Posts Tagged ‘hope’

Why Bother?

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.” Vaclav Havel

Dave Smith’s invaluable Ukiah Blog Live pointed me to a sobering presentation by Guy MacPherson on YouTube entitled Twin Sides of the Fossil Fuel Coin. MacPherson is a prominent conservation biologist who argues clearly and concisely that the only hope for the survival of humans beyond another couple of decades is the complete collapse of our global industrial society right now, today, and even that probably won’t be soon enough to stave off fast-approaching human extinction and the extinction of virtually all living things due to increasingly rapid global warming.

I watched the nearly hour-long presentation alone and then I watched it again a few hours later with Marcia, and then I spent a sleepless night wrestling with the overwhelming evidence that, barring a confluence of major miracles, we are about to experience massive economic and environmental collapse, and when I say “we are about to” I mean any day now, with some very reputable scientists suggesting the earth will be uninhabitable by humans in less than twenty years.

That’s right. Twenty years. Why? Well, in a nutshell, all recent data suggests that the warming oceans and the concurrent melting of arctic ice and the thawing of previously frozen bogs of Siberia, Canada, and Alaska are combining to release so much methane into the atmosphere that earthly temperatures will soon rise to deathly levels and everything that needs oxygen to survive will perish. And long before the oxygen runs out, crop failures and water shortages and catastrophic storms and economic collapse will instigate mass starvation and unimaginable social chaos. There will be no safe havens when there is no oxygen to breathe. We cannot move to a nicer place. This is it.

Meanwhile, I’ve got bills to pay and the men have arrived to install a deer fence. The house needs a new roof, we’re out of carrots, and we better get that package in the mail today or the presents won’t get to my sister before Christmas. Marcia is rehearsing some lovely cello-piano duets with Carolyn in the living room and the greedy bastards have just upped our health insurance twenty-five per cent and Obama is caving into the Republicans on tax reform because he is a Republican, and by the way, Obama doesn’t give a rat’s ass about global warming and the fast-approaching death of everybody’s children including his own.

So how do we proceed when we know the end of everything is so near? We can carry on as usual until something stops us from carrying on, or we can call our friends and say, “Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to try to help save the world?” And then we can start doing whatever we figure out to try to do. In either case, according to MacPherson, we’re doomed to a horrific future because we’ve waited too long to make the substantive changes we needed to make to avert global disaster. So why bother to try to improve things if we’ve already missed our chance? Why not just enjoy life as much as possible for however many years we have left and then when things get really icky, commit suicide?

That is probably what some of us will do. And some of us will hoard food and water in hopes of staying alive for a few months longer than we might otherwise live. And most of us will starve to death or be killed by other starving people or…you see why I had trouble sleeping.

In the meantime, I sure am enjoying the music Marcia and Carolyn are making in the living room—such masterful players, and so attuned to each other. What a miracle that humans evolved to where we could compose such gorgeous music and invent such fabulous instruments on which to bring forth such heavenly sounds. As it happens, I’ve been composing some new piano pieces I hope to record in the new year, and I’m looking forward to my novel Inside Moves being reissued in paperback in June with a flattering introduction by the famed Sherman Alexie; and I’m in talks with a publisher about bringing out a new edition of my book of writing exercises The Writer’s Path, and the deer fence guys are making great progress, which bodes well for the big vegetable garden I’m hoping to plant in the spring, and…

Gardens? Books? Music? Writing? What am I talking about? The human experiment is about to end. Forever. No more Shakespeare, no more Mendelssohn, no more Edith Wharton and Tony Bennett and Bill Evans and Eva Cassidy and Vincent Van Gogh. No more duets in the living room, no more walks on the beach, no more talks by the fire, no more snuggling in bed, no more laughter, no more Anderson Valley Advertiser, no more Giants baseball, no more going to the post office to get the mail. And no more garlic and basil and olive oil and almonds, i.e. no more pesto. Damn!

“The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.” J.R.R Tolkien

In 1971, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I started an eight-person commune in Santa Cruz with the intention of becoming adept at organizing and operating group living situations that would, among other thing, minimize our use of automobiles and fossil fuels while maximizing regenerative ways of warming our dwellings in winter and growing lots of nourishing organic food. I was stoked (as we used to say) about the prospects of creating social systems that fulfilled the creative, emotional, culinary, and spiritual needs of individuals while enhancing life for the larger group and impacting society beyond the group in highly positive ways. What I discovered was that it was relatively easy to create such systems, but it was almost impossible to get American people, even fairly enlightened American people, to embrace such collective living arrangements for more than a little while.

