Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Stuff of Dreams

Monday, August 28th, 2017

233totality

totality diptych by Max Greenstreet

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare

There’s an old vaudeville routine in which a guy goes to a doctor, painfully lifts his arm above his head and says, “Doc, every time I do this, it hurts like crazy.” The doctor looks at the guy and says, “Don’t do that.”

I recently had a run of lousy nights of sleep. When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I am not a happy camper the next day—an afternoon nap my only hope of regaining equipoise. While searching for reasons why I was sleeping poorly after a spate of nights when I slept like a well-exercised child with a clear conscience, I realized I’d been reading national news within a few hours of going to bed.

To which the vaudeville doctor said, “Don’t do that.”

So I stopped reading or viewing any news for a few days and thereafter limited my intake to a little news in the morning; and thereafter having a good night’s sleep became much less problematic.

“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin

For most of the days of my life for the last forty-five years I’ve been writing a novel or play or screenplay or collection of stories. I write these longer works sequentially, not simultaneously. I’ve tried to write multiple works of fiction simultaneously a few times in my life, and my muse is never pleased. However, she does not mind sorties into non-fiction while I’m creating my larger fictive works. I theorize that my fiction writing employs neural pathways distinct from those used for writing non-fiction; thus the two processes do not collide.

My dreams, on the other hand, seem to share neural pathways with my fiction writing, and if I drift off to sleep thinking about the novel I’m writing, my dreams will compose scenes, often nonsensical, to fit, sort of, the fiction I’m working on. These dream/fiction hybrids can disturb my sleep much as nightmares will, so I try to leave my work at the office, so to speak, when I lay me down to sleep, though I’m not always successful at keeping my characters and plot twists at bay.

“In my dream, I am your customer, and the customer is always right.” Laurie Anderson

Over the course of my adult life, I’ve remembered dozens of dreams in which I am giving a piano concert for an enormous audience, or I am about to give such a concert. In some of these dreams, I enter the concert hall, see the piano I am supposed to perform on, and various obstacles and detours keep me from ever reaching the piano. In other dreams, I make it to the stage, sit down at the piano, and find keys missing or the piano is terribly out-of-tune or the piano is full of vines or cats or naked women, and is therefore unplayable. Or I begin to play and the keyboard disintegrates.

However, in two of my piano dreams, the pianos remained intact and I played gorgeous danceable music, my fingers incapable of making mistakes, every note just right—and the crowd went wild.

“Sleep is the best meditation.” Dalai Lama

The brain/body/mind consortium is highly suggestible. I often forget to remember this. But when I do remember how suggestible my system is, and I take a few minutes before falling asleep to suggest to my brain/body/mind that I will sleep wonderfully well and wake rested and full of energy, I very often do.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I’ve always liked this pronouncement of Jung’s, which I take to mean that our unconscious patterns of behavior shape our waking lives as much or more than the conscious choices we make. From what I’ve read by and about Jung, I think he might also have said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it will express itself in our dreams, and we can interpret those dreams to help us uncover and perhaps overcome some of those unconscious patterns of behavior that are interfering with our happiness.”

Joseph Campbell frequently recounted the story of Jung undergoing psychoanalysis and reaching a profound impasse that stymied him for several months until he had an epiphany about the most blissful activity of his childhood: building little stone houses and villages. So he “followed his bliss”, bought some land on the shores of Lake Zürich, and built a stone house. While building this house, he had a series of dreams, the interpretations of which helped him overcome the impasse in his psychoanalysis.

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

Marcia and I both had bizarre dreams last night. Marcia’s dream involved going on a quest to find beer for the many uninvited guests crowding into the living room of our house that was not our house. She eventually made it all the way from Mendocino to India and forgot about trying to find beer.

My dream starred two darling children and their young mother who were trying to teach me their language, which seemed to be a mixture of Spanish and Arabic. I was sitting facing a large blackboard on which the children took turns writing words they wanted me to learn. One of the words was arastó. The children gleefully shouted arastó, but wouldn’t tell me what it meant.

Then a handsome young man entered the room and said his name was Abababus. He warned me to never forget the second ba when saying his name. I woke from this dream and could not go back to sleep until I got up and wrote down Abababus, lest I forget the second ba.

What caused these dreams? Marcia theorizes my spaghetti sauce—turmeric, cumin, garlic, various unusual heirloom tomatoes, red wine, olive oil—may have been the author of our dreams.

Gene and Grandma

Monday, September 12th, 2016

andmischief

Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Old Books

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O'Day Ballet) ©2013 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O’Day Ballet) © 2013 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

I recently came upon an old book I inherited from my grandmother Goody, The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature published in 1939, a seventy-five-year-old book that has provided me with several days of enjoyable reading. Part of my enjoyment comes from frequently encountering words I have to look up in my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. But the larger part of my pleasure comes from the fascinating details to be found in the hundreds of miniature biographies of once-famous writers who are largely forgotten today.

In terms of my vocabulary, I have learned that a cottar is the equivalent of a sharecropper, a prebend is a stipend derived from a percentage of a church’s profits, a squib is a satirical jab, a suppostitious child is one fraudulently substituted to displace the real heir, and a pindaric is an ode in the manner of Pindar.

