Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

Stuff of Dreams

Monday, August 28th, 2017

233totality

totality diptych by Max Greenstreet

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare

There’s an old vaudeville routine in which a guy goes to a doctor, painfully lifts his arm above his head and says, “Doc, every time I do this, it hurts like crazy.” The doctor looks at the guy and says, “Don’t do that.”

I recently had a run of lousy nights of sleep. When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I am not a happy camper the next day—an afternoon nap my only hope of regaining equipoise. While searching for reasons why I was sleeping poorly after a spate of nights when I slept like a well-exercised child with a clear conscience, I realized I’d been reading national news within a few hours of going to bed.

To which the vaudeville doctor said, “Don’t do that.”

So I stopped reading or viewing any news for a few days and thereafter limited my intake to a little news in the morning; and thereafter having a good night’s sleep became much less problematic.

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

For most of the days of my life for the last forty-five years I’ve been writing a novel or play or screenplay or collection of stories. I write these longer works sequentially, not simultaneously. I’ve tried to write multiple works of fiction simultaneously a few times in my life, and my muse is never pleased. However, she does not mind sorties into non-fiction while I’m creating my larger fictive works. I theorize that my fiction writing employs neural pathways distinct from those used for writing non-fiction; thus the two processes do not collide.

My dreams, on the other hand, seem to share neural pathways with my fiction writing, and if I drift off to sleep thinking about the novel I’m writing, my dreams will compose scenes, often nonsensical, to fit, sort of, the fiction I’m working on. These dream/fiction hybrids can disturb my sleep much as nightmares will, so I try to leave my work at the office, so to speak, when I lay me down to sleep, though I’m not always successful at keeping my characters and plot twists at bay.

“In my dream, I am your customer, and the customer is always right.” Laurie Anderson

Over the course of my adult life, I’ve remembered dozens of dreams in which I am giving a piano concert for an enormous audience, or I am about to give such a concert. In some of these dreams, I enter the concert hall, see the piano I am supposed to perform on, and various obstacles and detours keep me from ever reaching the piano. In other dreams, I make it to the stage, sit down at the piano, and find keys missing or the piano is terribly out-of-tune or the piano is full of vines or cats or naked women, and is therefore unplayable. Or I begin to play and the keyboard disintegrates.

However, in two of my piano dreams, the pianos remained intact and I played gorgeous danceable music, my fingers incapable of making mistakes, every note just right—and the crowd went wild.

“Sleep is the best meditation.” Dalai Lama

The brain/body/mind consortium is highly suggestible. I often forget to remember this. But when I do remember how suggestible my system is, and I take a few minutes before falling asleep to suggest to my brain/body/mind that I will sleep wonderfully well and wake rested and full of energy, I very often do.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I’ve always liked this pronouncement of Jung’s, which I take to mean that our unconscious patterns of behavior shape our waking lives as much or more than the conscious choices we make. From what I’ve read by and about Jung, I think he might also have said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it will express itself in our dreams, and we can interpret those dreams to help us uncover and perhaps overcome some of those unconscious patterns of behavior that are interfering with our happiness.”

Joseph Campbell frequently recounted the story of Jung undergoing psychoanalysis and reaching a profound impasse that stymied him for several months until he had an epiphany about the most blissful activity of his childhood: building little stone houses and villages. So he “followed his bliss”, bought some land on the shores of Lake Zürich, and built a stone house. While building this house, he had a series of dreams, the interpretations of which helped him overcome the impasse in his psychoanalysis.

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

Marcia and I both had bizarre dreams last night. Marcia’s dream involved going on a quest to find beer for the many uninvited guests crowding into the living room of our house that was not our house. She eventually made it all the way from Mendocino to India and forgot about trying to find beer.

My dream starred two darling children and their young mother who were trying to teach me their language, which seemed to be a mixture of Spanish and Arabic. I was sitting facing a large blackboard on which the children took turns writing words they wanted me to learn. One of the words was arastó. The children gleefully shouted arastó, but wouldn’t tell me what it meant.

Then a handsome young man entered the room and said his name was Abababus. He warned me to never forget the second ba when saying his name. I woke from this dream and could not go back to sleep until I got up and wrote down Abababus, lest I forget the second ba.

What caused these dreams? Marcia theorizes my spaghetti sauce—turmeric, cumin, garlic, various unusual heirloom tomatoes, red wine, olive oil—may have been the author of our dreams.

There We Were

Monday, December 12th, 2016

La Entrada

La Entrada (Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company) ©2016  David Jouris / Motion Pictures

“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso

When Marcia gave me the news of the terrible fire and deaths of many young people in the Oakland warehouse that had become a haven for artists, I first worried about a few young people I know in Oakland who would have been attracted to such a scene. When I confirmed those few were alive and well, I settled into grieving for those who died in that conflagration.

Their tragic deaths are no more tragic than the thousands of deaths in Syria and other war zones around the world, no more tragic than those dying in shootings in cities and towns in America and many other countries, no more tragic than those dying from lack of access to decent healthcare, but the death of those dozens of young people hit me especially hard because when I was in my teens and twenties, the artistic ferment in that warehouse scene would have been highly enticing to me.

When I was twenty-two, I rented an old three-bedroom house in Santa Cruz with my friend Thom and we invited seven other people to live with us. The garage became a bedroom/potter’s studio, the sunroom off the living room became two bedrooms, the master bedroom became two smaller bedrooms, and the basement became a bicycle repair shop and art studio. We got an old piano to go with our many guitars. We often had several overnight guests, and we were the in-town mail drop and crash pad for two rural communes.

Our collective took shape spontaneously, was highly imperfect, and ultimately dissolved, but for a few years we provided a safe, warm, stimulating home for young artists and those intrigued by living in ways counter to the dominant cultural paradigm—none of us with much money.

Men’s groups and Women’s groups and musical groups used the living room for meetings and rehearsals, we dined communally, we had a big vegetable garden, we helped each other through illnesses, and we encouraged each other to pursue whatever it was we wanted to pursue. People came and went; we adjusted. We were trying to figure out how to be happy without following the dictates of our parents and societal norms aimed at making us obedient and unimaginative servants of the overlords.

