Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Bashevis Singer’

The New Yorker

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

redwood rounds

 Redwood Rounds photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris

Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.

After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.

Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.

“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger

When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”

Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.

Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White

The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”

The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.

“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff

Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.

Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?

“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon

As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.

Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?

No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor.  Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.

“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan

When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.

“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”

“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.

Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

 

 

Humility

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

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

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot

Several recent conversations with friends focused on how might we counter the cyber takeover of our society while at the same time fomenting positive change and a more vibrant local community; and the answer seems to be to invite people over to share a meal and talk.

“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.” Omar Ibn Al-Halif

A friend wrote that in an effort to regain the souls of her husband and children she instituted a rule that cell phones and cyber pads were not allowed at the dining table. The initial response to this rule was that her children and husband wolfed their meals and rushed back to their devices. So she instituted a second rule that dinner had to last half an hour. After a week of dismal dining experiences filled with complaints, her children and husband adjusted to the brief nightly respite from tweeting and staring into little screens and “there have even been some nights when the family lingers at the table after the half hour is up because we are so engrossed in conversation.”

“Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to the enduring fact of mystery.” Henry Miller

One of my favorite Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories is about an outwardly successful man, pious and wealthy, who is not very nice to his wife and children and other people. He rigorously follows the religious and civil rules of his society and continuously wins the economic battle, but no one likes him. Eventually this man’s sons and daughters want nothing to do with him, his wife is perpetually distressed by what a sourpuss he is, and he finds himself more and more isolated and unhappy. So he goes on a journey to a famous spiritual teacher and explains his situation (as he perceives it) to the teacher, and the teacher whispers a little something in the man’s ear.

Having gained the sage’s advice, the man returns to his home and is so changed that his wife and children and business associates can hardly believe he is the same person. In just a few days, this tight-fisted, judgmental, self-righteous egotist has become a generous, open-minded, loving, humble sweetie pie ready to lend an ear to anyone who needs a good listener, a hand to anyone who needs help. And as the years go by, the man becomes so loving and wise that he is regarded as a saint.

One day the man’s oldest son, who previously hated his father and now adores him, asks his father what the spiritual teacher whispered to him all those years ago that so transformed him. And the man reveals that the teacher suggested he pretend to be generous and loving and open-minded, and to continue pretending until the pretense became his habit and transformed him.

“What this world needs is a new kind of army—the army of the kind.” Cleveland Amory

I recently had a visit from a friend who arrived armed with an Iphone, an Ipad, and a Kindle reader. “I don’t know how I ever got along without these,” he said as he searched for something on the screen of his phone.

“I remember you without those,” I told him, “and you seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“I’m a thousand times better organized now,” he said, continuing to scroll around on his phone. “Much more connected to everything. No more waiting to get news or books or movies. Everything I want fits on these three devices with room to spare.”

He gave me a tour of several apps on his Ipad, took photos of this and that with his Iphone, instantly posted the photos on three social network web sites, and then downloaded an e-book version of my novel Under the Table Books onto his Kindle.

“See,” he said, grinning triumphantly. “We did all that in no time at all.”

And because I love the guy I said, “Amazing! Truly amazing.”

“The twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity.” Edward Hoagland

The late great Juliette White of Albion was a master of the spontaneous dinner party. Sometimes she would invite us the day before the party; sometimes she’d call an hour before the food was ready. To our question, “What can we bring?” she might reply, “Just yourselves,” or “Salad” or “Anything.” Of the twenty or so spontaneous dinner parties I attended at Juliette’s, the largest number of people in attendance was ten, the smallest number was six. The most remarkable thing to me about these gatherings was that there was nothing remarkable about them, yet I always felt I was taking part in Holy Communion.

Humility (from Buddha In A Teacup)

Thomas is seventy-seven. His wife Denise died unexpectedly in her sleep a year and a month ago.

Thomas’s work—the completion of the seventh and final volume of an exhaustive history of the English language—has not progressed a word since Denise’s death. An oppressive sorrow has lain upon Thomas for these thirteen months, and he has little hope of living beyond his grief.

