Posts Tagged ‘Molly’

Loyalty

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

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Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

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

My brother, a software systems analyst and project manager, sent me the following quote from the book Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies by Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda that my brother says sums up his world as an IT (Internet Technology) contractor for the past 25 years. “The old social contract was, give loyalty, get security. But that old contract has been repealed, and free agents quickly realized that in the traditional world they were silently accepting an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. From infighting and office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another to colleagues who don’t pull their weight, most workplaces are in dysfunction. Most people do want to work; they don’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions.”

The quote confused me because I wasn’t sure whether Barley and Kunda were saying that loyalty in the era of Internet Technology is obsolete and the cause of dysfunction, or if they were saying that the repeal of loyalty ushered in the era of dysfunction. When I read the quote to Marcia, she immediately replied, “Well, loyalty is a vertical phenomenon that ideally connects top to bottom within a system and gives everyone in the system a sense of the whole process they’re involved in. But if everyone is fighting for themselves, then the awareness of the purpose of the process is lost and everyone’s energy goes to self-preservation instead of doing necessary work and creating a healthy and functional working situation.”

Marcia’s response struck me as a good explanation for the ongoing dysfunction of our government, top to bottom. The abandonment of loyalty to anything or anyone other than the greedy self describes the motivation and behavior of John Boehner and his sociopathic colleagues, as well as Obama’s loyalty to the banksters and earth-gobbling corporate executives who would rather ruin everything in the world than help anyone other than themselves, which means they lack the ability to sympathize with others, which means they are incapable of love or rational thought, which means they are severely emotionally disturbed and should be locked away in high security mental institutions where they can pose no further danger to themselves or others.

We would rather be ruined than changed;


We would rather die in our dread


Than climb the cross of the moment


And let our illusions die. W.H. Auden

We recently watched Mike Leigh’s movie Life Is Sweet, a fascinating and painful and strangely delightful look at a working class English family. Perhaps because I was writing this article about loyalty when we saw the film, I saw Life Is Sweet as a study of loyalty, of parents being loyal to their children, of husband and wife being loyal to each other, of siblings being loyal to each other, and of friends being loyal to friends, and how loyalty can be a wonderful force for healthy growth and healing, but also a key ingredient in a recipe for debilitating dysfunction.

 “Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realize that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.” Andre Gide

The more I think about loyalty, the more the word loyalty seems rather useless on its own—lacking specificity and having too many different meanings depending on context. Therefore I am going to be disloyal to the initial inspiration for this article and change the subject entirely, though in changing the subject I may inadvertently illuminate the original topic through this juxtaposition of elements in tension.

Huh? Let me explain. My senior year of high school, 1967, I was in an Advanced Placement English class, which was supposed to prepare us for taking the AP English essay test. If we got a score of 3 or better (out of 5) on that test, our chances of getting into a good college would be much improved and we would be given ten units of college credit and allowed to skip the basic English courses most incoming college freshman were required to take. I was a contrarian and disdainful of obedient regurgitation, which made me an enemy of most of my teachers. When we took the practice AP exam and my score was the lowest in our class, my English teacher gleefully trumpeted my failure as proof of the error of my contrary ways.

Only one person in my class, Candy, scored a 5 on the practice exam. Candy was the perennial teacher’s pet and the queen, nay, the empress of slavering regurgitation. Throughout my four years of incarceration at Woodside High, Candy’s essays were routinely read aloud to us by a series of intoxicated teachers as examples of what proper student essays should be. I still remember our Eleventh Grade English teacher reading Candy’s slavering essay on the recurrence of synonyms for the color red in The Scarlet Letter, and Candy’s conclusion that “The Scarlet Letter is, unquestionably, the most perfect novel yet written in the English language.” This was a regurgitation of that very teacher stating, “The Scarlet Letter is, without a doubt, the most perfect novel ever written,” a proclamation that elicited from me a loud guffaw and “You’ve got to be kidding,” which resulted in my having to come in after school every day for a week (and miss basketball practice) and sit at a desk without speaking for an hour, while Candy and her fellow sycophants fluttered around the teacher and kissed her hems, so to speak.

Nevertheless, when Candy’s top-scoring practice AP essay was read aloud to us and ballyhooed as the Rosetta Stone for how to score high on the AP English exam, I and several of my fellow inmates noted that in Candy’s barfacious essay she thrice used the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension, and every time our teacher uttered those words she would gaze at Candy as if recalling a recent simultaneous orgasm.

After class that day, inspired by contempt and curiosity, three of my classmates and I cornered Candy and asked her, “What’s up with this juxtaposition of elements in tension?”

And though she was loathe to admit she had not invented the expression, Candy confessed she had been tutored by “an expert on the AP exam” who impressed upon her that the judicious use of this juxtaposition of elements in tension and a few other expressions we wheedled out of Candy would virtually guarantee a score of 3 or better—those expressions catnip to academics.

When the great day of the AP English exam came, we were sequestered in a windowless room and watched over by a trio of humorless teachers charged with making sure we didn’t cheat; not that one could cheat while writing a speculative essay on misogyny and superstition in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, or whatever it was they asked us to write about. With Candy’s tricks of the trade in mind, I generously peppered my essay with the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension and the author’s predilection for subtle symbolic forays and such diverse yet mutually accommodating points of view, and lo the judges gave me a 3, much to the chagrin of my English teacher. Candy, of course, scored a 5, went to Stanford for two years, transferred to UC Berkeley, and beyond that I know not where her juxtapositions and predilections and subtle forays took her.

“Ours is the age of substitutes; instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; and, instead of genuine idea, bright ideas.” Eric Bentley

I see now that the opening quote from Barley and Kunda contains an apt description of my (and probably your) educational experience. I came to realize that in the traditional world (of academia) we were being forced to accept an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work; I simply didn’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions. And so I became a free agent, otherwise known as a freelance human being, and stumbled along for many years under the weight of my neuroses and through myriad juxtapositions of elements in tension until I came to a most wonderful turning point in middle-age when I bequeathed my loyalty to the notion elucidated by Mr. Laskin in my novel Under the Table Books. To wit: Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you aren’t a perfectly wonderful soul.

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

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

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.