Of Pindar, this little old book says, “(c.522-442 B.C.) the great Greek lyric poet, acquired fame at an early age and was employed by many winners at the Games (Olympics) to celebrate their victories.”

I first came upon the word pindaric while reading the two-column biography of Jonathan Swift who was a cousin of Dryden, who also garners a two-column biography. Only Shakespeare warrants three columns, which means Swift and Dryden are thought to be among the most famous writers of all time, according to the editors of this edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature.

Also according to this dictionary, Dryden, upon reading one of Swift’s pindarics, remarked, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”

And the last line of Swift’s little biography states, “Nearly all his works were published anonymously, and for only one, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, did he receive any payment (£200).”

Famous writers making little money from their writing is a recurring theme in this dictionary, as is the fact that many noted writers from the 1600’s through the early 1900’s died insane. Syphilis, the cause of madness in most of those cases, is never mentioned in the dictionary, but the editors doubtless assume their readers know about the link between syphilis and insanity in the days before the advent of antibiotics.

Indeed, the editors make a number of assumptions about their readers, which assumptions in 1939 were probably sound. For instance, they assume anyone reading this volume will probably be fairly fluent in Latin and know most of the famous writers of the past three hundreds years by their last names. Scott is Sir Walter Scott, Arbuthnot is John Arbuthnot, Pope is Alexander Pope, and so on. Fortunately for the likes of me, if an author is referred to solely by his last name, he will have a biography in the good book and I can discover why he was so famous.

As one might expect of a book published in 1939 summarizing the history of English Literature, there are few women authors mentioned therein, though Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Anne Bronte, and Emily Bronte all garner tiny paragraphs, with George Eliot and Jane Austen winning half-columns, and Charlotte Bronte nearly a whole one.

Another delightful feature of the book is that for super famous authors—Dickens, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Melville, Thackeray etc.—in addition to their biographies, there are separate entries synopsizing of each of their most famous books, plays, and poems, as well as separate entries for important characters in those works.

What a different culture we had before the advent of television. In that sense, the 1939 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature is a fascinating time capsule from the end of an epoch in our cultural history when literature was of paramount importance and influence, and hundreds of great novels and plays and poems lived for hundreds of years as part of the contemporary cultural fabric.

Have you perchance heard of the book The Old Wives’ Tale? “…a novel by E. A. Bennett (1908) one of the greatest novels of modern times. It is the long chronicle of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, daughters of a draper of Bursley, from their ardent girlhood, through disillusionment, to death. The drab life of the draper’s shop, its trivial incidents, are made interesting and important. Constance, a staid and sensible young woman, marries the insignificant Samuel Povey, the chief assistant in the shop, and spends all her life in Bursley. The more passionate and imaginative Sophia elopes with the fascinating Gerald Scales, an unprincipled blackguard, who carries her to Paris, where she is exposed to indignities, and finally deserts her. She struggles to success as a lodging-house keeper in Paris, where she lives though the siege of 1870. The sisters are reunited and spend their last years in Bursley.”

Never heard of E.A. Bennett, the author of this greatest of novels? “Bennett, (Enoch) Arnold (1867-1931), became a solicitor’s clerk in London and in 1893 assistant editor and subsequently editor of the periodical ‘Woman’. After 1900 he devoted himself exclusively to writing, theatre journalism being among his special interests. His fame as a novelist rests chiefly on ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ and the ‘Clayhanger’ series. ‘Clayhanger’ (1910) ‘Hilda Lessways’ (1911) ‘These Twain’ (1916). The ‘Five Towns’ which figure prominently in these works are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Longton, centers of the pottery industry; and the features, often ugly and sordid of this background are skillfully woven into stories of lives which he presents dispassionately, with an infinite delight in significant detail. Among Bennett’s other best-known works are: ‘Riceyman Steps’, ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’, ‘Milestones’, and ‘The Matador of the Five Towns’ (short stories, 1912)”

Then there is John Knox (1505-72) who “…addressed epistles to his brethren in England suffering under the rule of Mary Tudor, and in Scotland under the regency of Mary of Lorraine. It was this situation which led to the publication of his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558), of which the title, Saintsbury remarks, was the best part.”

Saintsbury? “George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (1845-1933), a distinguished literary critic and historian…”

Tons of Books

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

buddha

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

When I was a kid we used the word tons to mean lots. I have tons of baseball cards. You have tons of friends. This week, however, I really did move tons of books, eighty big heavy boxes, of my self-published opuses Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books, from the warehouse where I was paying to store them, to our house, which now resembles a UPS shipping center.

Thus concludes a humbling chapter in my publishing history. I have now published seven books with big publishers in New York, three books with medium-sized publishers, and I have self-published two books indistinguishable from books published by big time publishers. Most recently I brought out coil-bound photocopy editions of my novels, a most enjoyable way to go.

I published Buddha In A Teacup in 2008 and had three thousand case bound copies printed, that’s hardback without a dust jacket. I just brought home the last four hundred copies. Not bad for word-of-mouth. The book won the American Indie Award for Fiction, the Bay Area Independent Publishers Award for Fiction, a Silver Nautilus Award, and was a runner-up for the prestigious Ben Franklin Award.

