Posts Tagged ‘John Steinbeck’

East of Eden

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

for East of Eden

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

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We recently watched the movie version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our main motivation for renting the movie was to see the village of Mendocino as she was captured on film in 1954. Mendocino exteriors were used to represent Monterey circa 1917, and if you’ve ever been to Monterey and Mendocino you’ll wonder why anyone, let alone an acclaimed filmmaker, would do such a thing; and if you’ve never been to Monterey and Mendocino you won’t give a hoot.

Directed by Elia Kazan from a putrid screenplay by Paul Osborn, the movie is a big mess, though the first half-hour of the film does feature some neato shots of the village in a time before many of the streets were paved and when there were still several buildings on the south side of Main Street. The space now occupied by Out Of This World was a bank in those days and a scene takes place therein, a scene in which, incredibly, two different women who own whorehouses are congratulated by the teller for their “nice deposits” and for being “in the right business.”

Wooden planks cover the stretch of sidewalk just west of Gallery Books that sixty years after the film was made still slopes steeply down to the street, several unmoving people with fishing nets occupy an alley near Crown Hall, and James Dean sits on the curb in front of where Dick’s bar is today, that hallowed curb unchanged since those famous buttocks lingered there.

Indeed, seeing James Dean traipsing along Main Street sporting a 1950’s hairdo and wearing 1950’s clothing (when the story is supposed to be taking place in 1917) is beyond surreal. Historical and geographical veracity meant nothing to these filmmakers, so if that sort of thing is important to you, avoid this movie. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing our village appearing so sunny and empty, vacant lots abounding—the population of Monterey in 1917 imagined by the filmmakers to be hovering somewhere around twenty-nine.

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” John Steinbeck from East of Eden

East of Eden, the movie, is very loosely based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s verbose allegorical novel that reimagines the myth of Cain and Abel, among other things. Steinbeck said of his novel East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

As much as I love Steinbeck’s short stories and some of his earlier novels, I fear his writing powers were on the wane when he wrote East of Eden, an overblown, preachy, poorly edited work, brimming with moralistic platitudes Steinbeck previously spared his readers.

“Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Much has been written about James Dean’s performance in East of Eden, largely because James Dean only made three movies before he died in a car crash at the age of twenty-four, after which he became a cultural icon, his name synonymous with disillusioned youth. The bad reviews that greeted his performances when he was alive were quickly forgotten and replaced with posthumous raves and a posthumous Academy Award for his role of Cal in East of Eden, an award that says much about our idolatry of the dead and little about Dean’s acting ability.

“When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I am curious to know what James Dean was aiming for with his performance in East of Eden. At the beginning of the movie, he seems to be imitating a petulant five-year-old trapped in the body of a Hollywood heartthrob. A few scenes later, he exhibits symptoms of brain damage resulting from a severe blow to the head. And then he acts like a sullen idiot who, despite his mental deficiencies, knows more than anyone else in the movie. Did Dean and Kazan hope to portray Cal as emotionally damaged as a result of his father telling him his mother was dead when she was really alive and making nice deposits in Mendocino, er, Monterey? Was Dean forever falling silent and doing crazy violent things to show the effects of the father, played in monotone by Raymond Massey, never loving his son? Or was Dean just a cute guy with nothing much to say?

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The real star of the movie is the prototypical girl-next-door played by a relentlessly upbeat Julie Harris. Talking a mile-a-minute, bathed in golden light whether day or night, she strives valiantly to make up for the movie’s massive deficiencies with rivers of earnest blabber about good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies—and she does so in scene after scene with her face about four inches away from the adorable mug of James Dean. Indeed, so close are their faces in dozens of scenes, that when Julie and James finally kiss, I sighed with relief that the inevitable collision was a fait accompli.

“Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The movie East of Eden begins with something called Overture. We know this because overture is spelled out in huge letters that clog the center of the screen for several minutes and obliterate the lovely shot of the village of Mendocino (ostensibly Monterey) seen from the south side of the mouth of Big River Bay. Yes, while cloying pseudo-modern 1950’s orchestral music sets the scene for 1917, a giant graphic turd—OVERTURE—hangs in the sky and blocks our view of paradise. And so the stage is set, the style and pace of the movie established, the trouble about to begin.

