Posts Tagged ‘Max Greenstreet’

Sex & Power

Monday, December 11th, 2017

340swept

Swept diptych by Max Greenstreet

“As if layers of lies could replace the green illusion; or the sophistries of failure, the stench of success.” John Fowles

As part of my anti-anxiety regimen, I avoid mass media news. Even so, I still hear about the ongoing criminal acts of Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as the latest ecological disasters. And the main thing I’ve been hearing about lately are the movie stars, celebrities, politicians, and people in positions of power in arts organizations and corporations and universities, mostly men, accused of egregious sexual misconduct.

To which I say, “So what else is new?”

My mother grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother, Goody, was a close friend of Freda Sandrich, wife of the movie director and producer Mark Sandrich who directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and produced and directed many other movies. Goody’s husband, Casey, hobnobbed with movie people, too. Which is to say, when she was a young woman with aspirations to be an actress, my mother imbibed lots of insider information about the movie and theatre and music world, most of that info having to do with who was a homosexual, who was having an affair with who, and who did what to get ahead—and that what was usually sexual, and we’re not talking romance here.

My siblings and I did not want to believe our mother’s nasty lowdown on the many actors and actresses we admired, and on several occasions we protested, “Oh come on, Mom, not everyone got to be a star by having sex with the producer or the director or somebody who was already a star.”

To which she would reply, “Why do you think they call it the casting couch and not the casting stage or the casting chair? They call it a couch for a reason. I know. I was asked to audition for parts. But I wouldn’t lie down on that couch, and if you won’t let them screw you, you don’t get the part. It’s not nice, but it’s true.”

According to my mother, nearly all of our favorite male movie stars were homosexuals or notorious heterosexual predators, their prey young fame-hungry starlets. And all our favorite female stars had once been fame-hungry starlets ready and willing to have sex with whomever they needed to have sex with to succeed.

And my mother’s brother Howard, an entertainment lawyer who represented many big stars, told me stories about his clients that made my mother’s tales of Hollywood sound like Frank Capra movies. Yet when I sold my first novel to Paramount Pictures and Bob Evans (he had just made The Godfather and Chinatown) I forgot all about the casting couch and went to Hollywood under the noble delusion that my excellent novels and scintillating stories and neato screenplays would be all I needed to exchange for riches and fame.

Now lest you think my mother and her brother exaggerated the pervasiveness of sexual dominance and submission in the entertainment industry, read any thorough history of Theatre and you will learn that in Shakespeare’s time, theatre companies were composed solely of men and boys, and could only exist under the auspices of powerful aristocrats with excellent connections to incumbent royalty. Thus in order to legally form a theatre company, a man had to bend, literally, to the will of someone with greater societal power than he, and once that man had gained the requisite support of a powerful person, other men bent to him if they wished to join his theatre company. From that tradition, entrenched for centuries, was born the theatre and movie world of today.

So there I was, a neophyte in Hollywood meeting with upper echelon players, and from day one I was made aware that my excellent novels and neato screenplays were of so little consequence to the people with power in Hollywood, you wouldn’t believe how little. And every step of my way in the movie biz, and on several memorable occasions during my odyssey through the publishing world, I was presented with demands and invitations to bend to the sexual wills of men and women in order to further my career—demands and invitations I was unwilling to accept.

Thus, as a sympathetic movie producer said to me when I lamented my fall from grace in Hollywood and New York, “Listen, sweetheart, you don’t put out, you get put out.”

Which is why news of famous actors and famous writers and famous politicos using their positions of power to coerce sexual favors from those less powerful than they is very old news to me and old news to anyone who has been in the entertainment business for more than a week or two. So my question is: why is such a big deal being made about such behavior now, when Power Over Others, sexual and economic, has been an essential component of our culture for centuries?

Here’s my theory. The controllers of our media and our government and our economy are keenly aware that our stock and real estate markets are fantastic bubbles filled with hot air, and Trump or no Trump, those bubbles are soon to burst. But rather than allow the endgame of their Ponzi schemes to be the focus of our collective attention, they have pulled out the oldest arrow in their titillation quiver to distract the masses from the colossal rape of the already supine population—a rape in the form of more tax breaks for the wealthy and more plundering of the national corpus before our casino economy comes tumbling down yet again.

Or as the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and her comrades, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Keep your eyes on the screen. Pay no attention to the psychopaths ransacking your future. Keep your eyes on your screens and we’ll give you the name of yet another Famous Old Man who did naughty things to people less famous than he. Aren’t you outraged? Doesn’t it make you just want to…buy something?

