Posts Tagged ‘Groucho Marx’

Cover Stories

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

idas2-cover-sm

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

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

I recently got a letter from my editor at Counterpoint Press, the daring publishing company bringing out a paperback edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup in early 2016, saying he would soon be sending me samples of their cover ideas. So I held my breath for a few days and recalled my book cover adventures with publishers of my previous books. This helped temper fantasies of a superb cover for Buddha In A Teacup. Indeed, after reviewing my history of book covers, I decided to hope for legible.

Inside Moves. Published in 1978 by Doubleday, my first novel had a basketball subplot and the cover sample featured a small airborne man holding what might have been a basketball, but also might have been a bowling ball. This ambiguous athlete, wearing slacks and a sweater, was floating through the air surrounded by gothic-like letters with enormous serifs. At a glance, the letters seemed to spell INSIDE MOVIES. I expressed my concerns and the ball problem was addressed, but the confusing lettering remained and the book was often shelved in the Hobby section of bookstores.

Forgotten Impulses. Published in 1980 by Simon & Schuster, my second novel was originally entitled Mackie, which remained the title until a month before the book was to be printed. The cover for Mackie featured a spectacular oil painting of a woman wearing a sunhat and kneeling in her vegetable garden, the roots of the plants growing down through layers of soil to entangle the name Mackie. Alas, my editor called at the proverbial last minute to say Sales felt Mackie lacked punch. Could I come up with a meaty sub-title? My brother Steve, who came up with Inside Moves, helped me come up with Forgotten Impulses, and Sales dropped Mackie entirely and went with Forgotten Impulses. The hastily assembled new cover was composed of garish yellow gothic-like letters on a red and blue background.

Not that it mattered much. Simon & Schuster took the book out of print a few days after it was published.

Louie & Women. My third novel was published by Dutton in 1983 and featured a poorly rendered painting of a short buxom naked woman standing at a window. Filling most of the window frame was a painting of a wave—a painting within the painting. On the bed in the foreground of the room lies a pair of large white men’s jockey-style underwear. I strenuously objected and my editor said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to kill the book before it comes out anyway, so…”

“But why?”

“They don’t think it will sell. Sorry.”

Ruby & Spear. My fifth novel was published by Bantam in 1996 and the cover shows a black man going up to dunk a basketball into a hoop with a half-ripped net. This cover was so antithetical to the spirit of the story, I called my editor to express my disappointment and she said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to take the book out of print.”

“But the book hasn’t been published yet?”

“I know,” she said sadly. “Sorry.”

The Writer’s Path, published by 10-Speed in 2000, is a large collection of my original writing exercises. The proposed cover design was hideous and featured misleading subtitles that made the book sound like a touchy feely book for people trying to access their inner artist. The cover was changed from hideous to blah shortly before publication, but the misleading subtitles remained. Sadly, the hideous proposed cover was put up on all the online bookselling sites and remains there to this day. Nevertheless, the book sold ten thousand copies entirely by word-of-mouth. 10-Speed did absolutely nothing to promote the book, and then, in their great wisdom, Sales decided not to do a third printing because, after all, the book was selling itself.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Shortly before the cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived from Counterpoint, my editor wrote to say he had presented the book at a sales meeting and the response was positive. However, the consensus was that my original subtitle—tales of enlightenment—was inadequate because it did not say the short stories are contemporary. So I came up with Contemporary Dharma Tales, which he liked.

Ere long, five cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived via email, and just as I was about to unzip the big file to peruse them, another email came from my editor saying they had selected two finalists from the five and I should ignore those five and look at the two. But I looked at the five, loved one of them and disliked the other four, and then with trembling mouse opened the file containing the finalists. And lo, the one cover I loved was one of the two finalists. My wife and several friends agreed with my choice, I sent in our votes, and…

Will the final cover be the one we want? Will the book have a long and eventful life in print? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I am about to finish writing Ida’s Place Book Four: Renegade, the fourth volume of a fictional epic set in a mythical Here and Now, the covers for the Ida books exactly how I want them because I create them myself with the help of Garth the graphics wizard and Ian the master of the color copier at Zo, the finest (and only) copy shop in Mendocino. Coil bound copies of the Ida books, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available from my web site until that glorious (mythical) day when some prescient publisher presents them to that great big world on the other side of the tracks.

