Posts Tagged ‘Pablo Picasso’

Weekly Offerings

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

signed & numbered

Twelve by Todd

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

I was nearly forty when it first occurred to me to write anything other than fiction and poetry and plays. At thirty-nine, I still thought of myself as a moderately successful novelist and short story writer. Furthermore, I rarely read non-fiction; and so in 1989, when Melinda Welsh, the editor of the brand new Sacramento News & Review invited me to write essays for her paper, I accepted her invitation with little understanding of what such reportage entails. Now, thirty years later, writing essays is my most persistent writing habit.

When my fiction and screenwriting ceased to bring home the bacon, so to speak, writing essays became a source of much-needed income, and I have no doubt that without such financial incentive, I would never have become habituated to writing non-fiction. Which is not to say I ever earned vast sums writing essays. Melinda paid me one hundred and fifty dollars per essay for the Sacramento News & Review; and for the entirety of my eight-year tenure writing a weekly piece for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, I was paid twenty-five dollars per. Nowadays I am paid by the knowledge that at least a handful of people look forward to my weekly offerings.

Melinda Welsh was a wonderful editor. She generally liked my take on things, appreciated my senses of humor and irony, edited my lines with a light hand, and rewarded me for my non-fiction efforts by paying me relatively large sums to write the News & Review’s annual Christmas story (fiction!) for several years running. One of those Christmas stories, The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger, was syndicated after appearing in the News & Review, and appeared in dozens of weeklies and dailies across America. Eureka!

In those pre-internet days, I belonged to a lucky little population of writers in America who made actual money writing original works for actual three-dimensional publications. Then seemingly overnight (but really in a few shocking years) our numbers were reduced to virtually zero by the advent of the worldwide web and the simultaneous and astounding (to me) discovery by magazine and newspaper editors that most people cannot distinguish good writing from bad. Therefore, why should those editors pay good money to good writers when, for little money or no money, they can avail themselves of quasi-readable chunks of verbiage yanked from the internet?

When I moved to Berkeley in 1995, I submitted essays and stories to four different Bay Area weeklies, but found no editorial champions and so ceased writing essays for the next eleven years. Instead, I wrote hundreds of short stories, forty-two of which became my book Buddha In A Teacup (recently issued in a lovely paperback edition by Counterpoint Press), and another hundred of which became my novel of stories Under the Table Books, winner of the 2009 American Indie Award for Best Fiction.

In 2007, the year after I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley, I sent an essay entitled Sister to Bruce Anderson at the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and Bruce published the piece. He then invited me to become a regular contributor to the AVA, a regularity that produced four hundred essays and gave me the ongoing pleasure of hearing from readers who enjoyed my work, as well as the ongoing displeasure of hearing from readers who were adamant my essays were a blight on the AVA.

As of mid-May 2017, my AVA career a memory now, I continue to write a weekly essay and post it with an accompanying photo on my blog at Underthetablebooks.com. Shortly thereafter, Dave Smith does me the honor of presenting my article and photo on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

And today I am pleased to announce the birth of Sources of Wonder, a handsome coil-bound collection of eighty-three of my favorite essays culled from the aforementioned four hundred, available exclusively from Under the Table Books. Among the stories in Sources of Wonder are Sister, Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs, The Double, Three Presidents (and a First Lady), What’s In A Name, Her Children, and My Butt (The Musical)—all the essays in the collection having elicited heartfelt responses from readers.

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

Speaking of heartfelt, as I was putting the finishing touches on Sources of Wonder, I was given a book of essays by the Scottish poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie, and I was thrilled to discover an excellent living writer, writing in English, who is not even close to being old or dead—an experience for me akin to coming upon a living and breathing unicorn who allows me a good long look at her before she winks slyly and saunters away into the mystic. I highly recommend Jamie’s books Sightlines and Findings.

If you have never purchased any of my coil-bound self-published works, I hasten to tell you that each copy of Sources of Wonder is signed and dated and numbered, the whimsical numerals sketched and lavishly colored by the author to make each volume a collector’s item and an ideal gift for friends who love to read and enjoy pondering the divine and mysterious and hilarious and fascinating interconnectedness of everything.

As Mr. Laskin says to Derek at the end of Under the Table Books, “I refer to it as chumming for synergy. There is nothing the universe appreciates more than action. Do you know why that is? Because action is the mother of the whole kit and caboodle.”

There We Were

Monday, December 12th, 2016

La Entrada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Your Bliss

Monday, May 30th, 2016

from the chair tw

From The Chair painting by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aht & Cultcha

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

andmischief

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Their Son Mischief painting by Todd

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

“A triptych (three related paintings) by the artist Francis Bacon sold for $142,405,000 on Tuesday, breaking the record as the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, according to the auction house Christie’s.” CNN

I was curious to see this creation that someone, ostensibly a human being, paid 142 million dollars for, and when I found the image online and made the triptych large and clear on my computer screen, I was surprised by how unremarkable I found this work to be. I’m sure there are academics and art experts galore who can babble at length about why “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” painted by Francis Bacon in 1969 is of great importance in the history and evolution of modern art, but to my eyes this is yet another case of the emperor’s new clothes, as opposed to innovative, revolutionary, or masterful art. The work left me cold, both emotionally and intellectually. Please don’t tell me it was Bacon’s intention to leave the viewer cold. Or…go ahead and tell me that was his intention and I will respond, “Phooey.”

I have no doubt that “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is a work of art. An artist painted the thing. Beyond that I will leave the analysis and debate to others, except to say that if I hadn’t been told the work was valuable I would never have guessed “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” had any value at all, save for those super duper matching gold frames. The expression “student work” came to mind when I looked at the three very similar paintings, followed by the thought “needs practice.”

