Posts Tagged ‘life’

Falling Behind

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become a mediocre company.” Bill Gates

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing career, commercially speaking, was turning steeply downward, my third-rate Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages; and people seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change the messages because they never wanted to hear them again. So I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days; and then people complained I was erasing really good messages before their friends got to hear them. Thus art mirrored life.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral even existed. I’m speaking about a time before the advent of the interweb, which was not very long ago but seems prehistoric. If I still had that particular outgoing message and put it on YouTube today as the soundtrack to beautiful scantily clad women dancing on the beach or swimming in lagoons or sprawling on bearskin rugs or walking through sun-dappled forests, I have no doubt my message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from all the hits and links and apps and downloads from clouds and kindles and everywhere.

Sadly, I only remember the feeling of the message, not the words. The feeling was of being exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which was telling an entrancing story or expressing some deeply satisfying feeling or describing a most delicious way of being—something so alluring that the caller was overcome with a full body sensation of life being a lovely adventure, a sexy samba on a warm summer day, and that their calling me and listening to my message was exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Yes! The experience of listening to my message was a holy act, a miraculous give-and-take, a blessing, a multi-dimensional, emotionally, physically, and spiritually fulfilling orgasm free of even the slightest attachment to outcome or length or reason. Hallelujah!

I got hundreds of calls. Telephone calls. Not emails or hits or links. I’m talking about actual human beings calling my number and listening to my message—hundreds of people from all over America and around the world. Friends told friends and their friends told their friends, and so on. A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated as, “I am so very much wanting to have the child you are the father.” Another call came from a bunch of people having a party in England, and after hearing my message they applauded and shouted “Bravo!” Calls came from bars and cafés all over America and Canada where the callers held the phones up so everyone in those joints could listen and respond. I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words, their order and tone and cadence, made people laugh and cry and rejoice. Some people left delightful replies—impromptu poems full of love and hope that brought tears to my eyes. I tell you, that message was an elixir, a salve, and a great big answer to the gigantic question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger of a message on my answering machine for months until one day a friend who had heard that psalm too many times said, “Enough already,” and I hit the Erase button. Honestly, I had no idea what I was erasing because I had not listened to the blessed thing since the moment, all those weeks and months before, when I hit the Record button and fell into a reverie from which flowed those now forgotten words.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

My wife Marcia and I are both self-employed and have web sites whereon we display our wares and talents in hopes of enticing people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs two chamber music camps each year for adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her marvelous camps and sells her CDs and sheet music. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD that has sold three thousand hard copies and is being downloaded at an enviable rate each month, I being the envious one. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to new customers. She also sells her album of wonderful cello-centric songs Skyward, sheet music of her original compositions, and three CDs she’s made with her husband Todd (that would be moi).

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell my books, music CDs, story CDs, birthday cards, and cards and posters of my zany paintings. Visitors can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) for free, and sample tunes from my albums. My most successful creation, commercially speaking, is the lovely little hardbound book (signed by the author) Buddha In A Teacup (just ten bucks!) I am currently most enamored of my solo piano CDs and dream of one day rivaling Marcia’s enviable download business, though for now I’m thrilled when I make .0013 cents from someone in Poughkeepsie taking a listen on Napster.

And, yes, my previous experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering machine message and a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again. My new CD Mystery Inventions, piano and bass duets, for instance, might be just the creation that inspires those hits to keep on coming. Or not.

So…from what I’ve just said you might get the impression we’re a fairly techno-savvy household. In truth, Marcia is a computer enthusiast and gets better at cyber software stuff all the time. I, on the other hand, am a technophobe. Even simple procedures involving software are to me as Everest is to one with high blood pressure. After nearly thirty years of owning a personal computer, the contraption remains for me little more than a typewriter with a screen, a way to send and get mail, and a pseudo-television for watching sports highlights and movie previews—all else digital is baffling to me.

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.” E.F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful

So yesterday I’m reading the newspaper, the actual paper, not a projection, and I come to an article the likes of which I usually skip, an article about a man who has an app design software company that is growing so fast he just rented another 150,000 square feet of office space in the hottest sector of downtown San Francisco, and he thinks he’ll quadruple that space by year’s end.

