Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

Pollination

Monday, February 13th, 2017

winter mint

Winter Mint photo by Todd

“When the flower blossoms, the bee will come.” Srikumar Rao

Well, maybe not. With bee populations in decline worldwide and the so-called civilized world in no hurry to eliminate the known causes of these precipitous declines, more and more flowers are going unvisited by those faithful little pollinators.

Fear not. Scientists in Japan recently tested miniature drones equipped with sticky tendrils and were successful in transferring pollen from one flower to another with the little robot copters. Soon, say these triumphant scientists, orchards and vineyards and backyards will be abuzz, so to speak, with millions of little hovering robots doing the work bees used to do.

Somehow I am not reassured. Why not just stop producing and dispensing the pesticides and herbicides known to be decimating bee populations? A silly question, I know. Kin to asking: why not stop producing and dispensing the substances known to cause global warming? The answers are the same. To stop producing pesticides and greenhouse gases would be unprofitable in the short term for the huge corporations who have more power than nations.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Albert Einstein

We recently watched the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. This movie turns out to be a perfect Trump-era movie, for it is about a not-very-bright narcissist with no talent and too much money, and the people who feed off her. I was hoping for something to take my mind off of the over-arching stupidity and insensitivity of the new regime, yet found I was watching a goofy and pathetic drama based on that same kind of stupidity and insensitivity.

For me to enjoy a movie, I must care about at least one of the main characters, and preferably all of them. In the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, I cared about no one and wondered why anyone would want to make a movie about such shallow and uninspiring people, unless it was to demonstrate that much of our culture is deformed by the machinations of such dreadful people.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

Just for fun, I tried to imagine explaining to Donald Trump about declining bee populations, but in every imagined scenario, he kept interrupting to say, “That’s not true. There are plenty of bees.”

I recently saw a film clip of Donald addressing a group of law enforcement officials and telling them the murder rate in America is at an all-time high, though the FBI recently reported the murder rate is at an all-time low. Whenever he is asked about disparities between his claims and the claims of researchers and scientists and government agencies, Donald likes to say we’re not hearing the truth because the media won’t report the truth.

What makes this extra confusing is that the media frequently does not report the truth, so Donald is correct in saying so, but the media does report everything Donald says, whether true or not, and then some parts of the media try to decipher which part of what Donald said was the truth and which part was not true. In the end, vast swaths of media time are filled with this nonsense, all of which adds up to little or nothing, but does leave us mentally exhausted and feeling as if we are trapped in an absurdist nightmare written by Ionesco.

There was something absurd and pathetic about Florence Foster Jenkins, and there is definitely something absurd about the reign of Trump, though it is now obvious that Trumpian absurdity is intended to keep us from paying attention to those men behind the curtains pulling all the important strings the media so rarely tells the truth about.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, Florence’s sycophants spend most of their energies handpicking the audiences for her truly terrible singing performances so no one will guffaw and point and say, “The emperor is a talentless buffoon.” But in the end, the truth about Florence is revealed to the world via a newspaper review and Florence is crushed.

Alas, the truth never seems to dent Trump, let alone crush him, but washes over him like gentle rain and only seems to make him more certain that whatever he says is brilliant and right on key.

Going Bananas

Monday, February 6th, 2017

going bananas

Going Bananas photo by Todd

In Woody Allen’s movie Bananas, one of Woody’s earlier, funnier films, there is a scene in which the leader of a successful rebellion in a banana republic becomes the new dictator and decrees that henceforth everyone must wear underwear on top of their clothes instead of under their clothes. Watching their leader make this mad decree causes Woody and another of the victorious rebels to finally realize their leader has gone mad with power.

I thought of this scene today when I read one of President Trump’s recent executive decrees. To wit: any federal agency wanting to institute a new regulation must simultaneously revoke two existing regulations. If you want to make it illegal for companies to dump toxic chemicals in rivers, then you must revoke the ban on dumping toxic chemicals in the ocean and in the air.

Another movie that comes to mind at this zany time in our nation’s history is the 1992 Eddie Murphy flick The Distinguished Gentleman. Eddie plays a two-bit thief elected to Congress through an unlikely fluke. When he arrives in Washington, he knows nothing about how government works, but finding he has landed among others of his ilk—criminals—he is soon raking in money from amoral lobbyists and corporate vampires. Since this is a Hollywood comedy and not reality, Eddie’s character is eventually won over by a gorgeous woman with righteous values, starts doing good things for regular folk, clashes with the forces of evil, and prevails. But it is the lead up to his conversion from criminality to decency that gives the movie its zing of veracity.

Then there is the Kevin Kline movie of 1993, Dave, about a nice guy named Dave who has a side job impersonating the President of the United States. Through a fluke even more preposterous than the fluke that gets Eddie Murphy’s character elected to Congress, Dave becomes President of the United States, sort of. The corruption and dastardliness of Washington politics are revealed, and Dave eventually does the right thing after haplessly aiding and abetting the bad guys.

These movies are wishful fantasies about decency and kindness and justice triumphing over greed and avarice and criminality. In reality, emotionally damaged narcissists who rise to power in American politics do not suddenly change their tunes and become decent generous empathic people. They stay damaged and greedy and wreak havoc on our society and our world until they get too old to keep wreaking havoc or until someone or something dethrones them.

