Posts Tagged ‘E.M. Forster’

Taste

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Thurber Django

Thurber Django photo by David Jouris

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

“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly, too.” Rodney Dangerfield

Years before the dawn of tweeting and texting, I ran a summer writing program for high school kids who wanted to become professional writers. The teachers I hired were accomplished, open-minded, inspiring writers who could clearly communicate their ideas about the craft of writing. My one piece of advice for my teachers was that they avoid saying anything construable as dislike of a student’s writing, and I cautioned them about making even mild editing suggestions during the first week of the month-long intensive lest our neophytes experience such suggestions as disapproval.

I also asked my teachers to remind our writers that the opinions of others about their writing, even the opinions of professional writers, are highly subjective and should be taken as such. The response of a reader to a story or poem often says far more about the reader than it does about the writer, and one person’s negative response to a story doesn’t make the story bad, just as one person’s positive response doesn’t make the story good.

To illustrate this point, I told my young charges about how the advent of photocopy machines changed my understanding of taste and helped me overcome the scourge of self-doubt. Prior to the coming of copy shops in the early 1970’s, making multiple copies of a manuscript necessitated the time-consuming use of a five-layer sandwich of carbon paper and typing paper rolled into the typewriter on which the manuscript would be typed, with typos requiring fixes with white-out on the original copy and a razor blade on the carbon copies, with the end result being the barely adequate original and two smeary copies no publisher would accept. Thus most of my early stories existed as single copies, and if the first person to read a story of mine didn’t like it, my insecurity would be inflamed and I might never show the story to anyone else.

Then one day, wanting to create a special gift for my best friend’s wedding, I fell into a trance and wrote a novella and a collection of short stories entitled What Shall The Monster Sing? and other stories. (That title is a line from a poem by Lawrence Durrell.) Completing my opus coincident with the opening of the first photocopy shop in Santa Cruz, I splurged and had ten bound copies made, nine of which I distributed to friends and fellow artists, one I kept safe for the newlyweds.

A week later, a poet of local renown came to the boarding house where I lived, stood in the doorway of my room and declared What Shall The Monster Sing? a disaster and most of the accompanying stories dreadful, though he did allow that three of the stories were gems.

Before I succumbed to despair, a fellow boarder shouted, “Phone for you, Todd!” and I ran down the hall to the pay phone.

What Shall The Monster Sing? is genius!” shouted a playwright calling from Los Angeles. “What a great film it would make. And Carli’s and Ophelia…magnificent!”

Returning to my room buoyed by the playwright’s praise, I found the poet arguing with a locally beloved chanteuse who was madly in love with Monster, as she so familiarly called my novella, and whose favorites of my short stories were the least favorites of the poet, and vice-versa. As I listened to these artists passionately praising and damning my writing, I had a revelation. Yes, everyone knows, intellectually, that taste is subjective. But to experience such extremes of taste from three intelligent and creative people in the span of twenty minutes was to have the revelation burned into my consciousness, which burning serves me well to this day.

 “A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.” Jessamyn West

My essays about my past, my family, my personal life and my creative life occasionally elicit comments from readers, some thoughtful and illuminating, some praiseful, and some from people who insist I am a very bad writer and a self-pitying self-aggrandizing narcissist who would do the world a huge favor by ceasing to write.

My great grandfather, an orthodox Jewish cantor, believed gossiping to be a variation on the sin of speaking ill of others and he steadfastly refused to gossip. Nevertheless, his friends and family persisted in asking him his opinion about what So-And-So did to You-Know-Who, to which he would reply, “There are all kinds of different kinds of people.”

“The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much.” E.M. Forster

One of my favorite movies is composed of three movies—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, directed by Linklater and starring Hawke and Delpy, the movies were filmed nine years apart and set nine years apart, too. Each film is composed of mountains of dialogue between Delpy and Hawke as they wander around Vienna, Paris and Greece. I love their torrents of dialogue, though many people I know find such verbosity intolerable. For my taste, the individual films are excellent, their totality a masterwork.

In Before Midnight there is a scene near the beginning of the film in which the characters portrayed by Hawke and Delpy sit at a big table in Greece with three other European couples talking frankly about life and death and relationships. What I so enjoy about this scene is the real-seeming depiction of people from widely varying backgrounds, young, old and middle-aged, having a lively discussion full of insights and anecdotes and disagreement, with disagreement not only perfectly okay with everybody at the table, but appreciated as the spice of a conversation in which no one is attached to being right. How deliciously un-American! 