I say this as an art-loving person who was once a voracious reader of art history, art reviews, art theory, and artist biographies. I was also a frequent visitor to art galleries private and public in California and New York and Los Angeles, I have many artist friends, and I have been making art for most of my life, with the intention of leaving my viewers warm in some way or another.

“The only thing that happens overnight is recognition. Not talent.” Carol Haney

My sister, a professor of Biology, was for some years in the 1970’s a weaver of spaciously abstract wall hangings and big puffy pillows. Having pursued her art in the privacy of her home for several years, she decided to make her pubic debut by getting a booth at the KPFK Christmas Faire in Los Angeles. I helped her build her booth, we hung her weavings, arrayed her pillows, and sat back to see how people would respond to what she’d made. To my sister’s surprise and delight, people bought every last one of her pillows and all but two of her wall hangings. By the second day of the faire, she had almost nothing left to sell.

To make a long story short, inspired by her initial success, my sister spent several months creating a new body of work, got a booth at the KPFK Summer Faire, and sold almost nothing. A year or so later, she told me she no longer considered herself an artist. I asked her to explain. She said that having lived through a terrible mudslide that destroyed many of her possessions and forced her to move out of a house she loved, she made a weaving that captured her frazzled and emotionally upset state. “It was ugly,” she said. “Truthful, but ugly, and I realized I don’t want to make anything ugly, which means I’m a craftsperson and not an artist.”

“There is only one way to treat a cold, and that is with contempt.” Sir William Osler

I currently have a cold and a runny nose and a nagging cough. Feeling awful, I looked in the mirror this morning and thought, “If I film my face looking dreadful and forlorn as I talk about how crummy I feel and how that crummy feeling infects my perception of everything, and I put the film on YouTube, I can probably get quite a few people, thousands maybe, to watch the film if I call it A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. The search engines will find my little movie and list it on the first page that people come to when they Google Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, only I’d better make the movie right away while the news of the 142 million dollar sale is still a hot topic.”

Later over coffee I thought, “Then I could make a second film of me sitting in a chair in the manner of the human figures in ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ and I could call that second film Responding To the Avalanche of Comments About A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. And so on. Would that be art? Absolutely. Would it leave people cold? I don’t know about other people, but it would certainly leave me cold, so I’m not going to do it.”

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

When I was eight-years-old, my parents took me to the De Young Museum in San Francisco to see a big show of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Fifty-five years later, I still remember how I felt when I stood in front of The Potato Eaters—amazed and frightened and sad and overwhelmed.

“Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.” Laurence J. Peter

I was ten when I first leafed through a book of paintings by Picasso. I vividly remember two things about the experience: I kept referring to the Table Of Contents because I was sure the paintings in the book were by several different artists and not just one person named Picasso, and after looking at Picasso’s paintings for a long time, I got out my colored pencils and crayons and a pile of blank paper and made dozens of colorful pictures.

The only DVD I have ever purchased (other than the DVD of the movie based on my first novel) is The Mystery of Picasso. Made in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Mystery of Picasso was officially declared by the French government in 1984 to be a national treasure, and if that doesn’t impress you, Pauline Kael called The Mystery of Picasso “One of the most exciting and joyful movies ever made!”

Imagine you are looking at a blank canvas filling the entire movie screen. On the other side of the canvas, invisible to the viewer, stands Picasso, the actual artist, fully alive and raring to go. As Picasso begins to draw, his strokes instantly bleed through the canvas so we may watch his creation come into being stroke by stroke. For anyone who draws or paints or creates things, the experience of watching Picasso work in real time is mimetic heaven. Later on in the movie Picasso paints in oils, and Clouzot uses stop-motion animation to capture the step-by-step evolution of several paintings. In the course of this feature-length film, we witness Picasso create dozens of stunning masterworks, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who would call Picasso’s creations poo poo. Such is the subjective nature of taste.

I first saw The Mystery of Picasso on a big screen in a movie house in Sacramento in the 1980’s when the film was being revived after being out of circulation for many years. The audience was composed largely of artists, and the experience for me was thrilling and joyful and wild, with people spontaneously shouting their feelings in response to the intuitive and uninhibited moves of a master painter. However, as I left the theater, I overheard a woman I knew to be a professor of Art at UC Davis say to her companion, “Narcissistic show off parading around in his underwear.”

“President Obama is asking Americans to give money to help the Philippines recover from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.” USA Today

The record high price paid for the Francis Bacon triptych is but a small part of a recent explosion in record prices being paid for art created by dead or soon-to-be-dead American and British artists who are famous for being famous, and not really for their art. For instance, an insignificant piece by Andy Warhol recently sold for 105 million, and a lesser work by Basquiat sold for 55 million. Who has that kind of money? Could real people actually be spending these incredible sums of money? Or is this “art bubble” some sort of money laundering scheme for the super rich? Based on my wholly subjective opinion that most of the art fetching these billions is not particularly great or remarkable or of historic or stylistic importance, I would guess this “art bubble” is, indeed, some sort of lucrative scam.

However, if by some miracle the selling of piles of mediocre art for billions of dollars is not a money laundering scheme, and actual real people are in a frenzy to buy art for huge amounts of money, I wonder if they, these incredibly rich people, would like to buy some of my neato drawings. That would be so cool, wouldn’t it, if they would give me millions of dollars for my art? I could then pay half the money in taxes to fund military and corporate imperialism and to nibble away at the interest on the national debt and subsidize oil companies and carbon-emitting corporations responsible for creating more and more devastating storms and droughts and environmental disasters. And I would still have some left over to give to the Philippines.