“There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

My brother sent the following yesterday. “I watch the news now as if I am back in the Roman Empire, and yes, we have another psychotic, psychopathic Emperor, so let’s see how this one gets taken down, by whom, and after how much harm to everything and everyone else. He certainly has surrounded himself with some of the most openly evil and openly hateful humans ever. The mini-series about the Trump presidency will have SO many parts for sleazy-looking actors.”

Sixty-two million people voted for Trump, so we must assume several million people are thrilled by how things are going so far. I don’t personally know anyone thrilled by what Trump is doing, but yesterday in the Harvest parking lot I happened to walk by just as two burly men emerged from twin gargantuan pickup trucks, greeted each other with High Fives and big grins, and one of them cried, “Old Donny Boy is kicking ass now.” And his cohort shouted, “Yee haw!”

Old Donny Boy? How about Crazy-Person-In-Chief?

Meanwhile, life goes on. The post office is still operating, correct postage propels letters and packages across the country and around the world, the ATM machine at the bank still provides cash for seemingly solvent people, the grocery store still sells food, restaurants still serve meals, beer still flows from taps at the pub, and gasoline remains under three dollars a gallon.

Marcia and I went for a stroll on Big River Beach today, the sun muted by dense incoming fog, the landscape of huge logs and driftwood on the wide expanse of beach much changed by the rain-swollen river in collaboration with super high tides. I happened to be on the beach eleven years ago, my first winter as a Mendocino resident, when a giant redwood trunk, sixty-feet-long and eight-feet-in-diameter came floating down the river and eventually landed near the stairs leading up from the beach to the Presbyterian.

That mighty log stayed there by the stairs, sinking ever deeper in the sand every year for eleven years. Then just last week, the river joined forces with massive storm waves to dislodge the huge log and relocate it some hundreds of feet to the east atop a crest of sand.

The seemingly unmovable has been moved. Something that seemed unchangeable has changed. And this is how I’m experiencing, so far, the reign of Donald Trump, however short or long his reign turns out to be. His madness, characterized by greed and avarice and racism and sexism and ignorance, is a mighty storm that will dramatically change the political landscape of America and the world.

Should we survive his mad attempts to undermine the Constitution and revoke the basic rights of the citizenry, will we elect better people to represent us? Or will we embrace the slightly less crazy people and terrible ideas that brought us to this historic embarrassment: the enthronement of an angry child who knows almost nothing about anything, trapped in the body of a man who has never known the slightest inconvenience, let alone hunger and poverty and discrimination?

Gene and Grandma

Monday, September 12th, 2016

andmischief

Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Coup

Monday, June 20th, 2016

i've been waiting for the sun tw

I’ve Been Waiting For the Sun painting by Nolan Winkler

“If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.” Oscar Wilde

I think it is important to view the Bernie Sanders saga in the context of the larger takeover of our society and our government and our psyches that began in earnest in the 1970s and was vastly accelerated by the enthronement of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980.

True, our society and government were heavily influenced by the wealthy elite from the moment our nation was founded, but the Great Depression and FDR modified that influence tremendously, and thereby ushered in a social and cultural renaissance that peaked in the 1970s when the corporate oligarchy began to take the requisite steps to wrest complete control again. Every President of the United States since Reagan has obediently carried out the agenda of the corporate overlords.

I published my first novel in 1978 at the close of the era of independent publishers. From my point of view, the corporate takeover of publishing and the movie industry at that time were key steps in stifling dissent and preparing the population for submission to corporate rule. I worked very hard to break into publishing, only to watch in horrified fascination as virtually overnight, teams of politically conservative anti-creative money crunchers replaced the most creative and open-minded people in every large publishing house in America.

The first order of business for these anti-creative teams was the firing of any innovative editors, many of them middle-aged, who believed it was their purpose in life to find new and original voices to bring into the cultural matrix. In the movie industry, similar house cleaning took place, with innovation and counter-culture ideas verboten.

Whenever several corporations take over entire industries, corporate consolidation of that industry inevitably follows, and within a decade after the initial takeovers, a few massive corporations owned all previously freestanding publishers, all the movie studios, and eventually most of the mainstream media outlets: newspapers, television networks, and radio stations.

Simultaneously, our public schools were being gutted and turned into pseudo jails, citizens who could afford to would send their children to private schools, and our universities became little more than conduits for the best and the brightest to find their places in the corporate machinery that was quickly taking hold of every aspect of our lives.

Without a vibrant creative culture, the collective imagination withers, and this withering makes for dull minds, and dull minds cannot discern truth from falsity, nor can dull minds raise children capable of discerning truth from falsity. This, in my opinion, is the context in which the Bernie Sanders saga must be viewed.

“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end…but not necessarily in that order.” Jean-Luc Godard

A few weeks ago, Marcia and I were walking along Albion Street in Mendocino on a windy evening, our stomachs full of excellent food from the Mendocino Café, when I espied a crimson geranium plant lying by the side of the road, leaves and flower clusters wilting, a tangle of roots spread out on the ground like the tentacles of a dying octopus.

I picked up the beautiful plant, soon we were home, and I planted the dying geranium in a big pot already containing a recently transplanted rose bush. I gave those withered roots a big drink of water, and for the next few days babied the plant until some of her leaves began to show signs of revival. I pruned off those branches and flowers that were clearly not going to survive, and now we have a spectacular blood-red geranium as companion to an equally spectacular pink geranium gifted us by our neighbor Marion.

“Remember, the music is not in the piano.” Clement Mok

So we live in a country that purports to be a democracy, and is certainly not. We live in a country where elections are now routinely rigged. We live in a country that is the home base of a huge and aggressive military-industrial complex that perpetuates war in order to perpetuate itself. We live in a country that has a government serving the interests of a small percentage of the population at the expense of a large percentage of the population. And we live in a country that is the leading cause of the demise of the entire biosphere.