Three Bananas

Monday, October 30th, 2017

297did

did diptych by Max Greenstreet (click on image to make larger)

The laboratory of Luigi Idano and Tamara Whozat. Various experiments underway. Luigi, male, hirsute, portly, prone to sweating. Tamara, female, burgundy hair, pleasingly curvaceous, only sweats in saunas, left eyebrow tastefully pierced with shard of amethyst.

Luigi: I know it’s a small sample size, but…

Tamara: Miniscule.

Luigi: Granted. But the implications are staggering.

Tamara: Hyperbole.

Luigi: Granted. Promising?

Tamara: Three nights, Luigi. Three times. You call this science?

Luigi: I never called it science. I called it a possible breakthrough of epic life-changing potentiality and I want to put out an all-points bulletin post haste trumpeting our discovery to the entire world.

Tamara: All points bulletin? What era do you think we’re living in?

Luigi: Well…then a tweet thing or a face thing.

Tamara: How can you be so out of synch with the way people communicate now?

Luigi: Out of synch? I happen to like all-point bulletins; they point in every direction. I like landline phone connections. I like letters arriving in my post office box. Envelopes with stamps on them. Pieces of paper with writing on them inside the envelopes.

Tamara: Fine. But why not wait until you try your little experiment a few more times? Why tell the world something that might not be true?

Luigi: Because I feel certain it is true. And besides, what could it hurt? We’re talking about bananas here. Who could object to bananas?

Tamara: I know several people who do not like bananas unless cooked in banana bread.

Luigi: How sad.

Tamara: Yes, but the point is…bananas may be too specific.

Luigi: Then food? What if I said food?

Tamara: Not specific enough. Food might include chocolate, and that would be antithetical to your hypothesis, assuming your hypothesis is the one I assume you have.

Luigi: But I must do something. This discovery could make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people, and in the lives of those who sleep with those people. Oh please let me put out an all-points bulletin and a tweet thing and a face thing. Please?

Tamara: I’m sorry, Luigi. I can’t be a party to this.

Luigi: Who said anything about a party?

Tamara: I thought you’d appreciate the archaic-ness of that expression.

Luigi: I do, actually. Okay, I’ll go it alone.

Tamara: You understand it’s not that I don’t want your discovery to be true. I do. But I don’t want another fiasco befalling our enterprise like that whole gluten-free-diets-raise-your-IQ thing we suffered through last year.

Luigi: Well, going gluten-free certainly raised my IQ.

Tamara: There you go again. Extrapolating from insufficient data.

Luigi: Does this mean I can’t use our official laboratory stationery for the all-points bulletin?

Tamara: That’s what it means. Your findings do not come from the Laboratory of Luigi Idano and Tamara Whozat. This is your own wholly unfounded personal unscientific conjecture based on three nights and three bananas. For all we know the ripeness of the bananas may be a major factor, as might your desire for the bananas to be effective. The positive result you attained could be nothing more than a placebo effect, and you know how rigorously we study placebo effects in all our experiments.

Luigi: What if I characterized my results as anecdotal?

Tamara: Yes, do that. But not on lab stationery.

Luigi goes to his desk and writes the following letter.

To Whom It May Concern

For many years now I have had trouble sleeping at night. That is, I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but after a couple hours of slumber I will wake and not be able to go back to sleep. I have tried various herbal sleep aids, sleeping pills prescribed by doctors, hypnosis, psychotherapy, and myriad other cures for what ails me with no good results.

When I recently mentioned my difficulty to my acupressurist, she responded by asking, “Did you know it actually takes energy to sleep?”

I said I did not actually know this, but having slept with people who snore such that they sound as if they are wielding a chainsaw for eight hours without stopping, I can see how sleeping requires energy.

My acupressurist then said she had another client who also used to wake every night and was not able to go back to sleep; and this client, upon learning that sleeping requires energy, decided to keep a banana beside her bed so when she woke in the night and could not go back to sleep, she would eat the banana to give her energy, but not the kind of energy that kept her awake, rather an energy that helped her sleep. And verily it came to pass that eating a banana in the middle of the night worked wonders for her—the wonders of adequate sleep.

So these last three nights I had a banana at the ready beside my bed, and when I woke in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep, I ate the banana and fell back asleep. The first night, I had a dream about putting the wrong address on a package. The second night, I dreamt my funky childhood home turned into a palace. The third night I dreamt I was lost in a fog-enshrouded city. I was dressed as a clown with a tiny top hat and enormous shoes.

Who knows what my dreams mean, but I sure as shootin’ know what falling asleep means; it means I will have a banana by my bedside again tonight and tomorrow night and the night after.

Luigi shows the letter to Tamara.

