Posts Tagged ‘John Trudell’

Getting Well

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

“Programming our intelligence with illusion and fantasy of there’s something wrong with us and enough isn’t enough and too much isn’t too much then turning us loose on ourselves and the world.” John Trudell

My folks are no longer alive, but the shame I feel for doing what I love still surfaces now and then to remind me of how terribly jealous my father was of his own children and how angry my mother was about having her creative ambitions so painfully thwarted. The famous quote by Carl Jung, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent,” elucidates a big part of my mother’s influence on me, while Jennifer James sums up my father with, “Jealousy is simply and clearly the fear that you do not have value.”

My parents were relentlessly verbally abusive of me, and on a few terrible occasions my alcoholic father resorted to physical violence that severely injured me. When I was eleven years old, he nearly killed me. I blocked all memory of this most vicious assault until my fortieth year when a vivid movie of the attack emerged from the archives of my memory. Watching that old footage sent me racing into therapy for the first time in my life.

Therapy saved me, and that does not overstate the case. My savior was a down-to-earth woman who could read in my facial expressions and physical mannerisms the unspoken text of my self-doubt, and she would bring my attention to these physical cues so I might become aware of them and explore the deeper feelings they were attached to.

Of the many discoveries I made in therapy, the most overwhelming one was that I was so entirely acclimated to being told I was worthless, I created most of my relationships to support my parents’ foundational message: no matter what you do, Todd, it isn’t good enough. Which meant I wasn’t good enough. For anything or anyone. So why go on living?

“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.” Malcolm X

Having known many struggling artists, I am well aware that my back-story (as they call the past in Hollywood) is hardly unique. Indeed, I have yet to meet an artist whose memoir could truthfully begin, “My parents lovingly supported me in all my artistic pursuits.” This is not to suggest that abuse and the resultant self-loathing are prerequisites to becoming an artist, though certainly such emotional history typifies the lives of many American and European artists, especially those artists creating things that don’t fit neatly into the stifling little boxes maintained by our corporate-sponsored academic/cultural mafia.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! 
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
 the meat it feeds on. 
William Shakespeare

When I lived in Berkeley I was in the habit of listening to the radical pinko radio station KPFA. Shortly before the most recent American invasion of Iraq, in anticipation of a huge anti-war demonstration, one of the radio hosts invited two of the demonstration’s organizers onto his show to talk about the upcoming march. To my chagrin, though not to my surprise, these two fellows spent twenty minutes of the half-hour show arguing about which of them was the more authentic (for lack of a better word) radical. As I listened to these two “revolutionaries” demean each other and recite extensive proof of their radical pedigrees, I recalled an old friend saying, “The Right has nothing to fear from the Left because we would much rather fight amongst ourselves than actually unite in any substantive way.”

A related phenomenon is that of outsider artists and musicians (outside the mainstream) attacking and undermining each other rather than joining forces ala The Impressionists to collectively bring their creations to a larger audience. As a former devotee of open mike nights (vaudeville enacted in pubs by anyone wishing to perform), which I’m guessing grew out of the egalitarian poetry and folk music scenes of the 1960’s, I have experienced love fests wherein every performer of every imaginable level of talent was resoundingly applauded for simply having the courage to perform, and I have suffered through hateful competitions where the audience might as well have been a mob thirsting for blood, applause begrudged, the more talented the performer, the more openly despised she was.

My favorite thing to do at open mikes, in either scenario, was to interview my fellow performers, to learn their back-stories, and to ask them what they hoped to accomplish with their performances. And I was fascinated to discover that virtually everyone who came to these open mikes—old and young, hopeful amateur and fallen professional, men and women, talented and tone deaf, told tales kin to mine and containing the same essential elements.

1. Missing or disapproving parents

2. An abiding sense of being different, not fitting in

3. Finding solace in their art

4. Idolizing social and artistic renegades

5. Criticized and rejected for their art and lifestyle choices

6. Fierce determination to succeed and prove the naysayers wrong

7. Choosing poverty over giving up or compromising their art

8. Substance abuse to numb the pain of failure and rejection

9. Lousy relationships

10. The dream/belief they will be discovered by someone who makes of them a star

Based on my open mike experiences and interviews, I eventually wrote a screenplay for a musical comedy/tragedy entitled Open Mike, though #10 (see above) has yet to befall my opus.

“Depression is rage spread thin.” George Santayana

When I turned fifty I was at the lowest point in my career as a musician and writer, and I sank into the deepest and longest lasting depression of my life. After a tortuous year of living under what felt like the gravity of Jupiter, and desperate to understand what was happening to me, I came upon a book of essays by the psychiatrists Sylvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad with a title that minced no words: Severe and Mild Depression. One of the essays by Arieti presented a case study of a novelist with a life so like mine I gasped at every sentence.

Prior to his most severe depression, this novelist only exhibited mild symptoms of depression when he was between novels, at which times he would quickly launch himself into writing a new novel. Thus he, as I, managed to outrun and subsume his depression by pouring his energy and attention into his novels for thirty years until exhaustion and failure finally caught up to him. Furthermore, his sustaining fantasy, and mine, was that he would eventually write a novel so great and successful that he would be lifted out of his dreary life into a realm of exquisite happiness wherein his previously rejecting mother and/or father, as well as their embodiment in his wife or lover, would at long last love him.