What can we do to counter these truths about the country where we live? I think Bernie Sanders’ campaign provides an answer, though his campaign is not the answer. His campaign has lasted one year. In that short time, he galvanized tens of millions of people to give him money and support his candidacy. He harnessed the enormous desire in the population to take back our government from the corporate oligarchs.

But we the people don’t just want an honest government; we want a decent society and a vibrant culture. And those are things we might create without the influence of corrupt government. Imagine a hundred million Sanders supporters boycotting movies and television shows that promote violence. Imagine a hundred million Sanders supporters working to institute Single Payer Healthcare state by state. Imagine those Sanders supporters actively and rigorously supporting local businesses instead of out-of-town corporations. Imagine a hundred million Sanders supporters striving to use public transportation instead of cars.

Part of why the corporate oligarchy never greatly feared Bernie Sanders or his followers is that they thought we were not going to do much more than support Bernie and hope he would win and do all sorts of wonderful things for us, rather than start doing wonderful things whether Bernie won or not.

Smart phones are portable computerized televisions that tether us to the corporate system. Unless we are willing, en masse, to change our lives so we are not servile users of the system, we will never have a Bernie Sanders become the leader of this nation. Bernie Sanders proved there are many people who want big changes. But he has yet to prove there are many people willing to make big changes.

Shortly after the anti-creative corporations took over the book publishers and the movie studios, the collective imagination began to wither.

The Source

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

 The Source Cropped

Snail Mail photo by Yogini Lena

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

“The fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” Vincent Van Gogh

Every now and again I will come across an article or a documentary or a book about an artist no one ever heard of until that artist died and it was discovered she left behind paintings or drawings or sculptures or musical compositions or novels or poems or mathematical equations or architectural designs hailed by some authority or another as works of towering genius. This kind of art is nowadays referred to as Outsider Art, which I think is a silly name for the work of artists who are anonymous while they’re alive, either by choice or through the exigencies of fate, since that definition includes nearly all the artists there have ever been or ever will be—outsiders.

And just what are these creative people outside of? This is a good time of year to be asking that question, as we are in the thick of the annual awards season, when members of our tiny cultural elite give each other awards for being members of the tiny cultural elite that jealously guard and control the spigots of what most people in our culture watch and read and listen to. Those who win Oscars and Pulitzers and Golden Globes and Grammys and Emmys and Tony’s and MacArthurs are the visible insiders, and they owe their memberships in that exclusive club to the less visible but much more powerful members of the ruling elite. Everyone else is an outsider.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve known many writers and artists and musicians in my sixty-four years of stumbling around, and though I cannot prove scientifically with double binding cross lateral placebo control group studies what I am about to aver, I know this to be absolutely true: insiders imitate, outsiders innovate. Which is not to say innovators don’t become insiders—they do. And then, no matter how hard they resist the ferocious forces governing the inside, they become imitators of themselves or imitators of other insiders—the only cure a return to the outside.

“So impossible

The odds against it

Too high and yet

We must feel free to do with it

Whatever we can, for laughs

or for serious” Philip Whalen

Once upon a time a long time ago I’m minding around sitting my own business when I get a call from Crazy Cat, and I mean in-and-out-of-mental-hospitals-on-a-semi-regular-basis Crazy Cat, and he says, “Tawd, I got this space, man, a big space, a huge space, a magic space, a miracle, you’ll see, and I want to put on a show, you know, poets and musicians, and Larry and Lisa said they’ll paint a huge like backdrop of stars and unicorns and shit with glow-in-black-light paint, and Tim said he can light the place like Las Vegas, you know, neon tubes and spotlights and sparklers, and Twilby said he’ll do the sound with those same gigantic speakers he used for the famous concert he did at the Esquire, and Margot is jazzed out of her mind about running some modern dance between the readers, and Eric and Gino and Jessica said they’d play music all fuckin’ night, and the only thing is…I kinda already told everybody you were doing the show, and they said if you were doing the show they would definitely do it, too, and so I kinda already printed up the posters and put them up around town and put your name at the top so…”

Now I had told this Flipped Out Feline if he ever did this kind of thing to me again I would not only boycott the show, I would call every peep he used my name to con (because I am known hereabouts to have a verifiable fan base numbering well over three) and blow the whistle on his crazy ass…but for some unforeseen undoubtedly mystical reason at that particular moment on that particular day I was feeling especially outside of everything including myself, you know, and feeling gruesomely grim about the dearth of original anything in our kicked-to-shit culture, and I was longing for some kind of zany collaborative improvisational happening to lift my suicidal gloom, so I say to Crazy Cat, “Okay, I’ll do it, you sneaky lunatic, but we have to meet right now and put a stop to you promising every cock and pussy you meet star billing on a roster that by now may number in the dozens.”

I take a quick shower and dress in artfully stained blue jeans and a Ludwig Von Hendrix T-shirt (pink with red lettering) and try not to think about the last time this psycho duped me into headlining a happening in an underground garage we absolutely packed with hundreds of peeps ready to partake of the random ferment of artists chosen by dumb luck to strut their stuff when Crazy Cat took the stage before anybody else had a chance, and he snarled so ingloriously for such a murderously long time about the genius of his penis and his intimate relationship (on the astral plane) with Kerouac and Ginsberg and Marilyn Monroe that those hundreds ran away like someone had set the place on fire with noxious gas.

