Posts Tagged ‘self-doubt’

Choices

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

marcia playing

Marcia Practicing photo by Todd

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

“There are two sentences inscribed upon the Delphic Oracle… ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing too much’—and upon these all other precepts depend.” Plutarch

The Mendocino Music Festival is upon us once again, and that means several things to me now that I’ve lived in Mendocino for eight years. The village will be cloaked in fog for many days of the festival, a majestic white tent will stand upon the headlands across the street from Dick’s, my darling wife Marcia, who has played in the festival orchestra for all the twenty-seven years the festival has been going, will practice her cello even more diligently than she usually does, the village population will be peppered with sophisticated classical musicians from urban areas who have come here to play in the festival orchestra, there will not be enough Mendelssohn on the program for my taste (I love Mendelssohn), and there will be so much fantastic music to hear, both classical and otherwise, that it will be impossible to attend but a small fraction of the musical delights on offer.

On the day of the festival’s opening night concert, I walk to town in fulgent sunshine and wonder if this brilliant clarity will attend the concert tonight or whether the fog, hearing the orchestral strains emanating from the majestic tent, will swiftly come hither and blanket the headlands.

At the corner of Highway One and Little Lake Road, my path converges with that of a young white man with long blond Rasta locks, a bulging knapsack on his back, and two enormous dogs on rope leashes. As we wait together for the light to turn green so we might be among the living when we reach the village side of the highway, I say to the young man, “How you doing?”

“Not good,” he says angrily. “This fucking place doesn’t have a laundromat, so poor people can’t wash their clothes. Fucking elitist enclave.”

“Well, the problem as I understand it is that the village has a chronic water shortage and laundromats use an enormous…”

“Bullshit,” he says, as we embark on our journey across the five lines. “I lived here twelve years ago. I know all about this place. They just don’t want any poor people around here. In Israel they have laundromats that use hardly any water. They could get some of those. But they won’t.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling the need to apologize for having a washer and a dryer and a good well that, knock on wood, has yet to go dry this year.

“And try hitchhiking with two big dogs,” says the young man, scowling at me. “Not easy.”

We part ways and I think to myself that the absence of a laundromat in the village is certainly unfortunate but also understandable economically and environmentally, while hitchhiking with two enormous dogs seems to be this man’s choice and not something imposed upon him by a cruel and unjust society. Then again, maybe he needs those dogs in order to feel safe in this cruel and unjust society, and from his point of view he doesn’t really have a choice about hitchhiking with giant dogs or not. Indeed, when I lived in Berkeley, I knew several women who owned large dogs for the express purpose of feeling safe when they went walking anywhere, and not just at night: anywhere any time.

“If you arrive early, you’re neurotic; if you arrive on time, you’re compulsive; if you arrive late, you’re hostile.” Kay Hannah

After I shave away my three-day beard, I exchange paint-stained shirt and trousers for much cleaner clothing, load Marcia’s cello into the trunk of our car, and chauffer Marcia and our delightful neighbor Marion Crombie, viola, down to the festival tent for the long awaited opening night concert. Both gals look beautiful and full of equipoise in comfortable but elegant black attire, and they both express quiet optimism that the concert, despite the absence of anything by Mendelssohn, will be a good one. Verdi, Prokoffief, and Rachmaninoff are on the menu, and the sun, miraculously, is still shining brightly as I navigate the crowded lanes of the village, the air vibrating with the collective excitement that composes the prelude to the orchestral miracle we are about to witness.

I was going to bring along my little silver transistor radio so I could listen to the Giants game before the concert and during the lengthy intermission, but I chose to leave the tiny thing behind so as not to appear gauche and insensitive and possibly more interested in baseball than in my wife’s life work. Tim Lincecum is pitching tonight, and the dramatic arc of Monsieur Lincecum’s career especially intrigues me. After a stellar first few years, the wunderkind has fallen on hard times and is now in the throes of trying to reinvent himself as someone with a fastball in the low nineties instead of a fastball in the high nineties.

Finding every parking place within three blocks of the festival tent taken, I commandeer a space near the post office and traipse from there through the lovely flower-infested grounds of the MacCallum House and down the walkway that begins behind the Mendocino Hotel and pops out on Main Street across from the fabulous festival tent. Seeing I have nearly a half-hour before the music begins, I wander down to the trail across the street from Out of This World and traverse the headlands to the cliff’s edge from where I look down on the shining water, the surface of the sea as calm as a lake on a windless day. Intoxicated by the glorious scene, I fall into a reverie about Felix Mendelssohn and Tim Lincecum and Sergei Prokofiev and Madison Bumgarner and Jimi Hendrix and Sergei Rachmaninoff, geniuses all.

Fortunately my reverie concludes in time for me to join the tail end of the pre-concert melee outside the grandiloquent tent where I bump into Sam Edwards who kindly invites me to join him in a glass of wine, his treat, but I demur because of my deathly allergy to alcohol. We discover we both have complimentary tickets for seats in the nosebleed section courtesy of our partners who play in the festival orchestra, and upon comparing our tickets we find that my seat is directly in front of Sam’s.