Nowadays in California, nothing is cheap. That house the nine of us rented for four hundred dollars a month in 1972 is worth at least three million dollars today. For young artists and fringe dwellers without much money, California is no longer an easy place wherein to find a niche. And yet, there in Oakland, in that unworthy warehouse, something kin to our Santa Cruz communes tried to happen again in response to the exorbitant cost of living in the Bay Area.

We have an odd culture. In nursery school and kindergarten and through the first few grades in American schools, making art and music and inventing games and writing fiction and poetry are encouraged. These are the most formative years in our lives, so no wonder the seeds of making art take hold in so many. But then, strangely and abruptly, the message is reversed. Art is not practical say our parents and teachers. Making art, writing stories, making music, those are games, not real work. Furthermore, except for a lucky few, society and economic reality will not support those who try to make livings as artists.

But the seeds of artistry have taken hold, and happiness for many people is bound up in focusing their energies on being creative artists. Those who can be happy making art as a hobby while working at so-called real jobs will not be so conflicted as are those who identify themselves as artists in a society that does not support artists. Self-identity drives us. Those who must be artists will live in garages or derelict warehouses rather than take jobs that have no meaning for them.

This is not to suggest our society should be more supportive of artists, but to say I understand why those young people chose to live and dance in a death trap. I understand why I chose to live on little money and no health insurance and no car for much of my life: so I could be an artist first and foremost.

When I dropped out of college to pursue my dream of becoming a professional writer and musician, my mother was heartbroken. Several times over the next ten years, she urged me to go back to college and offered to pay my way if I would do so. In my thirties, she started suggesting I join a trade union and become a plumber or an electrician.

“Write for fun,” she would say. “Play music for fun. You don’t want to be poor when you get old. We are young for a short time and old for a long time. Being poor when you’re young isn’t easy, but when you get old, being poor is unbearable. A living death.”

But it takes all kinds. We do what we do. I think of those young people, many of them artists, dancing to original live music in that warehouse, and I am filled with sadness that they died so young. I see myself there, dancing with them. I see my artist friends dancing with them, too. I hear Joseph Campbell saying, “The path of an artist is one of great danger.” But so is it dangerous to stifle our passions, for that, too, can be a living death.

 

Your Bliss

Monday, May 30th, 2016

from the chair tw

From The Chair painting by Nolan Winkler

“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.” P. G. Wodehouse

Joseph Campbell used the expression “follow your bliss” when speaking about Jung’s discovery that reconnecting with a favorite childhood activity in adulthood was a great help in overcoming obstacles to his well-being. Sadly, this expression was immediately misinterpreted out of context, and Campbell was accused of promoting hedonism and other self-serving isms.

But the gist of what Campbell spoke about was, I think, a profound discovery, and one I have used to good effect as a writing teacher and to help puzzle my way through various emotional labyrinths. Campbell states the question Jung asked himself thusly (and I paraphrase): What repeated activity of my childhood was so involving, I lost all track of time when under the spell of that activity?

For Jung that childhood activity was building little stone houses and villages. So as an adult, following his remembered bliss, he undertook the building of a large stone house. As the house took shape, he had many dreams; and his interpretations of those dreams allowed him to move through a difficult time in his own psychoanalysis and successfully complete the process.

When I worked with teenaged writers, I would ask them to write responses to Jung’s question, and this proved a grand catalyst for their writing. Older writers were also inspired by this question, but many of them claimed they could not remember their childhoods; so I would ask them to imagine what their bliss might have been, and writing about that proved as inspiring as their actual memories.

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” MGM Executive reacting to Fred Astaire’s screen test in 1928

When I was a young writer in the days before online digital computerized anything, and before I learned that most publishing companies and magazines would only consider work sent to them by a literary agent, I mailed off rafts of stories and manuscripts to magazines and publishers, and got back rafts of rejection slips. In those days, relatively few people embarked on the writer’s path, and my housemates were curious about my career choice. One of those housemates, Maureen, was particularly fascinated by my persistence in the face of continuous and overwhelming rejection.

One day Maureen brought me my mail—a few letters from friends and a flotilla of rejections—and asked, “Why do you do this? Seems like you’re punishing yourself?”

I had never thought of sending out my stories for inevitable rejection as self-punishment, but the idea took root in my mind and I stopped sending my work to magazines and publishers. Almost immediately my desire to write began to wane, and I realized that submitting my writing was an important part of my process—a reason to rework and refine my stories. Without that intention, I was not inspired to write several drafts of each story, for I no longer had even an imaginary audience I wished to please, nor did I have the inspiration of the dream of being published and paid for my work.

Nowadays, I write my stories and books to share with a handful of interested readers and to satisfy my curiosity about the intriguing characters inhabiting my imagination, though my dreams tell me that I am also still motivated by the idea of my books and stories finding a larger audience.

“Art does not come and lie in the beds we make for it. It slips away as soon as its name is uttered: it likes to preserve its incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets its very name.” Jean Dubuffet

In Oaxaca in 1970, I was wandering on the fringes of a large open-air market and heard beautiful music emanating from the maze of vendors. I followed my ears and came upon a blind woman playing a mandolin and a blind man playing the guitar, both of them singing. Their playing was superb, their voices gorgeous, their harmonies fabulous, and their intoxicating songs unlike anything I had ever heard or would ever hear again.

I sought them out every day of that week I was in Oaxaca so I could steep for hours in their fabulous playing and singing. They were in rags, received little money for their performing, and were dependent on a sighted boy to lead them around. I gave them what money I could spare, which was not much, and I still remember them and their marvelous music forty-five years after I last heard them.

I was twenty and just learning to play the guitar when I heard those remarkable musicians in Oaxaca. Three years later, I formed a group with a mandolin player and we played in taverns and cafés in the Santa Cruz, from which I made enough for rent and food—the songs I wrote infused with the music of those two musicians I listened to so avidly in Oaxaca.

“We make things for somebody. This idea of art for art’s sake is a hoax.” Pablo Picasso

I agree with Picasso, for even an imagined somebody is somebody. I once read a translation of a Lakota holy man who suggested we are never alone, never unheard, never unseen, because the nature spirits are always aware of us and ready to interact with us.

When I lived in Berkeley, my friend Katje came to visit for a few days. Katje was an opera singer possessed of a superb voice, and she would wait for me to leave on my errands before practicing the arias she was working on, practice requiring a great deal of repetition. Despite my declaration that I enjoyed listening to her practice, she was concerned about imposing on me with her loud and repetitive singing.