And if not for the intercession of Crazy Cat’s insanely cute intelligent gorgeously ultra-reasonable girlfriend Kitty (why was she with that maniac?) I would have slugged that crazy jerk just so I could say, “And then I slugged that crazy jerk!” But Kitty purred me out of my violent impulse with paragraphs of libido-tickling innuendo and actually made a viable case that Crazy Cat’s garage-emptying diatribe might have been culturally significant, however immeasurable, and there was no telling what kind of poetry and music and new thinking his outburst inspired (subtext: please imagine sex with me, frequently and deeply satisfyingly, okay? Okay!)

So we meet at the Big Buzz Bistro, Crazy Cat unshaven, unwashed, and ugly as sin, Kitty clothed in a pleasingly prurient purple paisley cleavage-celebrating dress clinging to her every glorious curve, and we drink lattes out of huge green bowls and get so high I’m sure the barista must have spiked my java with at least cocaine and maybe opium, and with Kitty taking notes in a gigantic sketchpad full of superb Renoir-like nudes she’s drawn of men and women and women and women, her postmodern handwriting maddeningly abstract yet entirely readable, we design the show and I have Crazy Cat sign in blood that he will perform dead last and I retain the right to kill him before during and after the show for any reason whatsoever and he waives his right to haunt me in perpetuity etc.

Then we go to the huge old warehouse that Crazy Cat scored for the happening, a former hotrod hangar smelling vaguely of motor oil and not so vaguely of wino piss and we walk around in a state of wonder, for truly this is the Sistine Cavern of the Forgotten Grandchildren of the Lost Beatnik Tribes of Brooklyn, and we are Diaghilev and Barnum and Colette imagining the divine transformation with a soundtrack by Miles and Cannonball and Satie, and I envision the baby grand bathed in a baby blue spotlight as I appear in a baby turquoise T-shirt and baggy black corduroys and red ballet slippers, adjusting the piano bench to fit my tush while a big silver potato of a microphone descends from the rafters on a silver chain glittering in the soft white spot that frames the poets I accompany with quietly tasty noodling.

And after weeks of honing the unhonable, the mythic night of nights finally arrives as fierce winds howl and shake the roof of the old hangar mobbed with ugly beautiful young old hip square white black brown stoned drunk straight lucid sad happy crazy good souls yearning for even just a phrase of inspired something to hang onto as they make their way through yet another tomorrow on the battlefield of what who where why how will we find our way to love? And will she be waiting? How will he know me? How will I know her? Etc. And most important: will we be brave enough to fight through those bloody roadblocks of self-doubt and dare to say to whomsoever it may concern, “You! Yes you! Wanna dance?”

Afterwards in the wreckage of whatever we did, our collective heart dancing to an irresistible bossa nova beat, scores of peeps hurrying home to get laid with the fantabulous energy of what just transpired, and with our ideas of the possible expanded way beyond our ideas of the possible, Kitty more beautiful than (name your favorite goddess) is packing up her flashlights and ukulele and harmonica and tambourine and masks of comedy and tragedy and making ready to leave with Crazy Cat though I know she’s gotta love me more, I ask her, “Why you going home with him and not with me?”

To which she replies in a husky honeyed voice that makes me love dizzy every time she speaks, “Because he’s the one puts on these shows, honey pie sugar pea cute boy piano guy. He puts on these shows with nothing but chutzpah. From nothing came the universe. From nothing came you. From nothing came me. He is the gritty unwashed source, I his sorceress. Mazel tov! See you in your dreams.”

Crazy Memory

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

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

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” Aldous Huxley

I used to know a loquacious drunk who punctuated his pontifications with the disclaimer, “Of course, memories are, at best, only fair approximations of what actually happened, so please don’t quote me.” At least I think that’s what he said. And I took his disclaimer to mean that his memory was not so sharp, whereas my own recollections were essentially photographic and therefore highly accurate. Silly me.

A few nights ago we watched the movie Bedazzled (the original work of genius, not the execrable remake) created by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with a stirring cameo by the preternatural Raquel Welch, and we laughed so hard at some of the scenes I felt five years younger at movie’s end. I hadn’t seen Bedazzled in thirty years and feared the sarcastic romp might not stand the test of time, but it did with ease. However, what did not stand the test of time were my memories of favorite scenes from the film, for they were, as the drunk foresaw, only approximations of the actual scenes.

Indeed, I was crestfallen that my most favorite scene (as I remembered it) only barely resembled the actual scene in the film. Which scene? The one in which Raquel Welch brings Dudley Moore breakfast in bed. In my misremembered version, Raquel’s seduction of the hapless Moore lasts a good ten minutes and features the nearly naked Raquel erotically enunciating each syllable of the expression, “hot buttered buns” as part of an excruciatingly slow build to an orgasmic finish; when in actuality Raquel spat that delectable phrase rapid fire in the midst of a badly blurted speech prelude to seductus interruptus. Yet thirty years ago my brain seized on those three little words and made them the centerpiece of a seduction scene far more lurid and glorious than the one they filmed.

“Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.” Pierce Harris

During one of my many stints as a single man, I attended a party featuring scads of married couples and two single women, one seven-feet-tall, the other a midget, though now I’m not so sure about their heights. I am sure I fell into conversation with a vivacious married woman and ere long her jealous husband joined us. To assure him I had no designs on his wife (though she certainly inspired several marvelous designs) I asked them how they first met.