The Ida’s Place books and the original self-published hardback of Buddha In A Teacup are available at Underthetablebooks.com

Traveling

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Shoe Tie

Shoe Tie photo by David Jouris

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)

“The only alternative to co-existence is co-destruction.” Jawaharlal Nehru

We were down on Big River Beach a few days ago, the weather Hawaiian, naked babies frolicking in the sand, the air scented with barbecued lamb and chicken, the river sparkling, the breezes gentle. And joining us in paradise were a dozen or so unleashed dogs gadding about making everything much less enjoyable by depositing piles of steaming dog poop in our midst and trampling our picnics while chasing each other and vying for scraps of food.

The law is clear: dogs are not allowed on Big River Beach unless they are leashed. Yet for some reason, most people who bring their dogs to that beach seem to think they are above that particular law. And when I ask those dog owners, for obvious reasons, to please obey the leash law, their reactions imply that they think I am at fault, not they.

Or as one woman with two enormous out-of-control poopers said to me, “Oh don’t be so uptight. Look how happy they are.”

“A competitive world has two possibilities for you. You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change.” Lester C. Thurow

I’ve been watching highlights of the NBA (National Basketball Association) playoffs, and as someone who learned to play the game in the 1960’s and played for thirty years thereafter, the game today is, in the words of Groucho Marx, a travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham. Indeed, the professional game today appears to operate under entirely different rules than those I learned. However, having just read the official 2014 NBA rules, I find those rules have barely changed in the last fifty years.

The two most notable violations that constitute normal play these days are fouling and traveling. According to the official rules, except in a few specific situations, players are not supposed to touch each other, let alone punch and shove. To do so is to a commit a foul, and each player is allowed six fouls in the course of a game, after which they must retire to the bench. Yet today’s players pummel each other all game long, with only the most flagrant and dangerous of their unceasing fouls causing referees to blow their whistles.

The rules also clearly state that a player cannot run around with the ball in his possession unless he is dribbling (bouncing) that ball. Running around with the ball when you are not dribbling is called traveling. According to the rules, there are no circumstances in which a player with the ball may take more than one-and-a-half steps after ceasing to dribble, yet most of today’s professional basketball players routinely take two, three, and even four steps after they stop dribbling and before they shoot or pass.

In one highlight from the current playoffs, Indiana Pacer star Paul George received a pass and then hopped from place to place—three distinct hops—before he began to dribble. Then he bounced the ball a few times, cradled the ball in his massive hand, took three gigantic steps and dunked the ball. Did the referee call him for traveling? Nay. Paul received a standing ovation for breaking the rules four times in the span five seconds. And that is professional basketball today, a game in which gigantic young men earning millions of dollars shall not be bothered with silly old rules.

Oh don’t be so uptight, Todd. Look how happy they are.

Now, alas, there is no going back to playing by the rules because most basketball players today have long forgotten the official rules, if they ever knew them, and kids learn to play the game by imitating their idols. Soon, I suppose, the rules will have to be updated to conform to the new reality. Sigh.

“In the main there are two sorts of books; those that no one reads, and those that no one ought to read.” H.L. Mencken

Grammatical rules are passé these days because unnecessary. Yo.

“Three things make up a nation: its land, its people and its laws.” Abraham Lincoln

What would honest Abe think of America’s laws today, those laws created by the few in power to maximize their profits and enhance their control over the many not in power? What would Abe think of our tax laws that favor the wealthy and wreak havoc on the lives of people with little money? What would he think of our entirely legal yet wholly criminal healthcare insurance industry? We know what he’d think of our new banking laws that allow incredibly corrupt financial institutions to steal money from our government at little or no interest and then lend that money at usurious interest rates and invest in pyramid schemes that inevitably end in disaster. Abe would think these were not laws at all, but crimes against humanity.

But I suppose none of that really matters. On the great scale of things, with global temperatures rising to the point of planetary death, what difference does it make if dogs run rampant on Big River Beach and basketball players travel and foul with abandon and most of what gets published these days is unreadable garbage and our government is a criminal oligarchy?

Maybe that woman with the out-of-control poopers was right and I should try to appreciate the trashing of our planet and society and culture by people zooming around in gas guzzling cars for every little thing and flying to Europe, you know, just for fun, and surfing in the radiated ocean while dogs shit on the sand and nip at the feet of readers lost in the latest Young Adult dystopian vampire novels and soft porn pap for disempowered women.

And yet…having experienced Big River Beach sans growling canines, and having developed a taste for excellent prose and superbly played basketball, crappy dog owners and lousy writers and shoddy basketball just, like, totally gross me out.

Off The Map

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com

Crisis & Opportunity

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


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

Sally Holding Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Collapse Scenarios

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Our business gets better as the economy gets worse.” Kent Moyer, founder and CEO of World Protection Group Inc.

