters, and so enamored of the ongoing drama, I couldn’t imagine there wouldn’t be another book or two or seven.

Indeed, the first chapter of Book Five poured forth from my pen as effortlessly as the previous four volumes. But then the flow ceased, the Ida muse done with me. However, my ego was not yet ready to let go of this large self-defining undertaking, and for several weeks more I labored away and cranked out five more chapters, though the process was no longer about harnessing an artesian flow but wringing water from stones.

Then on one of my walks to town, I was finally able to admit I was done with the Ida saga, or the saga was done with me, and the moment I admitted this to my conscious self, I realized that the last line of Book Four was a fine place to stop. And now, some weeks later, when I pick up one of the Ida books and read for a page or nine, the story and the writing are new to me. I’m happy to say I find the tale deeply engaging, but who wrote these volumes? Was Buckminster Fuller correct in saying we are verbs, not nouns?

So now what do I do? Now how will I be conjugated? Now who am I if not the person writing a series of novels set in a bakery café on the far north coast of California, a mythic version of Here?

“When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life without feeling any difficulties. The purpose of our practice is to be aware of this fact.” Shunryu Suzuki

There is no rushing a muse, and no telling when or how she will come to you. I once asked a painter I admire if he painted every day. He replied, “I go to my studio every day, except Sunday, and some days I’ll paint for fifteen minutes, some days for five hours, some days not at all. I made myself paint every day when I was a neophyte because I wanted painting to become a deep habit. And now that it is, showing up every day is the important thing.”

My favorite Sufi stories are those in which a person is at an emotional and spiritual impasse, and one of two things happens. Either a visitor arrives and does something or says something that liberates the stuck person, or the stuck person goes out into the world and has an experience that opens his mind and breaks down the wall around his heart.

Old Books

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O'Day Ballet) ©2013 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O’Day Ballet) © 2013 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

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

I recently came upon an old book I inherited from my grandmother Goody, The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature published in 1939, a seventy-five-year-old book that has provided me with several days of enjoyable reading. Part of my enjoyment comes from frequently encountering words I have to look up in my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. But the larger part of my pleasure comes from the fascinating details to be found in the hundreds of miniature biographies of once-famous writers who are largely forgotten today.

In terms of my vocabulary, I have learned that a cottar is the equivalent of a sharecropper, a prebend is a stipend derived from a percentage of a church’s profits, a squib is a satirical jab, a suppostitious child is one fraudulently substituted to displace the real heir, and a pindaric is an ode in the manner of Pindar.

Of Pindar, this little old book says, “(c.522-442 B.C.) the great Greek lyric poet, acquired fame at an early age and was employed by many winners at the Games (Olympics) to celebrate their victories.”

I first came upon the word pindaric while reading the two-column biography of Jonathan Swift who was a cousin of Dryden, who also garners a two-column biography. Only Shakespeare warrants three columns, which means Swift and Dryden are thought to be among the most famous writers of all time, according to the editors of this edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature.

Also according to this dictionary, Dryden, upon reading one of Swift’s pindarics, remarked, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”

And the last line of Swift’s little biography states, “Nearly all his works were published anonymously, and for only one, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, did he receive any payment (£200).”

Famous writers making little money from their writing is a recurring theme in this dictionary, as is the fact that many noted writers from the 1600’s through the early 1900’s died insane. Syphilis, the cause of madness in most of those cases, is never mentioned in the dictionary, but the editors doubtless assume their readers know about the link between syphilis and insanity in the days before the advent of antibiotics.

Indeed, the editors make a number of assumptions about their readers, which assumptions in 1939 were probably sound. For instance, they assume anyone reading this volume will probably be fairly fluent in Latin and know most of the famous writers of the past three hundreds years by their last names. Scott is Sir Walter Scott, Arbuthnot is John Arbuthnot, Pope is Alexander Pope, and so on. Fortunately for the likes of me, if an author is referred to solely by his last name, he will have a biography in the good book and I can discover why he was so famous.

As one might expect of a book published in 1939 summarizing the history of English Literature, there are few women authors mentioned therein, though Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Anne Bronte, and Emily Bronte all garner tiny paragraphs, with George Eliot and Jane Austen winning half-columns, and Charlotte Bronte nearly a whole one.