The Machine Stops

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

theroaroftime

 

The Roar of Time pen and ink by Todd

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

“In this world there are only two ways of getting on—either by one’s own industry or by the stupidity of others.” Jean De La Bruyère

E.M. Forster, best known for his novels Room With A View, Passage To India and Howard’s End, published a great short story in 1909 entitled The Machine Stops, an extremely prescient imagining of a future we may soon inhabit. Forty years before the advent of television, Forster foresaw computers and the worldwide internet, the demolition of the global environment, and the total collapse of technological society.

I thought of Forster’s story this week for three reasons. First, we are in the midst of The Government Stops, second the climate news is more dire than ever with rising global temperatures on pace to make human life on earth untenable within a decade or so, and third, my trusty iMac, a senile seven-year-old, has finally become so obstreperous and the screen so degenerate that I have ordered a new iMac and trust the universe will employ the precessional repercussions of my action to her advantage. Buckminster Fuller described precessional repercussions as those right-angled unintentional effects of an intended action; for instance, the honeybee goes to the flower with the intention of getting nectar, and one of the marvelous unintended repercussions of the bee’s action is pollination. Mazel tov!

Little did I realize how much time I spend using (and being used by) my computer until going mostly without the blessed device for these last two weeks. Yikes. Not only do I several times a day type my longhand output into on-screen documents, but I carry on most of my correspondence by email now, read several articles a day online, watch sports highlights and movie previews, and pursue several lines of research, all as a matter of barely conscious course.

I am happy to report that I don’t feel I have missed much these last two weeks and know I have gained valuable time to do important work to prepare this old (new) house for winter, work I never seemed to have quite enough time for because, well, you know, there were links to click and leads to follow and Truthdig and Bill Moyers and Rhett & Link and and and…

As of this writing, our government has been “shut down” for eleven days, with polls showing a slight majority of people blaming Republicans for the impasse and a frighteningly large minority blaming Obama. That anyone could blame Obama for this blatant sabotage of our system is silly, but that tens of millions of registered voters blame him for the actions of a bunch of cruel racist lunatics is, in the words of Grouch Marx, “A travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham of a mockery.”

The central bank of China owns a large chunk of our national debt and is highly displeased with America’s governmental constipation, as are the various global financial markets. “Please get your money business in order pronto,” they chorus with growing vitriol. “We don’t care if you want to starve your own citizens and deprive them of healthcare and decent education, just don’t jeopardize our investments in your big bubble economy or we’ll stop buying and holding your stinking debt!”

The Japanese are pissed off, too, but they don’t have a leg to stand on with their (our) Fukushima nuclear disaster so close to global endgame catastrophe I wonder how anyone can sleep at night, let alone eat fish.

“There are two worlds: the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.” Leigh Hunt

Today Marcia and I walk to town to buy groceries, run a few errands, and split a salad at Goodlife Café and Bakery, the day cool and windy, a large coalition of vagabonds and their dogs conferencing in front of Harvest Market, their mood upbeat, many cups of coffee in evidence.

While Marcia copies things at Zo and returns a DVD to our miniature library, I go to the post office where marvelous Robin sells me four sheets of the fabuloso new Ray Charles stamps and I send one of my books and two of my piano CDs to a lucky customer in New Zealand, the postage twice what my creations cost her. What a woild!

Marcia catches up to me in the cozy confines of Corners of the Mouth where I note that the sunflower seeds are from North Dakota, the pumpkin seeds are from Oregon, the peanuts are from Georgia, the coconut oil is pressed and jarred in Oregon, and the bananas are definitely not from the Anderson Valley. If the vast petroleum-powered food transportation machine were to suddenly stop, much of what we eat these days would not be here to eat. We grow vegetables and potatoes, and we buy more of the same from local growers, ditto berries and apples and eggs, but rice and beans and avocados and and and…

We trudge up the hill with our laden packs and arrive home to a Fedex note stuck to our door saying the delivery person came two hours in the future with my new computer but needs a signature before he or she can leave the package. The note says, “Go to Fedex.com and enter the Door Tag tracking number to learn what your options are.”

So I dutifully go to Fedex.com on my barely functional computer, enter the tracking number, and there in large print is confirmation that my package was delivered on September 6, five weeks ago and four weeks before I ordered my new computer. Zounds! Talk about efficient.