Following the failure of the various communal systems I was involved with, I was initially at a loss to explain why so many people were so fiercely resistant to communal living (or even just neighborhood sharing systems) that were so much more economical and fun than going it alone. After years of thought, I came to the conclusion that social systems based on sharing rarely succeed in America because Americans (certainly those born after 1950) are entrained from birth to think of themselves first as individuals, secondly as members of a family (a distant second), and then maybe, and only maybe, as members of a larger group. Thus our various experiments failed because successful communal systems require individuals to put the group first, at least some of the time, which is the antithesis of the American way. In short, I was trying to fit round pegs into square holes, and I, too, was one of those round pegs, especially when it came to how quickly I lost patience with my fellow humans.

I mention these communal living experiments because in thinking about the fast-approaching end of life on earth, I think I understand why we have not been willing to change our ways to slow the destruction of the biosphere. We do not inherently feel we are part of anything beyond our separate selves. But even so, had we not invented such horribly destructive industrial systems and cars and trucks and trains that run on gasoline, and had we not so grossly overpopulated the world with our kind, we might be here for another two million years. Yet those destructive systems and inventions were born of our urge for individual power and control over others, and overpopulation is a function of our unwillingness to sacrifice individual desires for the good of the larger group.

So…do you believe Guy MacPherson, that the end of life is really very near? If you do believe him, what are you going to do about it? And if you don’t believe him, why don’t you?

Meanwhile, the deer fence guys are going great guns and Marcia and Carolyn are sounding fabulous and I want so much to believe that the scientists haven’t figured everything out that mother earth might do to cool herself down, and maybe we’ve got more time than they think and maybe my friends’ children and grandchildren won’t perish too soon. I’m sixty-three, so if I die ere long I will at least have had a fairly long life, but…

This just in! A planet with conditions capable of sustaining life is orbiting a star neighboring our sun! The star, called Tau Ceti, is only twelve light years away. Quick! Ready the giant spaceship (and dub her The Ark) and load the sacred vessel with two each of…

But seriously, folks, as the rain drums on our roof, and life goes on a while longer, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem The Buddha’s Last Instruction that begins

“Make of yourself a light,”

said the Buddha,

before he died.

I think of this every morning

as the east begins

to tear off its many clouds

of darkness, to send up the first

signal—a white fan

streaked with pink and violet,

even green.

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2012)

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.

Stuff

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2012)

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Henry David Thoreau

The calendar says it is springtime, but the temperature and relentless rain say winter continues apace, this being the second year in a row that a very wet March will save Mendocino and Northern California from terrible drought. Yes, we are starved for sunlight and the woodpile is shrinking at an alarming rate, but the ongoing deluge bodes well for salmon and redwoods and huckleberries and forest frogs, so we shall not complain.

On Sunday we attended a gathering at the home of a recently deceased friend of Marcia’s, his children and grandchildren and ex-wives and friends filling his moldy old house and spilling outside to honor his memory. I was impressed by his large collection of paperback books from the 1950’s and 60’s, many of them stuck to various shelves and to each other with the mysterious glue of time. When I pulled on a volume of Kazantzakis, the book broke into several pieces, ditto a Kerouac tome, so thereafter I contented myself with reading the spines and forming an impression of the person from the books he read.

But I was most impressed by the dust that coated everything in the house and gathered in drifts in corners and indentations—dust as a measure of many years passing wherein the man left large parts of his life untouched. And I have been thinking about this dust ever since and seeing it on the surfaces of things at our house, particularly on books we will almost surely never look at again.

So on Tuesday, housebound by the pouring rain, I emerged from my den to find Marcia confronting several shelves of CDs and books in the living room, shelves of things we still love and things we once loved and things we never loved but kept because someone gave them to us or because we couldn’t think where else to put them. Now, however, inspired by the dead man’s dust and the coming of spring, we emptied the shelves, mopped up the dust, and put back only those books and recordings we wanted to keep for the next leg of our journey. The rest we will give away and never think about again.

“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin

In 1971, having only recently learned to play the guitar, I felt certain that if I could convince a record producer at Columbia or Warner Brothers to listen to me sing my jazzy folk songs I would be the next big thing—James Taylor meets Bob Dylan meets Carlos Jobim—or so I fantasized. A highly impressionable teen growing up in the San Francisco Folk Rock scene of the 1960’s, I watched dozens of obscure musicians vault from garage bands and cafés onto the world stage and saw no reason why I couldn’t achieve the same kind of success. Yes, I was delusional, but without delusions I never would have done most of the things I tried to do.

I found, however, that my ears and psyche could not tolerate Really Loud Music, so Acoustic Folk Rock became my genre. The record companies were in Los Angeles, so that’s where I went, my Aunt Dolly providing a base of operations for me in the living room of her cluttered home. For money I sought work as a gardener, papering Dolly’s neighborhood with flyers and receiving an unexpected response that created a whole new career trajectory for me.