I could not understand anything this man said or anything he is reputed to have done. He said that twelve million people have downloaded one of his apps that empowers them to paint on their cell phones, thus “unleashing an avalanche of pent up creativity.” Twelve million people are painting on their cell phones? Are they finger painting? What does a painting made on a tiny screen look like? Then the guy goes on to say that everything he and anyone in the know are doing today is “all about the cloud.” The cloud. I’ve heard about this cloud, some sort of virtually unlimited cyber space computing zone making possible the instantaneous transfer of jillions of bytes of digital information per nanosecond times a jillion squared. This cloud, according to this billionaire cyber wizard, “will unleash the creative potential of humanity.”

And my gut reaction to that is, “I hope so, but I doubt it.”


Attention Deficit Nonsense

Friday, November 26th, 2010

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley

1957. Las Lomitas Elementary School. Menlo Park, California

“I invite those people with ants in their pants,” proclaimed Mrs. Davenport, my third grade teacher, “to run to the oak tree and back before we get to work on our projects.”

Those people always included me, so I and several of my cohorts, boys and girls, walked sedately to the classroom door from where we bolted into sunlight and fresh air to run across the playground to the gigantic oak that overshadowed the playing field. Upon our return, Mrs. Davenport would say, “Todd, Jody, Wendy, I invite you to circumnavigate the oak one more time because I can see you’ve still got a little jitterbug in you.”

Mrs. Davenport was from Oklahoma and proudly one-eighth Cherokee. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in all my eight mortal years. She was astute, funny, musical, athletic, and she enjoyed using words somewhat beyond the official Third Grade vocabulary. We loved Mrs. Davenport because she loved us and had great empathy for our collective predicament: being eight-year-olds.

In 1957, may the fates be eternally blessed, there was no such thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, nor were hideous drugs routinely and epidemically administered to children with ants in their pants. Thus I was spared the pharmaceutical suppression of my true nature, which was, as our beloved Mrs. Davenport so aptly put it, “To jitterbug.”

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela

1969. Oakland, California

“You’re kidding,” I said to my friend, a Third Grade teacher at an elementary school with an entirely black student body. “All the kids in your class take Ritalin?”

“Every single one of them.”

“That’s insane.”

“There’s no other way to control them. Forty wild kids in a dinky classroom. Believe me, the ones who skip their meds stand out like sore thumbs.”

Lest you think the situation in that Oakland elementary school was an anomaly, think again. A monumental takeover of America’s schools was underway in the late 1960’s and continued through the 1970’s and 80’s, and is now complete. Today millions of our children are, for all intents and purposes, forced to take prescription drugs if they wish to attend school. And what saddens me most is knowing that had such drugs existed in my antsy childhood, and had my school been run by agents of the pharmaceutical corporations as most schools are run today, my parents would have dutifully signed the requisite forms allowing my jailers to drug me.

“Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.” Aldous Huxley

In 1974 I worked as a teacher’s aide and janitor at a day care center in Palo Alto. All but three of our twenty-seven kids, ages two to five, came from single parent homes with the dads missing, the moms working as secretaries or nurses or maids or salespeople. The children were dropped off at the center between seven and eight in the morning and were to be picked up by a parent between four and five in the afternoon. For all sorts of wrong reasons, I was often left alone to care for several of these little people from two in the afternoon until the last of their very tired mothers arrived long after five.

My strategies for safely overseeing seven to fifteen antsy little kids all by myself for three or four hours included story telling, snack providing, and running my charges back and forth to the oak tree, so to speak, until they were too tired to do anything other than nap or draw or play quietly until their mommies came to get them. Several of these children, according to the school’s director, exhibited propensities for Attention Deficit Disorder; but not one of these angels suffered from any such thing under my care.

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.” George Bernard Shaw

In 1989, as I began my third year of running the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, the school’s director hired a renowned academic authority to conduct a workshop for the department heads. I was skeptical about the value of the workshop, Strategies for Working With Contemporary Teenagers, because after two years of working with contemporary teenagers I had yet to discern any differences between contemporary teens and the teenager I had been; and my skepticism proved justified the moment that overpaid fraud opened his mouth.

