Posts Tagged ‘Frank Zappa’

All Or Nothing

Friday, January 7th, 2011

“Every day: meditation, chocolate, a glass of port wine, and flirting with young men.” Beatrice Wood at age 98 on her secret to longevity

“I’m never drinking coffee again,” said my friend, reciting his New Year’s resolutions. “And no more alcohol. And I’m off all sugar. And I’m joining a health club and I’m gonna work out for at least an hour a day, every day. Without fail.”

“Wow,” I said, having heard similar declarations from this fellow before. “Sounds draconian.”

“Look,” he said, piqued by my hint of sarcasm, “it’s all or nothing with me. One cup of coffee, I’m hooked again. One piece of chocolate, I’m a goner.” He glared at his big round tummy. “Moderation doesn’t work for me.”

“There can only be one winner, but isn’t that the American way?” Gig Young

I’ve often thought ALL OR NOTHING could be our national motto, for the concept infects virtually every aspect of our political, economic, social, and emotional lives.

“The only way I can figure out what I really think about anything is to write about it.” Norman Mailer

Throughout the 1990’s I worked with hundreds of writers to help them improve their writing. Some were beginners, some were advanced, and several were published authors, but they all began their time with me by confiding that they felt like failures because they did not write for at least two hours every day and produce piles of inspired prose as prescribed by those iconic books about how to be a writer. I will not name these bestsellers, for you may own one or two of them and believe they possess some value. I will only testify that these tomes have dampened the spirits and aspirations of countless writers rather than helping them in any meaningful way.

To those who have been wounded by such knuckleheaded all-or-nothing strategies, I offer the following insight. The most straightforward way I know of to establish a writing practice is to make writing your habit. There are many ways to become habituated to writing, but the underlying mechanism for developing any habit is to do the thing, the would-be habit, on a regular basis. For instance, I have a habit of making a cup of herb tea every morning after I get the fire going, and then I drink the tea whilst considering what lies ahead. This making and having a cup of tea every morning became my habit because I did it almost every day until the making and drinking became routine. The same holds true for establishing a writing practice.

“The most beautiful words in the English language are “You’ve lost weight.” Christopher Buckley

My father helped establish a clinic at Stanford Children’s Hospital for psychosomatically ill children and adolescents. These kids are so ill they have to be hospitalized or they might die. The vast majority of the patients in this clinic are starving themselves to death for fear of being fat; or as one psychotherapist put it, for fear of not being skinny enough.

What I found most interesting in learning about these anorexics was that nearly all of them quickly improved once they got away from their families and schools and television, and many of them just as quickly relapsed when they returned to the outside world. What could be going on in our society to make so many young people feel they cannot be skinny enough, while so many other people are eating themselves into morbid obesity? I see the twin epidemics of anorexia and obesity as symptoms of the all or nothing nature of our society.

“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” George Bernard Shaw

There is a movie by Cameron Crowe called Singles. I haven’t watched the film since it came out in 1992, but the scene I remember most vividly (and my memory may have rewritten the scene somewhat) involves a character played by Bridget Fonda who wants to have her breasts enlarged because she believes her boyfriend played by Matt Dillon will love her more and not be interested in other women if she, Bridget’s character, has much larger breasts.

So she goes to a doctor who specializes in breast enhancement and the doctor falls in love with her at first sight and thinks she’s perfect just as she is. Oblivious to the doctor’s romantic interest in her, Bridget and the doctor stand shoulder-to-shoulder staring into a computer screen where a drawing of a woman’s torso and head can be manipulated with a dial to make the breasts grow larger or smaller. At first the drawing displays girlish breasts the size of Bridget’s breasts, and Bridget turns the knob to make the breasts grow larger and larger until each breast is nearly as big as the head of the woman in the drawing. Then the doctor spins the knob the other way and the breasts shrink to the size of Bridget’s breasts, and then Bridget commandeers the knob and makes the breasts bigger. Back and forth. All or nothing.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

“Todd is a writer,” said a hostess introducing me to a well-heeled couple at her party. And then, winking ironically, our hostess fled.

“Written any bestsellers?” smirked the man.

“Honey,” said his wife, nudging him. “Don’t be rude.”

“What’s rude? Maybe he has. Have you?”

“No,” I said, feeling a strange admixture of shame and a desire to punch the guy in the nose. “Not yet.”

“Get on Oprah,” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “That’s the way to do it. She tells the world she loves your stuff, you’re a made man.”

“I’ll give her a call,” I said, looking for the nearest exit.

“You wish,” said the man, snorting.

A silence fell and the chasm of all or nothing opened between us.