“I don’t need a gardener,” said a woman most definitely from New York and certainly Jewish. “But I’ve got a garage full of stuff I need to sort through and my back is not so good, so…”

Elaine had a two-car garage packed to the rafters with boxes of books, clothing, barbells, golf clubs, photographs, paintings, suitcases, furniture—tons of stuff she and her deceased husband had been stacking in there and forgetting about for thirty years. Now she wanted to go through everything and see if there was anything she wanted to keep. I would carry her things out into the light of day and she would decide what would stay and what would go and what would come into the house to live with her. She paid me two-fifty-an-hour plus lunch, and I could keep anything she didn’t want.

On my second day of working for Elaine, an elderly British fellow stopped by, chatted with Elaine, and then asked me if I might do the same kind of work for him, only in his case it was an attic he wanted to explore. “More of a crawl space, actually,” he said, bowing politely. “Accessible by ladder. What’s wanted is a strong back and good balance. To bring things down and take them back up. Boxes of books mostly. Rugs. And I’m not sure what else.”

So began two months of helping elderly people sort through piles of stuff in their garages and attics and spare bedrooms, with my evenings devoted to recording songs on a neighbor’s reel-to-reel tape recorder pursuant to my becoming a rich and famous troubadour. My most profitable find in those two months of excavation was a mint condition Danny Kaye album, a massive book-like thing containing eight 78-rpm records, each in a separate sleeve. I made a trip to a famous used record store in downtown Los Angeles and sold Danny for sixty dollars! I probably could have gotten more, but sixty was a fortune to me.

The work was one part schlepping and five parts listening to the oldsters tell stories about their various things. Some people wanted to throw everything away, others were more interested in discovering what they had kept. Everyone I worked for was a unique individual, yet to me there was a sameness to everybody’s stuff, and a sameness to their feelings about the stuff—regret and annoyance larded with nostalgia. So I vowed never to accumulate more than I could carry with me on a train, even when I became famous and wealthy. So much for vows we make at twenty-two.

Miracle of miracles, I did actually talk my way into a meeting with a record producer at Columbia, a kindly longhaired guy with gold records on the walls of his office who listened patiently to three of my songs before stopping the tape player and saying, “You’ve got a beautiful voice. What say we stay in touch and see how you’re doing a couple years from now? I wish I could sign you, but you’re just learning, you know? No offense, but you need time to develop your talent. Maybe start a group. Imagine some guy with a really rough voice harmonizing with your sweet tenor. Could be great. Think about it. You’ve got potential. And I’m not just saying that.”

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Joseph Campbell

Fast-forward forty years to Todd and Marcia creating stuff we hope people will buy from us—CDs, books, and note cards—Marcia vastly more successful than I, and with far fewer products. Her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation sells like hotcakes, whereas my creations…well, let us just say that as I peruse the many boxes in my office full of my creations that hardly sell, I, too, experience regret and annoyance, but not larded with nostalgia. No, my regret and annoyance are larded with amazement at the audacity (delusion?) of hope.

Balance: a short story

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

photo by Marcia Sloane

(This story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

I was the only child of elderly parents. They both died the year before I evolved out of puberty, and I was left in the care of a diminutive maiden aunt. She had absolutely no short term memory and even less money. My bedroom was my haven, my black and white television my constant companion. I was an uninspired student, a mediocre athlete, and I think it fair to say that I had no real friends, no one to confide in, no one to discuss my fears and fantasies with.

I cannot remember when I first became aware of the feeling I am about to describe. I know that I felt it when my parents were still alive, and before I could read, which means I may have been as young as four. I suppose it is even possible that I was born feeling this way, but my memory only stretches back to my late twos, when our big dark tabby cat killed a huge rat, and I saw him eating the rodent, staining the kitchen linoleum with bright blood.

And yet, even now, after all these years of living by and for this belief, I hesitate to reveal my secret. I fear it may sound trite and stupid to you. I fear you will think it little more than a poor excuse for a life poorly lived, a delusional, idiotic notion. But I must risk your contempt. It is my duty.

All my life I have been convinced that something spectacularly good was going to happen to me, though not necessarily through any particular effort on my part. That, in a nutshell, is my system of belief.

Perhaps, from this, you will make the guess that I am a lazy person. I must admit that “lacks motivation” has appeared on every report card and job evaluation I have ever received, save for the one from Mrs. Rhodes, my fourth grade teacher, who preferred her males docile. But was it laziness that made me eschew competition for quietude, or was it my philosophy? Did I survive the first fifty-seven years of a sadly uninteresting life because almost anyone can survive fifty-seven years somehow? Or did I remain a moderate optimist, despite the grotesque redundancy of my days and months and years, because I was anticipating with ever fiber of my being an unknowable event that would set me free and allow me to become whatever I was supposed to be?

It is true that over the years I passed up several higher paying jobs because I could simply not convince myself that doing so was worth the effort of relocating or re-educating myself. I never believed I could be one of those people who succeed through hard work and purposeful determination.

