Posts Tagged ‘Robert Graves’

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

Idiots

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

i-letter

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

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Mark Twain

I realize it is not, in Buddhist terms, skillful speech to call anyone an idiot, but there are times when no other term works quite so well for me. For instance, have you ever listened to John Boehner speak? I have only managed to listen to him for a few seconds at a time before I become nauseated and have to stop listening or lose my lunch, but what I have heard in those few seconds can only be called idiotic. Or Dianne Feinstein? Have you ever heard such blatant dishonesty, hypocrisy, and amorality spewed from the mouth of anyone? True, I am conflating dishonesty and hypocrisy and amorality with idiocy, but in my worldview these words are synonyms for each other.

And, assuming most of the elections in our great land are not completely rigged (a daring assumption), we the people elect these idiots, which would make us…

“You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.” Norman Douglas

“The problem is men,” said a visiting divorcee, her ex-husband problematic, indeed, and definitely male. “They’re all idiots.”

“Could we rephrase that?” I asked hopefully. “To make an exception of present company? Could we say the problem is most men? Just so I don’t run out of the room screaming? Yet.”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot,” said the divorcee. “I’m talking about the 75 per cent of male voters, Republicans and Democrats, who voted for George Bush instead of Al Gore.”

“You don’t think Al Gore is an idiot?” I asked. “Mr. Sabotage the Kyoto Protocol and promote nuclear power and then masquerade as an environmentalist?”

“Well, he seemed like less of an idiot,” she said, shrugging. “But you’re right. They’re both idiots. And that’s the problem. Most men are.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked, having thought long and hard about why most men are idiots.

“Males evolved to be prolific sperm donors, hunters, and violent protectors of their mates and offspring from wild animals and other violent males.” She nodded confidently. “And that’s about it.”

“But why would such evolution lead to idiocy rather than brilliance? It seems to me that for most of our evolution, the forces of nature must have selected for intelligence, ingenuity, and…”

She shook her head. “Brute strength, violence, cruelty. Ever read the book Demonic Males? Check it out. Men are hardwired to be cruel, insensitive louts.”

“What about Mozart?” I suggested. “Mendelssohn? Ansel Adams? Danny Kaye? Fred Astaire? The Dalai Lama?”

“Mutations,” she said without missing a beat. “Do you see much evidence of those sorts of genes in the general male population? And the reason for that is obvious. The Mozarts and Mendelssohns and Fred Astaires, until very recently in the course of human evolution, only rarely survived long enough to procreate because the brutes killed them off in childhood.”

“Well, I disagree,” I said, fearing she might be right. “I think idiocy is learned. And I think that’s true for women as well as men.”

 “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.” Robert Graves

When I was in my late twenties and thirties, I spent a good deal of time in Hollywood trying to get my screenplays turned into movies, an excruciating epoch that involved countless meetings with movie producers, studio executives, agents, actors, and directors, those who would deign to give me some of their time. And in the beginning of my Hollywood education, I thought a few of the movie people I encountered were brilliant, many were not so brilliant, and many more were idiots.

However, by the end of my Hollywood education, I concluded that all the movie people I’d met and spoken to were idiots, and by that I mean they had no imagination, no genuine sense of humor, and absolutely no interest in making good and original movies. They only wanted to make movies they thought would make money, which I consider a terrible kind of idiocy. I also concluded there must be a few non-idiots in the movie business, but for reasons beyond my understanding I was never fortunate enough to meet any of those elusive beings.

“It was déjà vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

One of my screenplays, They Hate Me In Chicago, won me a dozen meetings with various Hollywood folks affiliated with other Hollywood folks who might have been able to get a medium-budget comedy drama produced. I should clarify that what won me those meetings was a clever one-paragraph summary of my screenplay, since none of the idiots I met with would ever have bothered to read an entire script unless they thought the idea was commercial or the script was written by someone they were having sex with or trying to have sex with or getting drugs from, or unless the script was written by someone they thought was having sex with or doing drugs with someone high up the Hollywood totem pole.

They Hate Me In Chicago is about a baseball umpire who makes the final call of the final game of the World Series, an incredibly close call at home plate that gives the series to the Yankees over the Chicago Cubs. The movie begins with our likable down-to-earth sweetly sexy hero making that fateful call, and follows our hero for the next year of his life culminating in his making the final and deciding call at home plate of the next World Series, the Cubs once again the National League team vying for the crown. Our flawed but lovable hero has a humorous and challenging life off the field as well as on, featuring several strong and appealing female characters to compliment the equally strong and appealing male characters—a compelling mix of professional and personal drama leading to the thrilling climax.

Right around this time, the movie Bull Durham was proving to be a great and surprising success, and was always referenced at my meetings regarding They Hate Me In Chicago. The producers, directors, agents, and studio executives I met with were universally baffled by the success of Bull Durham because, to paraphrase several of them, “Baseball movies were box office poison until Bull Durham came along and nobody can figure out why that movie did so well when so many other recent baseball movies bombed so badly.”