Greed Redux

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

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

“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” John Steinbeck

This may be a stretch, but stretching is good for us, so…it seems to me that everything going on with our psychotic leaders in Washington these days is concisely echoed on the local level and in our personal lives. This week the propaganda peeps refer to the ongoing fiscal crisis as the sequester (how Medieval sounding!) as opposed to the fiscal cliff they scared us with a couple months ago, but the crisis is the same crisis: greed. And the emotion perpetuating this greed is fear: the fear of not having enough. The fear driving our psychotic leaders, alas, is very real, while the basis for their fear is imagined.

I’ve long been fascinated by statistics showing that my generation, the so-called Baby Boomers and primary beneficiaries of that mythic era known as The Sixties—a time renowned for sharing and love and connecting with Mother Earth—are the most materialistic, greedy, self-serving people who have ever lived. Of course The Sixties didn’t cause us to become so anti-Sixties in our behavior; our parents are responsible for that, and our parents were children of the Great Depression, a time when their fear of not having enough had some basis in reality rather than fantasy. And, as it happens, most of the psychopaths now holding sway in our federal and state and local governments and courts are children of the children of the Great Depression.

My parents, for example, grew up skirting poverty and survived the Great Depression to become solidly middle-class. Our family was never in danger of starving or being evicted, yet when my siblings and I were little kids my mother would frequently rail at us during supper, usually under the influence of alcohol, that if my father failed to bring home money that very evening we would be headed for the Poor House. To my inventive young mind, the poor house was a large stone building with a dirt floor strewn with rotting straw; and that’s where we were going if my father didn’t come home with money. I wondered if I would go to the same school I was currently attending while we lived in the Poor House or if there was a Poor House school with cruel teachers who would beat us for talking out of turn, which was my great failing as a student.

By the time I was in my twenties, my parents were unquestionably wealthy, and that wealth continued to grow for the rest of their lives, yet they never for a moment felt they had enough money, and this feeling was so strong in them that it was only with the greatest difficulty they would share their money with anyone, including their own children. When my father died, he left behind a letter to me he had lacked the courage to send while he was alive, a letter in which he enumerated the two reasons he had never given me any money despite his having millions of dollars while I lived on the edge of poverty for many years. First, he did not want to support me on what he considered a frivolous and wrongheaded path as a writer and artist, and second, he did not think he had enough money for himself.

“Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” Mwai Kibaki

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, the city council was stacked with people in the service of unscrupulous real estate developers, and my arrival in town coincided with the election of a new council member who had campaigned as a vehement opponent of the idiotic and shortsighted development that was laying waste to the Sacramento area. And then, quite publicly, within just a few months of his election, this fellow moved from a low rent apartment into a fine new home in the best part of town and went to work for the very developers he had vowed to fight. My environmentalist friends who had been so jubilant about his election were saddened but barely surprised by his conversion, for such dramatic ideological shifts were commonplace in that deeply corrupt city.

I, in my innocence, became involved with groups in Sacramento pushing for environmentally sensible alternatives to the New General Plan for the future development of Sacramento. But after a few years of attending symposiums and planning commission meetings, and realizing there was absolutely zero public support for any substantive change in business as usual, I watched in horrified fascination as a bunch of amoral sharks engineered a huge land heist under the guise of bringing an NBA franchise to Sacramento, a heist that obviated any hope of decent mass transit to the airport and improving air quality in the city. And once I realized there was no stopping the annihilation of the Sacramento Valley, and to save myself from the ever worsening noxious fumes engulfing our state’s capitol, I got out of Dodge, and none too soon.

“For greed all nature is too little.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Meanwhile, our psychotic leaders, who enjoy at our expense free and excellent healthcare and fabulous annual salaries, continue to call each other names and spout idiotic gibberish about the economy while failing to do anything to help the many millions of Americans who are in dire economic straits because of the actions of excessively wealthy people and corporations who paid for the election of said psychotic leaders, for whom those millions of struggling Americans are not people, but lower forms of life.

I used to be amazed when otherwise sensitive and intelligent friends would speak of homeless people as a separate species of hominid from housed people. And though I knew this gross insensitivity came from their not really knowing any homeless people, I still found their tendency to dehumanize people shocking, until one day I had a moment of enlightenment while sailing on San Francisco Bay in a little sailboat with five other people, the five of them homeowners with rental properties, I the only renter in the party.