I did buy lottery tickets and enter sweepstakes (if they came to me in the mail), hoping, naturally, that I would win, yet knowing all the while that the winning of money was not what awaited me. No, I was certain I was going to be given something.

I never had a vision of what that something would be, but I knew it would be incredibly good, and that once I had it, I would be content. I occasionally fantasized about fabulous gifts arriving from surprising patrons, but even the effort of fantasizing seemed futile. Go along until it happens, I told myself. Don’t look for it. You won’t know it until it falls on you. Those were the guiding slogans of my life, such as it was.

 

So, I’m walking home from my tedious, not very difficult, fairly low stress job with the telephone company. My rather drab, comfortable, average-sized one-bedroom apartment is within six blocks of the transmission facility wherein I supervise twenty-five operators and spend my copious free time reading historical romances. The day has been a day like any other, long and uneventful, save for the obstreperous old lady who threatened to unleash the forces of evil upon me if I didn’t refund the money she claimed the pay phone ate, which I did, not wanting to take any chances with the cosmic balance, in case there is one.

I am exactly one and half blocks from home and television and reheated pizza and cold beer, when I feel something click. Do you know what I mean by click? Something both inside and outside me falls absolutely and undeniably and perfectly into place—or into various places simultaneously. Click. And I know, as surely as I have ever known anything, that the universe or whatever you wish to call this dimension we inhabit, has suddenly, or finally, lined up, synchronized all its various parts, and is now ready for whatever I’ve been waiting for all my life—a fabulous feeling, like a sudden cool breeze on a blazing hot day. All my senses are heightened. My heart picks up the pace and I feel like dancing.

I arrive home. There are two police cars, lights flashing, parked in front of the Big Tree apartments, named for our two scrawny redwoods. I am greeted by my landlord, Mr. Lester, a small man with a penchant for absurdly big white belts. He is sweating profusely, his toupee slipping.

“Try to remain calm,” he says, touching my hand. “There’s been a robbery.”  He takes his hand away. “You’ve been cleaned out.”

As I make my way through the small crowd of curious onlookers, Mr. Lester calls out to me, “And they got away in your car.”

My telephone is ringing as I enter my otherwise empty apartment. The refrigerator door is open, revealing only a glaring emptiness. I find myself missing the beer more than any of my other possessions.

“Hello,” says a voice, as I pick up the phone. “This is Jenkins. Am I speaking to operator supervisor four six nine eight dash eleven seven nine six dash four one one oh one?”

“That’s me,” I reply, hearing myself as if from a great distance, realizing I must be in shock.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to break this to you so suddenly, but…”

I’ve been terminated. Twenty-nine years. Done. Major cutbacks due to competition engendered by deregulation. No desk to clean out. No security badge to return. That’s all been taken care of. They’ve changed the locks, the codes, the special procedures. Any personal belongings I may have left in the facility will be waiting for me in a brown bag at the receptionist’s desk. Thank you very much. Click. Drone. Beep beep beep.

Mr. Lester enters. “Listen,” he says, frowning at me, adjusting his wig, “I hate to do this to you, but the police feel, and I have to agree, that it’s pretty strange that only you were robbed. It’s as if you were selected for a reason. And I’m not making any assumptions, but the other tenants, as you can imagine, are very concerned, and since your lease has expired anyway, would you mind…”

I walk out into the last few moments of sunlight—jobless and homeless and without possessions. All I have are the clothes I’m wearing and the money in my…

I feel all my pockets. My wallet is gone—my identification, money, everything—gone. I remember being jostled by a slender young man in the liquor store. I had just bought a Lotto ticket.

In my confusion, it occurs to me that I have probably picked the winning numbers. The jackpot currently stands at seventy-five million dollars. But the ticket is in my wallet. My wallet is gone.

I walk down the street to the nearest pay phone. I have a friend, well, more of an acquaintance really, who might allow me to stay at his place until I can get new identification and begin collecting unemployment. I have seven cents in my pocket. I look in the change slot, hoping for a quarter. No such luck.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn. It is a policeman. He is frowning at me. “See some ID, bud?”

I begin to tell him my story. His frown deepens. “Are you saying you don’t have any ID?” he asks. “Because if you don’t…”

On the way to jail, sitting in the back seat of the police car, I try to think of someone to call for help. I can think of no close friends, no casual date, no relative, no one I am certain will help me. I have never done a consciously bad thing to anyone, but neither have I ever been much of a friend to anyone. I decide to not call anyone right away and see what happens. You might say I surrender.

I find that I don’t mind my night in jail. No one tries to hurt me, the food is edible, and the bed has a new mattress, much firmer than the one I had at the place I so recently called home. I sleep like a babe and wake up refreshed. My sense that everything is in place and ready for spectacular change is more tangible than ever. I thrill from head to toe when they unlock my cell and lead me down the hall.