“I can tell you why Bull Durham was a success,” I said to each of the many movie people who professed bewilderment about that movie’s success. I was unaware at the time that my daring to say I knew something about movies that these folks did not know was an unforgivable breach of Hollywood etiquette. By suggesting I thought I knew more about movies than those with more power than I in the steeply hierarchical world of Hollywood was tantamount to, well, calling them idiots, which they were, but that is not the way to make hay in the movie biz. Au contraire, that is the way to burn bridges and end up on numerous shit lists in the movie biz, which I unwittingly did.

“Oh, really?” they all said, making notes to themselves never to meet with me again. “Do tell.”

Bull Durham is a success because it’s not really a baseball movie. It’s a comedy drama about sex and romance with a strong female lead and a sexy leading man, and that’s why so many women love it. And it has a baseball subplot for men so they can say they like it for the baseball, when they, too, love it for the sex and romance. In other words, it’s the perfect date movie. Which is what They Hate Me In…”

“What do you mean Bull Durham isn’t really a baseball movie?” said the producers, agents, directors, and studio execs. “Kevin Costner isn’t playing ice hockey. Are you saying your movie isn’t really a baseball movie? Because the only reason we’re talking to you is because baseball movies are hot right now because Bull Durham, a baseball movie, is hot right now.”

As I said…idiots.

“I know not, sir, whether Bacon wrote the words of Shakespeare, but if he did not, it seems to me he missed the opportunity of his life.” James Barrie

Today on my walk to town, I saw not one, not two, but four different people either talking or texting on their cell phones while driving. Not only are these practices illegal—the electronic equivalents of drunk driving—they are the height of idiocy and cause thousands of deaths and horrible injuries.

But far more idiotic than the use of cell phones while driving is the advent of computer screens in the dashboards of most new automobiles manufactured in America, screens for drivers to manipulate and look at while simultaneously doing one of the most dangerous things a human being can do: pilot a two-ton mass of hurtling metal at high speeds on roads filled with other multi-ton masses of hurtling metal being driven by other humans, some of whom are very old, very young, very stupid, very drunk, high on drugs, eating lunch, talking on phones, and staring into computer screens instead of watching the road ahead. That, as far as I’m concerned, transcends idiocy and climbs high into the realm of collective insanity.

Todd will be appearing at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino on August 30 at 6:30 PM to talk about and read from his recently reissued novel Inside Moves.

Young Pot Moms

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Youth is wasted on the young.” George Bernard Shaw

When I and my middle-aged and elderly Mendocino Elk Albion Fort Bragg peers convene, talk often turns to the paucity of younger people coming along to fill the local ranks of actors and musicians and writers and artists and activists. The excellent Symphony of the Redwoods plays to audiences of mostly white-haired elders and is itself fast becoming an ensemble of elders, ditto the local theater companies, ditto the legions of Mendocino artists and social activists. People under fifty in audiences and at art openings hereabouts stand out as rare youngsters; and the question is frequently asked with touching plaintiveness, “Will it all end with us?”

“The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them.” Robert Graves

A few days ago I was waiting my turn at the one and only cash dispensing machine in the picturesque and economically distressed village of Mendocino, my home town, and I couldn’t help noticing that the woman using the machine was young (under forty), expensively dressed, and pushing the appropriate buttons with an ambitious energy that made me tired.

When it was my turn to stand before the cash dispensary, I noticed that the young woman had declined to take her receipt, which hung like a punch line from the slot of the robot. Being a hopeless snoop, I took possession of the little piece of paper, affixed my reading glasses, and imbibed the data. Did my eyes deceive me? No. This young woman had a cash balance in her Savings Bank of Mendocino checking account of…are you sitting down?…377,789 dollars.

In a panic—dollar amounts over four figures terrify me—I turned to see if her highness was still in sight, and there she was climbing into a brand new midnight blue six-wheel pickup truck the size of a small house, her seven-year-old companion, a movie-star pretty girl, strapped into the passenger seat.

“Did you want this?” I cried, wildly waving the receipt.

She of great wealth slowly shook her head and smiled slyly as if to say, “That’s nothing. You should see the diamonds in my safety deposit box.”

Staggered by my encounter with this local femme Croesus, I wandered toward Corners of the Mouth hoping to find my eensy teensy rusty old pickup parked there, and further hoping a little overpriced chocolate would calm me down. My truck was not there, but I didn’t panic. I only park in one of four places when I drive into the village, so I was confident I would eventually find my truck: somewhere near the Presbyterian church or adjacent to the vacant lot with the towering eucalypti where I gather kindling or in front of Zo, the greatest little copy shop in town (the only one, actually, and not open on weekends.)

In Corners, the cozy former church, I came upon three young (under forty) women, each in jeans and sweatshirt, each possessed of one to three exuberant latter day hippie children. These lovely gals were gathered near the shelves of fabulous fruit comparing notes on diet, marriage, motherhood, and who knows what. Beyond this trio of young moms, and partially blocking my access to the chocolate bars, were two of the aforementioned latter day hippie children, a very cute snot-nosed four-year-old redheaded girl wearing a bright blue dress, and an equally cute roly-poly snot-nosed five-year-old blond boy wearing black coveralls and red running shoes.