In 2009, I published Under the Table Books and had two thousand case bound copies printed. I just brought home 1400 copies. This book also won the American Indie Award for Fiction and the Bay Area Independent Publishers Award for Fiction. All those awards and three dollars will get me a latte at Moody’s.

Things I learned from self-publishing books: no newspaper or magazine in America will review self-published fiction. Only bookstores run by people who think you have a strong local following will carry self-published fiction. Most people believe self-publishing is proof you have a screw loose.

“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

Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter and tons of other famous authors self-published their fiction.

A few weeks before last Christmas, Marcia and I were in Santa Rosa and came upon a man sitting at a table on the sidewalk selling coil-bound photocopies of a children’s book he’d written called something like Melvin the Christmas Dragon. And I said, “Forget about bookstores. I’ll have a book stand.”

“There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart.” Saint Augustine

Ten-years-old in 1959, I wanted more money than the twenty-five cents a week my parents gave me to complete what I felt was an insanely long list of chores. To earn extra money, I pulled weeds for a woman who lived two doors down. She paid fifty cents per bushel basket of weeds pulled. Unfortunately, her weeds were not large and it took me hours to fill that basket. I couldn’t wait to turn twelve so I could start babysitting. Twelve was the age you had to be in our neighborhood to babysit. My older sisters made a dollar an hour babysitting and came home with tons of money from watching television and snacking while the little kids were sleeping.

In the meantime, I wracked my brain for ways to make money. One day I saw some kids selling lemonade and making tons of money. We had tons of lemons on our trees, I knew where my mother kept tons of sugar, and water was free. I would make tons of money with a lemonade stand! I announced my plan to my parents. Dad gave a ten-minute lecture on the stupidity of magical thinking. Mom said, “The lemonade will cost more to make than you’ll make selling it. Besides, I don’t want you making a mess in the kitchen.”

My friend John lived across the street and had a mother right out of Leave It To Beaver. Almost everything I said made her laugh. I proposed to John that we go into business together. John did not need money—his parents gave him as much as he wanted—but he was excited about going into business with me because I was ten and he was eight.

John’s parents, quantum opposites of my parents, thought selling lemonade was a fine idea. John’s father said, “I have just the thing. A big barrel.”

So we went into business. We painted the barrel white and decorated it with red and blue stars and circles and half-moons. We made a big pitcher of lemonade, added plenty of ice cubes, secured a large supply of paper cups, and set up our stand at the mouth of John’s driveway. We charged ten cents a glass. We worked from eleven in the morning until late afternoon four days a week for most of that summer.

Because John’s parents paid for sugar and paper cups, and John’s mother made the lemonade so we wouldn’t wreck her kitchen, we made tons of money. Well, several dollars anyway.

“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” Saint Augustine

After four days of driving back and forth from Mendocino to Fort Bragg and severely taxing the springs of my old pickup with tons of books, I finally got the last of those incredibly heavy boxes stacked in the last remaining available space in our house—Marcia’s closet. To celebrate, I made a cup of cocoa and checked my email. Nothing. But then something came through: a most excellent publisher wanted to bring out a paperback edition of Buddha In A Teacup. I pinched myself, rubbed my eyes, and read the email again. I wasn’t imagining things.

I had wanted to bring my books home for the last two years but never had the emotional fortitude until now. Which reminds me of what Mr. Laskin says at the end of Under the Table Books. “I refer to it in my book 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.”

Shakespeare

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Shakespeare PC Map (todd)

 ©  1998 David Jouris/Hold the Mustard

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

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

A year ago we took possession of a spanking new paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the large handsome tome coming our way in a manner worthy of Shakespeare, and by that I mean in the way of the Bard’s zanier comedies in which complicated circumstantial chaos ends well—lovers united, villains chastised, parents pleased, gods appeased, and fools revealed to be wise. I should add that I never would have bought this book due to my limited financial reserves, thus it was only through cosmic largesse that the goodly tome became ours.

Here is the story. Our friend David Jouris, charming Berkeley eccentric, peripatetic photographer of dance companies, and indefatigable collector of quotations, is also the author of two unusual atlases of North America entitled All Over The Map and All Over the Map Again. These two delightful volumes are composed of thirty-three and thirty-four thematic maps featuring towns that really exist, accompanied by fascinating stories about the origins of some of the more intriguing town names. Among my favorites are an Optimistic map showing towns such as What Cheer, Windfall and Sublime, and a Pessimistic map showing such towns as Troublesome, Gripe, Last Chance and Bitter Springs. There are Theatrical, Dancing, Armed & Dangerous, Utopian, Literary, Animal, Musical, Eccentric, Egotistical, Numerical, Sporting, Lovers’, Saintly, and Mythical maps, to name a few, and most importantly, for the purpose of this tale, a Shakespearean map featuring such towns as Desdemona Texas, Rialto California and Romeo Colorado.

Some years before 10-Speed Press published David’s atlases, he brought out several of his thematic maps as black and white postcards under the aegis of his Hold the Mustard postcard line, and these map cards were deemed so groovy by the Library of Congress that several of David’s thematic maps were blown up huge and displayed in the Library of Congress lobby in Washington D.C. Then one day, two years after All Over The Map Again was published, and for reasons cloaked in mystery, David asked me if I thought he should bring out a color postcard of his Shakespearean map. The mystery is: why would David ask my advice when he unfailingly does whatever he wants regardless of what anybody else thinks? But not only did David ask my opinion about the Shakespearean postcard, he heeded my enthusiastic prediction that such a card would be a huge success, and he proceeded to publish the beautiful thing, thus making possible the comedy of errors I am recounting here.