“See you in there,” I say, as the bell clangs to summon the masses to find their seats.

With a few minutes remaining before the trouble begins, as Mark Twain liked to say about his public appearances, I wander down the aisle to the epicenter of the tent to say hello to Peter Temple, our local sonic master manning the bridge of his audio Enterprise, so to speak, riding the soundboard controlling the microphones suspended above the stage where a hundred and twenty-some musicians are vigorously sawing and tooting and banging away on their instruments to ready themselves for the exciting adventure they are about to embark upon.

When I inform Peter that I have been assigned a seat way in the back, he taps the chair beside him and says, “Sit here,” and so I do—best seat in the house. Am I lucky or what? I have a clear view of Marcia in her seat next to Stephen Harrison, our superb Principal cellist, and I have plenty of room to stretch my legs and wiggle in my seat as much as I want while the music plays. Yes, I’m lucky, but I suppose I made choices along the way that made such luck possible. Do we make our own luck? Is luck really luck or the manifestation of karma?

The lights dim. Allan Pollack enters from the wings. The crowd erupts in applause. Allan steps up onto the podium, faces the audience, smiles radiantly, and bows. I’ve seen Allan conduct the Music Festival orchestra and the Symphony of the Redwoods orchestra dozens of times, and I always have the same three thoughts whenever I watch him conduct: 1. What a cool guy 2. He reminds me of Groucho Marx in the best sort of way 3. How does he manage to get all those people with their separate egos and divergent inclinations to perform so harmoniously and with such unanimity of feeling?

“A man has only one way of being immortal on this earth: he has to forget he is a mortal.” Jean Giraudoux

The concert a smashing success, the pianist James D’Leon triumphant over the monumental Rachmaninoff, Marcia and Marion in a celebratory mood, we arrive home to the news that Tim Lincecum just pitched the first no-hitter of his illustrious career, and I unashamedly burst into tears, having been cracked wide open by the metaphysical music and feeling Tim’s historic victory as a resurrection, both his and mine, however inexplicable that feeling is—proof of the interconnectedness of all things, the orchestra in that tent on the headlands supplying the quantum physical musical soundtrack to Tim’s remarkable achievement.

I find a video on the interweb that shows the final pitches of all twenty-seven outs recorded in Tim’s phenomenal game, including thirteen strikeouts and three great plays at Third Base by Pablo Sandoval and a truly miraculous diving catch by Hunter Pence in Right Field. I watch the twenty-seven outs twice and cry each time Buster Posey grabs Tim in a bear hug the split second after the last fly ball settles into Gregor Blanco’s glove, the ever stoic Lincecum breaking into the fabulous grin of a man who has finally conquered his greatest enemy—self-doubt.

Practice(ing)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

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

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.

Ergo Ego

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

One of my favorite stories about my ego takes place on my fortieth birthday, October 17, 1989. I am riding my bicycle down L Street in Sacramento on my way to a meeting, consumed by thoughts of how absurdly fast the years seem to be passing and how I’d better sell a book or a screenplay pronto or my wife will leave me and I’ll end up living in the bushes by the American River. Suddenly, just ahead of me, dozens of people pour out of a big office building onto the sidewalk, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “How did they know it’s my birthday?”

As I ride by the crowd of people, I wave to them and many wave back to me. I smile, and they smile back at me, and I feel marvelous. And so it continues, block after block, the people pouring out of buildings to greet me as I ride by. How wonderful! I can almost hear them singing Happy Birthday, when, in truth, a great earthquake is shaking northern California and collapsing bridges and roadways in San Francisco and Oakland, while my ego is deftly converting the catastrophe into a celebration of me.

A common misconception about Buddha is that he declared the ego a great enemy of enlightenment and a primary cause of suffering. I heard this proclaimed adamantly by several neophyte Buddhists before I began my own studies of cogent Buddhist dharma; and since I had been acculturated to believe that having a big ego was bad, that egotism per se was a scourge, and that the worst thing a person could possibly be was an egomaniac, I accepted this erroneous representation of Buddha’s take on the ego. Sadly, a number of well-known Buddhist and New Age teachers still promote the wholly unworkable notion that the ego should be battled and defeated, and, if possible, eradicated entirely. But if so, how would we order lunch?

The teachers I prefer, those who speak calmly from decades of study and serving others and practicing meditation, do not advocate trying to kill the ego, but suggest we will attain to greater happiness if we develop a clear understanding of what the ego is and what the ego isn’t; and so armed with this understanding we might live more consciously and harmoniously with our egoistic tendencies.

One gift of meditation practice is to slowly and surely become more familiar with, and less worried about, our mind chatter, that incessant broadcast of thoughts that sets the tone and cadence for our personal realities. We eventually experience a quieting of this mind chatter, though not by attempting to willfully shut the chatter off, but by bringing our attention to the chatter and discerning it to be meaningless mental noise and nothing substantive. Through meditation, otherwise known as sitting quietly with no other agenda but to sit quietly, we may allow the chatter to weaken and even cease so we may experience other kinds of perception and feeling.