One afternoon, I returned from my wandering in the outer world and found four of my neighbors standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, listening reverently to Katje sing.

Roads Not Taken

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Roads Not Taken

Trail To Garfield Peak (Crater Lake 2015) photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell

Do you sometimes look back on your life and recall those turning points that made you the chiropractor you are today instead of a tax attorney, a real estate agent instead of a dance instructor, a massage therapist instead of a taxidermist, a school teacher instead of a stockbroker, a hedge fund billionaire instead of a white water tour guide—or vice-versa?

Or your daughter calls you from her dorm at Pepperdine and says something that makes you think of the dance your sophomore year in college when you snubbed Andy Philips who was crazy about you because you thought he was dorky, though you liked him and laughed easily with him and you both loved Dickens and bird watching and Joni Mitchell and Emily Dickinson, and you adored Andy’s voice and sense of humor, but you were smitten with Brad Hamilton who was a total hunk, so you did everything in your power to seduce him, and you succeeded and got pregnant and married Brad, though you and he had nothing in common, and you ended up with three kids in Modesto where Brad is a clerk at Home Depot and you are a legal secretary.

So you Google Andy Philips and here he is, a professor of Poetics at the Institute For Transcendent Happiness on the island of Majorca, and the picture of him with his adorable cockapoodle Artemis on the shores of the Mediterranean is so lovely, and Andy, Andrew, is so handsome and lean and romantic looking you want to scream, but before you can scream Brad waddles into the room, bald and enormously fat, and says he can’t find the remote for the television and the game is just about to start—where is it?

But sometimes you look back over your life and see a key moment when you took a certain road that changed your destiny, not because you wanted to take that road, but because forces seemingly beyond your control forced you to go in a direction you might otherwise not have gone. I say seemingly in deference to those who believe we create our own karma, and even forces seemingly beyond our control are set in motion by our unconscious expectations of how things are supposed to be.

“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I was in my early twenties and roaming around the country, my supreme wish was to break into the movie business and eventually write and direct movies. But how could I do that as a vagabond in Vermont, hitchhiking to Canada, my destination Montreal? Three weeks earlier, I had been refused entrance into Canada because I lacked sufficient funds—two hundred dollars—and therefore qualified as a potential vagrant and drain on the Canadian economy.

This was when thousands of American youth were taking advantage of Canada’s marvelous system of hostels providing free meals and beds to transients—yay for socialism—and the Canadian border guards were under orders to do what they could to restrict the influx of undesirables from America.

So I had gone back down into New England, worked on farms, hauled crab traps, and washed dishes in restaurants until I amassed two hundred smackers, and now I was on my way to try those border guards again.

I was standing by the road, my cardboard sign reading MONTREAL, lost in yet another fantasy of my meteoric rise as a filmmaker, when a car driven by two friendly men stopped for me. I loaded my guitar and backpack and myself into their back seat, and off we went. They asked where I was going and who I was, and after my brief autobiography, they informed me they were filmmakers, had just completed a documentary about Tiny Tim (the longhaired fellow who played ukulele and sang ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips’) and were on their way to Quebec City to make a movie about a famous bike race.

We got along splendidly and they offered me a job assisting them on their film. I could hardly believe my good fortune. At the border, they showed their passports to a young border guard, he welcomed them to Canada, and then he asked me to get out of their car and show him two hundred dollars, which I did, much to his surprise and chagrin.

“Can we go now?” asked one of the filmmakers. “We’re due in Quebec City tonight.”

“You can go,” said the guard, “but I have to search this guy’s stuff. Lots of drugs being smuggled into Canada these days.”

So the filmmakers left me at the border and said if I could get to Quebec City the next morning, the job was mine.

Overhearing their offer to me, the guard made sure I would never make it to Quebec City the next morning. He tore my pack apart. He crushed my aspirin pills to see if they were cocaine. He measured the largest blade on my Swiss Army knife to determine if I was carrying a concealed weapon. He jumbled my food and clothing together and unrolled my sleeping bag and tent on top of the jumble. I knew he wanted me to protest his absurd search so he could use my belligerence to deny me entry, but I gave him no such satisfaction, and finally, with darkness and a hard rain falling, he let me walk into Canada.

I camped in the woods that night, a mile past the border, and the next day, after waiting for several hours, I caught a ride with a longhaired guy smuggling several pounds of marijuana into Montreal. I suppose I could have hitchhiked to Quebec City the next day and begged those filmmakers to take me on, but I chose instead to spend the next week busking on the streets of Montreal and gawking at the gorgeous French Canadians.

Being Gotten

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Cat and jamming

Cat and Jamming photo by Marcia Sloane

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

You remember, I’m sure, that time you went to a party with no great expectation of anything beyond munching and drinking and blah-dee-blah, and you met someone with whom you had phenomenal rapport, so much so that your time with them was an amazing emotional and intellectual pas de dux that made you feel better than you’d felt in a long time. And the next day, when you thought about the connection you had with that person, you realized that what made the experience so special was that this person really ­got you, and you really got them, which is to say, the person truly madly deeply heard you, saw you, grokked you, dug you, liked you, and resonated powerfully with your feelings and perceptions, and vice-versa, which made you feel less alone and more…gotten, which is to say you felt less isolated on your own little island of self and more connected to the great big everything.

I know what some of you are thinking; this is another pile of Todd’s hackneyed psycho-spiritual crap. And I know what some others of you are thinking; that being gotten is exactly what you’ve been thinking about lately and you’re thrilled I’m writing about this. Put another way: you get me or you don’t.

What’s your point, Todd? That’s one of those questions I am frequently asked by people who don’t get me. I’m sure that happens to you, too. You’ve done your best to say what you mean, and you’ve said what you’ve said because you really want to communicate those thoughts and feelings, and someone responds with, “What’s your point?” which always reminds me of those angry, humorless literalists I have known and wasted my time trying to placate, except such people cannot be placated because…psychology.

If you’re over fifty, you know the song Alfie by Hal David and Burt Bacharach that opens with “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Those lines remind me of Joseph Campbell saying, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” Beyond merely surviving, I think the point of our human lives is to find and commune with people we truly deeply get and who truly deeply get us, to engage in mutually supportive emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual exchanges and dances and meals and drinking cups of warm liquids and having conversations and taking walks and experiencing simultaneous epiphanies that make us feel meaningfully connected to each other, which in turn connects us to the great big everything.