Tamara: Good for you, Luigi. Send your message forth. Tell the world.

Luigi: I will. And would you post my message on your tweeting face thing?

Tamara: No.

Luigi: Fine. But take a moment to consider a person, possibly a good friend of yours, someone you really like, having trouble sleeping and reading my anecdotal evidence on your face tweet thing and gaining a new lease on life. Think about that, Tamara.

Tamara: No. Now can we get back to work on our will-flax-seeds-in-your-cookie-batter-make you-happier experiment? Our control placebo group of ravenous stevedores will be here in twenty minutes.

Luigi: Roger that. As soon as I send off my banana news to the far corners of the earth I will pop the non-flax-seeded cookies in the oven.

Tamara: Good. And I’ll make the coffee.

Do I Know You?

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”

Old Souls

Monday, August 21st, 2017

219ladderup

ladder up diptych by Max Greenstreet

Isaac Bashevis Singer, one my favorite writers, wrote several stories set in pre-holocaust Poland about children who are thought by their Jewish elders to be old souls. These children are prodigies and seem to possess knowledge and wisdom gained in previous lifetimes. This idea of an old soul occurs in nearly all societies and is particularly appealing to those who want to believe in reincarnation. But reincarnation aside, I have always been intrigued by especially wise young children and how they came to be so wise.

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a day care center for low-income children, two-and-a-half to five-years-old. Among our thirty charges were a few unusually mature children, but there was one girl named Susie who seemed to be an adult in the body of a cute little 3-year-old blonde.

Susie gladly played with the other children, especially the quieter ones, and she routinely sought me out for conversation, which none of the other children did. She had a large vocabulary and liked to share with me her insights about what was going on emotionally with the other kids and staff members. These insights would have been remarkable for a teenager, but coming from a three-year-old, they boggled my mind. Susie could be goofy and giggly, but more often she was serious and introspective.

One day Susie came running to me, hugged my leg tightly, and said, “My mother came here. I don’t want to go with her.”

I had not been given much background information on any of the children, which I think was a mistake on the part of our director, an extremely moody woman who often seemed overmatched by her job. But I knew Susie lived with a woman she called Auntie, a woman she related to in a somber way, and by that I mean Susie always became quite subdued when Auntie arrived to pick her up at the end of the day.

Most of the mothers of the kids at our center were single women in their twenties; Auntie was in her fifties. I also knew that Auntie and Susie were in dire straits economically because Auntie frequently asked me for food, which I would give her; cans of fruit and beans and tuna and soup from the day care center kitchen, though I wasn’t supposed to. I could give Auntie food without anyone on the staff knowing because I was also the janitor and the last to leave, and Susie was frequently the last child to be picked up.

So on that day when Susie told me her mother was there, I went out to the playground half-expecting to see Auntie, but there on the street-side of the cyclone fence surrounding the playground was a careworn young woman.

She gave me a fearful smile and said, “I only want Susie for an hour or so. I promise I’ll bring her back before five. Okay?”

“You need to speak to the director,” I said. “I’ll get her for you.”

“Never mind,” said the young woman, running away.

When I reported the incident to our director, I was informed that the young woman was, indeed, Susie’s mother. She was a prostitute and drug addict, and Susie had been taken away from her by the authorities. I asked if Auntie was Susie’s actual aunt or a foster parent, and the director said her records listed Auntie as Susie’s temporary guardian. The director then instructed all staff members to call the police whenever Susie’s mother showed up, which she did a few more times while I worked there, though we never called the police. I think she just wanted a glimpse of her daughter.

On the evening of that first visit from Susie’s mother, while giving Auntie a bag of food, I mentioned that Susie’s mother had come by, and Auntie, who was usually reserved with me said, “If that bitch tries to take Susie away from me, I’ll kill her.”

A couple weeks later, Susie arrived in the morning so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open. The minute Auntie left, Susie lay down on a pillow in a corner of the playroom and slept all morning. And she repeated this behavior almost every day for the next several weeks. But because Susie seemed otherwise well when she woke up, the director decided to allow Susie to sleep when she needed to and not make a big deal out of her sleepiness in the morning. This abrupt change in Susie’s behavior, I later realized, coincided with Auntie no longer asking me for food.

Then one afternoon, I came in from supervising the playground, and found Susie performing a disturbingly sexy dance and singing a torch song for a spellbound group of kids. When she finished her performance, I asked her who taught her the song and dance, and she said, “Auntie did. For my show.”