As I rejoined the group after fastening down a yardarm or some such nautical thing I’d been told to do, I found the conversation had changed from harbor seals to what at first I thought must be a discussion of how to get rid of rats or vermin, but turned out to be a griping session about the terrible species of hominid known as Homo Renterus. And after five minutes of listening to these otherwise perfectly nice, liberal, educated, self-proclaimed Buddhists referring to their renters in highly distasteful terms, I could hold my peace no longer and said, “Excuse me, but I am a renter routinely abused by my landlord, and I find this discussion deplorable. Might we change the subject?”

Needless to say, I was never invited to that party again, on land or sea. And what I took away from the experience was that there is something so inherently hierarchical about our culture (or is it our species?) that most people tend to dehumanize those they perceive to have less than they, and lionize those with more. My parents did this and many people I know do this, too, and I probably do the same thing without knowing I’m doing it, and I wonder what possible value such behavior could have in terms of cultural evolution, other than to maintain the status quo of the haves lording it over the have-nots.

“Compassion is the natural response to an open heart, but that wellspring of compassion remains capped as long as we turn away from or deny or resist the truth of what is there.” Joseph Goldstein

In my readings of Buddhist dharma, I come again and again to passages concerning the universality of suffering, and how we develop compassion by opening our hearts, both to our own suffering and the suffering of others. And it occurs to me that by dehumanizing others we spare ourselves the discomfort of opening our hearts to their suffering. If those landlords on that sailboat opened their hearts to the suffering of their tenants, they would no longer think of them as enemies. And if our psychotic leaders could open their hearts (assuming they have hearts) to the suffering of the American people and people in other countries, they would not be able to carry out their entirely self-serving policies that are so cruel and hurtful to so many.

So I’m working on ideas for bumper stickers about this and I’ve got the gist of what I want to say, but I need some help here. What do you think about OPEN YOUR HEARTS, YOU ASSHOLES! Or HEY YOU INSENSITIVE POOPHEADS, YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY HUMANS ON THIS SPACESHIP. Or YOU’RE NOT OKAY IF I’M NOT OKAY.

But maybe that’s being too subtle.

Receiving

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

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

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus, Acts 20:35

John Steinbeck’s preface to his wonderful The Log From the Sea of Cortez is a celebration of Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s friend and mentor and co-author of that fascinating record of their marine biological expedition to the Sea of Cortez—the text rich with philosophical asides. Steinbeck felt that Ed’s great talent and finest gift to his friends was his ability to receive, and in receiving with grace and delight and heartfelt gratitude, he gave the givers priceless gifts. The idea that receiving can be a gift contradicts hundreds of famous directives, Biblical and otherwise, but it seems deeply true to me.

Einstein said, “The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving.” But I don’t think Einstein really meant receiving, I think he meant getting or taking. Receiving involves surrendering, and that is the gift—opening our hearts to the giver.

One of my favorite books is a little tome entitled Love Is The Wine: Talks of A Sufi Master In America, the master in this case being Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak. Here is the beginning of his talk on Generosity.

Many years ago, a traveler came to a small town. The custom at those times was to open your door to whoever came as “God’s guests” as they were called. When someone knocked on your door and said, “I am God’s guest,” you were to invite him in, feed him, and give him a place to sleep.

The traveler came upon a group of townspeople and asked, “Is there a kind person in town who has space to put me up for the night? The next morning I will continue my journey.”

The townspeople said, “Well, yes, there is one person who does welcome guests. If you stay there, he will feed you, put you up, and be very kind to you. However, we have to warn you that he has a strange habit—in the morning, when you are leaving, he will beat you up.”

It was winter and very cold. The traveler said, “I’m not going to spend the night on the street, hungry. I will go and take what comes to me. I will eat, sleep in a warm room, and if he’ll beat me up, he’ll beat me up.”

The traveler knocked on the door and a very pleasant man opened the door. The traveler said, “I am God’s guest.” The man replied, “Oh, come in, please come in.”

He offered the traveler the best place and his best cushions. The traveler replied “Eyvallah.” (Eyvallah means “As you wish”. It literally signifies our willingness to accept whatever we are given—good or bad, delightful or unappetizing—remembering that it comes from God.)

“May I put a pillow behind you to make you more comfortable?”

“Eyvallah.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host brought out a delicious dinner, and then asked his guest if he would like some more.

“Eyvallah.”

The host said, “Coffee?”

“Eyvallah.”

“Would you like a cigarette?”

“Eyvallah.”

“May I make up your bed?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host made up a wonderfully soft bed and put a feather comforter on it.