Ah, good. Now that you-know-who has stopped reading, I will continue.

I recently came out with a CD of my original piano music called Incongroovity, my fourth piano album (I still call them albums.) If you’re an artist or a musician or a chef or a designer or any sort of creative person and out-of-the-box thinker, which I’ll bet most of you still reading this are, then you know about those moments of doubt and wondering and hope and fear and excitement and dread and exaltation and despair and curiosity and girding your loins for disapproval and dreaming of passionately positive responses when you present a new creation or thought or feeling to the world. Your hope, your desire, your fervent wish, is that someone, and maybe more than one someone, but at least one someone, will really get what you’re trying to communicate, and that they’ll let you know they got you.

Why do we need someone else to validate who we are and what we do? I think we’re hardwired that way. We can learn to need less validation from others and to heed our own counsel and judgment more than we heed the cawing of cynics and emotionally stunted self-righteous know-it-alls who never have anything nice to say, but because being human is about communing with others of our kind, about hooking up with those who get us, we crave being gotten by others. Why? Because being gotten is an elixir, a cure for the blues, the antidote to doubt, the source of inspiration, and possibly what it’s all about, Alfie or Jane or Akbar or Kyle or Myra.

To be an original artist of any kind in America, as Joseph Campbell said, is to travel a path of great danger. What makes the path of original thinking and making original art so dangerous? Aside from little or no financial support for such independent and daring behavior in a society that demands we have money to survive, most original artists run the terrifying risk of never being gotten. By anyone. As Conan Doyle famously said, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself…” and truer words were never spoken. He goes on to say, “…but talent instantly recognizes genius.” Aye there’s the rub. How do we find those with the talent to get us, while they, too, are busy fighting to survive the slings and arrows of outrageously mediocre imitators who rule the cultural roost and brainwash the masses with redundant poo poo?

Joseph Campbell continues (and I paraphrase), “Yes, the path of the artist is one of great danger, but if you stay on your path and trust your intuitive wisdom, doors will open for you.” You will find people who get you, and then, truly, you will know you have not lived and worked in vain. As a wise woman once told me, “There’s no point in waiting for your ship to come in if you haven’t sent out any ships.”

So even though I love Incongroovity more than any of my previous albums, and though I know in my bones the music is good, when I sent out the first batch of albums to friends and the handful of DJs around the country who give my music air time, I was in a state of high anticipatory anxiety waiting to see if anyone would get Incongroovity. I knew my friends would say they liked the album, but would anyone really get the tunes and communicate that getting to me?

Who cares? That’s another of those epithets disguised as a question that bitter, disapproving, closed-minded people like to throw at people they don’t get. However, I much prefer “Who cares?” to the merely dismissive “What’s your point?” because “Who cares?” succinctly elucidates the existential dilemma underpinning anticipatory anxiety. Will anyone care about what you’ve worked so hard to write or play or draw or invent? Who is there among your fellow earth beings, and that includes stones and trees and rivers and dogs and cats and people, who will get you—such getting intrinsically bound to caring about what you’ve done and who you are.

Did I say cats? Yup. I had a cat who totally got my piano playing, and I don’t mean a human cat, but an actual feline. Her name was Girly Girl, and whenever she saw me heading for the piano, no matter what she was doing, she’d skip to the piano bench and wait thereupon for me. I would sit down beside her and begin to play, and after a little while, she would hop from the piano bench to the nearby armchair where she would sit and listen attentively for as long as I played, for hours sometimes. And I felt she was the ears of Universe digging my tunes, and her listening kept me practicing for days and weeks and months when I had no other indication that anyone else was getting me. Blessings on that musical cat!

So now I’ve heard from a few peeps telling me they love Incongroovity, and seven DJs so far on itsy bitsy community radio stations have blasted my tunes into the airwaves of Maine and Indiana and California and Idaho and Oregon and Vermont. And yesterday I heard from my pal Max Greenstreet, a daring musician and artist and delightfully original freelance human being. He downloaded and listened to a few tunes from Incongroovity in anticipation of receiving the entire actual disk from me, and this is what Max had to say about the title cut.

“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to come to that area in the middle of “Incongroovity” where the magical thing happens in my body every time, and then to be carried along in that state to the final notes of the song.”

Which is exactly what happens to me, every time.

 

Taylor Stoehr

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Taylor Stoehr

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

“In life, one must show character and kindness.” Pablo Casals

My good buddy Taylor Stoehr just died and I’ve been leafing through the bulging file of his letters to me, reading passages at random and marveling at the clarity of his prose and the generosity of his spirit. He was eighty-two when he died, and we only knew each other for four years, yet he was immensely important to me—a thoughtful person who took the time to read my books and plays and articles, and then write lengthy responses that made me glad I wrote them.

I never met Taylor in-person or spoke to him, our friendship based entirely upon handwritten letters sent between California and Massachusetts, our knowing each other the result of my sending him a letter of praise about his book I Hear My Gate Slam, a collection of excellent translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

Late Spring

In the evening swallows

appear at the window;

on my doorstep sparrows

flutter in the dust.

At sundown a breeze stirs

and I hear my gate slam;

a few petals fall silently

but no one has come.

—Yüan Chen

I sent my adulatory letter to Taylor in care of the University of Massachusetts, having learned from his biography at the back of I Hear My Gate Slam that he was a professor in the English department there. In addition to his translations of Chinese poets, he was a translator of the poetry of François Villon and Bertolt Brecht. He received my letter just a few weeks after he retired from professing and in the midst of moving with his new wife Teri from Boston to Otis, a small town in western Massachusetts. Much to my surprise and delight, he replied to my missive and our correspondence took off like a shot.

Because he enjoyed my essays, Taylor subscribed to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but the small print was hard on his eyes, so when his subscription lapsed I began making large print, double-spaced copies of my articles for him and came to feel that my weekly essay was not quite finished until I had slipped the fat envelope bound for Otis Massachusetts through the Out Of Town mail slot.

Here is a favorite passage from one of Taylor’s letters.