I am brought into a room and told to walk out on a narrow stage with four other men. A glaring white light shining in our eyes makes it impossible to see who or what is in the audience.

“That’s him,” someone says. “Number four.”

I am taken to another building. The guard treats me roughly. He shoves me into a dark cell. I ask to make my phone call now. He ignores me. I shout at him, protesting my innocence. He continues to ignore me. I panic and call him a filthy name. He opens my door and hits my arm with his club. The pain is greater than anything I have ever experienced. I decide not to make a fuss.

A few hours later, I am taken out of the cell and shoved along a narrow hallway to a small, stuffy room. I am left in the company of three unsmiling detectives. One of them asks me if I know why I’m here. I begin to tell my story, expecting to be interrupted, but they listen to me until I can think of nothing more to say. They look at each other, communicating in a strange silent way that reminds me of something out of a horror movie. One of them clears his throat and asks me where I was on such and such a night.

“Home watching television, most likely,” I reply, shrugging. “That’s what I do every night, except…”

“Except what?”

“Volleyball nights at the Y.”

“And what nights of the week would that be?”

“Tuesday and Friday,” I say, suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that without volleyball nights at the Y, I would have no social life whatsoever.

“This was a Wednesday,” says one of the men. “The night we’re interested in was a Wednesday.”

“Well, then…television,” I say, hearing how terribly sad I sound.

“Any witnesses to that?” asks another of the men.

“I live alone.”

The words reverberate in the empty chambers of my heart. I live alone. I am alone. I have always been alone. I have never known how not to be alone. Is this so strange? Am I a human aberration? Or am I more typical than any of us cares to admit? Am I not quite normal? Am I not Everyman, minus a few special acquaintances, a disenchanted wife, an alien child or two?

I open myself to the silent communication of my interrogators. I hear the hum of their desire. I hear gears meshing, teeth gnashing, bile gurgling. They are in no way concerned with my innocence or guilt. They are hungry for my death. I am a solitary rat in a dirty little corner of modern times. They are a gang of alley cats. They only know how to do one thing.

My court appointed attorney, a sweaty little man who resembles my ex-landlord to an annoying degree, tries to convince me to plead insanity.

“To what?” I ask. “They never did tell me what I was charged with.”

“Well…murder,” he says, frowning at my file. “Two people. It says here you practically confessed.”

I go into deep shock. My attorney summons a guard and I am taken to the infirmary where I am given an anti-shock shot. I fall into a deep sleep and dream I am standing on the threshold of the place where something spectacularly good is about to happen to me. I stand on the threshold for the entire dream and wake up sick as a dog, my legs aching, my head about to explode.

Two days later, at our next meeting, my attorney once again begs me to plead insanity. “The evidence,” he explains, “is overwhelming.”

Eye witnesses, massive circumstantial evidence, no alibi, no character references, no job, no home, a desperate situation, a motive.

“What motive?” I ask, coming out of my latest stupor.

“You’re penniless, homeless, bereft. You feel that society is responsible for your misery and so you decided to strike back.”

“No!” I scream. “I was happy for the first time in my life. Everything was finally, once and for all, perfectly arranged for the occurrence of spectacular good. I was in a state of pure bliss.”

“So you did it for the thrill,” he whispers. “I thought so.”

The judge rolls his eyes and the prosecuting attorneys snicker at each other when I announce my intention to defend myself. But I am determined to tell my story. I honestly feel that only I can do justice to the details of my life. I am determined to prove to the jury that I am not only sane and innocent, but that our so-called society is breaking down and they are all in as much danger as I am of losing their lives.

I am given six weeks to prepare my case. I write and rewrite the story of my life. I state and restate the philosophy that has guided me all these uneventful years. I practice in front of my cellmate until he asks to be transferred to another cell. I know that my coming moment in the spotlight is not the spectacular good awaiting me, but I am beginning to think my defense may lead me to that long awaited moment. I realize I am on the verge of modifying my belief system, of taking my actions seriously. The proximity of doom is a powerful agent of change.

I am eloquent. I am impassioned. I remind myself of every great attorney I have ever seen in a movie or on television, only I am even better because I am three dimensional. I move the jurors to tears.

I am sentenced to death.

But still, still, I do not doubt that very soon, a truly great good thing will happen to me.

In my cell on death row, I find it impossible, for the first time in my life, to watch television. But the moment I make the decision to have the set removed from my cell, I become suicidal.

Four months and three days before the date of my execution, I have my first session with a therapist, a Freudian. Two days later, I request a Jungian. Two weeks later, I wake up from a vivid dream and am shocked to find that I am in prison, on death row, awaiting my grossly premature death. I understand myself too well now for this to be a reasonable way to spend this brief flickering we call human existence. I try to harmonize my lifelong beliefs with the coming of my death, but all I get is atonal dribble.