The business referred to in the opening quote is officially known as Executive Protection, and Kent Moyer is the kingpin of a successful Executive Protection agency providing body guards and small armies and surveillance experts and surveillance equipment and defensive strategies to wealthy individuals and consortiums of wealthy people who are certain they need protection from kidnappers, assassins, disgruntled employees, mobs of poor people, psychotic fans, and the like. Having recently read The Three Musketeers, it occurs to me that the musketeers were a seventeenth century equivalent of one of today’s private armies dedicated to protecting a consortium of wealthy people. In the case of The Three Musketeers, the wealthy people in question were the king of France and his sycophants.

“It isn’t so much that hard times are coming; the change observed is mostly soft times going.” Groucho Marx

Today many thoughtful people are hard at work writing essays and books about the coming (ongoing) collapse of economic, social, and natural systems in North America and around the world. I applaud them for their efforts and salute them for their desire to awaken others to the dangers confronting us. I occasionally go on binges of reading (mostly skimming) these essays and I am variably filled with hope or despair depending on the prognosis presented by the prognosticator. Some of the most popular of these prognosticators are, to my wholly subjective way of thinking, charlatans, some are brilliant visionaries, some are down-to-earth folk with helpful information, and many could use good editors. Dave Smith, by the way, does a great job presenting a constant flow of these kinds of essays and other non-mainstream articles about important environmental, agricultural, and social issues on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

I realize this is probably an unwise generalization (most generalizations are unwise), but most of these collapse scenario essayists strike me as impatient for their predictions to come true. That is, there is a tone in many of these essays of righteous indignation about all the horrible things humans have done to bring us to these points of collapse, and now they (we) will be sorry they (we) did those horrible things and it serves them (us) right for being so horrible and greedy and stupid, and tomorrow, or next week, or at the very latest next year, the various houses of cards will come tumbling down, roving gangs of starving killers will take over the world, internet service will become patchy and then disappear, only obscenely wealthy people will be able to afford gasoline for their armored vehicles driven by executive protection operatives, it will never stop raining in some places on earth, never rain again in other places, and no one with any sense would want to live within a thousand miles of a nuclear power plant because after the economic collapse such power plants will be too expensive to keep cool and they will all melt down and radiate the surrounding territories. Yikes!

“When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” Chuck Palahniuk

I am not saying these collapse scenario essayist aren’t right. Many of them are probably very right. Time is telling. What I’m trying to say is that the gestalt, if you will, of the sum total of these collapse scenario essays is that we, you and I, are doomed to suffer horribly, and soon. Put another way, these presentations strike fear in the reader’s heart, which I assume is the prognosticators’ intention, to strike fear. And my problem with striking fear in people is that fear, in my opinion, is our single largest obstacle to making the myriad substantive changes we need to make in order to avoid or at least soften the impact of the coming collapses we are destined to experience.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
 T.S. Eliot

Tremendous fear, in my experience, may inspire short-term fight or flight, but fear per se tends to paralyze. Indeed, it seems clear that our current overlords employ fear-striking tactics, overt and subliminal, to keep the population acquiescent and afraid to act out against even the most horrific unfair amoral misuses of authority, such as our government handing over trillions of dollars to the very thieves who stole trillions of dollars from us and brought about the current economic collapse scenario we now inhabit. I’m not advocating soft-pedaling the facts and figures underpinning various collapse scenarios; I’m saying that I, selfishly, would appreciate it if collapse scenario essayists would make more of an effort to balance their terrifying scenarios with plausible scenarios of renaissance.

“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” Goethe

I realize that many collapse scenario essayists are making the point that there are no plausible scenarios of renaissance. Our window of opportunity, they explicate, has closed. We’re doomed. The end. Discussion over. Humans blew their chances. But how interesting is that, especially after the third or fourth or fiftieth proclamation of the irreversible nature of our catastrophic situation? Does it ever occur to these doomsters (I’m sure it does to some of them) that our thoughts have an enormous impact on what manifests as reality?

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Gertrude Stein

Yesterday, as I was parking in front of the bulletin board fence on Ukiah Street in Mendocino, I counted seven people arrayed along the sidewalk, their backs to the bulletin board, gazing into flat little cell phones. These people were not engaged in phone conversations but were staring silently at their tiny screens. Something about the solemn eerie scene held me in my truck until one of the seven moved, and this movement did not occur for a short infinity. These seven were transfixed, each lost in a different scenario being presented to them on a tiny screen. When one of the seven finally lowered her phone, she did not put it away in her purse or pocket. She simply held onto the thing as if it were the hand of an invisible friend—something to cling to on her walk through life. Then another of the seven lowered his phone and moved away, and he, too, did not put his phone away, but held onto it as one might clutch a gold coin too precious to entrust to a pocket.