Muse Rides Again

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Max Greenstreet in Ireland (self-portrait)

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

“I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” Socrates

From the age of twenty-one until I was fifty, with only a few brief respites, I wrote many novels, most of them never published. The first dozen or so novels I wrote were related to the kind of poetry Socrates is describing when he says, “…who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” I wrote in a state of enchantment without knowing in the least what I had written until I came out of my writing trance, gathered up the pages, and read the words that had spilled from my pen. By the age of thirty-five, I had managed to publish four of those inspired novels, and then for reasons known and unknown to me, I was unable to convince publishers to take any more chances with my books; and shortly thereafter those marvelous states of enchantment ceased entirely to take me over.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

As Van Gogh warned, I then became a slave to my model, which is to say I feverishly tried to think of what would make saleable novels, and I slaved away for years writing dozens of half-baked uninspired works that literally made me sick. Yet I continued to compulsively work at novel writing because I defined myself as a man who writes novels, which self-definition was how I knew, sort of, what I was or thought I was; and I desperately wanted to sell another book because I thought such a sale might save my marriage and cause my friends and family to like me again.

But my marriage collapsed before cosmic largesse might have prolonged the inevitable, and in that state of collapse and emotional free fall, the muse suddenly dropped in on me for the first time in many years and gave me Ruby & Spear, which, despite my not having published anything in a decade, was quickly bought by Bantam and brought me sufficient bread to move from the rubble of my marriage to my next camping spot, Berkeley, where I once again fell prey to trying to think up my next saleable opus, which behavior inspired my muse, the bringer of enchantment, to disappear once more.

So at the age of fifty I had a real humdinger of a breakdown accompanied by a severe depression that brought me face to face with the question: what’s with the compulsive novel writing, buster? And in the throes of my misery, I spotted a book I had been schlepping around for fifteen years but had never opened (the only such book I have ever owned) entitled Severe and Mild Depression by Silvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad, two erudite psychotherapists, their tome full of case studies of depression.

“But I’ve never really been depressed,” I said, as I leafed through the book. “Until now. Well…maybe for those little whiles between writing novels, but that was just post-partum blues. All the great writers talk about their little depressions between novels and plays.”

Then I happened upon Arieti’s case study of a compulsive novel writer, a summing up of that writer’s life that might as well have been my biography, including precise and detailed descriptions of my unhappy and unhealthy relationships with my parents, my failed marriage and failed relationships, and my decades-long compulsive attempt to try to write a successful novel. There was even mention of this writer’s early spontaneous and inspired works giving way to intellectually constructed imitative dribble. And, as was true of me, this man had not previously exhibited any outward signs of being depressed.

I read this case study as if watching a time-lapse movie of my life. I was fascinated and horrified and excited to find out what this guy/me was doing in a book about depression. Well, according to Arieti, this guy/me had been running ahead of a murderous depression for his entire life, and the source of this killing depression was his parents lifelong withholding of love from him while simultaneously denigrating his creative impulses and his desire to be an artist. And in order to cope with this painful lack of love and support and the resultant feelings of worthlessness, this writer came to believe that if he could only write a massively successful novel, he would be lifted out of his hellacious life of failure into a new reality in which he would finally be happy and his parents would love him.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Pablo Picasso

So I decided to see what would happen if I stopped writing novels. I had long known that whenever a play or screenplay or short story began to write itself through me, if, in my compulsive way, I tried to force that inspiration into the form of a novel, my state of enchantment would vanish. Which told me it was not writing I needed to quit, but the writing of novels.

And for the first year or so of not writing a novel, I was, indeed, very confused about who I was and why I was alive because I no longer possessed the identity that had been my mask and shield and raison d’etre for the previous thirty years. Eventually I embraced a more complicated and satisfying identity; and one day when I was fifty-four, I found myself writing something without thinking about what words I might write next, but rather seeing the story unfolding and writing down what I was seeing, knowing only that I’d been grabbed by something good and I wanted to read whatever that something turned out to be. So I hung onto the pen for twenty pages, then made a cup of tea and sat down to see what I’d written.

“Uh oh,” I said, speaking to the invisible ones, “this quite obviously wants to be a novel and I don’t write novels anymore. Remember? I’m okay without them now.”

“Oh, but this is a great story, Todd,” said the muse in her gorgeously non-verbal way, “and we’d really like you to write it, but not compulsively. Just as it comes to you.”

Which is what I did. And though that novel Bender’s Lover was never published, it pleased a good many of my friends and ushered in a new era in my life in which I might write anything in any form because I am no longer constrained by thoughts of what I should or shouldn’t be writing. Here for your enjoyment is how Bender’s Lover begins.

Four months ago—the ides of June—I was in Lorna’s wildflower shop ogling a maroon Sierra Shooting Star while awaiting my haircut, when I fell into conversation with an intoxicating woman who said she was looking for something to cheer her up. This woman, small and lovely and full of purpose, was torn between an Azure Penstemon and a California Harebell, and it was over this Harebell—the brightest blue I’ve ever seen—that we found ourselves marveling at the mood-enhancing qualities of flowers in general, Harebells in particular.

As her initial suspicion of me, based, I believe, on my unruly hair, gave way to a noticeable appreciation of me, based, I think, on my ability to speak in complete sentences, I was on the verge of inviting her to partake of further investigations, when she reared back and asked, “So what do you do?”