I recall the story of Job and the stories of Kafka. I think of archetypes and heroes and the three times in my life when I turned down the opportunity to have sex with really terrific women. I think of black men lynched for being black, Jews slaughtered for being Jews, wars being waged for corporate gain, and me, a passive white man being murdered for being a passive white man with no alibis and a belief in something other than a vengeful God.

I begin to dream of escaping. But in these dreams escape is always secondary to where I escape to. I invariably find myself in an alpine meadow, hiking uphill toward the summit of a snow-covered peak. I have a child on my back and he or she is whispering in my ear.

Two months to go. I attack a guard in an attempt to actualize my dreams—the first overtly aggressive act of my life. I am severely beaten and thrown into a lightless confinement cell. After three weeks of near total sensory deprivation, I begin to believe that maybe I did murder those two people, whoever they were. I know I did not, I know I have never broken a law, but the brutality and senselessness of my ordeal demands of my wounded psyche that it come up with a reason for this hellish turn of events. Surely, a voice cries within me, torture and death are not prerequisites to the happiness we have postponed for so many years.

Two weeks to go. I am on the verge of accepting that I am insane. I am sticky with the feeling that my twenty-nine years with the phone company was all a vividly boring hallucination. What if my lack of ambition and my absolute belief in impending spectacular goodness is nothing more than a misfiring synapse in an otherwise perverse and murderous brain? What if I am a murderer? What if I only know the very surface of things seen on television?

I ask to go to the library. I am escorted there by two heavily armed guards. The selection is small. I close my eyes, reach out, and touch the spine of a small book. It is an account of the life and trial of Joan of Arc.

The day of my execution arrives. Joan is with me now, not so much in me, but riding lightly on my shoulder. She gives me good courage. I feel, as a matter of fact, quite calm.

And yes, it occurs to me that death may be that spectacular good I have been awaiting, that my moment of release will be the best thing that ever happened to me in my otherwise unnecessary existence. But I still don’t believe I’m going to die. I continue to believe in…well, divine intervention.

The warden arrives to tell me that my request for a pardon from the governor has been denied. For some reason, this doesn’t surprise or upset me.

A priest is admitted to my cell. We are left alone, the door closed. This is unusual, but I don’t question it. I surrender. I give myself, body and soul, to the glorious principles of Universe.

The priest is a terribly skinny man with sunken cheeks. He does not look at all well. He asks me to confess. I tell him I am not a Catholic. He asks me to confess anyway. I tell him everything I just told you, only in much greater detail. I lose all sense of time. The past and present merge.

At the end of my story, the priest smiles faintly and says, “We thought so. Our evidence corroborates everything you’ve just told me.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, the back of my neck tingling.

“I mean that we have known of your innocence all along,” he explains, coughing into a handkerchief.

He shows me the handkerchief. It is stained with blood.

Quickly, he explains that he belongs to a secret organization fighting inhumanity and needless violence around the world. He has been chosen, because he is about to die of an incurable disease, to die in my place. We exchange clothes. He gives me his realistic fake moustache and heavy framed dark glasses. Before I leave the cell, he tells me exactly what to say and when and where to say it. We embrace, and in our embrace I feel the first stirrings of love.

Moments later, I am outside the prison walls, opening the door of a late model car. As I roll along the highway, making sure not to speed, I activate the tape player.

“Welcome. It is our pleasure to save you. You will find your new identification, a valid passport and one million Swiss francs in unmarked bills in the glove compartment, along with a first class airline ticket to Zurich. Don’t worry. All will be well.”

I drive to the airport, park the car, check my suitcase, and make my way to the departure gate. My reservation is confirmed. I am handed a boarding pass. I walk down the sloping hallway to the softly purring jet. I take my spacious window seat in the first class section, and buckle my safety belt, though I have every reason to believe I won’t need it.

How do I feel? I feel fantastic, swollen with life. Everything I see is sharply focused. Every sound is rich with meaning. Every moment is bursting with opportunity. I am free of the doubt that enslaved me. Every moment is now.

 

 

Falling Behind

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become a mediocre company.” Bill Gates

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing career, commercially speaking, was turning steeply downward, my third-rate Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages; and people seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change the messages because they never wanted to hear them again. So I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days; and then people complained I was erasing really good messages before their friends got to hear them. Thus art mirrored life.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral even existed. I’m speaking about a time before the advent of the interweb, which was not very long ago but seems prehistoric. If I still had that particular outgoing message and put it on YouTube today as the soundtrack to beautiful scantily clad women dancing on the beach or swimming in lagoons or sprawling on bearskin rugs or walking through sun-dappled forests, I have no doubt my message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from all the hits and links and apps and downloads from clouds and kindles and everywhere.

