Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

Assignments

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

GRACE UPON THE VISIT

Grace Upon The Visit painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley          

Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.

I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.

Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”

Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?

To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?

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

The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.

Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.

“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”

Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.

“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.

“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”

“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.

“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”

“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.

“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Spear takes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”

“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James

As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.

I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.

Taylor Stoehr

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Taylor Stoehr

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

“In life, one must show character and kindness.” Pablo Casals

My good buddy Taylor Stoehr just died and I’ve been leafing through the bulging file of his letters to me, reading passages at random and marveling at the clarity of his prose and the generosity of his spirit. He was eighty-two when he died, and we only knew each other for four years, yet he was immensely important to me—a thoughtful person who took the time to read my books and plays and articles, and then write lengthy responses that made me glad I wrote them.

I never met Taylor in-person or spoke to him, our friendship based entirely upon handwritten letters sent between California and Massachusetts, our knowing each other the result of my sending him a letter of praise about his book I Hear My Gate Slam, a collection of excellent translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

Late Spring

In the evening swallows

appear at the window;

on my doorstep sparrows

flutter in the dust.

At sundown a breeze stirs

and I hear my gate slam;

a few petals fall silently

but no one has come.

—Yüan Chen

I sent my adulatory letter to Taylor in care of the University of Massachusetts, having learned from his biography at the back of I Hear My Gate Slam that he was a professor in the English department there. In addition to his translations of Chinese poets, he was a translator of the poetry of François Villon and Bertolt Brecht. He received my letter just a few weeks after he retired from professing and in the midst of moving with his new wife Teri from Boston to Otis, a small town in western Massachusetts. Much to my surprise and delight, he replied to my missive and our correspondence took off like a shot.

Because he enjoyed my essays, Taylor subscribed to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but the small print was hard on his eyes, so when his subscription lapsed I began making large print, double-spaced copies of my articles for him and came to feel that my weekly essay was not quite finished until I had slipped the fat envelope bound for Otis Massachusetts through the Out Of Town mail slot.

Here is a favorite passage from one of Taylor’s letters.

“Dear Todd—I won’t be able to get all I want to say on this card, but here I am in Boston to see doctors and friends and do a few errands. I brought this card with me so that I could write to you, not knowing until I stopped at the post office on the way out of Otis how much I would have to say. I did know that I wanted to respond to your letter which seems to me to inaugurate a new era in our friendship—as perhaps my last letter to you also evidenced. However it may be, I’m grateful to the spirits, or the great atman, for the good fortune of our meeting. I am ever more convinced that it was meant to be.

“Learning of your Huge Transitions—your move to the North, meeting and marrying Marcia, your confrontation with mortality—all these have their correspondence, though not precisely in the same order, to my moving to the West, only just effected, meeting and marrying Teri, in the last four years, my own still unresolved encounter with mortality in the form of atrial fibrillation and perhaps other heart problems as yet not understood. In short, though I’m almost twenty years older than you, we seem to have arrived at the same moment in our development (I was always a slow learner). But I would say that you’ve apparently come a good deal farther in some respects.

“I’m currently struggling to let go of fears and desires and self-delusions that have been making life a roller coaster these last months, as Teri and I endeavor to live in the same space for the first time, away from our usual respites and rituals, without blaming each other for the difficulties we bring on ourselves, trying instead to learn from suffering and confusion. I speak for myself, of course. Teri has her own demons, but I can testify to mine. To accept them and not cling to them has proved more than I’m capable of, especially in a climate of inevitable physical decline that comes with being seventy-nine years old.

“I was still playing basketball at 64, when my knee failed to respond to surgery and I had to give it up. Before that, like you, I loved to play at the local Y, or on the beach court in Manhattan Beach (LA), or at the gym at UC Santa Cruz, or anywhere there was someone with a ball ready for one-on-one. I think we share all the same feelings about the game—my passion.”

When I learned that Taylor was the literary executor of Paul Goodman, the writer most famous for his treatise Growing Up Absurd, a daring critique of American education first published in 1960, I wrote to Taylor that my one personal connection to Paul Goodman was that I started a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972 with the widow of Paul Goodman’s son, a woman named Epi. Here is part of Taylor’s reply.

“I don’t know which is the greater marvel, to find your new book Under the Table Books on my doorstep just when I was beginning to pine for it (having read Buddha In A Teacup more than once), or to find that you knew Epi! Indeed, it’s possible that you and I have met, not in a past life but in this one, back in 1971, for I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971. When I rode my 450 Honda back to Buffalo in 1970 (June) I carried one provision for the road, a big bag I made of Epi’s granola recipe.”