The first many times I meditated, whether for five minutes or forty minutes or two hours, my mind chatter never let up and I despaired of ever experiencing a moment’s peace, let alone a noticeable step toward enlightenment. And then I learned from my readings of Pema Chödrön and Joseph Goldstein about Labeling. By naming this mental blabber, it would, indeed, dissipate for a time before being replaced by some other species of chatter.

For instance, during meditation I might find I am endlessly amending a grocery list mixed with thoughts of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. Tiring of this redundancy, I say to myself “Thinking”, and by merely labeling these particular thoughts, I experience their dissolution into thoughts of a friend who is seriously ill. After hanging for a time with this new array of troubling thoughts, I label them “Worrying” and those thoughts fade away. And so on.

This mind chatter is not merely the sound of the ego, it is the ego. In Mark Epstein’s extremely helpful book Thoughts Without A Thinker, the title is both the fundamental Buddhist idea Epstein explores as well as the ultimate answer to myriad questions about who and what we are. Buddha, if I’m interpreting Epstein correctly, would have responded to the famous pronouncement by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” by suggesting gently and with no attachment to being right or wrong, “Thoughts compose an illusion of self you only think is thinking.”

Abstract stuff, to be sure, but useful if this reorientation helps us take ourselves less seriously, i.e. less egocentrically. There is a less abstract Buddhist insight which most thoughtful people eventually experience in their lives, whether Buddhist or Christian or Jane, and that insight goes something like this: each of us is totally unique and not a bit different than anyone else. Both true. Not just two sides of the same coin, but true simultaneously.

Another favorite story about my ego has recurred dozens of times in my life. This story has to do with the phases of creating a novel or a musical composition or any product of the imagination that may consume months or years of my life.

Phase One: Inspiration

I wake with, or am struck by, a vision of something I am absolutely certain is the greatest story/melody I (or anyone) has ever conceived of. This certainty is so strong, the voices of doubt in my subconscious are entirely drowned out by what I take to be the roar of an adoring universe, and I work in a state of ecstatic determination for hours or days or weeks until the tide recedes, and I am left with a rough draft or a rough song that, as I come to my so-called senses, I realize may not be any good at all. But there she is, born of my ego overwhelming what some might call a cooler head.

Phase Two: The Work

Once my initial sense of having discovered the holy grail of literature and/or music has departed, I understand that this imperfect thing must be greatly improved upon if I hope to capture even a fraction of the greatness of my original vision. More often than not, after a day or a week or a month of work, I admit to myself that I’ve been self-duped and it is a far far better thing to deep six the thing than keep beating a dead horse. Unless, for reasons never fathomable to my conscious mind, my ego has a big investment in my continuing the work, in which case flashbacks to the ecstatic conception recur again and again whenever my interest and certainty flag to the point of giving up the ship. These narcotic fumes from the original phantasmagoric overwhelm are parsed out by my ego to trick me into thinking another few thousand minutes of focused work will bring the shapely goddess in her full grandeur out of that lump of clay.

Nearing Completion: As my work on the book or music draws to a close, I am seized by the sense, often alarmingly visceral, that I might die before I finish, that all my work will have been for naught and my fabulous creation will never be born and never seen by others. This sense of extreme mortality has nothing to do with my age. I experienced the feeling of the nearness of my death when I was a teenaged playwright and I experience it today in late middle age whenever I am about to complete the writing of a book or the recording of an album of songs. Happily, I am not experiencing such pangs as I write this essay, though having just written that I now feel reluctant to get in a car until I’ve sent this off. But I digress.

What could possibly be the ego’s purpose in scaring me so profoundly as I near the end of a lengthy creative race, so to speak? Is it to obviate the ever-rising doubt that what I’ve created might be a pile of doo doo? Perhaps. But I think it is more to supply the momentum of urgency to surmount those final multitudinous obstacles to completion.

Delusions of Grandeur: Here at last is the completed work. My God, I did it! I captured that original vision in all her glory. Hallelujah. Now I must share her with the world. I will make copies and send them forth. So I do, fuelled by a revival of certainty that this thing is important and good and will be a boon to mankind and womankind for generations to come. Which certainty lasts just long enough for me to release the creation far enough away from me and in sufficient quantity so that when I wake with, or am struck by, a new and powerful certainty that my creation is deeply flawed, that I missed the mark, that I could have made her so much better and more beautiful if only I had…

The truth, thankfully, is that there is no mark to miss, only the ongoing process of endeavoring to make sense of these thoughts composing the ever-changing idea of moi. Or to put it in pidgin Latin: Cogito Ergo Ego.

Todd just completed his new CD 43 short Piano Improvisations and sent it off to be manufactured before his doubts could get the better of him.