The other five remained unmoving, their eyes glued to their little screens; and so I got out of my truck as quietly as I could, not wishing to disturb the funereal atmosphere of the silent watchers in the fog of Mendocino. And for the rest of my round of errands in the village, I encountered more and more of these people who never put their phones away, but hold onto them constantly, as if fearing to separate for even a moment from the flow of information and the illusion of connection their little gizmos provide. I hasten to add that these were not exclusively young people, but people of all ages.

Having completed my errands, the last of which was to fill my basket with tasty comestibles at Corners of the Mouth, I was hoisting said basket into the bed of my old pickup, when a young couple came by pushing their cherubic two-year-old in a state-of-the-art ergonomically-boffo royal purple baby buggy. The young mother paused in front of the former church that is Corners and asked her husband, “What is this place?”

“That,” he said, gazing into the phone he carried in his hand, “is a grocery store specializing in organic produce and run by hippies.”

“Want to go in?” she asked, smiling hopefully.

“I don’t think there’s anything in there for us,” he replied, continuing to stare at his tiny screen. “Want to get some lunch?”

“What is there?” she asked, gazing longingly at the little red church.

And I was about to call out, “Looking for a good place to eat?” when the husband, reading from his tiny screen, said, “Well there’s nothing in the direction we’re going, but back the way we came there is a three-and-a-half-star hamburger joint based on twenty-eight reviews, an almost-four-star café based on seventy-eight reviews, somewhat pricey, and…”

So I did not call out to them. We did not converse. They did not get to meet me, nor I to meet them. The natural, fascinating, enriching, expansive proclivities of human beings were circumvented by the latest greatest tool of isolation and alienation.

Meaning of Meaning

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

“A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

I first encountered the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1967 when I was eighteen, a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. Wittgenstein’s little treatises The Blue and Brown Books were required reading for all freshmen enrolled at Stevenson College, the campus within the campus named after Adlai Stevenson and dedicated to the social sciences. I was a gung ho anthropology major, though my gung ho-ness would soon be replaced by the awareness that anthropology was a deeply conflicted realm best avoided by the already conflicted likes of me.

But in my early weeks on that lovely campus, free for the first time in my life from my parents’ incessant intrusions, the breezes eloquent and optimal for Frisbee, the bevies of braless beauties making of life an erotic potpourri, I was inspired to give academia the old college try. So I dove into my studies with youthful zeal, and things went swimmingly for a month or so, and then…Wittgenstein.

I beg the forgiveness of any Wittgenstein devotees who may read this dispatch. My sense of the man, based on a few biographical sketches and the four pages of his work I have labored through, is that he was an intimidating German charlatan for whom Oxford and the higher realms of academia were a field of clover, he a ravenous cow. But I don’t know.

In the introductory lecture on Wittgenstein given by a professor who would soon thereafter kill himself, we teenagers were told that the brilliant German transplant was initially intrigued by the meanings of meanings of words, but soon grew tired of such pedestrian mental gymnastics and was moved to pontificate for thousands of impenetrable pages about the meanings of the meanings of the meanings of words. To which my Jewish grandmother would have retorted, “From this he makes a living? Oy vey.”

Dazed and confused by the professor’s elucidation of Wittgenstein’s multi-layered inquiries into the meanings of meanings of meanings, and being mightily distracted by the nearness of so many outrageously cute and minimally clothed chicks (as we ignorant sexists called pretty girls in those days), I exited the lecture hall stuck on layer one. Woman. What is the meaning of Woman? Look! There goes one now. Okay. Wow. There she is. Woman means that. Her. And the meaning of the meaning? Hmm. What is the meaning of the word that means Her? Well, gosh, so many meanings, let me count the ways. But wait! What is the meaning of the meaning of the word that means woman? My head hurt.

We hoped, my fellow freshmen and I, that our section leaders (philosophy graduate students) would be able to shed some light on the dazzling introductory lecture so we might be able to cobble together passable papers on the subject at hand, whatever that subject turned out to be. I can see us now, a section of ten anxious neophyte scholars, gathered in a little room with a prematurely bald graduate student saying to us, “So…what comes to mind when you hear the word chair?”

To which one of my fellow scholars replied, “A chair.”