I almost replied, “Well, this morning I woke from a wildly erotic dream, masturbated, showered, had two cups of a fabulous black tea, petted my cats, played the piano for the better part of an hour, talked on the phone to a whiny friend for ten minutes and then lied about someone being at the door so I could hang up, gave a piano lesson to Ethel Zawarski, an accomplished atonalist, and then I called my whiny friend back and confessed I’d lied to her about someone being at the door. Why did I feel compelled to confess? Because I hoped to forestall the unseen powers from rioting against me.”

Instead I said, “I’m a piano player.”

“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” William Shakespeare

As it happens, I have not written or been writing a novel for several years now, and I had begun to think I would never write another novel, which would have been fine with me. I no longer define myself as a novelist, though writing is still a big part of my life. I think of myself as a person, husband, friend, gardener, cook, self-certified prunologist (pruner of fruit trees, Japanese maples, and the like) writer, musician, artist, and earthling.

But a few weeks ago, I woke to a charming voice in my head telling a story I very much liked the sound of. So I gave myself to the tale, and ere long it became clear the story being told to me was not a short story, nor was it a novella. I am now a hundred pages into whatever this opus turns out to be, and I remind myself on a daily basis that if I never finish writing this tale, life will still be worth living, the earth will continue spinning around the sun, and the countless miracles composing this astonishing reality will go right on composing. And I also remind myself that if I do finish this tale, it will be my great pleasure to read the whole thing and share it with my friends.

My Big Trip, Part Three

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Le Moulin de la Gallete by Pablo Picasso

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

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare

My friend Scott made a good part of his living as a rehearsal pianist for musicals running on Broadway in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and he had all sorts of theater connections that gave him free admission to virtually any show on or off Broadway, a privilege he invited me to take advantage of multiple times on each of the ten trips I made to New York between 1976 and 1983.

In 1976, the reigning Broadway sensation was the play Equus with Anthony Perkins having just taken over the leading role from Richard Burton who had taken over the role from Anthony Hopkins. Scott knew the stage manager of the theater where the play was running and arranged for me to be among a few dozen audience members who sat on tiered benches onstage as a living backdrop to the play.

We were shown to our seats a few minutes before the curtain went up and told not to fidget, not to pick our noses, and not to make any noise. “You are,” said the man directing us, “a Greek chorus echoing the action with your silence, and you are also a jury listening carefully to the evidence being presented. And please remember that several hundred people can see you, people who have paid good money to watch this play and not to watch you scratching your butt. Have fun.”

I wish I could say that seeing and being in Equus on that Broadway stage was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, but I found the play simplistic and boring and not in the least mysterious, the performances ho hum, and the vaunted nude love scene a brief and ugly tussle. However, I did not share my feelings about Equus with Scott because he was a devout Broadway loyalist, which meant he believed that if a play was a hit, the play was good, and if the play was a flop, the play was bad.

Now in the same week that I sat through Equus, Scott and I attended one of the early preview performances of Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, recently transported from London and directed by Mike Nichols with the young Jonathan Pryce reprising his role from the London production. And seeing that production of Comedians truly was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life and would dramatically influence my plans for the future.

When the third and final act of Comedians came to an end, I leapt out of my seat shouting, “Bravo!” and applauding madly, though the audience reaction was otherwise tepid. Scott stayed sitting during my outburst and was obviously embarrassed by my behavior, but I didn’t care. I had just seen a superlative performance of a remarkable play and I wasn’t about to keep my feelings bottled up. Mediocre Equus had elicited a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for its stars, so why shouldn’t I rave about this brilliant new masterwork?

Well…when we emerged from Comedians, Scott took me to a nearby bar filled with people who had also just seen Comedians and I eagerly asked several of them what they thought of the play; and they were all oddly coy and noncommittal, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked Scott. “That play was sheer genius. The writing, the acting, the direction, the levels of meaning, the…”

“Todd,” said Scott, sighing, “the play hasn’t been reviewed yet so…”

“So what?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You wait until the New York Times says it’s good before you think it’s good?”

“No,” said Scott, gulping his beer. “But…sort of. I mean…it’s subtle and very British. It was a hit in London, but that doesn’t mean it will translate that well over here.”

“Are you insane?” I gaped at him. “We just saw it. What did you think of it?”

“I…I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Jonathan Pryce would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in his role in Comedians, but the critics otherwise damned the production with faint praise and the show closed after 145 performances. I, however, was demolished in the best sort of way by Comedians and decided two things as a result of seeing that incomparable production: I was going to write plays again, and I was going to live in a city so I could get more involved in theater. By then I realized New York was not going to be that city, not yet anyway, for I lacked the psychic stamina to survive there—but I hoped Portland or Seattle might suffice to get me started.

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” Winston Churchill

Two weeks later, having recharged my batteries by taking the train to Boston and spending a few days goofing around with my pal Jerry and attending a few of his scarier classes at Harvard Law School, I returned to Manhattan and immediately went to see Comedians again. To my delight, I thought the play was even better the second time, the cast now well practiced and sure of their characters. I was in seventh heaven watching that play and felt more certain than ever that I wanted to try to write plays that might touch people as Comedians touched me.

I was in love again with mastery, with originality, with courage, with everything that had made me want to be a writer in the first place; and for the remainder of my time in New York I was in a state of enchantment. For though I knew very well I might never succeed as a playwright (or as a writer of fiction), the experience of seeing that masterful production of Comedians filled me with a desire to try. I knew if I lived frugally, I had enough money in the bank to grant me a year of freedom from working at anything besides writing, and I intended to dedicate a good chunk of that year to writing plays.