Vivacious Woman: We were working on the same float for the Rose Bowl parade and…

Husband of Vivacious Woman: No, honey. Rex and Sally set us up on a blind date a couple weeks before the parade.

Vivacious Woman: No, dear, you’re thinking of Tom and Rita. And it was two weeks after the parade. And it wasn’t a blind date because we already knew each other. No. You approached me ostensibly to borrow some pink flowers, but I knew you just wanted to get a closer look at me.

Husband of Vivacious Woman: Honey. Come on. You think I don’t remember how we met? It was only four years ago.

At this juncture, we were joined by a beautiful pregnant woman and her dumpy bald husband, and before Vivacious Woman and Husband of Vivacious Woman could come to blows over their divergent Rose Bowl memories, I asked Pregnant and Bald how they first met.

Pregnant: I was dating his brother…

Bald: You were not. We met long before you ever dated Jack. At the bowling alley. Remember? Then you went out with Jack a couple times, and then…

Pregnant: A couple times? I went out with your brother for a year, and if he hadn’t been transferred to Atlanta…

Bald: Ten months is not a year.

Pregnant: That’s true. Ten months is technically not a year.

“


Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.” Austin O’Malley




Speaking of crazy people and what we think we remember, in my former life as an author of books published by large publishers, I often performed in bookstores, cafés, theaters, and college auditoriums. And though I enjoyed performing and my audiences were generally appreciative, I eventually shied away from such public exposure because crazy people kept coming to my performances and zapping me with their psychic toxins. Here are two such encounters as I remember them.

Encounter #1: I am in a large old bookstore standing on a small dais facing an audience of sixty people. I have sung a couple songs, accompanying myself on guitar, and read a few stories, and the laughter and applause have been raucous. The master of ceremonies (the owner of the bookstore) announces a fifteen-minute intermission, various people thank me for my performance, an aggressively attractive woman hands me her business card and suggests we meet for coffee, and an old friend hugs me and whispers, “Watch out, buddy, she’s crazy as a loon.”

As I make my way outside for a breath of fresh air, a big man with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard approaches me. He is wearing a red plaid shirt, gray slacks and brown hiking boots, and I recall seeing him smiling at me during my performance—smiling gigantically. I stop walking when this man is within six feet of me and I fully expect him to stop at a reasonable distance from me, but he doesn’t stop until his face is within a few inches of mine.

“You kept looking at me,” he snarls. “Why were you looking at me?”

“I beg your pardon, but…”

“Don’t deny it,” he spits. “You kept looking at me because you thought I liked you, didn’t you? You saw me laughing when everybody else was laughing and you thought I was laughing because I liked you but I was only laughing because I wanted you to think I liked you when I don’t like you. I hate you. And if you don’t stop looking at me, I’ll kill you.”

“Now you’ve gone too far,” I say, looking around for help. “And I’m gonna call the police if you don’t leave on your own.”

“Fuck you!” he shouts, running away into the night. “Fuck you famous writer asshole motherfucker piece of shit!”

Encounter #2: I have just finished performing for a good little audience in a small café, (by good I mean they laughed at the funny parts and cheered at the end, and by little I mean more than ten but less than twenty) having larded my reading with improvisations rendered on a remarkably in-tune old upright piano. I am making my way toward a table where a half-dozen people are waiting to buy my books and home made cassette recordings, this being in the days before the advent of CDs and digital everything, when a slender cowgirl blocks my path, her red velvet cowboy hat dotted with silver sequins, her blond hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her black cowboy shirt detailed with creamy white embroidery, her skirt rawhide brown, her shiny boots lime green, her age somewhere between thirty and forty-five.

“Hey,” she says, her voice as breathy as the wind they call Mariah (not really, I just couldn’t resist using that expression), her accent distinctly Serbian, “can I speak with you for little moment?”

“Sure,” I say, happy to see the people waiting to buy my books have fresh drinks in hand. “What can I do for you?”

“You are so generous,” she says, staring at my lips—her eyes shattered blue marbles. “I can hear how generous in your music, and…well…I can see things. Is my special gift. To see things. You know what I mean? What can be and what cannot be when certain things don’t or do fall into place, or not.”

“I think I have an inkling about what you mean,” I say, imagining her face without cowgirl war paint and guessing she is way more than cute. “What do you see?”

“I see you must stop writing.” She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and nods prophetically. “You must give everything to music or gift will be taken away.”

“But why? I like doing both. Music and writing.”

“Maybe you like doing both, but they don’t like you doing them both.” She opens her eyes and glares at me. “Just as I would not like you doing me and doing somebody else, too. I could not stand it. I would go crazy.”

“But music and writing are not people,” I say, relieved to see no holster, no gun. “And I like doing both.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, sudden tears spilling from her eyes. “You are afraid to give yourself completely to music because…such intimacy terrifies you. I can see clear as day. I can see your life on one path or another path. And if you do not stop writing and give yourself only to music you are doomed to play in junky rat holes like this for rest of life begging people to buy your shitty little books and shitty little tapes, when you could be huge.”

“Maybe so,” I say, wondering what it is about me that attracts such cuckoo birds, “but if not for this junky little rat hole, I never would have met you.”

 “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

What are we without our memories?

When I was forty-three, my seventy-year-old mother led me away from the Thanksgiving feast, made sure we were not overheard, and whispered urgently, “I’m losing my mind and it’s not coming back. I’m in a nightmare and I want it to end. You have to help me kill myself.”