Feeling miffed and disoriented, I call the Fedex 800 number and get a sexy woman’s voice that turns out to be a voice-recognition system that sounds confident she/it can understand why I’m calling if I will clearly explain my situation using telltale words and expressions such as delivery and wherefore art thou, Romeo.

“Did you say package?” says the sexy voice, her tone endowing the word package with suggestive connotations. “Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number and she responds enthusiastically with, “Okay. Your package was delivered on September 6.”

“No!” I scream. “No! No! No!”

“Okay,” says the robot lady who never needs to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom or see a doctor or complain about low wages and lousy working conditions. “I’ll connect you to a service representative. Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number again and she rewards me with a hideous synthesized instrumental version of Hey Jude. After thirty seconds of this sonic blasphemy, a different sexy sounding female voice announces that my call may be monitored for quality assurance and to determine if I am naughty or nice.

When I make a silent vow to listen to the original version of Hey Jude so I might like the song again, the universe rewards me with a real live person who says his name is Mark, pronouncing his name Mar-ek. “How can I help you today?” he asks, sounding as if he is in a large room with hundreds of other people all talking at the same time.

I recite my name and address and explain my situation and Mark says, “The driver made an error and used an expired tracking number. He attempted to deliver your package at 3:48 today, but no one was there.”

“Mark,” I say, “it is not yet 3:48 here. Is this perhaps another driver error?”

“Yes,” says Mark, giggling. “Yes, it is.”

“Will the driver come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark. “He will.”

“Why did he not just say that on his door tag, Mark?”

“He did say that,” says Mark, “but he used an expired door tag tracking number so the correct information was not available to you online.”

“But he will come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark, sounding a wee bit impatient with me and possibly in need of a coffee break. “I am almost a hundred per cent sure he will bring your package tomorrow.”

“I’ll be waiting with baited breath.”

“Oh, just sign the door tag,” says Mark. “And then you don’t have to be there when it comes.”

“Thank you, Mark. You have been very kind to me.”

“No problem. Have a nice day.”

Into the Mystic

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

into mystic

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

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” Chief Seattle

On several occasions during the summer when I was twelve-years-old, I felt certain I was on the verge of understanding how everything fit together, and I do mean everything. I would find myself sitting or standing very still and feeling all the countless separate parts of reality coalescing and clicking together; and with every passing moment I would become more and more excited as the myriad fragments fell into place in relation to each other and in relation to the entirety of everything else. And I felt sure that if I could only hold still a few moments longer without being interrupted, the mystery of life, of the universe, would be solved for me, and ever after I would live in a state of blissful knowing. Yet every time I felt I was only a few seconds away from such a complete understanding, something would interrupt my reverie, and the exquisite construct of the totality of everything would collapse.

I could not, as far as I knew, intentionally precipitate such reveries, though I tried to do so many times that summer. I would go off into the woods far from other people and sit absolutely still for hours on end, hoping my stillness would incite the myriad separate parts to begin their coalescing, but that never happened. I did have marvelous experiences sitting so still in the woods, but those glorious occasions when I nearly grasped my own grand unified field theory only came unbidden and when there was a high probability of being interrupted.

One evening that summer, standing under an olive tree not far from our house, I was so certain the last piece of the vast puzzle was about to fall into place, I held my breath so as not to disturb the grand finale. But then my mother shouted, “Dinner’s ready!” and the miraculous vision shattered.

I was in a foul mood when I came inside to eat, which prompted my father to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I could think better of speaking about such things to my father, I tried to explain how close I had been to a moment of comprehensive understanding, to which my father replied, “That’s just infantile magical thinking. You might as well say you believe in God, and you know how ridiculous that is.”

I knew it was folly to say anything in response to my father when he got on his atheist soapbox, so I held my peace as he lectured me on the idiocy of my thinking and feeling. Little did I know that my father was a preview of the many people I would encounter in my life, and whom I continue to encounter, who consider my experiences of the mystical nature of life either hackneyed spiritual crap or delusional nonsense.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” E.M. Forster

When I was fifteen, I made the B basketball team at Woodside High School, though I was not a starter. Indeed, on our twelve-man team, I was the twelfth ranked player and rarely got into a game. Every day, following an hour of exercises and drills and practicing plays, our starters would scrimmage against the second five, with I and the other third-string fellow subbing onto the second-string team.