The sad truth about our culture, and perhaps most cultures, is that for every masterpiece that somehow manages to gain an audience, there are thousands of awful things filling our stages and bookstores and movie screens and galleries. Why this is so I do not know, I only know that it is so. Which is why those rare new masterpieces that somehow manage to sneak past the cultural gatekeepers are so important, for without them we only have the masterworks of the past to deeply nourish us—and we desperately need the blood of brilliant new work to keep our culture alive and vital.

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.

 As your desire is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

I was bored to tears by the new art on display at The Museum of Modern Art, but never mind, they had Picasso’s massive and marvelous Guernica to gaze upon and Van Gogh’s magnificent Starry Starry Night approachable to within a few inches, and Henri Rousseau’s supernatural Lion and the Gypsy lit to perfection, so I visited these and a handful of other favorite paintings in that collection several times and felt wonderfully empowered by them. And I went to the Guggenheim to marvel up close at Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Modigliani’s fabulous Nude, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again to gawk at their five fabulous Vermeers.

I had lunch with my brave and eccentric agent Dorothy Pittman on two occasions and we had a stirring time imagining selling one of my novels and then another and another. She said she would hunt for a play agent for me when I had a play to show around; and dear Scott got me into seven or eight more shows to fuel my drama dreams, though none of those plays could hold a candle to Comedians; and at last I realized I was done with New York for the time being and ready to embark on the next leg of my big trip.

So I took the train to Philadelphia and spent three lazy days visiting friends in Bala Cynwyd and Narberth and sleeping for twelve hours a night, recuperating from the physical and emotional toll of Manhattan. Then I continued south by train to Virginia and stayed with my pal Rico who had recently moved out from California to work for the federal government.

One night Rico and I were reminiscing about high school and wondering about the fate of our fellow inmates, when I was reminded of Mark Russell, my great friend I hadn’t seen since the early days of high school when he and his family moved away to where I wasn’t sure. So I did a little telephone sleuthing and came up with a phone number for Mark’s parents in Connecticut. I called them and they gave me a phone number for Mark in South Carolina. Then I called Mark and a woman with a sultry South Carolina accent answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said, “my name is Todd Walton and I’m an old friend of Mark’s. Is he there?”

“Hold on a minute,” she said softly. “I’ll fetch him.”

A few moments later, Mark came on the line, his voice two octaves deeper than when we’d last spoken thirteen years before. “This is unbelievable,” he said, laughing. “I was just thinking about you. I was throwing the ball for my dog and wondering where Todd is now.”

“I’m in Virginia and I’d love to come see you, if that’s a possibility. I could get a motel room nearby or…”

“No, no, we’ve got lots of room for you,” he said, chuckling. “Come on down.”

So on a dark cold night in early November, I stepped off the train at the little station in Camden, South Carolina and looked around for an older version of the Mark I remembered from 1963—a clean shaven young man much shorter than I. But the only person waiting there was a tall man in a trench coat sporting a bushy brown beard.

“Todd,” he called to me. “I’d know you anywhere.”

“Mark,” I said, shaking his enormous hand. “I would never have guessed you were you.”

fin

Signs Of Spring

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.

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

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Claes Oldenburg

Harbor seals have returned to the mouth of Big River, sleek silver gray cuties with childlike faces and spindly white mustaches, as curious about me as I am about them. When the wind is right and the sun is out, I will sometimes toss my Frisbee up into the offshore breeze and the disk will boomerang back to me, and the seals will cease their fishing to follow the flight of the disk to and from the sky, just as humans might watch the ball going back and forth in a tennis match.

The harbor seals of Big River are curious about singing, too. I recently had a wonderful experience singing to the seals, an experience witnessed by two people visiting Mendocino from Los Angeles. The tide was way out and the sun was shining when I stopped on the edge of the river to commune with a seal who had popped his head out of the water to take a look at me. Thinking he might enjoy a tune, I started to sing, knowing from past experience that high notes held for a long time are more intriguing to seals than low notes held briefly; and shortly after I commenced my singing, the aforementioned couple from Los Angeles, a middle-aged woman and man, stopped to watch the seal watching me.

After a minute or two of listening to my impromptu song, the seal sunk below the surface and swam away, but I kept on singing. The middle-aged woman opined, “Guess he didn’t like your song, huh?” And then she and her mate laughed. No. They cackled. At which moment, the seal returned with a friend, and the two seals listened to me for quite a long time.

The couple from Los Angeles conferred with each other about what they thought was going on, and decided to come a little closer.

Seal #1 then swam away again while Seal #2 stayed to listen, and then Seal #1 returned with two more friends, the four seals bobbing in the water close together and only fifteen feet away from me, listening intently and seeming themselves about to break into a four-part rendition of Take Me To the River. I’m thinking of Al Green’s Take Me To the River, not the song of the same name by Talking Heads, though one can never be sure about harbor seals.

Then the man from Los Angeles proclaimed, “This is impossible.”

And the woman from Los Angeles said, “It can’t be his singing. He must feed them.”

Well, I thought, marveling that anyone could doubt that these four lovely seals were listening to me sing, there are all kinds of food.

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” T.S. Eliot

I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977, hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want the letters anymore he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.

But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence. We were having a long distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.

In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. (This would become the pattern of our lives, giving each other money when we perceived ourselves richer than the other.) In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly madly deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later nothing has changed and everything has changed.

I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.

But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970’s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amidst the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein; and plays and stories and books I wrote and subsequently lost were talked about as the most important creations of my life; and tales from my days as a working musician were in there, too. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.

Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.

And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body/mind/spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?

Miraculously (or matter-of-factly if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for forty-five years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso

We are nearing the end of pruning season. The plum trees, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are in their full glory of blossoming, the apples steadfastly approaching their blooming time. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people alerted by the blossoming plums that they need their gangly apple tree pruned, their recalcitrant pear tamed just a bit; and these people want to know if I think it’s too late for me to help them this year.

I tell them it is never too late and it is always too late. There is never enough time and there is always enough time. I tell them that nearly everything we used to think we knew about pruning trees is not what we think we know now and that the secret to taking care of a tree is to listen to that tree and allow her to tell you what she needs. A few of my clients have a wee bit of trouble with the idea of listening to a tree, perhaps because they can’t imagine how a tree would talk to them, or if their tree did talk to them, how they would understand what their tree was saying; but most of my clients enjoy the concept of interspecies communication. What’s not to enjoy about a talking tree?

I wrote a novel some years ago, not yet published, the main character a man who prunes fruit trees and is also a poet. I append a poem this character wrote about pruning. I like this poem, though I would have written it differently if I, Todd, had written it. This is one of the trickiest things about writing fiction, at least the way I write fiction, and that is allowing characters to be who they are and resisting the impulse (conscious or unconscious) to make them into thinly disguised versions of the author, though one could argue that every fictional character is a version of the author, that we, you and I, are actually versions of each other, and that separateness is an illusion, not to mention the cause of all suffering, according to Buddha. In any case, here is Edward’s poem.

Pruning

Before I touch blade to branch

I walk around the tree,

stopping every step to study

the relationships of the boughs.

 

When I have gone round twice,

and know what I know from the outside,

I climb into the tree and memorize how

the branches emanate from within.

 

So when at last I begin my cutting,

I know how I will enrich

the tree with spaciousness.

 

Whales & Predictions

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

Sunday. The second of January 2011. My wife Marcia and I are sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean a few miles south of the village of Mendocino, the pale blue sky decorated with flat clouds, grays and whites, the celestial artist in no mood for billowy today. The sea is relatively calm and several pods of whales are passing by close enough for us to see them clearly without binoculars, their impressive water spouts presaging glimpses of their even more impressive enormity, our excitement at seeing them giving way to ongoing joy that the leviathans (my favorite synonym for whales) are right there, sharing the world with us, and saying hello so delightfully.

We have come to this promontory above the deep to give back to the ocean some forty pounds of stones and shells we’ve collected over the last five years for the decoration of windowsills and table tops; and as we throw the pretty gifts into the depths, we send with them our hopes and intentions for the year ahead.

The news of late has been full of predictions by economists and financial prognosticators about what may befall the national and global economies in the coming year, with the dopiest among them predicting an economic recovery, the centrists predicting a general flatness in the growth graphs, and the doomsters predicting the slopes becoming so steep as to render the pyramid an obelisk. Intellectually, I side with the doomsters, and I certainly urge everyone to avoid the stock market like the plague, but I have a hunch the master manipulators, the people with their hands on the big valves, may do several things along the lines of artificially raising and lowering oil prices to keep the Titanic from submerging completely, not that the bottom two-thirds isn’t already underwater.

Locally there is palpable relief that marijuana was not legalized, the buzz being that pot prices remain high for quality boutique bud, and thus cash will continue to flow around the county, though not into the coffers of our bankrupt local government. Despite the boon of illegality, if one may call it a boon, Mendocino real estate is putrefying, with many houses being taken off the market because they’ve been on so long the perception is they must be haunted or toxic not to have sold, when, in fact, they are merely grossly overpriced. Selfishly, I hope prices tumble so the likes of us can actually buy something for the purposes of truck farming and survival in the coming era of ten-dollar-a-gallon gas, but that scenario may not take hold until 2013.

That said, the presence of so many whales and a splendiferous Red-tailed hawk swooping by not ten feet in front of us, fill me with hope that 2011 will bring myriad opportunities for fun and possibly profit.

Throw high risers at the chin; throw peas at the knees; throw it here when they’re lookin’ there; throw it there when they’re lookin’ here.” Satchel Paige on Pitching

And speaking of leviathans, I would be remiss if I did not include among my predictions an early surmise concerning the upcoming baseball season and the fate of our World Champion San Francisco Giants. Savor those words with me, will you? We Are World Champions. Yes. So. I predict our team, having fulfilled the dream of generations of fans, will play with such ferocious confidence to begin the new season that before they are felled by a mid-season identity crisis, they will be so far ahead of their nearest rival in the division that timely psychotherapeutic intervention will save them from total collapse, we will win the division, claw our way into a showdown with the Philadelphia Phillies, beat those overpaid jerks in six games, and face the Yankees in the World Series, wherein Jonathan Sanchez will pitch a no-hitter, not a perfect game, but one featuring fourteen strikeouts, five walks, and two hit batsmen, to win the seventh and deciding game.

“There is, of course, a certain amount of drudgery in newspaper work, just as there is in teaching classes, tunneling into a bank, and being President of the United States.” James Thurber

I am perhaps overstating the case to call my contributions to the Anderson Valley Advertiser newspaper work, but I do sometimes like to fancy myself a reporter, having always identified with Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter, and not the man of steel. Could I be worthy of a press pass? And I very much appreciate Thurber’s take on the varieties of human labor because having made my living as a landscaper as well as a pen pusher and a teacher and a musician and an arborist, my experience has been that each form of work requires focus and determination; and the more we practice, the better we get.