Another delightful feature of the book is that for super famous authors—Dickens, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Melville, Thackeray etc.—in addition to their biographies, there are separate entries synopsizing of each of their most famous books, plays, and poems, as well as separate entries for important characters in those works.

What a different culture we had before the advent of television. In that sense, the 1939 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature is a fascinating time capsule from the end of an epoch in our cultural history when literature was of paramount importance and influence, and hundreds of great novels and plays and poems lived for hundreds of years as part of the contemporary cultural fabric.

Have you perchance heard of the book The Old Wives’ Tale? “…a novel by E. A. Bennett (1908) one of the greatest novels of modern times. It is the long chronicle of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, daughters of a draper of Bursley, from their ardent girlhood, through disillusionment, to death. The drab life of the draper’s shop, its trivial incidents, are made interesting and important. Constance, a staid and sensible young woman, marries the insignificant Samuel Povey, the chief assistant in the shop, and spends all her life in Bursley. The more passionate and imaginative Sophia elopes with the fascinating Gerald Scales, an unprincipled blackguard, who carries her to Paris, where she is exposed to indignities, and finally deserts her. She struggles to success as a lodging-house keeper in Paris, where she lives though the siege of 1870. The sisters are reunited and spend their last years in Bursley.”

Never heard of E.A. Bennett, the author of this greatest of novels? “Bennett, (Enoch) Arnold (1867-1931), became a solicitor’s clerk in London and in 1893 assistant editor and subsequently editor of the periodical ‘Woman’. After 1900 he devoted himself exclusively to writing, theatre journalism being among his special interests. His fame as a novelist rests chiefly on ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ and the ‘Clayhanger’ series. ‘Clayhanger’ (1910) ‘Hilda Lessways’ (1911) ‘These Twain’ (1916). The ‘Five Towns’ which figure prominently in these works are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Longton, centers of the pottery industry; and the features, often ugly and sordid of this background are skillfully woven into stories of lives which he presents dispassionately, with an infinite delight in significant detail. Among Bennett’s other best-known works are: ‘Riceyman Steps’, ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’, ‘Milestones’, and ‘The Matador of the Five Towns’ (short stories, 1912)”

Then there is John Knox (1505-72) who “…addressed epistles to his brethren in England suffering under the rule of Mary Tudor, and in Scotland under the regency of Mary of Lorraine. It was this situation which led to the publication of his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558), of which the title, Saintsbury remarks, was the best part.”

Saintsbury? “George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (1845-1933), a distinguished literary critic and historian…”

Refugees

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Homage to the Kumulipo

Homage to the Kumulipo (Na Lei Hulu) © 2012 David Jouris / Motion Pictures

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

Number of people displaced internally in Syria: 6 million

Syrian refugees registered in other countries: 4 million

Mediterranean Sea crossings by refugees so far in 2015: 300,000

Expected asylum seekers in Germany 2015: 800,000

Refugees United States will accept in 2015: 70,000

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the ongoing wars in the Middle East have walked and are walking to Western Europe. Thousands of Africans have traveled through Spain into France and reached Calais where they hope to walk or ride through the tunnel under the English Channel to get to England. Thousands of Libyans and Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean in boats, hoping to find food and shelter in Greece and Italy and Spain.

Germany reports they have accepted a million refugees in the last few years. Austria is receiving thousands of Syrian refugees who rode buses from Hungary because Hungary lacks the financial resources to take care of tens of thousands of refugees. Hungary is erecting a huge fence along its entire border with Serbia from whence the Syrian refugees are coming. Iceland and Finland say they will accept Syrian refugees. France has taken in millions of migrants from Africa in the last few decades, many of them now living in poverty, the social infrastructure of France inadequate to support the vast numbers of migrants, many of them unemployed and unemployable.

The prevalent narrative is that the refugees are fleeing war and squalid refugee camps where they lacked adequate food, shelter, and medical care—families desperate for a better life willing to risk everything to reach the more affluent countries of Europe.

What is not much discussed in the mainstream news is that this refugee problem is but the tip of a crisis so vast, the mind boggles when one reads what climate scientists are predicting. As many parts of Africa and the Middle East become too hot and drought-stricken to support human life, and with those areas now grossly overpopulated, 50-200 million people will attempt to migrate into Europe in the coming decades, depending on how quickly the earth heats up and drought causes massive crop failures.

