Posts Tagged ‘Mr. Magician’

Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

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

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”

Wrong Thinking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

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

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange.” Ani DiFranco

One of my Anthropology professors was Nigerian, his people Yoruba. An exceptional student as a child, he was sent to school in England and eventually got his PhD from a prestigious American university. My professor married an African American woman, with whom he had two children, and when those children were five and three-years-old, he and his wife took the kids to Nigeria so they could get to know their paternal grandparents and the huge extended family that was my professor’s clan. After a few days in Nigeria, my professor was summoned to a meeting of the male elders of his clan who severely chastised him for not taking a second and third wife to produce more sons.

“You are a very rich man,” said his father, with twenty other men nodding in agreement. “You are richer than any of us, yet you shame your parents and your clan by not taking more wives. Why are you doing this?”

The professor explained to his outraged father and uncles and cousins that in America it was the law that a man may only have one wife. The Yoruba men were disgusted to hear this and shouted many insults at my professor, the gist of their insults being that wealthy American men who take only one wife are weak and impotent and effeminate and crazy.

“Fortunately this is not the law among our people,” said my professor’s father, “so we will find two more wives for you and you will keep them here and get children with them. You will send money from America and your wives will make a fine household for you here. You will come home for a time each year and get many children. And when you have finished your work in America you will live here with your wives and their children as you should.”

My professor said that he and his wife decided to cut their visit short in order to avoid the marriages being arranged for him. “You see,” he explained, chuckling, “my wife is liberated and will not share me with other women.”

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” Anthony Bourdain

If you have never, or not in a long time, read the forty-eight-page novella Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen, I highly recommend the tale as a thought provoking inquiry into context, memory, and truly great meals. An excellent film version of Babette’s Feast was made in Denmark in 1987 and is remarkably faithful to the original story, so whether you spend an hour and a half watching the movie or an hour reading the story, or both, you will see what I mean about thought provoking. Along with Dinesen’s exquisite prose, what I love most about Babette’s Feast are the myriad ways in which concepts of right and wrong are revealed to be little more than the passing fancies of context, memory, and truly great meals.

“SCORN FOR JOBLESS ON RISE: unemployed face compassion fatigue as economy remains flat” front page headline and sub-headline, Santa Rosa Press Democrat September 4, 2011

The article that follows those scurrilous sentence fragments is a lengthy piece of cruel propaganda quoting various wealthy politicos from around the country who are growing impatient and angry with tens of millions of unemployed people who lost their jobs and houses and savings due to the criminal activities of banks and investment firms expedited by wealthy politicos from around the country. Published with no indication it was intended as satire, the article emphatically suggests that people receiving unemployment benefits are “leeching off the system.”

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” John Wayne

I thought it would be wrong to attribute that quote to John Wayne until I checked multiple reliable sources to make sure he really did say such a thing.

“She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” Mae West

When I was eight-years-old I saw the movie The Horse’s Mouth, starring Alec Guinness, after which I knew what I wanted to be: a writer, director, and star of movies about strange and marvelous people. I have subsequently seen The Horse’s Mouth many times, and the movie remains a marvel to me.

My mother grew up in close proximity to Hollywood and her mother’s best friend was the wife of a famous movie director. My mother was a Drama major at UCLA before giving up her theatrical ambitions to attend law school, pass the bar, and postpone practicing law for twenty-five years while she raised four children. For reasons I never fully understood, my mother felt it necessary to try to burst my movie career bubble every chance she got, and her primary means of doing so was to cast terrible aspersions on anyone in the movie business I dared reveal my admiration for.

According to my mother, all successful female stars of stage and screen, without exception, succeeded not through their talents as thespians, but through sexual escapades with people of wealth and power; and all successful male stars were either promiscuous homosexuals or unscrupulous bisexuals. According to my mother, all but a very few successful actors of both sexes were alcoholics, and many were drug addicts. She never revealed where she got her information about the stars of stage and screen, and since she did not read gossip magazines or watch television, the implication of her fierce certainty was that she had firsthand knowledge of these immoral people. But how, I wondered, did she come by such knowledge unless, while I was at school, she spent hours on the phone with operatives in Hollywood and Manhattan?

I remember one evening in particular when I was fifteen and had recently won a small part in a school play—my first step, I hoped, on the road to fame and fortune, and my mother, fortified with several martinis, was excoriating yet another of my favorite stars with a history of sexual depravity and opportunistic backstabbing.

“Oh, come on,” I protested. “Are you saying that no movie star has ever succeeded because they were talented? They’re all whores and crooks? What about Fred Astaire? Ginger Rogers? Jimmy Stewart? Claudette Colbert. Alec Guinness? The Marx Brothers?”

“Ha!” she said bitterly. “Little do you know.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.” Yogi Berra

On September 4, 2011, our beloved San Francisco Giants lost most ignobly to the Snakes, otherwise known as the Arizona Diamondbacks, and fell seven games out of first place with only twenty-two games left to play. We were poised to win that game, but then lost, and as we lost I felt in my bones, as opposed to in my brain, that we no longer had any hope of making the playoffs and returning to the World Series. I think we had good enough players to catch the Snakes, but not the right managers. I won’t say our managers are bad, for they are the same fellows who skippered our team to the World Series and won it all last year. But I do think they were the wrong managers this year because they were not creative or prescient, nor did they win the close games through guile and daring, all of which they were and did last year. Or so it seems. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” Alan Watts

In 1970, in the hour before dawn, I climbed to the top of the monumental Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) and made the acquaintance of four French travelers who had spent the night atop the pyramid. Our shared ambition was to watch the sun appear to rise out of the Pyramid of the Sun across the great plaza from us.

I write “appear to rise” in deference to Buckminster Fuller who cautioned us not to use expressions such as “the sun rising” or “the sun going down” because he felt such usage reinforced a wrong view of how our earth, in relation to our sun, actually operates. The earth spins us into light and spins us into darkness in relation to the sun; the sun does not rise or fall in relation to us. Bucky also pointed out that when humans first began to fly in airplanes, they spontaneously and accurately coined the expression “coming in for a landing,” rather than “coming down for a landing” because there is no up or down in space. Bucky fervently believed that the more truthfully we describe reality, the more successful we will be in developing a regenerative relationship with the earth and Universe.

So the sun appeared to rise out of the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest human-made pyramid on earth, and the appearance was a stirring sight, indeed. Then, not long after the earth had spun us into sunlight, a tour bus arrived and shattered the quietude we had so enjoyed. The bus door opened and several dozen American tourists disembarked, their voices so loud and the acoustics of that amazing place such that we could hear the words they spoke a mile away. And the loudest voice came from a man reacting to the majestic Pyramid of the Sun. “That’s it?” he bellowed. “That one right there? What a let down. The ones in Egypt are so much bigger.”

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

There is a wonderful story about the current Dalai Lama visiting America for the first time several decades ago, before he was better acquainted with the American psyche. His Holiness was taking questions from a group of meditation teachers and their students when a man asked the Dalai Lama for advice about how to overcome low self-esteem because this man’s struggle with low self-esteem was seriously impeding his meditation practice.

The Dalai Lama had never heard of low self-esteem and was perplexed by the question. After someone explained to him what low self-esteem was, the Dalai Lama went around the room asking person after person, “Do you have this?” And when all the Americans admitted that to one degree or another they suffered from low self-esteem, the Dalai Lama proclaimed, “But this is wrong thinking. You must stop thinking this way.”