He began with the proclamation that due to the pernicious effects of comic books and MTV, “the teenagers of today are incapable of sustaining focus and interest in a subject for more than a few minutes at a time. Therefore, you must design your curriculum to accommodate their limitations.”

I raised my hand, for I was swiftly approaching the limits of my capability of sustaining focus and interest in what this jackass was saying.

“I will complete my initial presentation,” he snapped, “and take questions after.” He glanced at his watch. “In twenty-four minutes.”

“I will not wait twenty-four minutes,” I said, rising from my seat. “Or even one minute. Your premise is erroneous. The young people we work with are easily able to sustain their focus and interest for hours on end, so I will leave you to your nonsense and hope my colleagues will have the good sense to leave with me.”

Needless to say, the director of the school was displeased with my boycott of the renowned academic, but life went on and our young writers and artists proved themselves illimitably attentive. Of course, we weren’t training our students to jump through hoops and remember meaningless bits of data pursuant to passing tests pursuant to becoming docile members of an emotionally stifled population of neurotic consumers. We were providing them with opportunities, inspiration, and techniques for expressing their original visions, while modeling for them adult versions of what artists might be.

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.” Frank Zappa

2010. There is today, the authorities tell us, an epidemic of autism sweeping America; and though no one has a definitive explanation for the dramatic upturn in the incidence of autism, massive quantities of barely tested drugs are being administered to our nation’s hapless children in the name of managing the growing problem. Autism is a highly non-specific term, almost as non-specific as the word human, and may refer to a child incapable of even minimal self-maintenance, to a teenager with abnormal speech patterns, or to an adult incapable of making eye contact with other human beings, to name just a few of the thousands of autistic behaviors found under the vast umbrella of the so-called autistic spectrum.

“Yes, well, we have administered the appropriate tests and come to the conclusion that your daughter falls somewhere on the spectrum of being human. Her particular manifestation of humanness indicates she might be more easily controlled were she to take two hundred milligrams every four hours of the drug Freedonia, an absurdly expensive drug cheaply manufactured and available exclusively from one of the unregulated and amoral pharmaceutical giants. This giant multinational corporation claims to have thoroughly tested Freedonia on several thousand unsuspecting peasant children in India. Only a small percentage of those peasant children died or went insane as a result of taking the drug, and despite a notable percentage of the subjects experiencing dizziness, loss of appetite, and an irrational fear of the color blue, a viable percentage of those taking Freedonia showed a noticeable reduction in those symptoms of humanness similar to the symptoms unfortunately exhibited by your daughter. Therefore, we strongly recommend that your daughter take the recommended dosages of Freedonia if you wish for her to continue attending Sweetness and Light Elementary School.”

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer

Most people find it hard to believe that it was common practice for medical doctors in twentieth century America to prescribe cigarettes for patients suffering from anxiety, but they, the medical doctors, did just that for many decades. My father, a medical doctor, smoked cigarettes until 1957 when the Surgeon General gave his first official warning about the “probable link” between cigarettes and lung cancer.

I have several friends who feel that life would not be worth living without the prescription anti-depressants they take, and I am relieved they have something to help them feel good about being alive. I am not against the use of all drugs. But I am against the use of drugs in place of discovering and working on the underlying causes of what ails us and what ails our children.

A growing body of research suggests that the accepted truth in the not too distant future will be that the exponential rise in the occurrence of autism is at least partially related to the chronic use of computers and cell phones by children who should not be using (or exposed to the rays from) those brain-altering devices until their brains have had the opportunity to fully develop as our brains are genetically intended to develop. Crucial synaptic connections are very likely not being made in the brains of millions of young people who are texting and gaming and cyber surfing before their brains and psyches and bodies are fully and healthfully formed.

Have you ever entered a café where several people are peering into cell phones and twiddling their thumbs on miniature keyboards? These people are modeling several of the fundamental symptoms of autism: disconnection from reality, self-isolation, repetitive physical mannerisms, and avoidance of direct contact with other humans. Or to put it another way, they seem to be missing out on what we old farts call life.