Despite the ensuing (and mystifying) commercial failure of David’s Shakespearean postcard, I am ever happy to have this card on hand for sending to friends and to use as the self-addressed stamped postcard I include with my plays when I submit them to theater companies hither and yon. Shakespeare, it seems to me, is a most appropriate messenger for the ongoing and unanimous (so far) rejection of my plays.

Then one day David made a startling discovery: Oxford University Press was featuring his Shakespearean map in recent editions of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the striking half-page reproduction captioned with, “This 1998 novelty postcard, which assumes a thorough familiarity with the Shakespeare canon, attests to the continuing presence of Shakespeare in American popular culture.”

Perhaps due to their excitement at finding such an ideal illustration, the editors at Oxford University Press neglected to secure the rights to use David’s creation for their book and thus had not recompensed him. Conveniently for David, the Oxford numbskulls published his map with © DAVID JOURIS/HOLD THE MUSTARD prominently displayed across northern Mexico, and thus were not only caught with damn spots on their hands, but with their spotted hands deep in the cookie jar.

Following relatively civil negotiations, the Brits agreed to pay David a paltry sum along with two copies of the hardback edition and two copies of the paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, one of those paperbacks my reward for convincing David to manufacture the blessed card in the first place. And for the past year the good book has gone largely unread by moi until two weeks ago when, having finally completed the novel I’ve been madly writing for a year, I thought I’d try reading something I didn’t write, and possibly something I hadn’t read before.

So one tempestuous night, the fire crackling, the kettle burbling, I began to read that encyclopedia of Shakespearean factoids, and found the contents fascinating, entertaining, and scrumptious food for thought—may the gods of improbable probability be thanked for this gift. Here are a few brief selections from the tome.

acting, Elizabethan. The Elizabethan word for what we call acting was ‘playing’, and the word ‘acting’ was reserved for the gesticulations of an orator.

acting profession, Elizabethan and Jacobean. The Elizabethan word for an actor was ‘player’ and there were three classes: the sharer, the hired man, and the apprentice. The nucleus of the company was the sharers, typically between four and ten men, who were named on the patent which gave them the authority to perform and which identified their aristocratic patron.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), actor, playwright, poet, theatre administrator, and landowner; baptized, probably by John Bretchgirdle, in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on Wednesday, 26 April 1564, the third child and first son of John Shakespeare and his wife Mary.

Oxfordian theory, a term for what has since the mid-20th century been the most visible strand in the Authorship Controversy, the claim that Shakespeare’s works were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).

“And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.

Therefore they thought it good you hear a play

And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,

Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.”

            from The Taming of the Shrew

While there is no debate that William Shakespeare was involved in the theatrical world of London, there has been much and continuous speculation for five hundred years about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays, any of them, attributed to William Shakespeare. Now that I have gobbled The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, which prompted me to re-read The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet, I have my own theory about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.

Those who argue that Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have writ the plays attributed to him ask: how could a man reputed to be one of the most prolific and learned writers in history not leave behind even a scrap of his plays and poetry in his own handwriting? Not a shred, not a line, not a tattered fragment of a tiny piece of a page in Shakespeare’s own hand survived even into the latter stages of his relatively short life, a time when various publishers and their agents were searching for such fragments from which to publish the plays! Why does Shakespeare’s last will and testament contain no directives regarding his plays and sonnets, or any mention of his writing at all, yet makes a fuss about who gets his second-best bed?

How could Shakespeare, at the height of his fame and influence, become so completely divorced from the London theatre scene, of which he was supposedly a massive pillar, and carry on with the wholly non-theatrical business ventures in Stratford-upon-Avon that apparently occupied him for his entire life? Why are there so few (virtually none) first or even secondhand descriptions of, or anecdotes about, Shakespeare, the actual person, by any of his contemporaries, literary or otherwise? And how can we explain that several of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy and nearly all his tragedies are set among royals and aristocrats, though Shakespeare never went abroad, his education was minimal, his children were illiterate, and the social milieu he occupied was that of the merchant class? From whence came his uncanny understanding of the ways and workings and subtleties of royalty, let alone his intimate knowledge of their histories?

What is irrefutable about the plays attributed to Shakespeare is that in the absence of original manuscripts, the extant texts are, without exception, collages of versions of those plays remembered by various actors who supposedly acted in those plays, which versions were written down and edited by several different men and different groups of men, and these written-down versions were then futzed with until deemed Close Enough by yet other men who then published the plays. The First Folio, entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies—the foundational texts—was published in 1623, and the Second Folio was published ten years later, for which the editors made…wait for it…several hundred changes to the text of the First Folio. Several hundred! What were these changes based on? No one knows.

Along with the third and fourth and possibly fifth-hand nature of the “original” plays, is the undeniable fact that virtually every production of these plays, both in Shakespeare’s time and for centuries thereafter, and continuing to this day, employ scripts that are either edited, rewritten or wholly reimagined versions of the so-called originals. Thus the plays of Shakespeare, whoever wrote them, have never been static works and have always been treated as foundational forms to be modified and interpreted by directors who, like jazz musicians, knowingly improvise on popular standards and feel perfectly justified in doing so.

