Posts Tagged ‘T.S. Eliot’

Paterson Jarmusch

Monday, May 29th, 2017

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.

The Way Of Things

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

a5-Remaining A Mystery

Remaining A Mystery photograph by Ellen Jantzen

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

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

My brother sent me a fascinating article published recently in New Scientist that warns of the impending loss of a gigantic part of our recent cultural heritage. To quote from the article: “Magnetic tape begins to degrade chemically in anything from a few years to a few decades, depending on its precise composition.” and “The Coordinating Council of Audiovisual Archives Associations has recently estimated that worldwide some 200 million hours of culturally valuable audiovisual content (videotape) is in danger of disappearing entirely if it isn’t converted into a preservable digital format.”

This estimate does not include the hundreds of millions of hours of cassette tape recordings and videotapes that you and I and countless other cultural bottom feeders and outsiders and just folk created in those bygone days (not very long ago) of such outdated media. So what do you think? Are those words and music and audiovisual adventures you and I and our friends tried to capture on swiftly disintegrating magnetic tape culturally valuable?

The article continues, “Some cultural institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Galleries and British Library in London do now have digitization plans, but many do not. At current, sluggish rates, 70 per cent of content recorded on magnetic tape will be lost a decade from now.”

Why am I not upset about this?

When I moved to Mendocino eight years ago, I brought with me a trove of about sixty cassette tapes, recordings I had made and recordings made by friends. Then a year ago, when Marcia and I were moving to our new home, I got rid of all but six of those cassette tapes. I just now perused those six artifacts and felt no great need to keep any of them. Yet eight years ago, I couldn’t imagine getting rid of any of those sixty precious cassettes. What changed?

 “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

I was sitting on the terrace of the Goodlife Café and Bakery in Mendocino the other day, scribbling away in my notebook and enjoying the dialogue coming out of my pen, when the young woman at the adjoining table looked up from the book she was reading and asked me, “What are you writing?”

“I think it may end up being a novel,” I said, guessing her to be twenty-five, though who can tell anymore? She had short curly black hair, no makeup, big brown eyes, a green tank top showing off muscular arms and a small tattoo of a butterfly on her left shoulder. “Time will tell.”

“You look like a mad scientist,” she said, grinning. “Smiling demonically as you write. What’s it about?”

“I don’t know,” I said, thumbing back through the last few pages I wrote. “I never know until I’m done, and even then I don’t really know until years later, and then years after that I think it must have been about something else. Or…”

“Would you read to me what you just wrote?” She nodded enthusiastically to encourage me. “Please?”

“Well…” I said, never (that I could remember) having read something I’d just written to a complete stranger, especially the unedited rough draft of something. What if it’s awful? “Okay.”

She moved from her table to mine, bringing her mug of black coffee and book and purse and cell phone, and sat close enough so I didn’t have to shout but not so close as to seem intrusive. She struck me as perfectly sane and admirably relaxed—someone on vacation or home visiting her parents—and I assumed the invisible ones had sent her to me for some good reason. You know how that is.

So then I read aloud what I’d written, and as I always do when I read aloud I became my characters, the scene involving Maeve, sixty-two and Irish, Simon, an exceedingly bright ten-year-old American boy, Donald, Maeve’s thirty-four-year-old son, and Ida, Simon’s thirty-two-year-old mother. They are in a diner where Maeve is a waitress.

“What have you settled on, Simon?” says Maeve, resting her hand on Simon’s shoulder, having already heard what Ida and Donald want. “Are you an egg man or a waffle fellow? Or do you fancy pancakes this morning?”

“Don’t you need to write things down?” asks Simon, frowning at Maeve and imagining her as his grandmother. She would be the best grandmother in the world.

“I like to keep my hands free,” says Maeve, winking at the boy. “In case I have to foil a robbery or something along those lines.”

Simon gives her a doubtful smile. “I guess I fancy pancakes this morning, though I’m usually an egg man.”

“Koo koo ka choo,” says Maeve, referencing The Beatles. “And if you don’t mind my asking, what will you be drinking with those cakes? Coffee? A shot of whisky? Or is it…don’t tell me.” She closes her eyes and feigns clairvoyance. “Orange juice.”

“Amazing,” says Simon, madly in love with Maeve. “Large, please.”

“No more amazing than you,” says Maeve, leaning down to kiss Simon’s cheek. “I shall place your order and we will banter further as time allows.”

Maeve strolls away and Simon says to Donald, “Is she always so funny?”

“Only when she’s performing,” says Donald, looking around the crowded diner. “And this is her stage and these are her fans.”

The young woman frowned at me and said, “So then what happens?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Chapter Eight.”