My experience of drudgery has been limited to work I did not want to do, which, blessedly, I have largely avoided in my life. I do not consider physically repetitive work—chopping wood, shucking peas, juicing apples, washing windows, digging ditches—drudgery, but rather forms of movement necessary for the completion of tasks, movements I can think of as dances when I get into the swing of things.

“The only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic.” John Dewey

The continuing absence of a large anti-war movement in our country is both troubling to me and understandable. I went on my first anti-war march in 1963, when I was thirteen. I marched up Market Street in San Francisco with my father and a small contingent of Doctors Against The War. I carried a handmade sign that said Get Out Of Vietnam. There were several hundred demonstrators and several dozen vociferous hecklers calling us commies and traitors—Vietnam still unknown to most Americans. By 1966, however, getting into college was as much a way to avoid jungle combat as it was a means to getting a well-paid job, and most teenage boys in America knew this and were unhappy to be so threatened.

I think it is important to recall that the Vietnam War was a purely American endeavor, a war our government hoped to win entirely. But we lost. And when America withdrew from that demolished country, the supranational overlords were mightily displeased and decreed, “Never again.” Never again would the mass media report what actually goes on in corporate-sponsored wars. Never again would the corporate propagandists describe America fighting alone for freedom and democracy, but rather the lie would be about coalitions of democracies (NATO and Coalition Forces) fighting dark, dirty, desperate insurgents and terrorists in order to bring democracy to oppressed people who just happen to live on top of vast oil reserves or where it would be good to route a pipeline.

And there would be no draft, no declaration of war, no serious debates in any congress or parliament, no substantive information or truth told to the benumbed population; and the people would, indeed, be numb and dumb and desperate and confused, so much so that the fates of strange brown-skinned people living far-away wouldn’t mean anything in the swirl of trying to keep our heads above water as the Titanic (there’s that big boat again) floundered in such treacherous economic seas that a single serious health challenge could send a person or a family into poverty and homelessness.

Yet until the wars are curtailed and eventually ended, we will never free sufficient resources to solve the environmental and social problems already eclipsing the cost of imperial conflicts. Surely the overlords are aware of the oncoming disasters; or do they imagine that endless and interconnected wars will ultimately provide the framework for controlling the flow of resources in a world of social and environmental chaos?

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

The bulletin boards and fences in the commercial sector of the village of Mendocino are shockingly empty of content these cold winter days, vast swaths of empty space awaiting flyers advertising concerts, firewood, yoga classes, art classes, food classes, classes on giving classes, and families of four with two dogs and three cats looking for a commodious place to rent, can pay approx 700 a month, partial trade for weed pulling and folk singing. Oh not yet, my darlings, but soon such bargains may come your way if the fences on Ukiah Street and the walls of Moody’s java haven prove to be valid economic indicators.

And the one and only bookstore in our village offering new books (not mine, alas) for sale is so quiet the place might be a library; and I fear such stores will soon go the way of the dodo, weakened by Amazon and finished off by Kindles and their digital ilk.

Yet even as I predict the demise of bookstores, I simultaneously predict that quite soon the making and selling of good old bound pages covered with symbols decipherable by those who can still read will once again become the way of literature. But why in the face of such overwhelming digitalization do I predict the resurrection of the Old Way? Because I have an inkling, a hunch, a premonition, that the moment is fast approaching when we will collectively wake to find that all the newfangled digital gizmos no longer work, and that the gazillions of bits of ethereal data assembled by everyone for the past thirty years have vanished into thin air—memory clouds entirely dissipated. And thus we will have no choice but to resort to, and take pleasure in, real things.

Todd has yet to Kindleize or iPadize his books because he is a techno doofus, otherwise he surely would.

Art Rant

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Books

Rae’s eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor.” from Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott

The silence of the eyes rings true, and the eyes being side-by-side seems plausible, but how in heck did those eyes get onto that couch without Rae?

I was thirteen and had devoured a thousand books before I discovered the first typo of my reading career, an error that struck me as a scandalous affront to the artistry of writing. I was an insatiable reader, and wanting to be a professional writer I did not skim, but read every word. And when I found passages that wowed me, I copied their lines longhand to teach my sinews the feel of great writing.

“The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.” from Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Nowadays I am surprised if I read a book from a corporate press and don’t find grammatical errors galore with typos sprinkled throughout. I was recently told I must read the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, a current darling of the New York literati, a writer with myriad awards to her credit, including a Pulitzer. I dutifully ordered her most revered collection of short stories, and after wading through several introductory pages of praiseful blurbs from influential magazines and newspapers—the word miraculous appearing in several of the blurbs—I entered a grammatical minefield that rendered her half-baked stories unreadable for the likes of me.

I complained of Ms. Lahiri’s failings to Marcia, my wife who is so patient with me when I rant about the decline and fall of our culture. Marcia calmly considered my condemnation of the writer and said, “Maybe you just don’t like her style.”

Indeed. Clunky composition featuring profligate use of the word “it”, pronoun confusion, place confusion, time confusion, inadequate descriptions of people and places, and lame depictions of action do add up to a particular style, but who needs it? And why would reviewers describe such stuff as miraculous? In two words: culture collapse.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Lamott and countless other contemporary authors contracted by the corporate presses should be ashamed to publish books that have not been thoroughly and thoughtfully edited. Why aren’t they ashamed? You tell me.

Radio

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” Marilyn Monroe

In 1966 I was lead singer in a rock band of sixteen-year-old boys. By our third rehearsal we knew we were fantastic and would soon be opening at the Fillmore for our favorite bands Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Joy Ride, though I was never certain if we were The Joy Ride or simply Joy Ride.