In other words, what was predicted twenty years ago is now underway. Yes, wars have exacerbated the crisis at this moment in time, but social chaos resulting from skyrocketing food prices, lack of water, and inevitable famine will make the current refugee/migrant situation thousands of times worse.

And the governments of the world are doing nothing substantive to address the underlying problems causing this now irreversible crisis.

I find it incredible that the German government in collusion with Goldman Sachs is willing to torture the entire population of Greece in order to keep the international financial Ponzi scheme going, yet Germany is going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to take in millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Why not take in millions of refugees from Greece? Or better yet, why not leave Greece alone so the Greeks can recover from economic brutalization and stay in Greece?

Here in California, the ongoing drought threatens to change our social and economic reality so dramatically our state may not be recognizable a decade hence. People from southern California are moving to northern California in droves, and every other person I know in northern California is moving to Oregon or Washington. Ere long, the Canadians will find millions of Americans trying to cross the border into those cooler northern climes where scientists tell us wheat and other grains will still be able to be grown when southern North America becomes uninhabitable a decade or so hence.

None of what I have written is hyperbole. Nor can the ongoing insanity of our national policies be exaggerated. When a recent New Yorker article described what might happen to Washington and Oregon and northern California should a massive earthquake and tsunami strike the area, millions of people bought survival kits, and contractors were besieged with calls from people wanting to bolt their houses to their foundations. Yet permanent life-ending disaster from climate change barely causes a ripple of concern.

Thus, I suppose, it has always been. Many times in human history our species migrated north and south and east and west in response to climate change. Our arboreal hominid ancestors came down out of the trees when climate change caused forests to become veldt, and fifty thousand years ago our ancestors moved out of Africa into Europe en route to becoming Vikings.

The difference today is that the world is divided into hundreds of nations with borders and unwieldy governments and armies possessed of sophisticated weaponry, none of which makes mass migration as natural and doable as it must have been when much of the earth was uninhabited.

Chaos may soon be the new norm everywhere, as it is in vast areas of Africa. A recent National Geographic article about the illegal ivory trade reads like a post-apocalyptic horror story, describing in gory detail how most of the slaughter of thousands of elephants for their ivory tusks is being carried out by guerilla soldiers fighting against the governments of Sudan, Darfur, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The illegal sale of ivory is the primary funding source for the guerrillas’ war efforts, which involve raping and slaughtering thousands of women and children and men. Meanwhile, the soldiers of those corrupt and barely functional nations frequently collude with the elephant-killing guerillas to supplement salaries inadequate for survival.

On a hot sunny day last week, I stood in front of the Mendocino post office talking to a man who moved here in the early 1960s. He opined, “Most of the people who moved here in the last fifteen years would not want to live here if the weather was like it was back in the 60s and 70s. Long wet winters. Freezing cold from November to April.”

Which reminded me of my first winter here ten years ago when it rained eighty inches and the days and nights were icy cold. On many a morning I found the water in the cat’s bowl frozen solid and the front steps covered with ice. I would hunker down by the woodstove and gaze out at the tempest and wonder if I’d made a big mistake coming to this place of perpetual rain and cold.

Giants & Dodgers

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Giants Mendo Hardware

Giants Hardware photo by David Jouris

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

The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

In my dotage I am willing to admit that my loathing of the Los Angeles Dodgers is irrational, primitive, and downright silly, but I loathe them nonetheless and have hated them with a vengeance since the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958 and I was infected with an incurable Giants virus that not only causes blind devotion to my team, but inflames the adrenal glands whenever the Los Angeles Dodgers are mentioned on the radio or in print.

The recent three-game series in Los Angeles between my Giants and the hated Dodgers was very likely the coup de grace to the Giants’ hopes of making it into the post-season this year, 2015, with the first-place Dodgers winning each of those three games by one run. Their all-star pitchers, Greinke and Kershaw, two humorless, hateful, cheating, balking twits, beat us with their amazing array of dirty rotten borderline pitches in collusion with umpires obviously in the employ of the Dodgers.