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” John Emerich Dalberg-Acton

I will never forget a long ago conversation I had with two writers, a woman from France and a man from Germany. This was in 1982, but the scene is still vivid in my mind. We were sitting in a modest café in Santa Monica, sipping wine and discussing our shared passion: movies. The next thing I knew, these charming people were sincerely trying to convince me to move to Europe because, as the woman put it, “Your government is doomed to fascism, and as your government goes, so goes your culture. Can’t you see? If you have only these two identical parties, there can be no voice for socialism. This is why the big corporations are buying the movie studios. To promote their agenda.”

“Besides,” said the man, who admired my stories and plays, “there is no place for your writing here. You will have an audience in Europe. Your work is character-driven, as the agents like to call anything even slightly nuanced, which is the kiss of death in Hollywood. But in Germany we love stories about real people. Everything here is a cartoon now. You should come to Europe.”

“Your work is too subtle,” said the woman, sighing. “And your characters are not predictable. They hate us to be unpredictable here.”

“You will be ignored. Come to Germany.”

“Or France,” said the woman, smiling assuredly. “We will sponsor you, and within a year you will have a play produced, I’m sure.”

“You can make a living as a writer in Europe,” said the man, nodding. “You might not get rich, but you can make a living with your craft. Isn’t that what you want?”

But I was too enamored of the vision of rising from nothing and getting it all—uncompromising art and riches; so I stayed in America and rode the rollercoaster of my career up and down, mostly down, to this roughly level ground where I stand today, a habitué of these hinterlands, writing because it is my habit and my passion, sharing these words with you through the auspices of our instantaneously reactive Universe that loves everything from the tiniest Nothing to the grandest of Alls. Or so I like to think.

“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice—there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” Frank Zappa

Attention Deficit Nonsense

Friday, November 26th, 2010

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley

1957. Las Lomitas Elementary School. Menlo Park, California

“I invite those people with ants in their pants,” proclaimed Mrs. Davenport, my third grade teacher, “to run to the oak tree and back before we get to work on our projects.”

Those people always included me, so I and several of my cohorts, boys and girls, walked sedately to the classroom door from where we bolted into sunlight and fresh air to run across the playground to the gigantic oak that overshadowed the playing field. Upon our return, Mrs. Davenport would say, “Todd, Jody, Wendy, I invite you to circumnavigate the oak one more time because I can see you’ve still got a little jitterbug in you.”

Mrs. Davenport was from Oklahoma and proudly one-eighth Cherokee. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in all my eight mortal years. She was astute, funny, musical, athletic, and she enjoyed using words somewhat beyond the official Third Grade vocabulary. We loved Mrs. Davenport because she loved us and had great empathy for our collective predicament: being eight-year-olds.

In 1957, may the fates be eternally blessed, there was no such thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, nor were hideous drugs routinely and epidemically administered to children with ants in their pants. Thus I was spared the pharmaceutical suppression of my true nature, which was, as our beloved Mrs. Davenport so aptly put it, “To jitterbug.”

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela

1969. Oakland, California

“You’re kidding,” I said to my friend, a Third Grade teacher at an elementary school with an entirely black student body. “All the kids in your class take Ritalin?”

“Every single one of them.”

“That’s insane.”

“There’s no other way to control them. Forty wild kids in a dinky classroom. Believe me, the ones who skip their meds stand out like sore thumbs.”

Lest you think the situation in that Oakland elementary school was an anomaly, think again. A monumental takeover of America’s schools was underway in the late 1960’s and continued through the 1970’s and 80’s, and is now complete. Today millions of our children are, for all intents and purposes, forced to take prescription drugs if they wish to attend school. And what saddens me most is knowing that had such drugs existed in my antsy childhood, and had my school been run by agents of the pharmaceutical corporations as most schools are run today, my parents would have dutifully signed the requisite forms allowing my jailers to drug me.

“Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.” Aldous Huxley

In 1974 I worked as a teacher’s aide and janitor at a day care center in Palo Alto. All but three of our twenty-seven kids, ages two to five, came from single parent homes with the dads missing, the moms working as secretaries or nurses or maids or salespeople. The children were dropped off at the center between seven and eight in the morning and were to be picked up by a parent between four and five in the afternoon. For all sorts of wrong reasons, I was often left alone to care for several of these little people from two in the afternoon until the last of their very tired mothers arrived long after five.

My strategies for safely overseeing seven to fifteen antsy little kids all by myself for three or four hours included story telling, snack providing, and running my charges back and forth to the oak tree, so to speak, until they were too tired to do anything other than nap or draw or play quietly until their mommies came to get them. Several of these children, according to the school’s director, exhibited propensities for Attention Deficit Disorder; but not one of these angels suffered from any such thing under my care.