My theory runs thusly: William Shakespeare, a savvy business guy, travels to London to do business, buys his way into an ambitious company of actors, and quickly figures out that the better and more timely the plays a troupe has the exclusive rights to perform, the more successful that troupe will be, which success can lead to royal dispensation to build and own theaters and profit handsomely therefrom. A shrewd dude with a good ear for dialogue, William collaborates with a few talented writers on an early success or two, among them The Taming of the Shrew, and thereafter becomes a literary fence, so to speak, through which numerous writers—struggling actors, aristocrats wishing to remain anonymous, and talented provincials having flings at glory—benefit from the public perception that their plays were written by the hottest playwright in town.

The facts, such as they are, do not contradict my theory that Shakespeare was a superlative merchant of ghost writers or possibly the front man for a syndicate of play brokers, which would explain the wide-ranging stylistic variations in his plays, the comedies perhaps worked over by the Elizabethan equivalent of the gang of comics who wrote for the late great Sid Caesar—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen—the tragedies composed by brilliant and frustrated royals—latter day Gore Vidals—or persons associated with royalty.

Chosen

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Mendocino Coastline, Todd

Mendocino Coast photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“The best is the enemy of good.” Voltaire

You have probably heard the provocative news that the New York Times recently declared the village of Mendocino and the surrounding scenic coastline to be the Third Best Travel Destination in the World. Not the best place to visit in America or in the Western Hemisphere, but in the entire world.

When I heard this startling pronouncement I went into a trance and heard someone say, “It was a tossup between Bali or Venice, but then we got the idea of cruising the fjords of Norway and we were about to book our flight to Oslo when we read the article in the New York Times about Mendocino being the third best place on the planet to visit! We rushed to make reservations at one of the inns there and soon we’ll be ogling the rugged coastline and buying T-shirts and sampling seaweed and drinking local wine and beer and eating lots of California Cuisine and, you know, reveling in the magnificence.”

Emerging from my trance, I read the article in question and was surprised to find nary a mention of the current devastating drought that puts Mendocino near the bottom of a number of other Best lists, including Best Places in the World To Take Long Showers and Best Places In the World To Grow Rice In Flooded Paddies. Nor did the article mention Mendocino being dead last on the list of Best Places With Decent Public Restrooms and Best Places With Good Chinese and/or Mexican and/or any sort of ethnic food.

Indeed, the upshot of the article seems to be that the rugged coast and gorgeous crashing waves and redwood forests are what make Mendocino the third most wonderful place in the whole world, not the amenities for humans, which I think does a great disservice to my favorite places in the village: Zo (copy shop extraordinaire), post office (world class), Mendocino Market (superb deli), Corners of the Mouth (stupendous avocados), Goodlife Bakery & Café (yummy combo salads), Harvest Market (olive bar heaven), Gallery Books (be still my heart, they carry my books), Rubaiyat (beads meet Buddha), Frankie’s Pizza (and ice cream), our lone bank (sympathetic tellers), and last but not least, the little hardware store that could.

“Avoid popularity; it has many snares, and no real benefit.” William Penn

In the mid-1970’s I moved to Ashland Oregon, having lived there briefly and happily in the early 1970’s. To my dismay, the place had changed dramatically in just the few years I’d been gone. Real estate prices had skyrocketed, Southern Oregon College had been absorbed into the state college system and doubled in size, the airport in nearby Medford had been greatly enlarged, and people from all over America, not just from California, were flocking to what was fast becoming a kind of Carmel-Not-By-The-Sea with year-round Shakespeare.

Most of the artists and eccentrics and free thinkers I’d found so appealing during my brief sojourn there in the 60’s had fled the burgeoning hamlet in search of less expensive pastures and been replaced by…well, people like Gerald, a big blustery overweight middle-aged real estate developer from New Jersey. He had only been in Ashland for two years, yet had already built two hideous, crappy, environmentally disastrous four-unit apartment buildings and was in the process of building two more such monstrosities.

I rented a room in Gerald’s house—Gerald being one of those extremely wealthy people who leave no income-producing stone unturned—and he was a nice guy, albeit reflexively combative, a reflex that quickened in direct proportion to his alcohol intake. Gerald was also extremely pragmatic, and because he liked to get smashed several nights a week but didn’t want to drive drunk, he would go to bars, meet people, buy them drinks and invite them home with him to continue their drinking in our living room. Thus on many nights for those few challenging months I shared a house with Gerald, the living room was full of strangers drinking and talking over the din of Gerald’s always-on television.

While attending my first such impromptu party, I asked Gerald what had brought him to Ashland from far-away New Jersey.

He glared at me and said, “Same thing brought everybody else here.”

“Shakespeare?” I said dumbly. “No sales tax? Pretty women pumping your gas? Rafting the Rogue River? What?”

“The thing on CBS News,” he said, his glare intensifying. “You know, the list. Come on. Don’t say you didn’t see it. Everybody saw it. The Ten Best Places To Live In America Nobody Knows About Yet. Ashland was number two. They made it look like heaven.”