The finale of this story is that on a weekend a month later, Auntie engaged me to move a new bed and furniture up steep stairs into the little apartment where Susie and Auntie lived. Auntie rewarded me for my labor with a beer, proceeded to get stoned and drunk, and boasted that she had money now because she was taking Susie to private parties in San Francisco where Susie, dressed in a variety of alluring costumes, sang and danced. In between Susie’s performances, the people at these parties, mostly women, passed Susie around, caressing her and kissing her and talking to her, for which they gave Auntie money.

I reported this to our director, she made the necessary calls, and Susie was eventually taken away from Auntie. Susie was then placed in a nearby foster home and continued to come to our daycare center for as long as I worked there. She no longer arrived sleepy and her new guardians picked her up every day shortly after four in the afternoon. Susie would be forty-eight today if she’s still alive.

Another old soul I knew was Amelia. She attended the California Summer School for the Arts when she was fourteen. I was boss of the Creative Writing department at that time, and before I learned otherwise, I thought Amelia must be one of our oldest students. The age range at the school was fourteen to nineteen, and Amelia was by far our most emotionally mature student. She quickly became the motherly friend and confidante of several of my students, and within a few days of her arrival on campus she had a handsome summer school boyfriend, one of our nineteen-year-olds.

Amelia was calm, smart, loquacious, an excellent writer, and very wise for one so young. We became good friends and stayed friends for many years. When Amelia was a senior in high school, I went to visit her and her mother and stepfather. Being with Amelia and her mother was fascinating—Amelia a mature adult, her forty-seven-year-old mother a charming adolescent. And when Amelia and I went to lunch with Amelia’s father and his very young wife, Amelia and I were the adults, while her fifty-year-old father was a classic stoner teenager.

One day when I was six-years-old, I sat in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade classroom observing my fellow six-year-olds, and I was overcome with the surety that I was an ageless being in the body of a child. I told myself to never forget this and to check in with this feeling over the course of my life, which I sometimes remember to do.

Heat

Monday, July 10th, 2017

190moon

190 Moon diptych by Max Greenstreet

I do not do well when the temperature goes much above eighty degrees. I lived in Sacramento for fifteen years in a house without air conditioning, and though my last year there was 1995, over twenty years ago, I still cringe when I think of the summers I spent there. One of those summers we had a hundred days when the temperature surpassed a hundred degrees.

Now I live in Mendocino, a mile from the coast, and the days here are usually cool or cold, rarely warm, and almost never hot.

Today I decided to read a little news of the outside world. I learned that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is dying incredibly fast due to the fast-warming oceans. I also learned that temperatures in Las Vegas have surpassed one hundred and five degrees for several days, and such blazing hot days are expected to continue unabated in the Southwest for several more weeks. And I learned that wildfires are rampaging in California and throughout the western United States and Canada, the ferocity of these fires due to historically high temperatures and a lack of rain.

I also learned that a single medium-sized tree in good health has the cooling power of ten large air conditioners running twenty hours a day.

Buckminster Fuller suggested in his book Critical Path, published in 1981, two years before Fuller died, that the only way human society might survive the coming ecological apocalypse was through a computer-organized and computer-facilitated global government dedicated to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth. In his imagining of this future, the dying Great Barrier Reef, out-of-control wildfires, and soaring global temperatures would trigger responses by the global community that would immediately identify and take action to eliminate the causes of these disasters.

Reading the latest articles about the dying Great Barrier Reef and how helpless people feel they are to eliminate the causes of the swiftly warming oceans, I am reminded that Fuller was keenly aware that a global government dedicated to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth might never come to be.

In related news, the Mendocino Music Festival is underway once more, and my wife Marcia is playing cello in the festival orchestra as she has every year since the festival began thirty-one years ago. We are housing another of the orchestra’s cellists, Abigail Summers, and I am helping Sally Fletcher, the boss of food and drink for the festival events, when she has something easy for me to do.

On Saturday afternoon I walked to town and listened to the Calder Quartet perform Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Opus 13 in the big tent on the headlands. I love Mendelssohn, and this performance of his quartet was, as we used to say in the 60s, astral. I did not stay for the Beethoven, wanting to steep in the after tones of Mendelssohn as I walked home. Wow. What marvelous things humans are capable of creating.

Last night I attended the first orchestra concert of the festival, and as I watched the superb orchestra perform Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, I was reminded that humanity could dedicate our collective energies to enhancing the lives of all living things on earth, and we would succeed magnificently in doing so. We have the genius, the creativity, and the ability to work together to accomplish incredibly complicated and difficult tasks. Why don’t we?