I realize now that my mother’s request was perfectly reasonable, but at the time I couldn’t imagine abetting her suicide, which I felt would make me a murderer. Twenty years gone by, I can easily imagine seeking the proper pill to curtail the horrendous suffering I watched my mother endure for twelve long years until finally, blessedly, at the age of eighty-two, she died in the skilled nursing facility where she had spent her last few years, having spent the previous eight years in a storage facility for those suffering from the brand of dementia known as Alzheimer’s.

Every few weeks for the years of my mother’s internment, I would take the train from San Francisco to Menlo Park and walk the half-mile from the station to that pea-green warehouse where Avis was a favorite of the friendly staff of Mexicans. They pronounced her named Ah-vees and identified her as ella que andando: she who walks, for my mother did little else when she wasn’t sleeping.

One day, after my mother had been in the joint for three years, I found her—lank white hair, plaid slacks inside out, yellow blouse wrongly buttoned, mismatched shoes—walking down a dimly lit hallway speaking to no one.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, catching up to her.

“They wanted fifty-seven and I told them where do you think?” she said, frowning at me. “How did you get here?”

“I took the train,” I said, holding her hand.

“You’re allowed to do that?” she asked, shaking her head. “I don’t trust him. Hiding under the mattress over his bandana.”

I took her outside where we could amble along the cement walkway that outlined the facility, my mother trying the locked gates to see if they might open—the air scented with stink from a nearby car fire.

“Would you like to go somewhere else?” I asked, hopelessly. “Into the village for an ice cream cone?”

“I sleep in a refrigerator,” she said, sitting on a bench and looking at her hand. “What a funny fig.”

I sat beside her and she jumped as if shocked.

“It’s only me,” I said, making light of her surprise.

“Who are you?” she asked, frowning suspiciously. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your son. Todd. I came on the train.”

“How dare they,” she said, pouting. “I gave him fifty-seven and he spilled nobody over again.”

“Are you thirsty?” I asked, wanting only to soothe her.

“I had fifty-seven overviews with red disasters,” she said, shaking her head. “But they couldn’t get over the river. Kaput.”

An old man, bent and grizzled, came around the corner, walking with mincing steps and peering intently at the ground.

My mother leapt up, embraced the old man, and kissed him on the lips.

The old man stuttered, “I haven’t…I don’t…why…who…okay.”

My mother took the old man’s hand and walked away with him, forgetting all about me.

“They hid under the milkshake and stayed there,” said my mother, kissing the old man’s cheek. “And pretty soon the shit was dry.”

Brandon Crawford

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

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

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit

By the Imagination.” Emily Dickinson

While following a seemingly insignificant line of thought I will suddenly find myself on a broad avenue of inquiry that becomes the on-ramp to a sixteen-lane super highway of conjecture leading to an imposing citadel wherein is housed the solution to all the problems of humankind. Wow. Talk about grandiose. But isn’t that how our minds sometimes work, leaping from the insignificant to a grand unified theory of everything?

For instance, my recent musings about Brandon Crawford merged onto the super highway of an idea that all the problems of human society can be traced to a lack of imagination, to the inability of people to imagine new ways of proceeding rather than repeating the same old nonsense that dooms us all to slide down the steep and slippery slopes to a most unpleasant bottom of the dysfunctional pyramidal paradigm.

Who is Brandon Crawford? A descendant of English royalty? An up-and-coming politico? A movie star? Nay. Brandon Crawford is a baseball player, an easy-going California guy, a wide-ranging and quietly brilliant shortstop for the San Francisco Giants recently sent back to the minor leagues where, because of the aforementioned lack of imagination by people in positions of power, he definitely does not, in the way I imagine things, belong.

When Brandon was called up from the minor leagues a month or so ago, the Giants were reeling from injuries to star players and mired in a debilitating ennui that threatened to send our team spiraling out of contention for a return to the World Series. Desperation, not imagination, inspired General Manager Brian Sabean and Manager Bruce Bochy to call up the young Brandon, and the results were miraculous. The moribund team came to life, moved into first place, and steadily won more games than they lost. Brandon Crawford, as far as my imagination is concerned, was the catalyst for this revival, and his removal from the starting lineup and eventual demotion to the minor leagues was the cause of the team’s recent collapse. Crawford’s individual statistics may not support my view, but baseball is a team sport, synergy ineffable, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

“The status quo sucks.” George Carlin

Few of the people in power in the Giants organization, and terribly few people in power in our local, state, and national governments, and almost no one in power in the movie business and publishing industry, in energy production and transportation and environmental protection, in education and agriculture and healthcare and foreign policy seems capable of understanding what is blatantly obvious to you and me and millions of moderately intelligent people. Why is this? Could it be that the people in power have little or no imagination?

Assuming that’s true, how did such unimaginative people get into positions of power over so many people with more imagination than they? And the answer is: unimaginative people select other unimaginative people to work for them and succeed them, while actively discriminating against people with original ideas and less conventional ways of doing things. Thus the status quo is forever protecting itself unto decrepitude and terminal ossification. Yes, you agree, but how did those unimaginative poop heads get into power in the first place, from which positioning they continue to perpetrate such stultifying stupidity? Good question.

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Mark Twain

Assuming not every election is rigged (and maybe that’s an unwise assumption), we, the people, elected the amoral dingbats now actively destroying our world, and we’ve been electing them and re-electing them for hundreds of years. Why do we vote for these unimaginative people? Why do we continue to buy unimaginative books and go to unimaginative movies and watch unimaginative television? I think we do these things because we fear our imaginations, which we were taught to fear. I would even say we are a culture that punishes children whenever their imaginations get the best of them and lead them into uncharted territories where their timid elders fear to follow. But why are the elders so afraid?