One day our coach sent me into the scrimmage, and for reasons I have no plausible explanation for I was overtaken by a power transcendent of the usual power that animated me. Suddenly the other players, many of them taller and bigger than I, seemed small and weak and slow moving, and I moved among them like a speeding giant. Prior to that scrimmage I had never been able to leap high enough to touch the ten-foot-high rim, but on that day I could reach above the rim. I snatched rebounds away from our tallest players and scored with an ease that was, in today’s vernacular, sick. I shot from near and far, made dozens of shots without a miss, and so thoroughly dominated the game that even those starters who had previously looked down on me were full of praise for my playing.

After practice, our coach called me into his office, and when he was convinced I had not ingested some illegal substance, said he was going to put me into tomorrow’s game against Sequoia as a reward for my extraordinary play that day. I thanked him and spent a restless night anticipating my first chance to shine in a real basketball game.

True to his word, our coach put me into the game midway through the first half, and I immediately grabbed a rebound and took a shot. But when my shot missed the mark, our coach took me out and never played me again. I was disappointed, of course, by the brevity of my playing time, but I was also aware that whatever extraordinary power had possessed me the day before was entirely absent on the day of my debut. Nor did that power return to me again until the very last day of basketball practice that year.

To end the season on a dramatic and competitive note, the coach created six two-man teams and we had a tournament to determine which duo would be crowned champions. I was paired with the other lowest ranked player, and we were expected to lose to all the other teams. But that transcendent power came into me again and we demolished our opponents, including the team composed of our two star players. We won so easily, much to the chagrin of our coach, that the biggest star of our team gave me the ultimate compliment by saying, “What are you on, man? I want some.”

What was I on? Fools Crow, the revered Lakota holy man said (in the inspiring book Wisdom & Power) that there is an inexhaustible source of spiritual power ever present in universe, and that those who consciously or unconsciously empty themselves of ego may invite this spiritual power to work through them. Fools Crow said he used prayer and ritual to make of himself a hollow bone to be filled by this spiritual power with which he accomplished his healing work. And that’s what I think was going on those times when I played basketball so much better than I had ever played before; I was filled with spiritual power and became an instrument of the unfathomable universe.

 “There is nothing in the world that is not mysterious, but the mystery is more evident in certain things than in others: in the sea, in the eyes of the elders, in the color yellow and in music.” Jorge Luis Borges

One of my favorite stories about the Mbuti people of the Ituri rainforest in the Congo is that Christian missionaries found it almost impossible to convince the Mbuti to believe in, let alone worship, a punitive God because the Ituri forest, which the Mbuti believed to be the most important of all gods, provided them with such abundance and so obviously loved them. I think of this story whenever I encounter people who consider my belief in the mystical nature of existence to be hackneyed spiritual crap or self-delusion.

Yesterday, for instance, I began to write an email to a friend I hadn’t heard from in several months, and two sentences into my missive I received an email from that very friend. What made this seeming coincidence even more remarkable to me was that my two sentences were specific questions, and my friend’s email began with detailed answers to those specific questions. Is this proof of the mystical nature of existence or is it merely, as Buckminster Fuller suggested, that most of what goes on in Universe is inexplicable because we lack the technology to see or hear or measure most of what is going on in this and contiguous dimensions? Imagine what a surprise it must have been to discover radio waves? Who knew?

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

When I first moved to Mendocino, I would go to Big River Beach almost every day to marvel at my good fortune and celebrate having had the courage to make the move. One day I was sitting with my back against a big log and gazing out at the breakers, when into my mind came the face of a woman I hadn’t seen in twelve years, a woman I had been smitten with during my last year of living in Sacramento. Her name was Ida and she worked in a bakery and I had spoken to her a grand total of five times, three of those conversations consisting of Ida asking me, “What can I get you?” and my replying, “Two blackberry muffins, please.” The other conversations were a bit longer because I ordered coffee, too.

Which is to say, I didn’t really know Ida at all. But every time I saw her, I felt a powerful jolt of recognition and love, and I liked to think, whether it was true or not, that she felt a similar jolt.

In any case, I hadn’t had a conscious thought about her in over a decade, yet here I was on Big River Beach seeing her vividly in my mind’s eye and wondering what might have happened if only I’d had the courage to speak to her at greater length and perhaps ask her…

After a delightful little snooze, I packed up my knapsack and headed back to the parking lot, and just as I was about to walk under the Big River bridge, a little girl came running toward me, shrieking with delight as her mother pursued her, her mother being Ida.