“Aha,” rejoined our section leader. “But do you think of a specific chair? Wittgenstein says you don’t. He says that when you hear the word chair, your brain accesses an abstract symbol representing the essence of chair, or what Wittgenstein calls chair-ness.”

A silence fell. I want to call the silence profound, but I’m unsure of the meaning of the meaning of the meaning of profound, but I do know that particular silence spoke volumes filled with blank pages.

“A picture is a fact.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Despite the confusing introductory lecture and the confounding discussion with the philosophy graduate student, I clung to the hope that Wittgenstein’s actual writings might burn off the thickening fog swirling about the prolific German of Oxford. So I hunkered down with The Blue and Brown Books and deduced from their brief introduction that these tracts were to Wittgenstein what Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff were to learning to read. That is to say, The Blue and Brown Books were the equivalent of Wittgenstein for Dummies.

Reading every word, and checking them twice, I made my way into the equatorial regions of Page Four of The Blue Book. Up to that point, or perhaps it was not a point but a moment, I thought I kind of sort of maybe sort of partially understood what Wittgenstein was driving at, but then his construct, so-called, fell apart for me and I had to start over at the beginning. I amplified my concentration and focused my entire being on following the steps (or threads) of his argument, and by the time I arrived at the North Pole of Page Three I felt sure that if Wittgenstein were only still alive and I could meet him, I would try to hurt him, though I had not theretofore been prone to violence.

This was my first powerful experience of feeling wholly unsuited to the academic life, and I was bummed because of the aforementioned erotic potpourri and the eloquent breezes, etc. So I wandered despondently across the bucolic campus to the Whole Earth Café (yes, the original Whole Earth Café of Whole Earth Café fame) and ordered a mango banana strawberry and yeast smoothie to soothe my jangled psyche. And as I was paying for my drink, I asked the hippy guy manning the cash register, “You ever read any Wittgenstein?”

And without missing a beat, he said, “The meaning of the meaning of the meaning of a turd.”

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Rumi

Coleman Barks, the renowned co-translator of Rumi into English, traveled to Turkey one summer to soak up the atmosphere in the home environs of Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet who is today more popular than Rod McKuen. One very hot day Barks went into a café and using his rudimentary Turkish ordered a bottle of water. The waiter seemed startled and asked Barks to repeat his order, which Barks did. The waiter hurried away to the kitchen and returned with a chef. Barks repeated his order to the chef, and a heated discussion ensued. Barks eventually got his bottle of water, but why all the fuss? Barks had mispronounced his words. Instead of asking for a bottle of water, he had asked for the secret of the universe.

“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” Groucho Marx

Once upon a time in Turkey there was a man named Halim who was a waiter in a café. One very hot day, a foreigner, a middle-aged man with curly gray hair, entered the café, bowed politely to Halim, and asked, “May I have the secret of the universe?”

Halim was startled by the foreigner’s request because that very morning Halim had woken from a vivid dream of strolling with a beautiful woman on the shore of a lake in the moonlight. In the dream, Halim and the woman had kissed, and then the woman had said to him, “I will gladly make love with you if you will tell me the secret of the universe.”

And now this middle-aged foreigner had made the very same request. What could this mean, this confluence of identical and unanswerable questions?

Halim rushed into the kitchen and said to the chef, “Toros, help me. An English man, or possibly he is American, has asked for the secret of the universe.”

“Ey Vaay,” said Toros, shaking his head woefully. “No doubt he is another of those blasted Rumi tourists. I’ll give him what for.”

So the chef and the waiter returned to the foreigner, and the chef said in his flawless Turkish, “Why do you want the secret of the universe?”

To which the foreigner replied, “To quench my thirst.”

“Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.” Mark Twain

In Turkey, in the very neighborhood where the famous Sufi poet Rumi lived so long ago, there stands a humble café. And on the kitchen shelf in this café there is a bottle of water among many other bottles of water that appears to be no different than the other bottles of water. But there is, indeed, a difference; for the water inside this singular bottle contains the secret of the universe.

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Gertrude Stein

A man, having guzzled a bottle of water on a hot day, wanders onto a barren field to take a piss. His urine rains down on a tiny fig seed that has lain dormant in a little crevice for seven hundred years. A pool of urine engulfs the fig seed, which pool evaporates over the ensuing hours, but not before the hard shell of the seed dissolves, the seed germinates, and tiny tendrils grow out of the seed and delve into the earth.

Some weeks later, a man on his way home from the café where he works as a waiter, espies the fig sprout growing in the otherwise barren field. With great care, the waiter digs up the seedling and carries the baby plant home to his garden where he will water and feed her so she might one day become the mother of ten thousand figs.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)