To amplify my already enormous hatred for the highest-paid bunch of jerks in all of baseball, several questionable calls by the bought-off umpires tipped the balance in each of the three games in favor of the Dodgers. Every crucial close call, not surprisingly, went the Dodgers’ way to the delight of the hordes of blood-sucking Dodger-loving philistines attending the game in that den of iniquity known as Dodger Stadium, home of sudden updrafts of icy cold air that routinely knock down no-doubter home runs hit by opposing teams so those would-be homers drop harmlessly into the gloves of the Dodgers’ computer-controlled genetically-modified superstar outfielders masquerading as humans.

So how do I explain the Giants winning three World Series in the last five years? The same way I explain my few and wholly implausible successes as a writer and the brief cultural renaissance known as the 60s and that time I found a twenty-dollar bill and a nice pair of sunglasses on the beach—a brief fleeting triumph by the severely underfunded forces of Good over the obscenely well-financed forces of Evil.

 “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” Dale Carnegie

Speaking of the forces of evil, many years ago when I was spending way too much time in Los Angeles trying to get Hollywood sociopaths to make my books and screenplays into movies, I attended a Dodgers-Giants game at Dodger Stadium with my childhood friend Colin Vogel.

Colin was infected by the Giants virus in 1958, too. However, the particular strain of the virus that got him was slightly different than the one that got me because Colin now lives in Glendale. Nevertheless, he is still a diehard Giants fan and regularly risks his life attending games at Dodger stadium when the Giants come to town. What makes his behavior even more bizarre is that he is an excellent psychotherapist. Surely he should know better.

In any case, long before Colin completed his psychoanalysis, he and I arrived at the Dodgers’ den of iniquity wearing our Giants caps. This was several decades before the Giants won their three World Series and millions of people who had never given baseball a second thought suddenly announced they had been diehard Giants fans from the get go. No, in those days there were but a handful of us Giants crazies among the forty thousand attending that Dodgers-Giants game in Los Angeles where we were treated as if we were infected with a deadly virus.

Our seats were so far from the field, the players looked like gnats wearing uniforms. At one point in the game, the corrupt home plate umpire had a mental lapse and allowed the Giants to score two runs and take the lead. Colin and I stood up and cheered. This rash act of loyalty caused hundreds of stylishly dressed and perfectly coiffed wannabe movie stars to glare at us with undisguised hatred.

And then a woman sitting in the row in front of us, a stunning brunette with dark brown hair in a page boy, her silky blue blouse alluringly unbuttoned to the tops of her admirable breasts, her makeup applied so tastefully I wanted to comment on how exquisitely understated yet effective it was, turned to me and said with convincing sincerity, “What is wrong with you? You look like a perfectly nice guy. How can you be a Giants fan?”

Without much thought, I replied, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t look like a complete moron. How can you be a Dodgers fan?”

And who knows where our snappy repartee might have led had the alluring brunette’s large and muscular and superbly tanned boyfriend not turned to me and said, “Nip it, Bud. Unless you want to get seriously hurt.”

Colin nudged me and gave me a meaningful look, so I nipped it, the game went on, the Dodgers won, and I was permitted to live another day.

“There are people who have money and people who are rich.” Coco Chanel

Nowadays, my irrational devotion to the Giants is devotion to a team of multi-millionaires and their billionaire owners, which was not the case when I was a boy. In the early days of my obsession with the Giants, I read every scrap of news and information about the guys on our team, and one of those scraps has stayed with me for a half century.

From 1959 to 1965, the Giants had a big burly pitcher named Jack Sanford. The article about Jack I still remember had a picture of Jack wearing a plaid shirt, a baseball cap, and pants held up by suspenders. He was splitting firewood with an enormous ax. The article said that Jack stayed in shape over the winter, not in California, by cutting down trees, cutting the trees into rounds, and splitting those rounds into firewood, which he sold to supplement his baseball salary.

I’ll bet no stinking Dodger ever did something like that.

Elgin

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Point of Discovery 3x7

At the Point of Discovery (Zhukov Dance Theatre) © 2012 David Jouris / Motion Pictures

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

“A true friend is someone who thinks you’re a good egg even though he knows you’re slightly cracked.” Bernard Meltzer

I was put in mind of my friend Elgin this morning when I heard the unmistakable sound of an old Volkswagen Beetle going by. Elgin and I met in 1966, my junior year of high school. He was a massive six-three, a formidable football player, grew up in wealthy family, had his own horse, a new VW Beetle, hunted, drank whiskey, and hung out with other football players and their cheerleader girlfriends.