“Dear Todd—I won’t be able to get all I want to say on this card, but here I am in Boston to see doctors and friends and do a few errands. I brought this card with me so that I could write to you, not knowing until I stopped at the post office on the way out of Otis how much I would have to say. I did know that I wanted to respond to your letter which seems to me to inaugurate a new era in our friendship—as perhaps my last letter to you also evidenced. However it may be, I’m grateful to the spirits, or the great atman, for the good fortune of our meeting. I am ever more convinced that it was meant to be.

“Learning of your Huge Transitions—your move to the North, meeting and marrying Marcia, your confrontation with mortality—all these have their correspondence, though not precisely in the same order, to my moving to the West, only just effected, meeting and marrying Teri, in the last four years, my own still unresolved encounter with mortality in the form of atrial fibrillation and perhaps other heart problems as yet not understood. In short, though I’m almost twenty years older than you, we seem to have arrived at the same moment in our development (I was always a slow learner). But I would say that you’ve apparently come a good deal farther in some respects.

“I’m currently struggling to let go of fears and desires and self-delusions that have been making life a roller coaster these last months, as Teri and I endeavor to live in the same space for the first time, away from our usual respites and rituals, without blaming each other for the difficulties we bring on ourselves, trying instead to learn from suffering and confusion. I speak for myself, of course. Teri has her own demons, but I can testify to mine. To accept them and not cling to them has proved more than I’m capable of, especially in a climate of inevitable physical decline that comes with being seventy-nine years old.

“I was still playing basketball at 64, when my knee failed to respond to surgery and I had to give it up. Before that, like you, I loved to play at the local Y, or on the beach court in Manhattan Beach (LA), or at the gym at UC Santa Cruz, or anywhere there was someone with a ball ready for one-on-one. I think we share all the same feelings about the game—my passion.”

When I learned that Taylor was the literary executor of Paul Goodman, the writer most famous for his treatise Growing Up Absurd, a daring critique of American education first published in 1960, I wrote to Taylor that my one personal connection to Paul Goodman was that I started a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972 with the widow of Paul Goodman’s son, a woman named Epi. Here is part of Taylor’s reply.

“I don’t know which is the greater marvel, to find your new book Under the Table Books on my doorstep just when I was beginning to pine for it (having read Buddha In A Teacup more than once), or to find that you knew Epi! Indeed, it’s possible that you and I have met, not in a past life but in this one, back in 1971, for I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971. When I rode my 450 Honda back to Buffalo in 1970 (June) I carried one provision for the road, a big bag I made of Epi’s granola recipe.”

As it happened, I was absent from Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971, so Taylor and I did not tangle on the basketball court or eat vegetables and tofu with Epi or embark on our friendship forty years sooner.

“Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Henry James

Taylor began many of his letters to me with a response to my latest article or story, and I will sorely miss his insights and encouragement, as well as his matter-of-fact comparison of my stories and novels to the works of literary giants.

“I have to write again to tell you how much your story Balance affected me, and Teri, to whom I read it aloud. As you are well aware, it’s a kind of answer to Kafka—or, perhaps even more, to Camus, whose work I’ve gone back to recently. Of course Camus was not so despairing as Kafka, but I find him sometimes even more grim. Well, that’s neither here nor there, except to say that your story touches very deep themes of our times. What you add that Kafka and Camus seem never to have found is the way out of the maze. For all your hero’s abject acceptance off his meaningless life, he trusts the universe, and he surrenders to it. We see that happening—for his suffering and his discovery of meaning when all his anodynes are stripped away, activate what has been buried in him, call it his soul.”

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning.” Christopher Morley

It was Taylor’s practice for many years to begin each day by writing an eight-line poem. Then at the end of the year he would select a handful of these morning musings to make into a volume of Morning Prayers to give as gifts to his many friends and family, including his five children and many grandchildren, each a joy to Taylor.

Some of my friends are sane

as a hammer, but they’re like me

and choose for their lovers someone

wild, solitary, plain crazy.

Why do we love these tortoises

and mountain deer bound to leave

us mad with grief sooner or later?

They’re the only ones still alive.

—Taylor Stoehr from Morning Prayers 2009

That poem proved prophetic, for Teri left Taylor when life in Otis proved too difficult for her, after which Taylor entered a time of profound grief and ill health that continued until his death. Yet despite his sorrow and anger about Teri leaving him when he most needed a loving helpmate, he continued to write letters full of insight and hope. Here is the end of one of the last letters I received from him.

“I continue to use my morning poems as lifeboat, and I got a boost from watching Groundhog Day on your recommendation. It was surprisingly inspiriting—I don’t quite know why. I think something about the rhythmic repetition rather than either plot or theme. Interesting how a form can get under one’s skin. I think that’s part of the power of your own writing—both Buddha and Under the Table. If I were going to write anything but poems the rest of my life, I’d imitate you in form. And maybe if I move to Maine I will do that. I wish I were already there!

“Meanwhile, I’ve returned to Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss) and thinking about his effort to bring Eastern thought into some kind of alignment with both Christian thought and modern cultural eclecticism—our cultureless steam table. Here’s one result, today:

Despair is the other face of hope;

the loss of what might be

races ahead of what I want,

snatches it away from me.

Shall I therefore renounce desire

and settle for what is?

No! Let my heart burn in the fire,

I and hot be the ashes!

Love Taylor”

Obesity & Love

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Autumn Nolan Winkler

Autumn by Nolan Winkler

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

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell

Sitting on the sun-drenched beach on this first day of August, writing in my Strathmore sketchbook, the waves setting up nicely for the surfers yet to arrive, the air chill but warming, the sky void of clouds, I am here this morning to write three little tales abut love and obesity. Coincidentally or ironically or naturally, of the nine adults I encountered on my way to this place on the sand overlooking Mendocino Bay, eight were enormously fat and the ninth was a woman so entirely void of excess weight she appeared to be a member of an entirely different species than her behemoth brethren.

We recently had a visit from a dear old friend of mine, and in the course of catching up on each other’s lives, I inquired about his sister G, now fifty-six, who I have known and loved since she was ten-years-old. I last saw G twelve years ago when she came to visit me in Berkeley with her two rambunctious children. Adjectives I have used in the past to describe G include brilliant, funny, musical, beautiful, sensitive, lithe, athletic and strong. I remember going on walks with G from the time she was ten until she was in her late twenties, and how on every one of those walks, with amazing ease, she would execute a handstand and walk twenty yards on her hands, just for fun and because such limber physicality was as natural to her as breathing.