“I missed that show,” I said, apologetically. “So you came here because you saw something about Ashland on television?”

“Me, too,” said a cute gal with impossibly red impossibly curly hair. “I was living in Cleveland because my husband got transferred there from Chicago, otherwise I never would have gone there. Who would? And then we got divorced and…anyway I saw the same news thing, only I think it was NBC. Anyway…they did make it look so good here, and John Denver was singing and everything was so green and the swans swimming on the pond by the Shakespeare theatre so I thought…”

“No, it was an orchestra thing,” said a guy on the sofa, holding his glass aloft. “You know…with violins? Not John Denver.”

“Yeah,” said Gerald, pointing at the guy on the sofa. “That’s the one I saw, too, the one with violins. Not John Denver.”

“I was living in Riverside,” said the guy on the sofa. “And my eyes were watering all the time, and I had this horrible cough that I could not get rid of because the air was so bad, and the traffic…ridiculous, so when I saw that show about the best places nobody knew about yet I hopped in my car and drove up here and…”

“They must have shown it more than once,” said the cute gal from Cleveland, “because the one I saw definitely had John Denver singing.”

“Avoid popularity if you would have peace.” Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday, sitting on the headlands overlooking Mendocino Bay, enjoying the spectacular coastline and listening to the crashing waves and marveling that I actually live in the third best place in the entire world to visit, I was approached by a man and a woman, their eyes shielded by dark glasses reflecting four little funhouse Todds.

“Hi,” said the woman, exhibiting brilliant white teeth. “You live around here?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

“Told you,” said the man, looking away as if embarrassed by the success of his guess.

“We were wondering if you could recommend any interesting things to do around here,” said the woman, glancing at her partner. “You know…besides the scenery.” She gestured toward Japan. “We went to the bakery for coffee and scones. That was nice. And we had a beer at the hotel. And now…” She shrugged pleasantly. “Any suggestions?”

“Gosh, that’s a tough one,” I said, gazing out to sea. “We have three excellent chocolate shops in the village and a number of curio stores, but the cultural hub of the area is Fort Bragg, ten miles north of here.”

“We went there,” said the man, his voice devoid of enthusiasm.

“The Botanical Gardens? Cabrillo Lighthouse? Headlands Café?”

The woman nodded. Waves crashed on the rocky shore. Gulls flew north, ravens south. Seven vultures circled in the sky above us, patrolling paradise for dead things to eat.

“Hey, thanks,” said the man, turning to go.

“Yeah, thanks,” said the woman, turning to go, too. But then she looked back at me and asked, “Which one is your favorite chocolate shop?”

“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers

I asked my neighbor what he thought about Mendocino being touted by the New York Times as the third best place in the whole world to visit, and this is what he had to say about that.

“I’ve lived here sixty-seven of my seventy-four years and things were real good around here until about fifty years ago when certain types of people started moving in and growing you know what and then those crooks got hold of the lumber companies and started cutting the trees way too fast and selling all the wood to Japan and that ruined everything. No, if I were younger, I’d move to Idaho. You can still live the way you want up there, step out your door and shoot a deer. Used to be like that around here, but not anymore.”

Father Christmas

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

cardthang

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

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” William Shakespeare

My father was extremely neurotic. A psychiatrist by profession, one of his more pronounced neuroses was the inability to complete anything, which made psychiatry the perfect profession for him. Our house and yard were minefields of my father’s unfinished projects, some of which became entangled with other unfinished projects, so that large areas of the domestic terrain were rendered useless except as depositories for the stuff of projects he would never complete.

When I was twelve, my father gave me the task of clearing away a great mass of blackberry brambles that was smothering our one and only apricot tree and made accessing the delectable fruit impossible. After many hours of hacking and cutting and carrying loads of brambles to the burn pile, I discovered that my father had pruned the apricot tree some years before, left the pruned branches lying around the tree, and in a subsequent year positioned a wooden ladder amidst the pruned branches in order to prune the tree again, left the newly pruned branches atop the older pruned branches, and then left the ladder surrounded by those multiple layers of pruned branches. Blackberry bushes then sprouted in the fertile soil and employed the framework of dead branches and wooden ladder as armature for their rampant growth.

When I was sixteen, my father and I attended an auction of government property, ostensibly to find a cheap filing cabinet for my mother, but really because my father loved hunting for old junky things to bring home. Among the items to be auctioned were several three-wheeled postal vans, their engines on the verge of dysfunction, their aging bodies pockmarked and rusty.

“I will buy one,” declared my father, “paint it a pleasing color, and use it to go to and from my office. Think of the money I’ll save on gas.”

My father did, indeed, make the highest bid on one of those vans, drove the cute little thing home, and parked it about ten feet to the left of my beloved basketball hoop and backboard, thereby rendering the court no good for basketball games until my pals and I pushed the little van some twenty feet from the hoop. And there that wreckage sat and rotted for thirty years until, as a gift to my mother, I had the heap hauled away.

“An overflow of good converts to bad.” William Shakespeare

Another of my father’s manias was book buying, and his favorite bookstore was Kepler’s in Menlo Park, both a fantastic bookstore and a groovy Bohemian hangout. I remember many an evening when my mother called Kepler’s, as other women might call the pub, to inquire if her husband was there. “He is?” my mother would say, exasperated. “Would you please tell him to come home? Immediately. He was supposed to be home two hours ago.”