Sadly, I only remember the feeling of the message, not the words. The feeling was of being exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which was telling an entrancing story or expressing some deeply satisfying feeling or describing a most delicious way of being—something so alluring that the caller was overcome with a full body sensation of life being a lovely adventure, a sexy samba on a warm summer day, and that their calling me and listening to my message was exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Yes! The experience of listening to my message was a holy act, a miraculous give-and-take, a blessing, a multi-dimensional, emotionally, physically, and spiritually fulfilling orgasm free of even the slightest attachment to outcome or length or reason. Hallelujah!

I got hundreds of calls. Telephone calls. Not emails or hits or links. I’m talking about actual human beings calling my number and listening to my message—hundreds of people from all over America and around the world. Friends told friends and their friends told their friends, and so on. A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated as, “I am so very much wanting to have the child you are the father.” Another call came from a bunch of people having a party in England, and after hearing my message they applauded and shouted “Bravo!” Calls came from bars and cafés all over America and Canada where the callers held the phones up so everyone in those joints could listen and respond. I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words, their order and tone and cadence, made people laugh and cry and rejoice. Some people left delightful replies—impromptu poems full of love and hope that brought tears to my eyes. I tell you, that message was an elixir, a salve, and a great big answer to the gigantic question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger of a message on my answering machine for months until one day a friend who had heard that psalm too many times said, “Enough already,” and I hit the Erase button. Honestly, I had no idea what I was erasing because I had not listened to the blessed thing since the moment, all those weeks and months before, when I hit the Record button and fell into a reverie from which flowed those now forgotten words.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

My wife Marcia and I are both self-employed and have web sites whereon we display our wares and talents in hopes of enticing people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs two chamber music camps each year for adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her marvelous camps and sells her CDs and sheet music. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD that has sold three thousand hard copies and is being downloaded at an enviable rate each month, I being the envious one. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to new customers. She also sells her album of wonderful cello-centric songs Skyward, sheet music of her original compositions, and three CDs she’s made with her husband Todd (that would be moi).

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell my books, music CDs, story CDs, birthday cards, and cards and posters of my zany paintings. Visitors can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) for free, and sample tunes from my albums. My most successful creation, commercially speaking, is the lovely little hardbound book (signed by the author) Buddha In A Teacup (just ten bucks!) I am currently most enamored of my solo piano CDs and dream of one day rivaling Marcia’s enviable download business, though for now I’m thrilled when I make .0013 cents from someone in Poughkeepsie taking a listen on Napster.

And, yes, my previous experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering machine message and a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again. My new CD Mystery Inventions, piano and bass duets, for instance, might be just the creation that inspires those hits to keep on coming. Or not.

So…from what I’ve just said you might get the impression we’re a fairly techno-savvy household. In truth, Marcia is a computer enthusiast and gets better at cyber software stuff all the time. I, on the other hand, am a technophobe. Even simple procedures involving software are to me as Everest is to one with high blood pressure. After nearly thirty years of owning a personal computer, the contraption remains for me little more than a typewriter with a screen, a way to send and get mail, and a pseudo-television for watching sports highlights and movie previews—all else digital is baffling to me.

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.” E.F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful

So yesterday I’m reading the newspaper, the actual paper, not a projection, and I come to an article the likes of which I usually skip, an article about a man who has an app design software company that is growing so fast he just rented another 150,000 square feet of office space in the hottest sector of downtown San Francisco, and he thinks he’ll quadruple that space by year’s end.

I could not understand anything this man said or anything he is reputed to have done. He said that twelve million people have downloaded one of his apps that empowers them to paint on their cell phones, thus “unleashing an avalanche of pent up creativity.” Twelve million people are painting on their cell phones? Are they finger painting? What does a painting made on a tiny screen look like? Then the guy goes on to say that everything he and anyone in the know are doing today is “all about the cloud.” The cloud. I’ve heard about this cloud, some sort of virtually unlimited cyber space computing zone making possible the instantaneous transfer of jillions of bytes of digital information per nanosecond times a jillion squared. This cloud, according to this billionaire cyber wizard, “will unleash the creative potential of humanity.”

And my gut reaction to that is, “I hope so, but I doubt it.”


Money Ball (Love)

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Something marvelously strange is going on with my San Francisco Giants. For the first time since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds, the dead wood has been greatly minimized, money is being spent to retain talent, and it appears management may actually try to win the whole enchilada. The odds are greatly against such a grandiose finale to a season yet to be played, but this is the first time since 2003, the year after we last went to the World Series, that there have been any odds at all. These last six seasons have been less about rebuilding and more of a sports version of Waiting For Godot, as in waiting for the second coming of Willie Mays as we plumb the depths of the existential conundrum: is baseball metaphoric of an intrinsically meaningless or meaningful life?