As it happened, I was absent from Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971, so Taylor and I did not tangle on the basketball court or eat vegetables and tofu with Epi or embark on our friendship forty years sooner.

“Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Henry James

Taylor began many of his letters to me with a response to my latest article or story, and I will sorely miss his insights and encouragement, as well as his matter-of-fact comparison of my stories and novels to the works of literary giants.

“I have to write again to tell you how much your story Balance affected me, and Teri, to whom I read it aloud. As you are well aware, it’s a kind of answer to Kafka—or, perhaps even more, to Camus, whose work I’ve gone back to recently. Of course Camus was not so despairing as Kafka, but I find him sometimes even more grim. Well, that’s neither here nor there, except to say that your story touches very deep themes of our times. What you add that Kafka and Camus seem never to have found is the way out of the maze. For all your hero’s abject acceptance off his meaningless life, he trusts the universe, and he surrenders to it. We see that happening—for his suffering and his discovery of meaning when all his anodynes are stripped away, activate what has been buried in him, call it his soul.”

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning.” Christopher Morley

It was Taylor’s practice for many years to begin each day by writing an eight-line poem. Then at the end of the year he would select a handful of these morning musings to make into a volume of Morning Prayers to give as gifts to his many friends and family, including his five children and many grandchildren, each a joy to Taylor.

Some of my friends are sane

as a hammer, but they’re like me

and choose for their lovers someone

wild, solitary, plain crazy.

Why do we love these tortoises

and mountain deer bound to leave

us mad with grief sooner or later?

They’re the only ones still alive.

—Taylor Stoehr from Morning Prayers 2009

That poem proved prophetic, for Teri left Taylor when life in Otis proved too difficult for her, after which Taylor entered a time of profound grief and ill health that continued until his death. Yet despite his sorrow and anger about Teri leaving him when he most needed a loving helpmate, he continued to write letters full of insight and hope. Here is the end of one of the last letters I received from him.

“I continue to use my morning poems as lifeboat, and I got a boost from watching Groundhog Day on your recommendation. It was surprisingly inspiriting—I don’t quite know why. I think something about the rhythmic repetition rather than either plot or theme. Interesting how a form can get under one’s skin. I think that’s part of the power of your own writing—both Buddha and Under the Table. If I were going to write anything but poems the rest of my life, I’d imitate you in form. And maybe if I move to Maine I will do that. I wish I were already there!

“Meanwhile, I’ve returned to Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss) and thinking about his effort to bring Eastern thought into some kind of alignment with both Christian thought and modern cultural eclecticism—our cultureless steam table. Here’s one result, today:

Despair is the other face of hope;

the loss of what might be

races ahead of what I want,

snatches it away from me.

Shall I therefore renounce desire

and settle for what is?

No! Let my heart burn in the fire,

I and hot be the ashes!

Love Taylor”

Life & Death

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Rose for Life & Death

Autumn Rose photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“All men’s misfortune, and the appalling disasters of history, the blunders of statesmen and the errors of great generals, come from the inability to dance.” Jean Molière

Marcia and I had breakfast on Wednesday morning at Ravens’, the wholly vegan restaurant at the Stanford Inn, our meal courtesy of a gift certificate Marcia received for officiating at a wedding. I especially enjoyed the coffee and orange juice and the view of Big River Beach. We were celebrating Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria just yet, and I wore my new salmon-colored shirt Marcia bought for a mere four dollars at a thrift shop in Santa Rosa. Having recently exchanged our life savings for a house on land suitable for growing vegetables and fruit, we rarely dine out on our own dimes these days, so the experience of eating at the Stanford Inn, an establishment catering to wealthy people who like to travel with their pets, felt decadent and strangely fun.

After breakfast we drove into the village of Mendocino to get our mail and take advantage of the 10%-off-everything sale at Harvest Market, and in the beer section we ran into a friend who informed us that Antonia Lamb had just died. We finished our shopping in stunned silence and drove home feeling discombobulated and saddened by this unexpected loss.

I saw Antonia several times in the last month as I walked to and from the village on Little Lake Road and we waved to each other as she zoomed by in her station wagon. The last time I had a conversation with Antonia was in the post office a couple months ago, the post office being where the majority of my meetings with her took place over the last six years, which is how long I knew her. I asked how she was doing and she said, “I’m very sad. My best buddy John (Chamberlain) just died and everything feels…” She shrugged and fought her tears.

“I’m sorry,” I said, embracing her.