A tall, lean Englishman with pale blue eyes and red hair going gray, Thomas is roused from his stupor at the kitchen table—his bagel and tea untouched—by loud rapping on the front door. His first thought is to ignore the summons, but the rapping persists, so he reluctantly rises and goes to the door.

“Yes?” he says, frowning curiously at an enormous young man with dark brown skin, a shaved head, and muscular arms covered with tattoos.

“I’m Oz,” says the young man, holding out a piece of paper to Thomas. “You the tutor?”

“I don’t believe so.” Thomas peers at the paper and realizes through a fog of despair that his daughter Maureen must have gone ahead and fulfilled her threat to sign him up for after school duty.

“Got the address right,” says Oz, his voice deep and sonorous. “Seven seven six.”

“I stand corrected.” Thomas chuckles at his daughter’s audacity. “Come in.”

“Like a library,” says Oz, stopping on the threshold to gaze around the living room, every inch of wall given over to bookshelves. “You read all these books?”

“Most of them more than once.” Thomas scans the thousands of volumes for any he might have skipped.

“Smells old in here.” Oz wrinkles his nose. “You got a sunny room?”

“The kitchen,” says Thomas, leading the way. “I’ll make a fresh pot of green tea.”

“I ain’t never had no green tea,” says Oz, pausing in the hallway to look at a picture of Thomas as a young Oxford scholar. “Get a buzz?”

“There is some caffeine in green tea,” Thomas replies, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Make yourself at home.”

“Coffee jitters me bad,” says Oz, taking a seat from which he can observe Thomas. “Green tea don’t do that, do it?”

“No, it’s more subtle.” Thomas fills the kettle. “It invigorates in a wholly different way than coffee.”

“You show more accent than your daughter,” says Oz, nodding his approval of the cheerful room. “Me likes.”

“Oh, so you do know my daughter.” Thomas sets the kettle atop the flame. “That was my supposition.”

“Word,” says Oz, grinning at Thomas. “She chose me special just for you.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?” Thomas peruses his collection of teas and decides on a pungent green from Taiwan.

“She flunked me twice.” Oz nods slowly. “But she knows I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re obviously exceedingly intelligent.” Thomas clears away his lunch dishes. “May I offer you something to eat?”

“No.” Oz looks glumly at the floor and cracks his knuckles. “How come you use that word? Exceedingly? Means more than enough, yeah? Like you think I’m very smart. Which I am, but…how come you think so?”

“The way you take things in.” Thomas sits down opposite Oz. “The way you listen and respond. We’ve been in real conversation from our very first moment together, and that’s quite rare in my experience.”

Oz nods. “You write books?”

“I have written books,” says Thomas, studying Oz’s handsome face, the chiseled cheeks and jaw, “though I doubt I will ever write another.”

“How come?” asks Oz, hearing sorrow in Thomas’s voice. “Must be nice to write a good book.”

“I have lost my inspiration,” says Thomas, thinking of Denise and how everything he wrote, he wrote for her. “I’m old now. Tired.”

“So why you want to be a tutor?” Oz rises to quiet the whistling kettle.

Thomas is about to reply that he doesn’t want to be a tutor, that this is all his daughter’s doing, that he’s very sorry but he’s just not up to it. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Perhaps I can still be useful to someone.”

“Someone maybe like me,” says Oz, shaking dry tealeaves into his hand to inspect them. “You wanna show me how to make this drink?”

“Ah,” says Thomas, raising a knowing finger. “The art of tea.”

Lives Unlived

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

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

“Every art has its secrets, and the secrets of distilling are being lost the way the old songs were lost. When I was a boy there wasn’t a man in the barony but had a hundred songs in his head, but with people running here, there and everywhere, the songs were lost…” Frank O’Connor

I am reading The Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor for the third time in twelve years. Enough time has passed since my last reading of his remarkable stories so I have forgotten sufficient details and plot twists and endings to make the stories new to me again; and in some ways they are better than new because I know them now as I know favorite pieces of music or beloved paintings, and in this further experience of them I discover more and more of the genius they contain.