But enough about Samuel Beckett, our fat cat owners are actually paying Tim Lincecum twenty-three million dollars to start sixty-five games or so over the next two years. That’s approximately three hundred and fifty thousand dollars per game or about three grand per pitch. Tim is twenty-five years old. Can you imagine what you would have done with twenty-three million dollars when you were twenty-five? Or with three million? Or even with three hundred thousand? I hope I would have been smart enough to buy a farm, but something tells me I would have blown it making a movie. If someone offered me twenty-three million today (or three million or three hundred thousand) I know just what I’d do with it, as soon as I find my reading glasses and that list I made.

Why this sudden loosening of the Giants’ corporate purse strings? My theory, somewhat convoluted, is as follows. Despite our losing ways, our wonderful new ballpark by the glittering bay has been such a fabulous cash cow and tourist attraction that our owners felt no pressing need to field a particularly upscale team. This is a variant on the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If making money is their primary goal (and it obviously is) the owners were winning even when the team lost. But last year, for the first time since the new park opened, the cow began producing noticeably less cash. For several years now good pitching alone has kept us from abysmal failure in the weakest division in baseball, but last year (never mind Lincecum’s second Cy Young Award) the crowds began to dwindle. The team couldn’t hit or run and management wouldn’t spend a fat dime to buy us a couple bats; and then the economy tanked and the specter of a half-empty ballpark loomed for the coming season.

Combine this specter with a resurgence of the other teams in our division, and the money boys decided it was time to spend some cash to field a winner, because winners fill seats and pitching alone won’t hack it anymore. And since it is a sure bet our owners gained greatly from the recent economic hijinks that have hurt so many Giants fans below them on the slopes of the pyramid, our owners have plenty of cash to spend.

That’s my theory: a confluence of economic factors necessitating infrastructure upgrade combined with the unfathomable workings of a mysterious universe. Now I’m not saying I think we’re going to win it all this season. Indeed, my linear logical brain doubts very much we’ll even win the division. But we have a chance, and a chance is an exciting thing for a fan weary of starring in Waiting For Willie.

And the other thing I want to say about the upcoming season is this. I know a woman of ninety-six who told me that had the Giants won it all in 2002 she would have allowed herself to die. She was ready to go. Her bags were packed, so to speak. We were three outs away from winning the World Series for the first time since 1954. And then we lost. And in that painful moment this woman knew she would have to stay alive. This is a gal who listens to every game, including every game of spring training. She refers to the players and the announcers and the coaches by their first names. They are, as far as she’s concerned, her family. She is blind, so she can only listen to the games. When the Giants win, she is cheerful. When they lose, she is cranky for an hour or so, then she stows her disappointment and gets ready for tomorrow.

She was not a fan of baseball until she married in her late twenties. She and her husband attended many games at Candlestick and watched or listened to every game together for forty years. Her husband died thirty years ago, but she says he is with her still for every game. When I last saw her, she said she thought this might be our year.

“The boys are entering their prime,” she said, nodding confidently. “You can hear the maturity in Matt’s voice, Tim so confident now. I’m glad Juan came back. He comes through more times than not. And Pablo is starting to show some patience at the plate. John sounds more upbeat about the team than I’ve heard him sound in a long time. I don’t think they’re going to settle for almost again.”

“And if we win it all?”

She smiled and whispered, “My work will be done.”

Ah beautiful irrational hope. Let’s play ball!

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. His audio books are available from Audible.com.

I Will Play Chico

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I Will Play Chico

a cinematic poem

I want to make a movie, a modern variant of the Marx Brothers.

My brother will play Groucho, you will play Harpo, and I will

play Chico. The movie is a classic comedy mystery chase love

story. We race around being ourselves in myriad situations—

basketball games, delicatessens, hardware stores, museums

pizza parlors, schools, post offices, gas stations, taquerias,

coffee houses, traffic jams, ice cream parlors, prisons,

art galleries, trains, psychotherapists’ offices, hotels

noodle joints, laundromats, sporting goods stores,

bistros, police stations, zoos, churches, houses,

hotels, corporate headquarters, jungles—

and everywhere we go we encounter

men who are so outraged by our

being ourselves they will stop

at nothing to try to kill us.

Now and then during the movie we take time out from being

pursued by these outraged men to perform for gleeful

audiences of women and children and a few unusual

men who are not enraged by our being ourselves;

and during these breaks in the chase, I play

the piano, you play the harp, and my

brother strums a ukulele. We read

poems, sing soulful songs, tell

funny, poignant stories, and

paint lovely pictures of a

tender new society free

of cruelty and jealousy.

In the end we are captured and jailed and charged with

the crime of being ourselves. The trial takes place in a

spooky courtroom presided over by a judge wearing

a mask and hood. We are sentenced to death and

are about to be executed when all the women

and children and a few unusual men we’ve

met along our way rise up to save us.

And in a fabulous song and dance

finale, the men who wanted to kill

us for being ourselves wake from

their trances and understand

that without us they would

have nothing to hope for.

Todd Walton