Because imagination is unpredictable and potentially disruptive of what we are used to; and what we are used to, for most adults, is apparently preferable to the unknown, probably because we’ve also been taught to fear the unknown. I, for instance, spent a large part of my previous life staying in disastrous relationships long after I should have jumped ship, so to speak, because though I could imagine myriad preferable alternatives to my rotten imbroglios, I was frozen by the fear that the fruits of my imagination would never ripen and I would fall into a bottomless pit of loneliness or even lousier relationships.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo

Hold everything. My imagination just did a loop-dee-loop and deposited me at the foot of a monument whereupon is engraved the command: Teach them to fear the unknown. Is this the imperative underpinning what I first imagined to be an imagination deficiency? Would it be more accurate to say that our fear of what we might imagine, rather than a lack of imagination, has brought humanity to the brink, and in some parts of the world, over the brink of disaster?

Buckminster Fuller, who imagined and then created the geodesic dome, convinced me through his highly imaginative writing that the largest impediment to humans making the world an environmentally zaftig and robust utopia is our misguided collective imagination. And just who has been misguiding our collective right brain? Clever, greedy, left-brain-dominated people who won’t allow themselves to imagine that spaceship earth was designed by an impeccably imaginative universe to provide plenty of food and comfort and fun for everyone onboard.

According to Bucky, humanity is choking to death on the ancient fish bone of the idea (the imagining) that life on earth is all about scarcity, when, in fact, with a modicum of creative re-imagining, we can open the non-existent doors to our illusory cages, step out onto the lush playing field, play shortstop, bat second, and be paid handsomely to do so.

“Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” Bob Lemon

Which brings us back to Brandon Crawford. Four days ago, having failed to win a game in five tries since Brandon’s exile to the lesser leagues, our Giants exploded for eight runs (the most this year at home) and our pitcher Brian Vogelsang continued his inexplicable, unpredicted, and hard-to-imagine (except for those of us with sufficient imagination) dominance and allowed but one run. Put another way: we finally won a game without Brandon Crawford. However, since that solitary win, we have played our archenemy the Philadelphia Phillies twice and had our butts handed to us on paper plates. That is to say: they beat us with ease.

So now our challenge is to imagine that despite the shortsightedness and lack of imagination by those in managerial positions, the collective imagination of millions of Giants fans will synergize to produce a shift in team consciousness and we will start winning again, defeat the mighty Phillies in the National League playoffs, and return to the World Series against who else but the New York Yankees.

My current dilemma is that I keep imagining dire scenarios involving multiple injuries to perfectly nice players necessitating Brandon Crawford being called back up to the mother team, and his return sparking a renaissance. But that’s old paradigm stuff. Hollywood hogwash. Violence-based winner-loser crap. Why not imagine multiple emotional and spiritual epiphanies overtaking our stars and journeymen alike, epiphanies leading to a harmony of energies that makes of the entire team one gigantic Brandon Crawford, only with a good batting average?

If I can imagine such a transformation of a silly old baseball team, surely we can put our psyches together and imagine millions of obscenely rich people sharing their wealth with everyone else in heretofore unimagined and totally groovy ways, so that war and weaponry and mountaintop removal quickly become things of the past and we are set free to imagine the infinite potential of what Bucky dubbed livingry.

Ball Bear Cat Piano

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Humphrey Bogart

Jon Miller, my favorite bard of baseball, recently used the words egregious, preposterous, cerulean, prodigious, and greensward whilst painting verbal pictures of our San Francisco Giants sweeping the Rockies and the Snakes, and making history as they did so. Jon revealed today during a lopsided loss to the Cubs, that no team in the long history of baseball had ever won six home games in a row in which they scored less than four runs in any of those six games. I agree that isn’t nearly as important as the ongoing meltdowns of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, but it does prove we have some mighty impressive pitching.

Sometimes Jon will quote the Bard (Shakespeare) himself. Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
 Hover through the fog…” might have been written expressly for baseball in San Francisco in July, except those prescient lines were written in England five hundred years ago. Yes, a baseball game announced by a gifted raconteur is an entirely different game than the same game seen on television. How can this be? Because television leaves nothing to the imagination, whereas visualizing a game while listening to an artfully improvised run of words is a prodigious imaginative feat; and every listener’s imagining of the game is unique.

Another wonderful thing about listening to intelligent, witty, insightful people (with great swaths of time to fill when nothing much is actually going on) is that they often say amazing and thought provoking things. Case in point: did you know that though the average major league baseball game takes roughly three hours to play, the action of the game—everything that actually happens other than the pitcher pitching and batters swinging or not swinging—takes only about six minutes of those three hours?

Here’s something else amazing that Jon recently imparted to us in his mellifluous voice. (Yes, I’ve heard Jon use the word mellifluous, too.) “From the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, it only takes the ball a quarter of a second to reach home plate. A quarter of a second. That’s how much time a batter has to decide whether to swing at the pitch or not.” Heck, I can’t snap my fingers in a quarter of a second, let alone swing a big old bat accurately enough to strike a nearly invisible little orb hurtling toward me at ninety-five miles an hour. Hence the famous quotation from Ted Williams, the last player to hit over .400 in a season (1941): “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

So a few days ago I was listening to the Giants battle the Arizona Diamondbacks (the Snakes) when my phone rang and it was my neighbor Cindy calling to say there was a bear in their front yard finishing up some leftovers in the garbage can they hadn’t gotten back inside the bear-proof shed quite soon enough. This news interested me more than the game (that particular game at that particular moment) because I’ve lived in this house on this land adjoining a remote part of Big River State Park for six years and had yet to encounter one of our local bears. I had frequently seen the aftermaths of their visits—bear scat, flattened deer fences, broken boughs in apple trees where bruins had climbed in pursuit of apples—but I had yet to actually see a bear.