Frank O’Connor, who died in 1966, was Irish, and most of his stories are set in Cork and Dublin in the 1940’s and 1950’s. O’Connor was hailed by W.B. Yeats as the Chekhov of Irish literature, yet very few of my well-read friends have heard of him, and I, a voracious story reader since childhood, discovered him relatively late in my incessant search for great stories. I should note that many of my well-read friends are aghast at my reading habits which now largely involve reading and re-reading a relatively few dead writers of short stories, with barely an American among them. I find the most ballyhooed contemporary writers unreadable, and if not for a Brit or two, regarding fiction it could truly be said I read only the dead.

I have imbibed Kim by Rudyard Kipling seven times in the last twenty years, and I will probably read that astonishing book again soon. I do not read many novels, even those written by my favorite dead short story writers, so Kim is something of an anomaly for me. Every line of that book is to my taste exquisite poetry; I don’t so much read Kim as inhabit its pages. But I was speaking of Frank O’Connor.

“What makes him so great?” asked one of my well-read friends who had never heard of Frank O’Connor.

“Well,” I said, “when I read Bashevis Singer or Maugham or Wharton or Maupassant, I am enthralled by their artistry and insight, yet I know I am capable of writing stories that at least approximate the structures of their creations if not the mastery of their lines. But Frank O’Connor’s stories, though only eight to fifteen pages in length, are essentially novels with plots spanning many years, yet they have the power and immediacy and emotional depth of a D.H. Lawrence story focusing on a particular moment in time.”

We would rather be ruined than changed;

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden

Nearly all of Frank O’Connor’s short stories illuminate the lives of people who would rather be living other lives—a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. Born to parents who did not live the lives they said they wanted to live, and having known many people, including myself, who have spent large chunks of our lives not living the lives we say we want to live, O’Connor’s stories continuously strike chords in me and ring loud bells of recognition. I am not speaking of people who wish to be something or someone beyond the reach of all but a few mortals, but of people who knowingly repeat, for years and decades and lifetimes, painfully self-limiting patterns they are entirely aware of yet feel powerless to change.

My father found himself at fifty entrenched in a life he loathed, living where he did not want to live, and married to a woman, my mother, he didn’t like. The last of his four children had finally escaped his direct control, he owned a house outright worth millions, and he was a successful psychotherapist, a trade he might have plied anywhere; yet he could not bring himself to change, and so daily drank himself into a stupor and outwardly blamed his misfortune on my mother.

I hitchhiked to Atherton from Santa Cruz for my father’s fiftieth birthday party, though at the age of twenty-three I was a source of shame and disappointment to my parents. I had defied their wishes and dropped out of college to create a life that made sense to me apart from the expectations of others. I had lived as a vagabond from nineteen to twenty-two, and only recently settled among the communards of Santa Cruz (circa 1972) where I earned my living as a musician and laborer. I did not often visit my parents in those days because to tarry in my father’s presence was to invite diatribes of condemnation.

On the morning following his fiftieth birthday party, as I was about to head home to Santa Cruz, my father invited me to join him for coffee on the terrace. I vividly remember that morning—a scorcher in late August—my father looking haggard and sad, the strong black coffee not yet mitigating his hangover. And before he could launch into yet another sermon about me pissing my life away, I said, “So, Dad, now that you’re fifty…if you could live anywhere and be anything you want to be, what would you do?”

“Anything and anywhere?” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I would buy a house near the water in Carmel and be a sculptor. Wood and stone.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I’m too old,” he said bitterly. “And your mother would never let me.”

“Sure she would. She loves Carmel. She loves the ocean. And you know she’s happiest when you’re happy.”

“No,” he said, continuing to shake his head. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Fifty is not old, Dad. Why not give it a try?”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said, sneering at me. “Your mother would never allow it. I’d have to divorce her to have the life I want.”

“So why not get a divorce?”

“She couldn’t survive without me. I wouldn’t do that to her. No…we’re stuck.”

Thus spoke the renowned psychotherapist; and not a word of what he said was true. My mother had recently begun practicing law and was earning a good salary. She would gladly have sold their crumbling house to start anew in Carmel; and had my father been bold enough to divorce her, she would have settled for a fortune and lived no more unhappily than she did in their loveless marriage.