After our hug, she told me all about her new CD and asked what I was up to musically these days. I said I was working on my fourth piano-centric album, and then I shrugged and said, “Though I sometimes wonder why I bother.”

“You bother because you’re an artist,” she said in her forthright way. “That’s what artists do. We make art. That’s our job. Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Samuel Beckett

As antidote to the sorrows of the world, we recently watched Blazing Saddles, found in the DVD section of our tiny village library. I first saw that zany film in 1974 at the Fine Arts theatre in Palo Alto when my brother was the manager of that comfy popcorn palace. Blazing Saddles was on a double bill with another Mel Brooks film The Producers, and I laughed my butt off and fell in love with Madeline Kahn.

For being such a silly movie, Blazing Saddles was and still is an irreverent, daring, and surprisingly frank portrayal of American racism, sexism, thoughtless violence, and endemic government corruption. Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid, the only non-racist white person in the mythical town of Rockridge, is brilliant as an urbane drunk who befriends Bart, the black sheriff, played by the charming Cleavon Little, their friendship a model of non-racism in a viciously racist society. Movie lore has it that Wilder only agreed to play the part of the Waco Kid after Brooks promised Wilder that their next film would be Young Frankenstein, their crowning achievement as collaborators, in my opinion, another movie about friendship that transcends spoof and slapstick and rises into the realm of sublime revelation.

“An actor is totally vulnerable. His total personality is exposed to critical judgment—his intellect, his bearing, his diction, his whole appearance. In short, his ego.” Alec Guinness

Speaking of ego, I recently made an appearance at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino to tout the new edition of my long out-of-print novel Inside Moves, and I’m happy to report we had a good turnout with several attendees announcing they were readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Mazel tov! Despite my usual pre-performance anxiety, I enjoyed the evening, my first public appearance in some years, and I especially enjoyed the questions the audience asked after I shared a few of my adventures in publishing and read the first chapter of Inside Moves.

Two of my favorite questions were, “Do you ever incorporate your dreams into your fiction?” and “Why don’t you do a one-man show at MTC? (Mendocino Theater Company).”

My answer to the first question was that I do sometimes incorporate my dreams into my fiction, and to the second question I replied, “I did give a reading some years ago at MTC, and counting my wife, four people came to the show, so I have not been asked or inclined to perform there again.”

“I delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean muse.” John Cleese

In the midst of writing this piece, I got a phone call from Kathy Mooney and she shared a beautiful poem she had just written in honor of Antonia Lamb. With Kathy’s permission, I present the beginning of her poem for Antonia.

Up on her toes

she goes

strumming to the

stars—she brought

them back down

for us, in wisdom,

myth, mirth and whimsy

Singing

she bared her heart—for us

who knew the Mendocino

she was missing—

and now, oh yes,

we miss you

“The theater is the most beautiful place on earth.” Anne Bancroft

My niece Olivia just graduated from the University of Oregon where she starred in several plays, and now she is on the verge of moving to Los Angeles to see if she can make it big in the movie and television business. Heaven help her. She is young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart and ambitious, and she will be competing with tens of thousands of other young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart, ambitious young women trying to make it big in show business.

I have no advice for her other than to watch her ass, literally and figuratively, nor can I open any doors for her. However, I will make a habit of imagining her auditioning for a part in an independent film and catching the eye of a latter day Mel Brooks who recognizes in her the comic genius of a latter day Madeline Kahn. I will imagine Olivia getting a juicy part and giving a remarkable performance that makes her the darling of great directors of stage and screen. I believe this will help Olivia, my imagining her becoming a big success because of her talent and originality, and not because she somehow manages to hook up with well-connected sleaze bags. And even if she doesn’t make it big in show business and does something else entirely with her one precious life, I still think it will help her if I visualize her winning the day with her unique talent. And if that sounds like hackneyed spiritual crap to you, so be it.

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

So the last thing Antonia said to me was, “Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

Which infers that we know what we were born to do, and I think by born to do she meant something beyond staying warm and dry and getting enough to eat. But how do we know what we were born to do? Or maybe a better question would be: how do we go about discovering what we were born to do? And the answer is: we go on a quest, otherwise known as living our life. We keep our eyes and ears and hearts open in anticipation of seeing and hearing and feeling things that will guide us on our way to discovering our life’s purpose, which might ultimately be many purposes, though underlying and connecting those multiple purposes is our desire to be of service to others, to share our passions, to give, to connect, to love and be loved—or something along those lines.

Copies of Inside Moves signed by the author are available at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.