Thus our house was not only a museum of myriad unfinished projects, but we lived in an ever growing topography of stacks of books—the dozens of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jammed with thousands of books—and piles of magazines and newspapers and junk mail, all of which my father was adamant my mother not throw away because, “I’m going through them this weekend,” which never happened once in fifty years.

“It’s true, Christmas can feel like a lot of work, particularly for mothers. But when you look back on all the Christmases in your life, you’ll find you’ve created family traditions and lasting memories. Those memories, good and bad, are really what help to keep a family together over the long haul.” Caroline Kennedy

When Marcia and I got married, I explained to her that Christmas was highly problematic for me due to the emotional scars I carried from my parents’ various neuroses coming to a boil, so to speak, in and around the holiday season. Never mind that my mother was Jewish, but had been raised to hide any connection to Judaism (which was one of the reasons she married my non-Jewish father.) Never mind that my father always put off buying a Christmas tree until the day before Christmas and then would get staggering drunk before he put the lights on the tree, after which he couldn’t remember where he’d put the really tall ladder he needed to get the ornament box down from the half-finished platform he had affixed to the rafters of our high-ceilinged house with twine and duct tape in lieu of the screws he would use when he got around to finishing the platform, which he never did.

No, what made Christmas such an unhappy time was the terrible tension resulting from my father having bought hundreds of books and things we didn’t want, and all those books and things had to be wrapped by our unhappy parents and put under the tree so we would have lots of presents to open on Christmas morning—the quantity of gifts being very important to my father, who always waited until Christmas Eve to start wrapping things, and as he wrapped he drank and my mother would lament, “You’ve had enough already,” and we would hang our stockings and go to bed and…joy to the world.

“And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.” William Shakespeare

When I was nine, my siblings and I gathered in the living room on Christmas morning, our parents having stayed up until the wee hours wrapping presents and stuffing our stockings with tangerines and candy and decks of cards (not again!) to keep us busy until they finally crawled out of bed some hours later to have their coffee and oversee the opening of the gifts. We noted the hundreds of presents under the precariously tilting tree, and my little brother gave voice to our collective fear, “I think it’s mostly books.”

That was the year my father gave me a seven-hundred-page (small print) biography of Thomas Jefferson and a book entitled How To Make Home Movies. Coincidentally, Santa gave my mother a home movie camera, which she promptly handed to my father, and my sister Wendy got a film editing and splicing contraption, my father expressing surprise and delight that Santa had given us these things that he, my father, had always wanted and would be happy to share with us. Yes! For a person who could never finish anything, a movie camera in those pre-digital days was the perfect thing for making huge messes and never completing anything. You go, Dad!

But the camera and associated film stuff was just the beginning of that year’s surprises. I received an electric soldering iron my father was quick to point out would be just the thing for assembling the Heathkit stereo tuner kit Santa brought my four-year-old brother, as well as the unassembled stereo speakers Santa brought my sister Kathy that would go perfectly with the Heathkit stereo tuner—none of which would ever be fully assembled but would reside partially assembled for many years under piles of useless junk on a large table in the room that eventually became my mother’s office after the defunct Heathkit project was finally added to the horror show known as our garage.

 “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Charles Darwin

As an adult, I returned to the old homestead every Christmas to visit my parents, and I frequently found the presents I’d given my father the previous year gathering dust on the floor not far from where he opened them. And it finally dawned on me that the best gifts for my father were bottles of wine he would drink that very day, though I needn’t buy good wine because my father, who was the world’s authority on everything, loved to remind me that “it has been scientifically proven there is absolutely no difference between cheap and expensive wine, except the price.”

Until he died at eighty-four, our father continued to give us books for Christmas that he thought we ought to want, and as he became less energetic, he took to buying all his children the same books from palettes of bestsellers at Costco. Three years in a row he gave me the same massive and impenetrable tome about Shakespeare by a famous Harvard professor, and each year he would ask me as I unwrapped the gnarly opus, “Have you heard of this book? Supposed to be fantastic.”

Then I would return to wherever I was living, and when sufficiently recovered from my Christmas ordeal, I would take the books my father had given me to a good used bookstore, get cash for them, and go to a café for coffee and cheesecake, both of which I really wanted. I would sip my coffee and savor the tangy cake and raise my cup in honor of my father, the great lover of books.

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.

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

What Lasts?

Friday, October 7th, 2011

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

“You are the music while the music lasts.” T.S. Eliot

Long ago, in a time when records were big round vinyl things activated by spinning them on turntables while running needles through their grooves, when marijuana was highly illegal, and long before the advent of personal computers and cell phones and digital downloads and peak oil and whole sections of grocery stores being dedicated to gluten-free products, when my hair was plentiful and not yet gray, I performed a song of mine at a party where other songs were performed by other people hoping to become famous, or at least solvent, through their music.

Following my performance, a woman in black leather approached me, and by her gait and the slurring of her words, I deduced she was drunk. “Your song,” she shouted, “was good as anything you hear in grocery stores.”