We said our uneasy goodbyes and I walked down the hill to the Alameda de las Pulgas where I got a ride from a guy in a convertible Volkswagen going to Woodside. From Woodside I rode in the back of a pickup over the crest of the coast range and down through the redwoods of La Honda to the hamlet of San Gregorio where I bought cheese and bread and chocolate for a picnic on the beach. And as I walked out to the ocean, I passed the beautiful farm near the mouth of the San Gregorio where my father had taken me when I was eight and again when I was twelve, a farm for sale that my father said he wanted to buy so he could live near the ocean and sculpt wood and stone.

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

A sunny morning, the tide stupendously low, I walk the far reaches of the beach at Big River, and sing a wordless song to the drone of the roaring waves. Now an osprey plummets out of the cerulean sky and splashes down in the nearby shallows to catch a silver sliver of life.

“Good omen,” I say, watching in awe as the raptor flies up from the water to roost in a cliff-hanging pine; and sure enough, here ahead of me on the untrod sand is a magnificent walking stick, long and sturdy and bleached white by the sun.

Enter the pelicans—twelve apostles—fifty yards offshore, gliding northward in an undulating line, the tips of their wings nearly touching the dark waters.

“Omens galore,” I say, as the osprey dives again.

Gay

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” Raymond Chandler

Before the advent of the interweb, I frequented libraries and secondhand bookstores in search of good short stories, my appetite for cuentos pequeños insatiable. I am not keen on most contemporary short stories that find their way into mass media print, so I mainly feed on authors dead and obscure.

When I was living in Berkeley in the 1990’s, I came upon a library cache of short story anthologies published annually in the 1920’s and 1930’s, hardbound volumes featuring now mostly forgotten literary darlings of America and England. Many of the stories were well written, in stark contrast to their equivalents today, though few of the stories were great. And in every volume there was a story by Gertrude Stein, though the word story does not do justice to her conglomerations of words, for her conglomerations do not tell tales so much as they weave verbal webs that may mean something to someone, but mean very little to me.

However, whilst devouring these relatively ancient anthologies, I came upon a particular Gertrude Stein story that excited me tremendously, for I felt I had discovered the origin of the current meaning of the word gay. The story is entitled Miss Furr & Miss Skeene and featured the use of gay in the following manner.

“…she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there. They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay. They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then. They were gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, they were gay…” Etc. Ad nauseam

I admit to skimming Ms. Stein’s prose, but even in skimming what academics used to call “stream of consciousness” and now refer to as “grammar fields” or “grammarscapes”, I was aware that repeating the word gay so many times in succession did, indeed, change the word from an adjective to a quasi-noun.

I know I was not the first to hypothesize that Miss Furr & Miss Skeene was the grammatical edifice that established a new meaning for the word gay, but for several years my “discovery” caused minor sensations at Berkeley soirees where I was apparently miles ahead in that particular trivial pursuit. Today the interweb is rife with celebratory stories about Stein’s story being the first to use gay to mean what gay means today.

“You think I’m going to leave you alone with a strange Italian? He might be a tenor!” spoken by Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee

I confess that before gay meant homosexual, I loved that gay meant carefree. I loved gay in poems by William Carlos Williams about birds singing. I loved gay in front of the word divorcee, meaning a happy person freed from an oppressive union, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I loved gay when it meant the opposite of blue when blue meant sad. “I was feeling so blue until my baby came back and now I’m gay.”

But what are you going to do? Language morphs. Were Gertrude Stein to come back today, I presume she would be pleasantly surprised by the expression “gays and lesbians,” because aren’t lesbians gay? Well, yes and no. According to my up-to-date politically correct gay and lesbian sources, gays are male homosexuals, and lesbians are female homosexuals. However, a lesbian can be gay, but she cannot be a gay. That is, gay now means two different but related things. Gay can be an adjective meaning homosexual, or if someone is a gay, he is a male homosexual. Thus the expression gays and lesbians is not a contradiction or a redundancy, though it might be a paradox.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers

The latest news swirling around the definition of gay is that many gays and lesbians are deeply concerned about the widespread and growing and indiscriminate use of the expression, That is so gay, in which gay no longer overtly means homosexual, but rather means wimpy or weak or silly or stupid or lame, which, according to gay rights advocates, makes the word gay in the expression that is so gay a barely veiled attack on gays and lesbians and everything gay.