“How big is he, or she?” I asked, thinking I might tip toe through the huckleberries to get a peek at the bear.

“He’s sitting down,” said Cindy, “and his head and shoulders are visible over the front end of the overturned garbage can. One of those very big cans. What’s that? About three feet?”

Three feet to the shoulders while sitting down? Hmm. I decided not to go have a look, recalling a frightening documentary about bears in which it was said they can outrun humans, no problem. Or what if this was a sow with cubs lurking in the huckleberries? So I turned the game back on just as Cody Ross smacked a double—nice to have Cody getting his stroke back—and the phone rang again, Cindy telling me the bear was now heading my way on the footpath through the rhododendrons.

I went to the window at the west end of our living room and looked down the gravel driveway toward our woodpile, but my pickup truck was blocking the view of where the aforementioned footpath meets our driveway. I was certainly hoping to see a bear, but I wasn’t expecting to see such a big bear. This guy (I have good reason to believe the bear was male) was huge. And when he came around the nose of the pickup truck and went up onto his hind legs and looked in the passenger window of the truck, I gasped, because this bear was much taller than my truck. Indeed, this bear seemed to be roughly the same size as the truck. Of course he wasn’t really as big as the truck, but let us say that had he been human, he would have needed a bigger truck.

Seeing or smelling nothing worth eating in the diminutive vehicle, the bear dropped back down on all fours and continued into our front yard—a small meadow ringed by rhododendrons in glorious bloom and huckleberry bushes laden with blossoms presaging another abundant late summer harvest. I expected see the bear traverse the meadow and disappear into…

The bear came directly to the bottom of our front stairs. I know this because I was standing at the front door, the sliding glass variety, looking out at the bear looking up at me from six stairs down. That’s how many stairs there are: six. Then the bear rose up onto his hind legs again, perhaps to show me how big he was, or to reveal his gender, or to get a better look at me. In any case, he stayed upright for a long moment and then went back down on all fours and started up the stairs.

Two things struck me in that moment. Well, more than two things struck me, but two things struck me harder than the other things that were striking me. 1. For some reason I was not particularly frightened, though I thought I should be. 2. The bear looked goofy. He did not look anything like the bears I saw eons ago in Yosemite, nor did he look like the bears I’ve seen in National Geographics, the magazine or the documentary films. This bear looked goofy. He had lopsided floppy ears, and one rheumy eye noticeably larger than the other rheumy eye, and flies buzzing around his goofy face, which made me think he might be a very old bear with failing eyesight, which would explain why he was wandering around during the day instead of being appropriately nocturnal.

In any case, when he placed his enormous paw on the second step from the bottom, I banged on the glass, made what I hoped was a frightening face, and I growled. Roared, actually. To which that huge goofy bear responded by turning tail, so to speak, and hurrying away.

“Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.” Bob Veale

Relieved to have so easily vanquished the bear, I turned the radio back on just as Andres Torres smacked a double down the right field line—so nice to have Torres back in the leadoff spot—and I noticed our cats Hootie (slender and black) and Django (fat and gray) were nonchalantly sprawled on the sofa as if nothing untoward had just happened. Important factoid: Hootie and Django are cats who run and hide when I, the person who feeds them and pets them and calls them silly names, makes too sudden a movement or raises my voice much past a whisper. Hootie and Django will catch a whiff of something (a passing mountain lion?) and thereafter refuse to leave the house for days on end. These are cats who scurry under the bathtub when people they’ve met seventy times come to visit. Yet these scaredy cats seemed utterly clueless that a gigantic bear had just been moments away from breaking down the front door, ransacking the house, and eating them! Why were the cats so unmoved by the bear?

Because maybe the bear wasn’t a bear. Maybe the bear was a spirit being disguised as a bear. Wouldn’t that explain the goofy face and floppy ears? Maybe the bear was the embodiment of some old terror of mine, some old unfinished business that was now finished because I banged on the glass and made a terrible face and growled. I had become the bear. I had become my fear and thereby released the fear to be carried away into another dimension by the spirit bear being. Or maybe the cats knew this bear, knew he was goofy and harmless, and so were not afraid.

“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” Earl Wilson

So…after the Giants won a nail biter on Cody Ross’s walk off single in the bottom of the ninth, I sat down at the piano and played for a while. And as I played, one of my favorite things happened. Hootie hopped up beside me on the piano bench and listened to me play. Or maybe he wasn’t listening, maybe he was just hanging out and enjoying the vibe of the person who feeds him enjoying playing the piano.

I don’t play written down music. I improvise on themes and patterns and inventions I’ve found over forty years of playing every day for an hour or two or three. And on that day the bear came to visit, I played with the bear in mind, the music changing from somber to funny to nostalgic to grandiloquent to sweet—our little black cat sitting beside me the whole time.

Todd’s new CD of piano improvisations Ceremonies is available from underthetablebooks.com and downloadable from iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby.