Posts Tagged ‘Donald Montwill’

Being Jewish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

My therapist asked me if I would be willing to let go of the concept of good and bad. I suppose good and bad might be two concepts, but since we can’t have one without the other, I’ll go with good and bad being a duality. I told my therapist I was certainly willing to try to let go of the concept of good and bad, and for the last week I have been hyper-conscious of my use of those two words, as well as my virtually reflexive good/bad judgments about events and things and people, including little old me.

As an editor of my own work and the works of others, and as one who has endeavored to help many people with their writing, I would say the one word that writers use most profusely and to the detriment of their writing is it. Indeed, if you want to improve your writing in almost no time, take a recent page of something you’ve written and circle all the its and replace them with words the its are standing in for. I think you will be pleased by how much more interesting and informative your prose becomes.

I bring up it because, though I’ve long known and suggested to other writers that using words such as bad and good in our writing is almost always less effective than using more incisively descriptive words, I now realize that in my thinking and feeling and talking, I constantly use bad and good instead of saying and feeling and thinking what I more deeply feel and think.

So ever since my therapist asked me if I was willing to let go of the concept of good and bad, whenever the words bad and good come up in my speech and thoughts, I replace them with words that come closer to expressing the feelings I was trying to express with those more general words.

For instance, this morning I had an email from someone in Los Angeles who was curious to know why my book Buddha In A Teacup is not readily available in libraries in Los Angeles. I did some checking and found my correspondent was correct: Buddha In A Teacup is a non-presence in most Los Angeles libraries. I did some further checking and found that Buddha In A Teacup is only available in a few libraries scattered across America.

My initial reaction to this information was This is bad. But because I am retraining my brain/mind/spirit to replace bad with more incisively descriptive terms, I came up with, “The absence of Buddha In A Teacup in thousands of libraries across America made me sad for a moment, but the absence of the book in libraries isn’t bad or good. The absence of my book in libraries is in the nature of things at this moment in time.”

“There are two kinds of comedy. One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

For reasons I can’t readily explain, letting go of the concept of good and bad seems to be making me more comfortable with being Jewish. As I explained in my last two articles, my recent return to therapy after a thirty-year hiatus has prompted me to delve into and accept that I am Jewish despite not knowing my mother and her ancestors were Jewish until I was twelve, and despite not knowing until I was forty that my mother’s lifelong pretense of not being Jewish profoundly shaped my self-identity.

This delving into being Jewish has prompted me to write articles about my discoveries and share those articles with you. Writing and posting these articles has been exciting and scary and funny and fascinating. I’ve had several responses from other people who did not learn they were Jewish until they were adults, and I’ve had responses from people who have always known they were Jewish who told me, in so many words, “So what else is new?”

And now that I am retraining my brain to replace good and bad with more specific descriptors, I have, on several occasions, found myself being Jewish, which is unlike any feeling I’ve ever had before. Being Jewish, in the way I’m being Jewish, is so deeply satisfying I’m tempted to say the experience is reminiscent of satisfying sex, but that would be misleading so I will resist the temptation.

What do I mean by finding myself being Jewish? Here’s a for instance. (By the way, the preceding sentence fragment feels ultra-Jewish to me, at least the way I hear myself saying Here’s a for instance.) I’m having a conversation with Marcia about the menu for our upcoming vegetarian Thanksgiving supper with Bill and Sally and Sal. As Marcia and I converse, I’m aware of a subtle shift in my accent and the enhanced ease with which words are coming out of my mouth. This shift is so subtle, I don’t think Marcia realizes, as I am realizing, that I am being Jewish. What’s more, I can feel that as I am being Jewish, I am wonderfully relaxed and, dare I say, more sure of myself. Yes, I dare say I hear a confidence, an ease of expression, and a different grammar defining my speech—a Jewish grammar accompanied by a slight Jewish accent and a full-body enjoyment of being Jewish.

What is Jewish grammar? You’re asking me?

Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist who is a pioneer in the field of neurobiology, frequently talks and writes about how the words we repeatedly use/think to describe ourselves to ourselves and to other people, create templates in our brains that dictate many of our subsequent thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In other words, if I tell myself “I’m a terrible singer” a hundred times a day for ten years, I will probably not pursue a singing career. Oh I might pursue such a career, but chances are better I will become an electrician or the owner of a hat shop.

Who knew that letting go of the concept of good and bad would result in my having several enjoyable experiences of being Jewish? Maybe my therapist knew.

Until now, I haven’t told anyone about these “Jewish moments” because part of the fun is feeling Jewish without making a big deal out of being who I am. Which reminds me of something numerous Buddhist teachers have said about meditation, and I will paraphrase what they said using what might be called Jewish paragraph construction, if there can possibly be such a thing.

So you meditate for twenty minutes every day for several years and you sometimes wonder, “Is this daily meditating doing me any good? Might my time be better spent reading cookbooks or vacuuming?” And then one day you’re at the grocery store and some schmuck shoulders you out of the way and snatches the magnificent zucchini you were just about to get, but instead of saying or thinking, “What a schmuck!” you are hardly bothered at all and you send loving thoughts to the schmuck as he hurries away with the zucchini you wanted, and then you return your focus to the remaining zucchinis, and there, partially obscured by a somewhat battered zucchini, you find a zucchini every bit as firm and beautifully shaped as the zucchini the schmuck stole from you. And you are struck by the realization that meditating every day has helped you become more accepting and tolerant and unattached to outcome, and the schmuck ceases to be a schmuck and becomes a human being with a character disorder.

Whether meditation is doing you any good is another question entirely because the concept of good is a tricky one, just as the concept of being Jewish is a tricky one. What’s so wrong with things being a little tricky? Isn’t life, after all, a little tricky? And isn’t Jewish paragraph construction, if there is such a thing, characterized by questions that are in themselves also answers?

Magenta Queen

Monday, September 26th, 2016

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Magenta cover

“There are two kinds of comedy.  One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

I recently completed my new novel Magenta and brought the book out in handsome coil-bound photocopies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered, available through my web site or by bumping into me in Mendocino and arranging an exchange.

Magenta is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California, the action centered in a bookstore, a luthier shop, and an old house on the headlands. Funny and serious and poetical, Magenta is both a romance and a journey of self-healing.

My web site synopsis of Magenta begins, “On his sixtieth birthday, Leonard Porter discovers that someone has taken his guitar case and left his beautiful old guitar unprotected in a moldy shed. Leonard has not seen his guitar in thirty-two years, and finding her free of her case causes him to react in a way that radically changes his life.”

The novel begins:

Where Have You Been?

During the first few minutes of their phone conversation—Leonard in California, Sam in New Hampshire—Leonard uses the words sudden and unexpected several times, but a little while later Sam says, “So, really, this wasn’t sudden or unexpected. It was inevitable.”

“Yes,” says Leonard, gazing out his living room window at the deer gathering on the meadow as they do at the close of each day—a big battle-scarred stag presiding over a harem of four does and two yearlings, one of those yearlings a promising buck. “How we stayed married for five years is…I don’t know.”

“You must not have been paying attention,” says Sam, who has a knack for cutting to the chase.

“I don’t think I’ve really been here to pay attention.”

“Where have you been?”

“Going through the motions,” says Leonard, his fit of outrage over. “I, robot.”

“I didn’t ask what you’ve been doing,” says Sam, quietly. “I asked where have you been?”

“The only certain knowledge is the inspired guess.” Henry Kitchell Webster

Our San Francisco Giants have recently fallen into a collective slump of epic proportions. As I write this, they are playing the San Diego Padres in San Diego, having just been shellacked by the front-running Dodgers. Alas, this second half of the season, no matter how well our starting pitchers start, no matter how fantastic Brandon Crawford plays shortstop, no matter if we are ahead by a run or two going into the late innings, we tend to lose.

A few blown saves ago, Jon Miller, the rarely hyperbolic Giants announcer, declared, “It defies logic how many games the Giants have blown in the ninth inning this season.” I don’t agree it defies logic so much as it reveals the undeniable truth that great teams have great bullpens, and our pen this year lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Many of us knew at the beginning of the season we needed a new closer, and when management did nothing to address that key inadequacy by the trade deadline, we feared our chances of making the playoffs were fading. That we are still in the hunt with only a handful of games left in the regular season verges on the miraculous.

Fortunately, baseball is just a game, Sergio Romo is now closing instead of Casilla, the apple crop this year is stupendous, and the waves keep rolling into Mendocino Bay.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Having written six novels in the last five years, I decided to change literary gears and write a play. So I went to my PLAY file on my computer to find an already-written play from which to copy the Play format into a new document. While perusing the titles, I saw one that made me do a double take. Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues. The date of the file was 2002, a few years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino.

I vaguely remembered what Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues was about, and also vaguely remembered sending the play to several impregnable theatre companies. But the one clear memory I had of this play was the response from a former actor turned psychoanalyst. “As implausible as your central idea may seem, such a sudden and dramatic healing of a wounded psyche can occur when the primal truth is revealed.”

So I read the play again to see what my psychoanalyst friend was referring to, found the play compelling, and decided to rewrite the opus. Now, after several weeks of work, I am soon to make copies of Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues and send them forth.

“There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.” Robert Byrne

I was recently tempted to end my two-month fast from imbibing news of the outside world. If you haven’t tried such a fast, I highly recommend it. My chronic anxiety disappeared, my sleep improved, and I’m much less cranky.

However, a friend recently dropped by, and before I could inform him of my news fast, he informed me Hillary is only leading Trump by four percentage points in recent national polls, riots have broken out in response to more police killings of unarmed black people, and the Great Barrier Reef is dying fast. And though I somehow already knew these things, I decided to check them out on my computer. However, my first glimpse of Trump’s maniacal visage and Hillary’s hysterical grin inspired me to resume my fast, and I am once more enjoying the disconnect—radio broadcasts of Giants games my one ongoing link to mass media.

Also thankfully, much fascinating news is to be gleaned from talking to Marcia, reading books about neurobiology, walking to town, tending the garden, shooting hoops, communing with friends, hauling firewood, picking apples, playing the piano, blabbing with folks at the post office, and unleashing the imagination onto the unsuspecting page.