“That was like…a classic?” said a woman in green paisley, her every statement a question. “Like…I already knew it before you played it? Even though I’d never heard it before? Like…Bonnie Raitt should cover it?”

“Your voice is decent,” said a frowning fellow in blue denim who took a long drag on his cigarette between each of his proclamations. “Reminds me of Chet Baker, who I dig, but I hated your song. It grabbed me at first. It did. But then it felt phony. Like it wanted to be deep, but it wasn’t deep. I mean…the way you sang it made it seem deep at first, but then it didn’t even last as long as it lasted.”

“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” James Joyce

A teenager said to me, “The only reason Shakespeare lasts from generation to generation is because people keep putting on his plays and making you study him at school.”

I was facilitating a discussion among ten ambitious young writers, our subject What Lasts? Along with discussing the topic in general, each of the writers was making a case for a current song or book or movie being widely sung or read or watched four generations hence. Why four generations? Because in my estimation, the great fame of an artist may keep his or her creations whispering in the public ear for one or two or even three generations, but for a work of art to remain vital for a hundred years in a swiftly evolving culture, it must have tremendous intrinsic value.

And I think the teenager and James Joyce were quite right to declare schools and professors prime factors in the longevity of cultural artifacts, Joyce being a good example of a writer whose works would probably vanish in a few decades without the persistent intervention of academics. Shakespeare is a much more complicated matter than Joyce, Shakespeareism being a global academic-theatrical religion, four-hundred-years-old now, dedicated to perpetuating the collected works of a literary deity under whose name were compiled the prototypical plots and characters composing virtually all of Anglo-Celtic-Judeo-Christian drama and fiction.

“Friends are relatives you make for yourself.” Eustache Deschamps

I cannot say with certainty that any current part of what I am will last beyond this particular incarnation, but as I grow older I feel less and less certain about certainty. Science, the one currently holding sway in the so-called Western world, suggests that after my body dies, most of the molecules I am made of will go on being themselves but not with each other, and eventually those molecules will combine with other molecules to form particles and parts of the greater web of life; but there will be no forming of another person or animal or plant with my personality or any part of my memory.

I beg to suggest that current science may be wrong, and that something particular to each of us, our unique spiritual essence, may survive our physical death and become part of the operating system of a new physical body, possibly a person, possibly a honey bee, possibly a pelican. And before our spiritual essences gain purchase, so to speak, in new physical bodies, we hang out for a time in a parallel dimension, or in an invisible part of this dimension, with other spiritual essences, some of whom we have hung out with before, some of whom we have incarnated with before, and some we are meeting for the first time. And as we hang out, or float about, or possibly zoom around with these other essences, we connect with each other in unimaginably compelling ways that incite us to reincarnate together during the same time window. How we accomplish our reincarnating, I don’t know, but in my theory we do accomplish the feat of returning.

This theory presented itself to me as I was pondering why it is, those few amazing times in our lives, when we meet a person on the beach or at a party or in the pickle aisle of the grocery store, never having laid eyes on each other before, and we fall into conversation about ospreys or D.H. Lawrence or who makes the best kosher dills, we are both overwhelmed by a powerful awareness that we have known each other before—because we have!

My theory also explains why, on that first day at your new school, in the middle of fourth grade, when you were so miserable about having to move away from your best friends, and you were scared to death of what might happen in that new place, and you walked into the classroom and not one but two of the kids looked at you and smiled these amazing smiles of recognition, and you felt as if you were being greeted by old friends—because they were old friends!

“Mona Lisa looks as if she has just been sick or is about to be.” Noel Coward

I have only been to Europe once, when I was sixteen. I am now sixty-two, and according to the science currently holding sway in the so-called Western world, all the cells in my body have died and been replaced several times since I was a teenager. Thus, cellularly speaking, some other body went to Europe, not this body holding the pen writing these words. Be that as it may, I remember going to Europe, and I particularly remember skipping excitedly through the galleries of the Louvre en route to see Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Well…it is a little painting. Small. Dark. They keep it behind glass, and they don’t let you get too close, and in the glass, obscuring the little dark painting, are reflections of other paintings and lights and walls and the faces of people jostling each other to get glimpses of the dark little painting, the paint of which is cracked and cracking. So, actually, the only good way to see the painting is to look at reproductions, not at the painting itself. Which means, honestly, that the painting is not what has lasted. Copies of the painting have lasted, and copies of copies. Indeed, one could well argue that when we say “the Mona Lisa” we no longer mean that painting, we mean the iconic form and the iconic smirk. Yes, that form, that silhouette, and that smirk are the things that have lasted, while the painting itself is now a misrepresentation of what it has become.

“Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.” Miguel de Cervantes

I went to have my teeth cleaned a few days ago, after which my excellent dentist, Chris Martin, gave me a thorough exam and informed me I need yet another crown sooner than later, with two or three more crowns looming on my event horizon pending further developments of the degenerative kind. One of the many things I appreciate about Dr. Martin is his candor and wry sense of irony.

“We could,” he said, using Second Person to discuss my options, “replace that filling that shows signs of leakage (a euphemism for murderous assault by voracious decay) and it would hold for a time, though not as long as you’re going to last, or we can do a crown that should take you all the way to the finish line.”

“You mean the crown will last until I die.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling wistfully. “That’s the goal.”