Man oh man. I mean woman oh woman. I mean person oh person. The definition of gay just gets curiouser and curiouser. Words, words, words. Who can explain them, who can tell you why? Fools give you answers, wise men never try.

“Hello lamp post, what ya knowin’? I come to watch your flowers growin’. Ain’t you got no rhymes for me? Do do do do…feelin’ groovy.” Paul Simon

Despite that song, I’ve been trying to bring back the word groovy for the last twenty years. But no matter how often and appropriately I use groovy, people invariably smirk or snort. Now why is that? Groovy is not only a groovy sounding word, groovy conveys a right-on-ness and musicality and, well, grooviness that no other word can convey. I know, I know, you associate groovy with other words from a time you’d rather forget or misremember, but compare groovy to the expression that is so gay and groovy is Shakespeare whereas that is so gay is barely Stephen King.

Speaking of short stories, here are the names of several fantastic short story writers (most of them dead) I’ve been gorging on of late. Some of these writers were openly gay, some closeted, some carefree, some burdened with guilt and sorrow and confusion. Some were flaming heterosexuals, some less flaming. Some were probably bisexual. Three are women, though only Edith is obviously so.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Guy de Maupassant, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Isak Dinesen, Paul Bowles, John Steinbeck, Frank O’Connor, A.S. Byatt, V.S. Pritchett, William Trevor, D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekov.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2010)

Psychic Leeches

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

The other night I caught the last twenty minutes of a spiritual talk show. My initial positive reaction to the guest speaker morphed into disaffection when I realized he was one of those guru types who believes he knows everything and nobody else has a clue. He also had zero detectable sense of humor, which always makes me wary, even when someone is talking about the collapse of the global ecosystem, which is what he was talking about, among other things. Then he said something about alien abductions and aliens invading earth disguised as humans in order to take over the planet and wipe out all the Homo sapiens because we’re destroying the earth and these beings from other planets want Earth intact because she’s such a rare and groovy planet in the vastness of space.

Alien takeovers are not my cup of tea, so I turned off the radio. I wanted to dismiss the guy as a wacko, but instead recalled a passage from Carlos Castaneda’s posthumously published book The Active Side of Infinity, which I recommend as a novel if you can’t buy it as a memoir, and who knows, maybe it is the truth. No matter. The passage I recalled was of Don Juan giving Castaneda a glimpse of a huge slug-like alien that had, indeed, invaded the earth and feeds on stress-induced human emotions, notably fear and sorrow and rage and anxiety.

And that reminded me of the Mayan shaman Martín Prechtel’s fabulous talk on Grief and Praise in which he says, and I paraphrase, that the spirits of the dead are nourished and vitalized by our tears. He means this in a positive way, for in the Mayan view we are in reciprocating relationships with the spirits, which is how multi-dimensional reality maintains its balance. Don Juan, on the other hand, assured Castaneda that these alien psychic leeches are definitely malo.

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Oscar Wilde

I used to think a psychic leech drew energy from us and gave nothing good back. I thought psychic leeches were typically hysterics or dead beats or drama queens, depressed, selfish, greedy, and exhausting to be with. Little did I know.

Some twenty years ago I was invited to join a small meditation group. There were six others in the group when I became a member. We met every other week in our host’s commodious living room, a fire burning in the hearth. We sat on the floor in a circle and meditated for an hour, after which we shared thoughts that had arisen during the communal silence. And then we would have supper and socialize.

The group became extremely important to me; these twice-monthly meetings providing me with a rare few hours of sanity and calm in my otherwise insanely unsettled life. Occasionally someone would invite a guest for a time or two, and if this guest then wished to join the group as a permanent member we had to be approve them unanimously. Within six months of my joining, two members left us and two new members were added.

One of the original members, I will call him R, only attended every second or third gathering. I found when R was not present my experience in meditation was always noticeably deeper. Indeed, in his absence, I felt the group often shared a remarkably deep communion. By contrast, when R was there, though our experiences were not unpleasant, we plumbed no great depths.