So imagine my shock when my friend reported that G currently weighs well over two hundred pounds, down from the three hundred pounds she weighed a year ago. My jaw dropped and my mind reeled. Impossible! G? Beautiful, strong, slender, vegetarian, health-conscious G?

I went to G’s wedding twenty-two years ago and thought she was the most beautiful and poised and captivating bride I had ever seen. And, yes, I was jealous of the guy she was marrying and wished I’d had the nerve and foresight to ask her to marry me instead of whoever this lucky guy was. But then, when I had my one and only long conversation with G and her husband at the reception following their wedding ceremony, I thought to myself They really don’t seem to like each other. What’s up with that?

According to G’s brother, G never has and never will like the man she married and is still married to. Yet they stay together, ostensibly for the kids, and G eats and eats and eats. “And their house…” said my friend, his eyes widening. “You cannot imagine the chaos and squalor. Uninhabitable. Yet somehow they live there.”

“But I thought they were well off and successful and…?”

“They are,” said my friend, nodding sadly. “But so deeply unhappy. Off the chart unhappy.”

“There are only two ways to preserve your freedom and individuality: saying no, and living alone.” Nicolas De Chamfort

As it happens, I can imagine the chaos and squalor of G’s house because I know J and L, the lovable, smart and gainfully employed parents of a marvelous teenager. These three seemingly sane people live in a fine house, the interior of which they have rendered so squalid and chaotic it appears that an enormous truckload of random junk was dumped therein and then trampled by marauding elephants. There is no unoccupied surface in the entire house on which to sit, the kitchen is a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and the backyard might easily be mistaken for the city dump.

Having been the confidante of both J and L, I know that theirs was only briefly a sexual relationship, that they love each other but do not particularly like each other, and that they stay together for the sake of their child. When I first met J and L, J was a strikingly beautiful woman, a magnificently fit dancer and martial artist. L, twelve years older than J, was a chubby fellow who loved to take long bike rides and was in training to become a massage therapist.

Every six months for most of their eighteen-year marriage, J has traveled five hundred miles to spend a week with her lover, a married man she has known since childhood. L unhappily approves of J’s twice-yearly rendezvous with her lover, while L does not have a lover and is no longer interested in sex. When J returns from her erotic vacation, she is always full of energy, takes daily dance and yoga classes, eats sensibly, and sheds fifty pounds in three months, transforming herself into a beautiful dancer yet again. She even tries to impose a bit of order on the chaos and squalor of their home, but never with lasting success.

After J has been away from her lover for three months, she takes on way too much extra work, stops exercising, and begins to eat and eat and eat, pizza and ice cream and pastries her primary foods, washed down with oceans of coffee and beer. By the time she zooms off to be with her lover again, she is uncomfortably heavy, her feet and back ache constantly, and she is severely cranky. Her lover, as it happens, is a big fat man.

“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sitting here gazing at the timeless sea and thinking of J and G armoring themselves with so much extra weight in order to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and their painful longing for love and satisfaction, I am reminded of a brief love affair I had long ago and the shocking coda to that short-lived romance.

S was short and rather heavy, a darkly beautiful gal who hid her body in baggy trousers and oversized sweatshirts, and kept her hair extremely short. When I met her, and we were obviously attracted to each other, she told me with disarming candor that her few relationships with men had been hideous disasters, she had sworn off men forever, and she wasn’t sexually interested in women. “I’m a secular nun,” she told me in her tough-talking way. “The only decent men I’ve ever known are gay. Heterosexual males are evolutionary mistakes.”

Nevertheless, we went out for Thai food, traded books, met for coffee, and a few weeks into our friendship became lovers. Surprise, surprise. S turned out to be a zealous and imaginative lover with a large appetite for sex, we had a great time in and around the bed, and she swiftly shed her excess weight. It was as if satisfying sex negated her need for anything in the way of food other than salads and the occasional slab of meat, and ere long her body and face were so dramatically transformed that she began attracting men and women like clover attracts honey bees.

Alas, S was one of the angriest and most cynical people I’ve ever known, and she was so persistently and viciously dismissive of my writing and music and everything else that mattered most to me that I had a hard time being with her except in bed where she was one of the happiest and most uncynical people I’ve ever known. And our marvelous sexual connection sufficed to keep me entangled with S for four months until I couldn’t take another word of her verbal abuse and declared, “Enough. No more. Goodbye.”

S was stunned that I wanted to end things between us. “Oh, honey,” she said, her voice becoming the soft sweet loving voice I knew from making love with her, “I’m sorry. You know I think you’re wonderful.”

“How would I know that when you’re always telling me how shitty my writing is, how crappy my music is, how stupid my friends are?”

“I’m just teasing, sweetheart. I love everything about you. Please. Give me another chance. We’ve got such a good thing going here. How can you throw this away? Come on, sweetie. Let’s go to bed.”

But I was done. Sex, no matter how good the fit, is not love without love, and love cannot survive without trust, so…

Three years later, I arrived at a friend’s house, and my friend greeted me at the door, saying, “S is here. That okay?”

In retrospect, I wish I had said, “I think I’ll come back another time,” but instead I said, “Sure,” and entered the house and there was S, so huge she took up an entire two-person sofa with no room to spare. I would never have known that this gigantic person was once upon a time my sexy beautiful curvaceous lover. Never in a million years would I have known it was she.

“Mother, food, love, and career are the four major guilt groups.” Cathy Guisewite

As I’ve been sitting here on the windswept sand scribbling in my notebook, three women with their eight children have arrived and set up camp a very short stone’s throw away from me. Why do people do that? Twenty acres of sand, hundreds of great places to sit, nobody on the beach but little old me, and they choose to sit right beside me. Perhaps it is because they make an apt ending to this article.

I would guess these women are all thirty-something, their children ranging in age from two to twelve. One of the mothers is trim and muscular and moves with a pleasing grace. The other two mothers are massive and ungainly and clearly uncomfortable in their bodies, while all the children are skinny and wildly active. Some minutes after the mothers have settled down on their beach blankets to watch their children playing, two of their husbands arrive, huge men with gigantic bellies. These enormous fellows plant themselves several feet apart from the women—with them but not with them.