And why, I wondered aloud to Marcia as we were celebrating after the concert, do we allow small groups of highly unimaginative, greedy, non-geniuses to run our governments and destroy the planet? If we can send humans to the moon and bring them home safely, and we can compose and perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s astounding Scheherazade, why don’t we elect brilliant and creative leaders to do what needs to be done to save the biosphere?

The answer seems to be that humans, collectively, are no longer cognizant of the impact of what they do today on the state of things in the future. In Critical Path, Fuller tells of a great hall built at a university in England in the 1500s. The builders were aware that the massive oak beams used to construct the hall would need replacing four hundred years in the future, and to that end they planted a large oak grove on the campus that they accurately calculated would provide the requisite replacement lumber four centuries in the future.

He also tells of the fabulous seaworthy sailing boats, junks, built in Thailand for thousands of years, and how the teak used in the construction of these junks is first aged for twenty-five years in fresh water, then twenty-five years in brackish water, and finally for fifty years in salt water, before being milled for the building of the junks. Thus the sellers of this seaworthy wood to the builders of the boats were the great great grandchildren of those who originally harvested the trees and began their aging processes, which meant that those waterproof teak providers were economically dependent on the actions of their ancestors.

Therefore when people argue that our collective inability to do anything about the dying reefs and rising temperatures and our moronic governments is the result of human nature, I say, “No, I don’t think our inability is the result of human nature. I think our inability comes from a learned unwillingness to share, combined with a relatively new phenomenon: a lack of connection to the past and to the future.”

The good news is that the Mendocino Music Festival will continue for another week, with more glorious music for us to hear—the collective genius of humans on display to inspire us.

Found Stuff

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

168three

168 three diptych by Max Greenstreet

Wandering through town today, mobs of tourists here for the long Fourth of July weekend, a man hailed me and said, “Do you know what time it is?”

I looked at the watch I have affixed to my basket and told him the time: 11:47. He then looked at his smart phone, smiled, turned to his wife and said, “You win the bet.”  And then they walked away.

“Excuse me?” I said, calling after the man and his wife. “What was the bet?”

The man turned to me and said, “She bet you’d have the correct time, I bet you wouldn’t.”

“What a curious bet,” I said, half-frowning and half-smiling at the man and his wife. “I wonder why she…”

But then they walked away, so I said no more.

Now as it happens, the watch on my basket is one I found on the ground while walking to town a few years ago. Perfectly good watch, rather old, but keeps perfect time and is just the thing to have affixed to my basket.

This encounter with the rude man from out of town got me thinking of other things I’ve found, including so many pairs of dark glasses that we have a small basket full of them to lend to visitors who lost or forgot theirs or for us to use when we misplace the current pair we’re using. My favorite sunglasses are ultra-comfortable and highly effective and stylish in a pleasingly understated way and no doubt cost their previous owner, the person who left them on the beach, a pretty penny.

Then there is my big orange and black hammer, a most excellent tool I found on the street in Berkeley. I was riding my bicycle and saw the lovely thing lying in the middle of the road. I often found tools in the road while riding my bicycle around Berkeley and Sacramento. Excellent tools. I have a very good crescent wrench and two screw drivers and an expensive wood chisel I found while riding my bike. People drop things and other people pick them up.

I also have lots of rocks I’ve found. I used to be an avid collector of rocks and driftwood, and I still occasionally bring home a stone or a hunk of sculptured wood, but I am no longer the avid collector I once was. My newest stone is not quite as big as a walnut, perfectly egg-shaped, and pale gray. I found the beauty on the beach at Elk a couple weeks ago, and now this stone egg is one of my two carrying stones—one in each of the front pockets of my pants.

I very much doubt that the man who bet his wife I would have the wrong time is a collector of stones or carries stones in his pockets. I also suspect he would not be much interested in hearing about my relationship to stones, which I find fascinating. As it happens, most people I know do not find my relationship to stones even a little bit interesting. However, other people who collect stones and carry one or more of them in their pockets love hearing about my relationship to stones because my story is kin to their stories about their relationships to stones.

One day I was buying groceries at Corners and I fished in my pocket for dimes and pennies and came up with a handful of coins and one of my carrying stones, a roundish orange brown thing also not quite as big as a walnut. The checker, a woman with curly brown hair wearing a turquoise scarf said, “Nice stone,” and then fished into her pocket and brought forth a similar-sized stone, dark brown.

Lots of people carry or wear small crystals, but non-crystal stone carriers are a different sort and tend to be people I instantly relate to. We share an understanding that can’t really be put into words about non-crystal stones, especially the ones we choose to pick up and carry for a time. We are not opposed to crystals. We probably have crystals, too, at home, but this affinity we have for non-crystals…well, ineffable.