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.” George Bernard Shaw

In 1989, as I began my third year of running the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, the school’s director hired a renowned academic authority to conduct a workshop for the department heads. I was skeptical about the value of the workshop, Strategies for Working With Contemporary Teenagers, because after two years of working with contemporary teenagers I had yet to discern any differences between contemporary teens and the teenager I had been; and my skepticism proved justified the moment that overpaid fraud opened his mouth.

He began with the proclamation that due to the pernicious effects of comic books and MTV, “the teenagers of today are incapable of sustaining focus and interest in a subject for more than a few minutes at a time. Therefore, you must design your curriculum to accommodate their limitations.”

I raised my hand, for I was swiftly approaching the limits of my capability of sustaining focus and interest in what this jackass was saying.

“I will complete my initial presentation,” he snapped, “and take questions after.” He glanced at his watch. “In twenty-four minutes.”

“I will not wait twenty-four minutes,” I said, rising from my seat. “Or even one minute. Your premise is erroneous. The young people we work with are easily able to sustain their focus and interest for hours on end, so I will leave you to your nonsense and hope my colleagues will have the good sense to leave with me.”

Needless to say, the director of the school was displeased with my boycott of the renowned academic, but life went on and our young writers and artists proved themselves illimitably attentive. Of course, we weren’t training our students to jump through hoops and remember meaningless bits of data pursuant to passing tests pursuant to becoming docile members of an emotionally stifled population of neurotic consumers. We were providing them with opportunities, inspiration, and techniques for expressing their original visions, while modeling for them adult versions of what artists might be.

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.” Frank Zappa

2010. There is today, the authorities tell us, an epidemic of autism sweeping America; and though no one has a definitive explanation for the dramatic upturn in the incidence of autism, massive quantities of barely tested drugs are being administered to our nation’s hapless children in the name of managing the growing problem. Autism is a highly non-specific term, almost as non-specific as the word human, and may refer to a child incapable of even minimal self-maintenance, to a teenager with abnormal speech patterns, or to an adult incapable of making eye contact with other human beings, to name just a few of the thousands of autistic behaviors found under the vast umbrella of the so-called autistic spectrum.

“Yes, well, we have administered the appropriate tests and come to the conclusion that your daughter falls somewhere on the spectrum of being human. Her particular manifestation of humanness indicates she might be more easily controlled were she to take two hundred milligrams every four hours of the drug Freedonia, an absurdly expensive drug cheaply manufactured and available exclusively from one of the unregulated and amoral pharmaceutical giants. This giant multinational corporation claims to have thoroughly tested Freedonia on several thousand unsuspecting peasant children in India. Only a small percentage of those peasant children died or went insane as a result of taking the drug, and despite a notable percentage of the subjects experiencing dizziness, loss of appetite, and an irrational fear of the color blue, a viable percentage of those taking Freedonia showed a noticeable reduction in those symptoms of humanness similar to the symptoms unfortunately exhibited by your daughter. Therefore, we strongly recommend that your daughter take the recommended dosages of Freedonia if you wish for her to continue attending Sweetness and Light Elementary School.”

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer

Most people find it hard to believe that it was common practice for medical doctors in twentieth century America to prescribe cigarettes for patients suffering from anxiety, but they, the medical doctors, did just that for many decades. My father, a medical doctor, smoked cigarettes until 1957 when the Surgeon General gave his first official warning about the “probable link” between cigarettes and lung cancer.

I have several friends who feel that life would not be worth living without the prescription anti-depressants they take, and I am relieved they have something to help them feel good about being alive. I am not against the use of all drugs. But I am against the use of drugs in place of discovering and working on the underlying causes of what ails us and what ails our children.

A growing body of research suggests that the accepted truth in the not too distant future will be that the exponential rise in the occurrence of autism is at least partially related to the chronic use of computers and cell phones by children who should not be using (or exposed to the rays from) those brain-altering devices until their brains have had the opportunity to fully develop as our brains are genetically intended to develop. Crucial synaptic connections are very likely not being made in the brains of millions of young people who are texting and gaming and cyber surfing before their brains and psyches and bodies are fully and healthfully formed.

Have you ever entered a café where several people are peering into cell phones and twiddling their thumbs on miniature keyboards? These people are modeling several of the fundamental symptoms of autism: disconnection from reality, self-isolation, repetitive physical mannerisms, and avoidance of direct contact with other humans. Or to put it another way, they seem to be missing out on what we old farts call life.