Nothing

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

jennysletter

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

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite stories from Joseph Campbell is of a wise man introducing his young son to one of the great mysteries of life. They are sitting together under an enormous banyan tree, which is a tropical fig tree, and the man asks his son to pick a fig and cut the fruit in half.

The boy slices the fig in half and his father asks him, “What do you see?”

“I see thousands of tiny seeds,” says the boy, marveling at the innards of the fig.

“Now take one of those seeds and cut it in half,” says the father.

With some difficulty, the boy manages to extract a single seed from the fig and cut the tiny thing in half.

“What do you see?” asks the father.

“I see…nothing,” says the boy.

“From that nothing came this great banyan tree,” says the wise man. “From such nothingness came the entire universe.”

I often think of this story when I am planting rows of lettuce or carrots, the seeds so small and seemingly insignificant. Of course I know there is something inside the tiny seeds from which will sprout, under the right circumstances, shoots of life that will grow into scrumptious heads of lettuce and sweet carrots, but that something is so tiny that until very recently in human history we lacked the means to see that something was there inside the seeming nothingness.

“Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.” William Shakespeare

Yesterday as I was walking through the Harvest Market parking lot in Mendocino, I saw an astounding scene. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say I saw a scene that astounded me. The scene might not have astounded someone else and thereby would not have been universally astounding. In any case, here is what I saw.

Parked between, and dwarfing, what I had theretofore considered a large Volvo station wagon and a large Mercedes-Benz station wagon was a humongous green pickup truck mounted on a massive tubular suspension attached to four gigantic tires such that the bottom of the behemoth truck was elevated a good seven feet off the ground. And as I was trying to imagine why anyone would want to suspend a truck so high off the ground, a man inside the cab of the truck opened the driver’s side door and climbed down the several silver rungs of the ladder/stairs used to access the cab from the ground and vice-versa.

The man—I guessed he was in his late twenties—was wearing camouflage fatigues, brown boots, and a green Australian outback commando quasi-cowboy hat. He was not a big man and seemed positively tiny juxtaposed to his enormous truck suspended high above him atop the massive tubular suspension affixed to the four gigantic tires. He came around to the back of his truck, pointed a remote control device kin to a television channel changer at the tail of his vehicle, and another ladder of silver steps was slowly extruded from a slot just below the bottom of the tailgate and came to a stop about a foot off the ground. The young man then climbed up the ladder/stairs and opened the tailgate of his colossal rig.

At first I thought his tailgate would open downward, as does the tailgate of my itsy bitsy teeny weeny pickup truck, but the young man’s tailgate was split in the middle and each half could be opened out like the door of a refrigerator. I stood in frozen fascination as the young man opened the right side tailgate door and in so doing revealed that the mammoth bed of the gargantuan truck held nothing but a small green plastic box from which the man extracted a big red dog biscuit. The man then closed the plastic box, closed his tailgate, descended to the ground, the silver steps were sucked back up into the tail of the truck, and the man returned to the driver’s side door of the truck. He then climbed the silver steps, opened the door to the cab, and gave the dog biscuit to a tiny dachshund.

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

I love how when we thank someone in Spanish by saying Gracias, the response is usually De nada, which means It’s nothing, but which might also be translated Of nothing, which suggests to me that embedded in the language is the humble acknowledgment that all the gifts of life spring from the same nothing from which the universe was born. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a simple figure of speech, but I don’t think so.

When I was twenty-one, I was the translator for a marine biologist and his family traveling from California to Costa Rica and back again. We were a low budget expedition, to say the least, traveling in a large International Harvester delivery truck that we remodeled to sleep eight people, so we only needed access to a bit of level ground for our nightly accommodations to be complete. Thus every day in the late afternoon, wherever we happened to be, my job was to find us a spot where we could bivouac, and I would do this by hailing someone I liked the look of and asking if he or she knew of a good place in the vicinity where we might camp.

I made this request of men and women every afternoon for the six months we traveled in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica—more than one hundred and fifty times—and virtually every time I asked, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a dondé podemos acampar?” the person would reply without hesitation, “Yes. I will show you a good place.” or “Yes, you may camp here on my property.” or “Yes, come to our village.” Sometimes our hosts were poor, and sometimes they were wealthy, relatively speaking. Sometimes we stayed on farms, and sometimes we stayed on the outskirts of villages, but no matter where we stayed the people always brought us gifts, usually of food.

A man in Nicaragua invited us to camp on his beautiful farm and gave us as a going away present a huge bunch of green bananas that ripened slowly and sequentially so we had perfectly ripe bananas every day for weeks. A family in Mexico gave us a place to camp right next to their small adobe house, and in the morning before we departed they insisted we pick vegetables from their big garden. A fellow in Costa Rica took us to a camping spot on the banks of a crystal clear stream in which there were thousands of tiny silver fish, and that evening the fellow and his wife and children came to visit us, bringing with them a pot of delicious turtle soup to share. And once we stayed in a village where the people were very poor, yet two children were sent to us by their mother to present us with a little basket containing three freshly made corn tortillas.

We always thanked our hosts profusely, and we often invited them to join us for supper, though such invitations were rarely accepted. I also always offered to give our hosts a little money in thanks for their generosity, but very few people, even those who were obviously poor, would accept money for the help they gave us. And every time we took our leave and I said to our hosts Gracias mucho, the reply was invariably De nada accompanied by smiles and Buena suerte—good luck.

I know things have changed greatly since that expedition in 1970. Today, eight scruffy gringos in a yellow milk truck would probably not be treated so kindly and generously as we were treated in those countries forty years ago, but I still marvel at how willing so many people were to invite us into their lives. And I wonder what I would do if tomorrow a van pulls up beside my garden where I’m weeding and watering, and a scruffy fellow leans out the window of the van and says, “Excuse me, but do you know of a good place around here where we can camp tonight?”

I would probably suggest they try a nearby state park or private campground, though those places are no longer the bargains they used to be. Or I suppose I could invite them to make their camp right over there by that little stand of redwoods on the corner of our property. They wouldn’t be in our way and they’d be gone tomorrow. I could give them some vegetables from our garden, vegetables that came from nothing, and I could ask them where they came from and where they were going. I could do that, I suppose, though I would have to like their vibe. No, I would have to love their vibe, and only then would I open our place to them.