Anyway, I like to tell people who also carry stones (and those who reveal themselves to be interested in that sort of thing) that having been a stone carrier since I was a little boy—though no one else I knew while I was growing up did such a thing—I was thrilled when I read a passage in a book called Wisdom & Power, wherein the Lakota holy man Fool’s Crow said he was a stone carrier (non-crystal) and that there were some people who needed to carry stones in their pockets to be fully healthy and happy. He said these kinds of people understood, perhaps without understanding how or why they understood, that the stones connected them directly to Great Spirit.

When I tell other stone carriers this story, you should see the smiles on their faces. Having their mostly secret habit validated by a genius holy man is some of the best news a stone carrier can ever get.

And then there are cats. Nearly all the cats I’ve ever had, and I’ve had lots of cats, found me, which seems like the flip side of finding something but is really the same thing. Those stones, in truth, found me. They called out in the way stones call out, “Hey, I see you. Here I am.” And you look down, and here is the stone, either alone on the sand or in a big mob of other stones, but something makes it stand out for you, and you reach down and pick the stone up and the energy of Great Spirit flows into you from the stone and you know, without knowing how you know, that this stone is going to travel with you for a while.

Bill and Ted Arrive

Monday, May 15th, 2017

129things

129 Things photo diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Four score and…seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure, conceived by our new friends: Bill and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition, which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other and Party On, Dudes!” Abraham Lincoln in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

We recently watched the movie Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve. Arrival is a well-meaning and humorless look at the arrival on earth of beings from another solar system, and how contemporary humans might react to such an arrival. Denis Villeneuve is also the director of the soon-to-be-released Blade Runner sequel, and he has recently been signed to direct yet another movie-version of Dune. Based on how Denis did with Arrival, I’m not optimistic his Dune will be much better than the previous Dune disasters.

In any case, we enjoyed Arrival, though the sound was problematic and the transitions from one scene to the next were often jumpy and confusing. Much of what the characters said to each other was partially or completely drowned out by competing noises. Thus we could not depend on the dialogue to let us know what was going on. I think this was the director’s attempt to simulate what he believed to be sonic realism, but I found the muted dialogue annoying.

When Arrival ended—as I was trying to make sense of the more confusing parts of the movie—I had the following epiphany: the underlying idea propelling the plot of Arrival is identical to the underlying idea propelling the plot of the super great 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. To wit: time is not linear and future events influence the present as profoundly and immediately as do events from the past. Once I had this epiphany, the puzzle pieces composing Arrival fell into place and I ceased to be annoyed and bewildered.

Amy Adams is the star of Arrival. Her character not only saves the world in the movie, her performance saves the movie. She plays the part of a brilliant linguist surrounded by a mob of not-very-bright men trying to figure out what the aliens are doing here. Thus I found her easy to identify with. Hers was also the only character in the movie appropriately awed by, and respectful of, the big octopus-like aliens. And her character was also the only human believably afraid and troubled by the challenge confronting her. Everyone else in the movie seemed void of emotion, one-dimensional, and superfluous. I suppose it could be argued that the entire film was Amy’s character’s dream, but that would be silly.

Nevertheless, I really liked what the movie gave me, which is the message that to overcome our fears we must move toward them with open arms. Trying to run from our fears or kill them or deny them won’t do the trick. We must embrace them and transmute them as we allow them to transmute us.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, on the other hand, has excellent audio and is filled with humor. Keanu Reeves is stupendous as Ted and will never again be so good in a movie. Alex Winter as Bill is also great, and never again has done much of anything in the movies. And the late great George Carlin is supremely excellent as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor and guardian from the future.

Disclaimer: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of several movies I love that many of my friends and age-peers do not like. For this reason, I will not recommend the movie except to say that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works wonderfully well if you need help making sense of Arrival.

Speaking of movies, we also recently saw and enjoyed the 2013 Chilean-Spanish movie Gloria, written and directed by Sebastien Lelio and starring Paulina Garcia. I first saw and admired Paulina Garcia in the marvelous American movie Little Men, written and directed by Ira Sachs, and so I was eager to see more of her work. Gloria is both comic and tragic, and felt ultra-real to me. Paulina Garcia’s portrayal of a lonely middle-aged woman riding the ups and downs of a difficult relationship with a narcissistic sociopath is so moving and believable, this otherwise depressing story becomes a luminescent homage to the resiliency of an inherently good person.

I was reminded by Paulina Garcia’s performance in Gloria of Sally Hawkins’ stellar performance in Mike Leigh’s extraordinary film Happy Go Lucky.

Thank goodness for foreign movies and foreign directors (and American directors who might as well be foreigners), else what would the likes of me have to watch?