This was long before the advent of cassette tape recorders (now obsolete) so we recorded our loud songs on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the one-of-a-kind tapes to Warner Brothers and Columbia Records so we would be discovered and made famous and have beautiful wonderful girlfriends who wanted to have sex with us day and night while maintaining their brilliance and creativity and innocence.

We had one gig before (The) Joy Ride broke up. The gig was a battle of four bands in a cavernous high school gymnasium. We were awesome, yet we lost the battle. The only possible explanation for our defeat was that the airheads didn’t get where we were coming from. Our one stalwart groupie said we reminded her of Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds rolled into one. No wonder we knew we were fantastic.

Embittered by our rejection by the airheads, I joined forces with a guitar player and wrote eleven amazing songs. We recorded our masterworks on that same reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the tape to A&M Records because a friend of ours had a friend who knew someone’s friend’s cousin or uncle who worked there. Maybe the tape got lost in the mail, but more likely the record company airheads just didn’t get where we were coming from. In any case…

Fast-forward forty-five years. Having just produced two new CDs, I have been questing for likely DJs at likely radio stations to send our music to, my goal being to send forth a hundred packets, each containing our CDs and a heartfelt handwritten letter aimed at a specific DJ. So not Jazz is my collaboration with the aforementioned patient wife Marcia, her exquisite cello improvisations elevating our jazzy instrumentals and songs into the sublime, while 43 short Piano Improvisations is my solo adventure in musical haiku.

Whilst pursuing those rare DJs who might be open to music from the likes of us, I have visited over a hundred public radio station web sites and scrutinized several hundred DJ profiles and play lists. As of this writing, I have sent out sixty-seven packets and gained three DJ fans: one in Fort Collins, Colorado, one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Astoria, Oregon. They have each played a tune or two of ours, and promise to play more. We are, in a word, thrilled.

As a result of my copious research, I have learned that if a radio station is an NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate and airs All Things Considered, they will probably be a kind of public radio Clear Channel with canned programming and zero interest in independent artists. But if a station airs Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, there is a fair chance they will harbor one or more zany, curious, eclectic programmers. And then there are the entirely student-run college stations. I do not intend to approach any of these stations until our hip-hop metal reggae album Dread Metal YoYo is ready for release.

Movies and Plays

“Television has raised writing to a new low.” Samuel Goldwyn

John Simon is the author of my favorite one-sentence film review. In response to the movie Tommy, he wrote in Esquire, “Anyone who has anything good to say about this movie has nothing to say to me.” I feel this way about nearly all the American movies I’ve seen in the last thirty years, and that is because I have not been programmed to digest contemporary theatrical offerings.

Contemporary movies and theatre in America are now entirely conflated with television, the essence of which is physical and psychic violence, emotional superficiality, sexism, the deification of morons, verbal abuse disguised as humor, and non-stop brainwashing. Because I ceased watching television in 1969, the programming of my brain has not kept pace with the changing cultural mores. Thus contemporary American plays and movies, even those purported to be brilliant and deep and meaningful, almost always strike me as trivial and/or toxic.

I remember the precise moment I decided to forego television for the rest of my life. I was nineteen and on the verge of dropping out of college—academia antithetical to the likes of me. I was wandering the halls of my dorm looking for someone to accompany me on a late night stroll when I came to a lounge wherein a dozen young men and women were watching television. As I stood in the lounge doorway and watched the watchers, I was struck by the realization that these promising young people, four of them my best friends, were being lobotomized by the rays emanating from the television, their faces fixed in helpless idiocy.

Over the last thirty years, I have attended some two hundred plays in theatres large and small in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco, and most recently Mendocino, and I cannot bring to mind a single contemporary play written by an American that I believed in for more than a moment or two. Of the few hundred American movies I’ve seen since 1980, I can think of a handful I would call good, only a few great. Thank goodness we have access to foreign films (I consider the British foreign) so I do not entirely starve for good movies, though I am frequently hungry.

I am certain (having been privileged to read such manuscripts) that fine plays, books, and screenplays are still being written in America, but they are not, as a rule, produced or published or widely disseminated. And, yes, I have on rare occasions over the last forty years watched television, usually at the request of friends urging me to sample shows they say are fabulous, only to have my sense of the ongoing devolution confirmed.

Renaissance

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

If you so desire, you can overcome the televisionization of your psyche and revitalize your aesthetic taste buds. Having worked with many teenage and adult writers who were initially incapable of writing original stories with non-stereotypical characters and natural-sounding dialogue, and knowing the causes of their dysfunction to be television, corporate fiction, and contemporary American movies, I found that if I could convince my charges to eliminate these influences from their lives, creative rebirth was a virtual certainty. For teenagers, such rebirths may occur within weeks of their ceasing to imbibe the media opiates. For adults, such rejuvenation may take months. And I suppose the modern variants of television, iPads, cell phones, YouTube, etc. should be included in the list of influences to be minimized.

Our brains, in much the same way as ecosystems, will regenerate once persistent toxics and stresses are removed, and once you end your addiction to the opiates of the masses you will be astonished by the dramatic shift in your perceptions. However, there is the strong possibility you will feel left out of the cultural discourse about celebrities and the latest movies and books you can’t remember shortly after you ingest them, and you may feel isolated and lonely and desperate in the absence of all that you have become accustomed to. Fear not. Falling off the wagon is but a click of the On button and a badly written bestseller away.

[Todd reads books written by dead or very old or unknown authors and watches foreign films (and the occasional teen flick) in Mendocino.]

This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010