“Would you like some water before you go to sleep?”

“Eyvallah.”

In the morning the host was up early. He asked the traveler, “Would you like some breakfast?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host served a wonderful breakfast.

Once breakfast was finished the traveler realized it was time to take leave of his host. After the stories he had heard, he was afraid of what might happen, though this man had just devoted almost a day to take care of him. “I would like to take my leave now,” he said, fearfully.

The host replied kindly. “Eyvallah,” and added, “You seem to be a man without much money. Would you permit me to give you some money?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host gave him ten pieces of gold. The traveler thought to himself, what a beating I’m going to get after this!

The host saw him to the door, saying, “May God go with you. Goodbye.” The astonished traveler said, “I beg your pardon? There is terrible gossip going around about you. You are the most generous person I have ever seen. They say that you act hospitably with guests but that in the morning you beat them up. May I go and spread the word that you do no such thing, that you are a wonderful man and wonderful host?”

The host said, “No, no. What they say is true.”

The astonished guest said, “But you did not treat me that way.”

“No, you are different. My other guests are much more trouble. When I offer them the best place in my house they say, ‘Oh no, no thank you, you sit there.’ When I offer them coffee they reply, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to bother you.’ I ask them to have dinner and they say, ‘No, it will make too much fuss.’ Those people I certainly beat in the morning.”

“We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing.” Billy Graham

When I was forty-eight, I blew out my knee and was on crutches for six months. I was living alone in a second-floor dwelling and did not have a washing machine and dryer, nor did I have a car or any feasible way to get to a coin-op laundry, let alone to a grocery store. This was the first time in my adult life I was so incapacitated I had to ask friends for help, something I had never done before and something I found almost impossible to do.

I will never forget the day my friend Mindy came to get my laundry to take to her house to wash. “Your sheets are scary,” she opined, glancing at my unmade bed. “I’ll wash those, too.”

“No,” I said, trembling with shame. “You can’t.”

She smiled quizzically. “Why not?”

“Well,” I said, panicking, “I just…they…”

I sat on my living room sofa listening to her strip my bed and I became so upset and so terrified, I shouted, “Stop! You don’t have to do that. I’ll…I can do it. I’ll wash them in the bathtub and…”

“Cool it,” she said, coming out of my bedroom. “I enjoy helping you. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”

In those couple of hours, I came face-to-face with a big fat fundamental rule governing my life: no one was allowed to do anything for me; and that rule, otherwise known as a crippling neurosis, explained the nature and quality of my relationships with women up to that point in my life, as well as the nature and quality of all but a few of my friendships. I could never have asked the host in that Sufi tale to put me up for the night, but would have spent the night on the freezing streets if I lacked money to pay for a room.

I’m a little better—fifteen years later—about allowing people to do things for me, but only because of practice gained while I was ill or injured and needed help from others in order to survive. And what I find most fascinating about my particular neurosis is the large number of people I have met who suffer from the same malady.

Where did this crippling neurosis come from? One therapist I spoke with suggested that as the child of alcoholic parents I became a classic enabler at a very early age. In order to avoid my parents’ wrath, I learned to fend for myself, to do my parents’ bidding in hopes of pleasing them, and to ask as little as possible from them. As the therapist was suggesting this to me, I remembered that one of the very first things I learned to do for my parents—I was six-years-old—was to make coffee for them in the morning.

Knowing how miserable and angry my mother was until she’d had two cups of coffee, I would get up long before anyone else in the family, tiptoe into the kitchen, climb onto a high stool, fill the kettle with water, and start it heating on the electric range. Then I would open a drawer adjacent to the electric range and take out a big round piece of brown filter paper, which I would fold in half and then in half again so the folded filter would fit into the top of the hour-glass-shaped Pyrex coffee maker. Then I would spoon seven scoops of Hills Brothers’ dark roast coffee from a two-pound can into the filter and pour boiling water over the ground coffee again and again until the bottom of the hourglass was full of black brew.

I remember that for the first year or so of making coffee for my mother, I lacked the strength to lift the kettle high enough to pour water onto the coffee in the filter atop the hourglass, so I would pour the boiling water into a metal bowl and use a ladle to scoop the water over the coffee. After the coffee was brewed, I would make my lunch for school: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana. Then, if my mother hadn’t gotten up and come into the kitchen, I would tiptoe down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and say quietly, “Mommy, your coffee is ready.”

Eyvallah.

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)