Meanwhile, I have recently completed work on two stupendous screenplays—The Magic Pen and Larry Story—and eagerly await inquiries from imaginative movie producers, brilliant directors, and superb actors interested in making fabulous cinematic art with excellent audio and unforgettable dialogue.

Suffering Fools

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

We've Traded Places Times Before

We’ve Traded Places Times Before painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

My friend John Grimes, the cartoonist, recently sent me an article from the Washington Post about Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump for President of the United States. The writer of the article suggests that since both Palin and Trump are Reality Television stars, this endorsement furthers the frightening trend of American politics becoming little more than a media circus designed to numb the populous while aggrandizing the stand-ins for the despots.

But I think there is something else going on here with Trump and Palin, something much older and deeper than Reality Television, though directly connected to the televisionization of our culture and society, which has made us, more than ever before, the victims of aggressive extroverts who seem to be developmentally arrested somewhere between the ages of four and ten.

When I was in Sixth Grade, a decade or two before the introduction of Ritalin and other pharmaceuticals into mainstream-education class management, there were two kids in our class, Charlie and Amy, who were both so impulsive, loud, and disruptive, our well-meaning teacher was nearly powerless to control them. And even when Charlie and Amy were not acting out, we expected them to explode at any moment, so our classroom experience was about surviving Charlie and Amy, not about learning. Sadly, these two were not smart or creative or interesting. On the contrary, they were infantile and abusive—Trump and Palin.

When Charlie and Amy’s behavior became seriously dangerous, which it did every few weeks—they often erupted in tandem—they would be removed from the class room for a few days or a week, and renaissance would ensue. Kids rigid with fear would relax, discussions would become sophisticated, and real learning would ensue, along with joy and laughter and emotional growth. And then Charlie and Amy would return and so would the Dark Ages.

“My grandfather believed there are two kinds of people—those who know how the world fits together and those who think they know. The former work in hardware stores, the latter in politics.” Josef Anderson

Alas, adult versions of those two abusive children who wrecked school for many of us are plentiful in our society. I’m sure you have experienced the following: You are at a gathering of intelligent thoughtful people, save for one who is not particularly bright or thoughtful or interesting, but he—it is most often a he—holds forth incessantly about nothing of interest to anyone, interrupts anyone who dares speak for more than a moment, and ruins the gathering—the group powerless to overcome this person’s repulsive neurosis.

Why are there so many of these boorish people in America? Christopher Lasch posits in his fascinating books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, that the breakdown of the extended family within a larger cohesive social fabric, hastened by the invention of auto-centric suburbia combined with the intrusion of television into every home in America, birthed vast numbers of individuals incapable of forming healthy emotional bonds. And those individuals, he suggests, had children who had children who had children, while all the while the social fabric continued to unravel; and we are now several generations along this new evolutionary path to endemic emotional disconnect.

“Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests.” Sir Max Beerbohm

When I taught Creative Writing at a summer school for highly motivated teenagers, I became aware that most of my charges did not know how to have conversations. They could exchange bits of information and make pronouncements, but they didn’t really know how to converse. After lengthy field study, I concluded that my teenagers did not know how to listen, did not know how to ask questions, did not know how to ask follow-up questions, and did not know how to think for a moment before responding to things other people said to them.

So we held conversation workshops in which my faculty demonstrated how to ask questions, how to listen to answers without interrupting, how to ask follow-up questions, and how to keep listening. Then we had our students practice writing out responses to the answers they received to their questions, which gave them practice in thinking about what they heard other people say before responding. And then we had them practice these techniques in groups of two and three and four people on a stage in front of an audience, after which people in the audience gave the performers feedback about which parts of the conversations they especially resonated with.

And though we worked on many aspects of the writing process during those month-long intensives, nothing we did for our students impacted them as profoundly as learning how to have meaningful conversations. For several years after I ceased teaching, I received letters from former students recounting the huge impacts those conversation workshops had on myriad aspects of their lives.

I often think of those workshops when I encounter these emotional black holes who will not allow anyone else to speak. You will notice that such people never ask questions of anyone, for to do so would be to enter into conversation. What, I wonder, do these incessant blabbers fear about other people speaking?

Could it be that the television itself is the primary role model these people have when it comes to relating to others? How does a television behave? It talks incessantly about the same things over and over again, never asks questions of those listening, and continues talking if anyone else tries to speak. Why wouldn’t people entrained by watching television for hours and hours every day from early childhood and throughout their formative years, imitate that “person”? Of course they would.