I was not massive, did not play football, did not have a horse or car, grew up in a middle-class family, and hung out with social outcasts who wanted to be artists or poets or actors or musicians.

Elgin and I attended a high school with two thousand students and were never in the same class. Thus our paths rarely crossed. I had watched Elgin play linebacker and offensive lineman on our championship football team and seen him hanging out with a mob of jocks at lunch, so I knew who he was, but he did not know me until our junior year when I landed the role of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

Bye Bye Birdie was inspired by the historical moment when Elvis Presley went into the Army. Conrad is a fictional version of Elvis. The play takes place the week before Conrad enters military service. For a farewell publicity stunt, he and his managers descend upon a small town where Conrad will kiss some lucky high school girl, the event to be televised on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The play is frequently performed by high schools because the chorus can accommodate vast numbers of kids, and the play is largely about teenagers. At our high school in 1966, however, most people considered Drama the domain of girls and homos, as gay males were referred to in those days. I was on the basketball and soccer teams, had a girlfriend, and many people knew I was not a homo, but I was in plays, which made me at least an honorary homo. Because of this endemic homophobia, we had plenty of girls in the chorus, but almost no boys.

However, we had an ambitious choreographer who enlisted a dozen female dancers to give the musical numbers extra pizzazz. As it happened, several of those dancers were also pompom girls and cheerleaders with jock boyfriends. Our ambitious choreographer wanted male dancers who could lift those female dancers—lift them and twirl them and fill out the scenes in which crowds of teenagers cheered for Conrad Birdie.

So she asked those dancers to enlist their jock boyfriends to be the lifters, which meant those jocks would have to be in a play. At first only one football player agreed to venture into homo territory. But eventually ten of the stars of our championship team were in the play, and two of them, Elgin and Eric, were assigned to pick me up and carry me around the stage on their mighty shoulders while dozens of cute girls pretended to be in love with me.

Elgin and Eric were so strong that when they picked me up, all one hundred and fifty pounds of me, I felt both tiny and grateful I was not playing football with the likes of Elgin trying to tackle me. And as it happened, Elgin had a blast being in the play, lifting beautiful girl dancers and tiny actors.

By the time the play was over, Elgin and I were friends, not best friends or even close friends, but friends. Thereafter, he often attended rehearsals of other plays I was in, came to hear me play music, invited me to parties at his house, occasionally gave me rides home when it was raining, and saved me at one party from a huge drunk football player who was about to rearrange my face for gazing too avidly at his girlfriend.

On Grad Night at Mel’s Bowl, Elgin and I were on the same bowling team, came in third, and we all won Parker T-Ball Jotters, after which Elgin got very drunk and told me I was his hero for being brave enough to be in plays despite so many people thinking it meant I was a homo.

Fast forward to the summer after my first year of college. I was hitchhiking to Palo Alto and Elgin stopped for me in his yellow VW Beetle. After gossiping briefly about people from our graduating class, Elgin confided in me that he was considering either fleeing to Canada to avoid going to Vietnam or joining the Army and getting his two years over with so he could get on with his life.

This was in 1968 when American soldiers were dying in large numbers every day in that terrible war. I had a student deferment and would soon get a medical deferment. Elgin had quit college and was smoking lots of pot and experimenting with LSD. His father was pressing him to enlist and several of his friends had been drafted or were enlisting. He said the Army had a new buddy program encouraging pals to enlist together and then…what? Be in the same outfit? Get killed together? I wanted to hook him up with an anti-war Draft counselor I knew, but he said he’d already been to a counselor and it was either exile in Canada or join up.

And then he asked me if I would accompany him to Canada and help him get settled there. He didn’t know anyone else who would help him and he was afraid to go alone. I said I would be glad to help him if that was what he decided to do.

I never heard from him again. Six months later I learned from a mutual friend that Elgin died in Vietnam when he jumped on a live hand grenade to save his buddies. Whether that is how he died or not, I have no doubt Elgin would have done something like that.