On a cold November evening, I arrived to find that R was in attendance and had brought a guest. A friendly woman of fifty, D was, by her own admission, overjoyed to be with us. Eager to please, she had brought a lavish feast of sushi and teriyaki salmon to thank us for allowing her to attend.

We arranged ourselves in a circle, our host performed a brief welcoming ceremony as was his custom, and we settled into quiet. And I immediately felt as rotten as I have ever felt. I had never in my forty-some years had a headache, but now my head was throbbing, my bones were aching, and it was all I could do not to groan in despair. Was there a gas leak or something toxic burning in the fire? When neither proved to be the case, I reviewed my recent food intake for possible sources of food poisoning.

I opened my eyes. Everyone was sitting perfectly still. Was I the only one feeling so miserable? And though I had no logical reason for thinking D was the cause of my distress, I knew she was. Never mind that beatific smile on her face, I was certain she was making me violently ill. Yet despite this intuitive certainty, I insisted to myself that I must be experiencing what meditation teachers say every practitioner eventually experiences: the painful truth of egoistic suffering.

By the end of our meditation, I was a sweaty mess. During the sharing-our-thoughts phase I said nothing, nor did anyone else say much, save for D who gushed about this being the happiest night of her life, and R saying that D’s presence had decided him not to quit the group because he was finally happy with the group dynamic.

I found it impossible to stay for D’s feast and had to restrain myself from screaming bloody murder as I ran out the door. The cold air was a salve, and after a few minutes in the winter chill I laughed aloud at my stunning shift from misery to joy. Indeed, so enormous was my relief, I told myself my misery couldn’t have been caused by D and must have been caused by…me.

I went to bed that night a few hours earlier than was my habit and slept like a stone for fifteen hours. I woke in the early afternoon feeling totally discombobulated. Did I have the flu? That would explain why I felt so horrible during meditation. Yet I had no symptoms other than exhaustion. Oh, well, I told myself. These things happen, though they had never happened to me before.

D was at our next gathering, gushing about how happy she was to be in our circle, how this was her dream come true. And, yes, she’d brought another fabulous feast. We took our places in the circle. Within a few minutes my head began to throb and my bones to ache. So I jumped up, grabbed my coat, and ran out the door, murmuring, “Not feeling well.”

I was absolutely entirely totally freaked out. I was also sad, for now I would have to quit the group. I didn’t want to be the lone vote against D. The others seemed fine and chummy with her. Too bad for me. I’d had a good run. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe. Etc.

The next morning, as I was rehearsing my resignation spiel, the host of our group called and invited me to go for coffee. We settled down in a cozy café and I was about to announce I was leaving the group, when he asked, “What do you think of D?”

“Um…I…she…”

“Made you sick,” he said, completing my thought. “Made everybody sick, except R.”

I was so relieved to learn I was not alone in my suffering I could have kissed the guy, only he wasn’t my type. “How does she do it?”

“She’s a psychic black hole.”

“A psychic black hole? You mean…”

“I’ve encountered a few others,” said my host, a seasoned psychotherapist, “though none so extreme as D. Seems impossible until you experience it. Friend of mine holds group therapy sessions at Esalen, and he says these kind of people are drawn there like flies to honey.”

“But what’s actually going on? I didn’t just feel drained, I felt invaded and poisoned. My bones ached and I was half-dead the next day.”

“That’s what’s going on,” he said, nodding. “The poison renders you defenseless so she can suck your life force. Or something like that. Defies belief, but it happened to you, right?”

To our collective relief, R was the only person who voted for D to become a permanent member. Terribly offended by our rejection of his friend, R quit in a huff, after which a year of marvelous communion ensued.

Two times in my life since then I have experienced what Ross Perot famously declared of Clinton’s NAFTA, “that giant sucking sound” as my life force was guzzled by beings who appeared on their surfaces to be regular old human folk. Do I believe psychic leeches are aliens? Well, that depends on your definition of alien. From another planet? I resist that idea. Surely we have all the ingredients for growing emotional vampires right here at home. Tibetan Buddhism refers to these beings as hungry ghosts. No matter how much they consume, their hunger can never be appeased. But why was R immune to D? Perhaps he and she were fellow aliens, or at least vultures of the same feather.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, August 2010. Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com)