I don’t watch television, and it is only through what my friend Max Greenstreet informs me is called social osmosis that I know anything about Reality Television. But I would wager that most Reality Television shows feature people who would benefit greatly from conversation workshops.

The Magician

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

superstar

A still from The Magician, a video by Kate Greenstreet

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

“Magicians will always tell you the trick is the most important thing, but I’m more interested in telling a story.” Marco Tempest

Most artists are unknown or little known outside their neighborhood or town or small circle of friends. This is not a bad or good thing, but merely the way of the world. My favorite poets are known to only a handful of people, and many of the finest musicians and painters and actors I’ve had the good fortune to hear and see will never be known outside the little kingdoms inhabited by their personal friends and acquaintances.

All of the hundreds of artists I have known in my life, save for those rare few who for one reason or another succeeded hugely in the mainstream of our culture, either came to accept and even relish their relative anonymity in the greater scheme of things or they ceased to make art because the hope of great success was their primary motivation for making art.

A few of my books have sold thousands of copies, but none of my nine music CDs have sold more than a hundred copies. Many people unknown to me have read my books, but most of those who enjoy my music are known to me by their first names. And yet I have always been as dedicated to my music as I am to my writing, and I intend to practice and compose music for as long as I am able. Lovers of my music are few, but they are zealous lovers, and that is sufficient.

A few years ago I recorded an album of solo piano improvisations entitled Ceremonies, each piece an accompaniment to an imagined ceremony.

One of the pieces on the album is entitled “Dance of the Seahorses” and as I improvised that tune, I imagined the slow underwater dancing of those remarkable fish, a hypnotic enactment of a never-ending ceremony.

Another piece entitled “Blue Cathedral” is a churchy blues I imagined as a sacred processional in a cathedral bathed in ethereal light.

And my favorite piece on the Ceremonies album is entitled “The Magician.” As I played that mysterious tune, I saw in my mind’s eye a graceful mime performing a slow dance full of mystical and subtly humorous flourishes.

Fast forward to October 13, 2015, four days shy of my sixty-sixth birthday. An email arrived from my pal Max Greenstreet in New Hampshire informing me that he and his wife Kate Greenstreet had just released Kate’s video-poem The Magician, with my composition “The Magician” underpinning the narrative; and that short film is now viewable on Vimeo, a web site where filmmakers can share their creations with the world.

Words are inadequate to describe how thrilled and gratified I am that Kate chose my music for this video-poem she made in league with Cynthia King. I am a huge fan of Kate’s video-poems, Max her right hand man in the making of her films, and it is not hyperbole to say that having my music harmonizing with her words and imagery is a validation and encouragement that will sustain my musical pursuits for the rest of my life.

You can watch The Magician by going to https://vimeo.com/142189708

“It is the unspoken ethic of all magicians to not reveal the secrets.” David Copperfield

A large part of my joy about Kate and Max using “The Magician” in their exquisite film is that I have endeavored several dozen times over the course of my life to collaborate with other artists on a wide variety of creations, and the vast majority of those collaborations ended in creative or emotional or financial disaster, and usually some combination of the three. It would be convenient to blame my collaborators for these disasters, but since I am the only constant in these many failed equations, I suspect the fatal flaw lies with me.

Long ago in the days before digital cameras, I collaborated on the making of a short film I wrote and directed. The audio engineer on the project said he would only collaborate with me if everyone involved in making the film had his or her role in the process clearly defined, written down, and agreed upon, and that as the instigator and financier of the project, my judgment in all creative matters would be the final one, with everyone involved agreeing to that, too, with signed documents attesting to these agreements.

At the time, I thought such punctilious preliminaries unnecessary, but he was a superb sound engineer and I very much wanted to work with him, so I agreed to his conditions. My cameraman bridled a bit at the strict clarification of his role, but he signed his agreement as did the few other people involved, and we got to work.

No collaborative endeavor I have been involved with before or since ever went so smoothly. The potential clash of egos was dispensed with at the outset, and clashing egos, as I’m sure you know, make collaboration difficult if not impossible.

And though today my creative endeavors are solo flights—no one to argue with but little old me—I often fantasize about how grand it would be to team up with a drummer or filmmaker or singer or dancers who find my music and words exactly what they’ve been looking for to meld with their artistry.

This is why I am so thrilled that Kate and Max used my music in their movie The Magician. My music, in the words of Goldilocks, was just right—our collaboration arising from friendship and mutual admiration.

As I resume collaborating with myself, I imagine my novel-in-progress calling out to prescient publishers and daring movie makers, my latest piano explorations ringing through the global etheric in quest of people who will hear my music as soundtracks to bold new explorations of the light fantastic.

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.