The boy, I couldn’t help but overhear, was trying to convince the girl to secure some candy for him because his mother wouldn’t buy candy for him, but the girl’s mother would buy the candy because, according to the boy, “Your mom let’s you have anything you want, and my mom won’t,” which, the boy indignantly pointed out, was not fair.

“But my mom will know it’s for you,” said the girl so loudly that everyone in the store could hear her, “because I don’t like that kind.”

I reached over their innocent little heads and secured a chunk of 85% pure chocolate bliss flown around the globe from England, and feeling only slightly immoral to be supporting the highly unecological international trafficking of a gateway drug (chocolate is definitely a gateway drug, don’t you think?) I headed for the checkout counter where two of the aforementioned young moms were purchasing great mounds of nutritious goodies.

Remember, I was still reeling from my encounter with she of the massive blue truck who had enough money in her checking account for my wife and I to live luxuriously (by our Spartan standards) for the rest of our lives, should we live so long, when Young Mom #1 took from the front pocket of her form-fitting fashionably faded blue jeans a wad of hundred-dollar bills that would have made a mafia chieftain proud, and peeled off three bills to pay for six bulging bags of vittles.

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, ceremoniously held each bill up to some sort of validating light, and made small change.

Meanwhile, Young Mom #2 had stepped up to the other checkout counter and proceeded to pay for her several sacks of groceries from a vast collection of fifty-dollar bills which she pulled from her pockets like a comedic magician pulling so many handkerchiefs from her coat that it seemed impossible she could have crammed so much stuff into such a small space.

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

Further frazzled by the sight of so much filthy lucre, I stumbled to the post office to buy stamps and see if Sheila wanted to talk a little Giants baseball. Ahead of me at the counter stood a beautiful young (under forty) mom with one of her cute little kids sitting on the counter picking his nose, her other slightly larger cute little kid standing on the floor, embracing his mother’s leg while sucking his thumb. The beautiful young mom placed a pile of brand new hundred-dollar bills on the counter, a pile as thick as a five-hundred-page novel, and proceeded to buy a dozen money orders, each order (I couldn’t help but overhear) for many thousands of dollars, and each order duly noted in a leather-bound notebook.

The thumb-sucking lad clinging to his mother’s leg looked up at me and I made a funny face at him. He removed his thumb and half-imitated my funny face. So I made another funny face. He laughed and patted his mother’s leg. “Mama,” he gurgled. “He funny.”

“Not now Jacarandaji,” she said, keeping her focus on money matters. “We’ll go to Frankie’s in just a little while.”

Jacarandaji smiled at me, daring me to make another funny face, which I did. Jacarandaji laughed uproariously, which caused his nose-picking brother to stop picking and ask, “Why you laughing?”

“He funny,” said Jacarandaji, pointing at me.

At which moment, the beautiful young mom turned to me, smiled sweetly (ironically?) and said, “You want’em? You can have’em.” And then she gave each of her boys a hug, saying, “Just kidding. Mama’s only kidding.”

“Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.” Norman Cousins

Who are these young (under forty) moms? They are pot moms, their wealth accrued from the quasi-legal and/or illegal growing of marijuana and the almost surely illegal sale of their crop to feed the insatiable appetite for dope that defines a robust sector of the collective American psyche. Many of these moms have husbands. Many of these moms have college degrees. And all of these moms have decided that it makes much more emotional and economic sense to grow and sell pot than to work at some meaningless low-paying job.

And let them grow pot, say I, so long as they don’t carry guns and shoot at people, and so long as they don’t have dangerous crop-guarding dogs that might escape and attack me or my friends as we’re riding by on our bicycles or walking by minding our own business. What I care about is this: will their children grow up to fill the ranks of the aging musicians and actors and artists and writers and activists who define the culture of our far-flung enclave? Or will those snot-nosed cuties grow up spoiled and arrogant and not much good for anything except growing dope, which will almost surely be legal by the time they’re old enough to join those aforementioned ranks, so then what will they do to make easy money?

Hear me, ye young pot moms. The lives you are leading and this place where you are leading those lives are rare and precious beyond measure. Thus it is your sacred duty to strictly limit the garbage your children watch on television and on computers. It is your sacred duty to give your children plenty of Mendelssohn and Stevie Wonder and Mozart and Joni Mitchell and Brahms and Cole Porter and Eva Cassidy and Richard Rogers and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and Nina Simone and Gershwin, to name a few. And beyond Harry Potter and the corporate guck that passes for children’s literature, at least give them Twain and Steinbeck and Kipling. Beyond today’s execrable animated movie propaganda, give them O’Keefe and Chagall and Picasso and Ver Meer and Monet and Van Gogh. Use your pot money to give your children not what the corporate monsters want to force them to want, but great art that will engender in them the feeling and the knowing that they were born into this life and into their bodies to do something wonderful and special and good.

Yay verily, I say unto you young pot moms, every last one of you beautiful and smart and good women, your children, and you, too, have come unto this bucolic place far from the madding crowd so they and you will have the chance to fully blossom. Feed your family well. Yes. Excellent organic food is good for their bodies, but do not neglect their precious minds and their generous hearts, for we oldsters desperately need them to fill our ranks when we are gone.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com