Reading Arieti’s words, I had an epiphany. I must henceforth give up the unreasonable hope of winning the approval of people incapable of approving of me, for they will never approve of anyone, least of all themselves, and I must learn to accept myself for who and what I am here and now, and not for what I fantasize about becoming.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Without question, the most hateful critics of my writing and music have been fellow artists. Before I got well, to the extent I have, I maintained relations with several angry and deeply bitter artists to whom I gave money I could ill afford to give, and praise, often false, I hoped would soothe them. Our rules of engagement were that I would support and encourage everything they did, and never dare offer suggestions about their music or art. In exchange, they would feel entitled to denigrate me, and to spit on any of my creations I was foolish enough to share with them. These relationships were such obvious re-enactments of my relationship with my father and mother it seems laughable I was unaware of the parallels, but before the veil is lifted we are blind.

After many years of working hard to reform my psychic operating system, I thought I had successfully exorcised the last of these destructive folk from my life, but a few days ago I was made aware of one such person I had overlooked. Having just released my first CD of solo piano music, 43 short Piano Improvisations, the culmination (so far) of forty-five years of piano practice and exploration, I received a letter that ranks among the most sickening and cruel attacks I have ever experienced. This letter was not a critique of my music, but reviled me for daring to make music at all, and as such recalled my mother’s rage and my father’s sense of worthlessness they both so diligently impressed upon me.

“Fortunately,” I wrote to my assailant, “I am finally well enough to trust my own judgment about what I wish to share with others, so that your most unkind words will not deter me.”

Todd’s CD 43 short Piano Improvisations is available from iTunes and UnderTheTableBooks.com

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2010)

Think

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

(This piece was originally published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser under the title “John Trudell and Me”)

John Trudell made an appearance at the Caspar Community Center a few weeks ago. I have listened to his provocative CD DNA a number of times, and I have admired him in the movies Thunderheart, Smoke Signals, and most recently as Coyote in Dreamkeeper. His impromptu 90-minute talk reiterated much of what he says on DNA, with one fabulous (for me) digression about Obama. This digression stated almost word-for-word what I have been saying to people for some months now, but coming from Trudell such intuitive analysis was greeted with applause rather than the snorts of derision that tend to greet my elucidations of “what’s really going on here.”

Trudell is big on thinking. As he says again and again, when we’re believing, we’re not thinking. When we limit ourselves to believing something, we close our minds to the possibility that the thing we believe in may have changed or disappeared. Trudell is skeptical that we have a democracy in America. If we believe we have a democracy, we will be closed to the possibility that we never had a democracy or that our democracy may be swiftly turning into something else.

In his digression about Obama, Trudell asked us to consider the possibility that Obama was installed as president by the ruling elite to further their ongoing agenda, just as Bill Clinton was crowned in order to complete the stalled works of his predecessor George the First. These works included the passage of NAFTA, the dismantling of Welfare and other aspects of the social safety net, the hastening of deregulation (of everything), and the demolition of unions. Trudell did not say what he thought Obama was installed to do, but he asked us to think of the economic meltdown and the government response to it as part of a larger plan, a plan that is working precisely as it is intended to work. He does not think the meltdown and the ensuing breakdown of our local and state governments are merely the repercussions of “some bankers making mistakes.” He thinks the overlords have installed Obama to oversee the next steps of their plan, though he did not specify what he thought those steps might be.

So I’ve been thinking about everything with new zeal, feeling validated by Trudell, and this morning my wife Marcia said something that crystallized much of what I’ve been thinking about. We were talking about the seemingly moronic proposal by the governator and his Republican minions to close our state parks. Such a plan makes no economic sense in the short or long term. It will hurt low-income vacationers. It will hurt local economies nurtured by state park use. And, Marcia said, it sets the stage for the privatization of the parks.

Think. All those wonderful state parks left unattended. Here come the armies of the newly impoverished to squat therein. What can be done? Call out the gendarmes. No gendarmes available due to budget cuts? Call out the National Guard and then privatize the parks. Lease them for, oh, a hundred years to private companies who will manage/protect them with private security forces. Entry fees will have to be exclusively high and those entering cannot be on any list of any sort of suspect. And then to pay for all this (to protect the park for future generations, of course) luxury homes must be built, tennis courts and a golf courses installed, with chic bistros riverside and lakeside and oceanside so the campers/residents won’t have to travel beyond the walls to dine. There will, of course, be high walls encircling the enclaves, er, parks. Far fetched?

Not at all. Consider the latest leaks reported in the mass media. It now appears Obama won’t have enough support in Congress, even among Democrats (imagine that?) to include a public option in any healthcare proposal. In which case, the healthcare situation will worsen and create more recruits for the army of the poor, as will the firing of eighteen thousand California public school teachers, a firing that will leave most inner city schools in California understaffed and essentially unmanageable, except as de facto jails. Oh, yes, and Obama himself has just announced he wants to cut over 300 billion dollars from Medicare and Medicaid, thus impoverishing many thousands more.

Meanwhile, there’s no budget shortfall for the military. In the absence of decent paying jobs, military recruiters are swamped with volunteers and we are swiftly growing a huge and robust military for wars abroad and quelling unrest at home.

As Trudell said several times during his talk, “I’m crazy, okay. I’m just talking. I don’t know anything. I’m just saying…think.”

School just got out for the summer, the kids shouting their goodbyes from the school bus trundling through Mendocino. And a year from now, school, what’s left of it, will be getting out again. If you believe the economy and our schools will be better than they are now because the experts on NPR and in the mainstream media say the economy seems to be stabilizing and a recovery is on the way, you are, to quote John Trudell, not thinking.