Giants and Greece

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

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

“We don’t have to look far to see how pervasive suffering is in the world.” Joseph Goldstein

Matt Cain recently pitched a perfect game for the San Francisco Giants while Greece is in the midst of a massive economic collapse. Gregor Blanco made one of the great catches in Giants history to preserve Cain’s perfecto while Spain is in economic freefall with over 25% unemployment and Spanish real estate prices falling falling falling. Cain gave his catcher Buster Posey much of the credit for the no-no while Syria is in the midst of a horribly bloody civil war with thousands of casualties, many of them women and children.

Cain’s perfect game is only the twenty-second perfect game in the 130-year history of baseball while the Japanese government has ordered the restarting of several of their dangerously unsafe nuclear power plants despite a vast majority of the Japanese people opposed to nuclear power in the wake of the ongoing catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

And how about Melky Cabrera, the Melkman, leading the National League in hitting while the American economy is collapsing around our ears. True, Tim Lincecum is having an awful year so far and Barry Zito is showing signs of faltering after a strong start, but the rest of the Giants starters are pitching magnificently while California’s budget deficit is several billion dollars more than state officials anticipated, though anyone with half a brain knew that such drastic cuts in government spending would guarantee equally drastic economic contraction.

“We may have compassion for the victims of social or political injustice, but can we feel compassion for those who perpetrate that injustice?” Joseph Goldstein

For many years I have been in the habit of listening to Giants baseball games on a little silver transistor radio I carry from room to room and out into the garden. When I lived in Berkeley, I had a neighbor who was bothered by my interest in the Giants, and he told me so one day when he found me in my vegetable patch listening to a game while I pulled weeds and watered.

“You’re such an intelligent person,” he said, shaking his head. “How can you listen to that meaningless junk when there’s so much suffering in the world?”

This fellow, I hasten to add, walked his talk. He was a medical doctor who worked long hours in a clinic for poor people and spent the rest of his time reading books about social injustice and political corruption and writing passionate letters to government officials and marching against social injustice and wars waged for corporate hegemony. He lived frugally and gave away most of the money he made to help fund the clinic where he worked, so…

“This is an antidote to my own suffering,” I replied, comforted by the inimitable ambience only baseball on the radio provides. “A form of guided meditation.”

“Sponsored by earth-killing corporations,” he said, pointing at my radio dangling amidst the snow pea vines. “Listen. Yet another ad for Chevron.”

“I studiously do not buy gas from Chevron,” I said—an easy boast since I didn’t own a car.

“But why do you like that garbage?” he asked, visibly upset. “You like basketball, too, don’t you?”

“Love basketball,” I said, nodding. “Basketball was my salvation and succor for many years.”

“And you actually care who wins?” He sighed despondently. “What a waste.”

“I care and I don’t care,” I said, as one of our boys led off the seventh with a single. “The game matters in the moment and doesn’t matter in the next moment. I’m not attached once the game is over. For long.”

“But do you know why the major corporations sponsor these games?” he asked, waving his arms in frustration. “Because it keeps people occupied so they won’t take any meaningful action to create substantive change. It’s a mechanism of social control. And look what they’re selling. Gasoline, beer, cars, insurance, computers, plastic, Las Vegas.”

“So what do you think I should do?” I asked, trying not to hold him responsible for altering the game with his negative attitude (see quantum physics) and causing the double play that just wiped out our first decent scoring opportunity since the first inning. “I don’t have a television or a car or health insurance or really much of anything except a piano, a guitar, a very slow computer, and things to cook with. You want me to toss the little radio and take a vow of chastity and silence? Gimme a break, it’s baseball. I love baseball. I played baseball growing up. Baseball is in my bones, in my blood.”

“Entrained since childhood,” he said, nodding dolefully. “That’s what they do. Cradle to grave entrainment disguised as entertainment.”

Then it hit me: this guy did not play baseball growing up. Baseball was not in his bones, in his blood. He did not understand what I was experiencing when I listened to a game on the radio because he had no real understanding of the language of baseball. He might as well have been listening to someone speaking Greek, assuming he didn’t understand Greek, which I think is a fair assumption.

And the moment I realized that his antipathy was as much about what he didn’t understand about baseball as it was about what he did understand about corporate control of the media, I was filled with compassion and said, “Want any lettuce? I have a vast surplus in need of harvesting.”

“Love some,” he said, his frown giving way to a smile.

“Compassion is the tender readiness of the heart to respond to one’s own or another’s pain, without resentment or aversion.” Joseph Goldstein

There are only eleven million people in Greece, about a quarter of the population of California, and because Greece is so small, relatively speaking, the annihilation of Greek society by their corrupt government in collusion with their corrupt banking system is easier to discern than the annihilation of American society by our corrupt government in collusion with our corrupt banking system. But the mechanisms of both annihilations are identical (not to mention intertwined), and what unfolds in Greece is predictive of things about to unfold here if the powers-that-be don’t quickly and dramatically shift current fiscal policy away from austerity to something resembling the stimulating policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That is to say, a small minority of unscrupulous people in the banking/government system of America, stole trillions of dollars from the people of America, kept billions of those dollars in their personal bank accounts, and gambled away the rest. Then when the financial system began to totter and fall, these same criminals stole trillions more to prop up the markets and the banks a little while longer—which is where we are today.

In their most recent election, enough Greeks were scared by erroneous propaganda into voting for the same criminals who created the current economic mess so that the annihilation of their country will continue, in the same way that enough Americans in our upcoming election will be scared into voting for the same criminals who created our portion of the global mess so the annihilation of our country and the world will continue.

The good news is that the Giants are doing remarkably well this season and are poised to make a strong run in the second half. If Lincecum can get back on track and Pablo will shed twenty pounds and stop swinging at high pitches out of the strike zone, and if Blanco can keep getting on base ahead of Melky, and Melky and Buster keep hitting well, and Crawford keeps being Crawford, we might very well go deep into the post season if not all the way to the World Series. And once there, as we know from recent experience, anything is possible.

As Charles Dickens wrote to begin A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

And as Joseph Campbell said so eloquently on his eightieth birthday, “The field of time is a field of sorrow. Life is sorrowful. How do you live with that? You realize the eternal within yourself. You disengage and yet re-engage. You—and here is the beautiful formula: you participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.”

Stuff

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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