“I love it,” she said, nodding in her enthusiastic way. “When will it be published? I want to get a copy.”

“I…uh…well, assuming I finish writing it some day, I will make some photocopies at Zo right around the corner here and you can buy one if you want. If you give me your address I’ll send you a notice.”

“Photocopies?” She wrinkled her nose. “Can’t you at least put it on Kindle or something?”

“I can’t,” I said, sighing. “I don’t have the heart or the brain for that sort of thing. But photocopies work just fine, believe me.”

“I love to read,” she said, plaintively, “but I don’t find much I like these days.” Then she sighed. “I had this horrible thing happen recently.”

Uh oh I thought. Here it comes. The real reason the unseen ones sent her to me. But she did listen to me and flatter me and I got to hear my words out loud and aimed at someone else. So… “What happened?”

“I was so desperate for something good to read, I decided to read the Harry Potter novels again because when I was eight and nine I was insanely in love with them.” She paused for a long moment as if remembering an old friend she would never see again. “And they were just…so bad. So…infantile. So…predictable and vapid and fake.” She looked at me, horror-struck. “Has that ever happened to you? Where something you thought was so great turns out to be just shit?”

“The thing is,” I said, curious to hear what I was going to say to her, “those books were perfect for you when you were eight and nine. But you’ve changed, and so has your taste. You’ve lived in the real hard cruel world, yes? Had your heart broken a few times. Maybe nearly died. And in your quest for good books you’ve read at least a few, so the bar has been raised for you. You have tasted something better and now the old food just won’t do.” I sighed again. “And so it goes. When I was ten I saw the movie of the musical South Pacific, and I thought it was the greatest movie ever made. But when I was thirty-three, I saw it again in a revival house in Sacramento and I thought it was one of the worst movies ever made, and I ran out of the theater the minute Bloody Mary finished singing Bali Hai.”

“What about your own writing?” she asked sadly. “Things you wrote a long time ago?”

“Certain books and stories have stood the test of time for me, and others haven’t. Happens with music, too. Seems to be the way of things.”

“This helps me,” she said, looking at her phone. “Oh, shit. I am so late. Nice talking to you.”

And with that she was gone, and the first thing I thought was Darn, now I won’t be able to send her a note when I finish writing this book, if I ever do finish. But then she came running back with her pen at the ready, I flipped opened my notebook, and she wrote her name and address in the little space beside Maeve saying Koo koo ka choo.

 

 

Humility

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

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

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot

Several recent conversations with friends focused on how might we counter the cyber takeover of our society while at the same time fomenting positive change and a more vibrant local community; and the answer seems to be to invite people over to share a meal and talk.

“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.” Omar Ibn Al-Halif

A friend wrote that in an effort to regain the souls of her husband and children she instituted a rule that cell phones and cyber pads were not allowed at the dining table. The initial response to this rule was that her children and husband wolfed their meals and rushed back to their devices. So she instituted a second rule that dinner had to last half an hour. After a week of dismal dining experiences filled with complaints, her children and husband adjusted to the brief nightly respite from tweeting and staring into little screens and “there have even been some nights when the family lingers at the table after the half hour is up because we are so engrossed in conversation.”

“Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to the enduring fact of mystery.” Henry Miller

One of my favorite Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories is about an outwardly successful man, pious and wealthy, who is not very nice to his wife and children and other people. He rigorously follows the religious and civil rules of his society and continuously wins the economic battle, but no one likes him. Eventually this man’s sons and daughters want nothing to do with him, his wife is perpetually distressed by what a sourpuss he is, and he finds himself more and more isolated and unhappy. So he goes on a journey to a famous spiritual teacher and explains his situation (as he perceives it) to the teacher, and the teacher whispers a little something in the man’s ear.

Having gained the sage’s advice, the man returns to his home and is so changed that his wife and children and business associates can hardly believe he is the same person. In just a few days, this tight-fisted, judgmental, self-righteous egotist has become a generous, open-minded, loving, humble sweetie pie ready to lend an ear to anyone who needs a good listener, a hand to anyone who needs help. And as the years go by, the man becomes so loving and wise that he is regarded as a saint.

One day the man’s oldest son, who previously hated his father and now adores him, asks his father what the spiritual teacher whispered to him all those years ago that so transformed him. And the man reveals that the teacher suggested he pretend to be generous and loving and open-minded, and to continue pretending until the pretense became his habit and transformed him.

“What this world needs is a new kind of army—the army of the kind.” Cleveland Amory

I recently had a visit from a friend who arrived armed with an Iphone, an Ipad, and a Kindle reader. “I don’t know how I ever got along without these,” he said as he searched for something on the screen of his phone.

“I remember you without those,” I told him, “and you seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“I’m a thousand times better organized now,” he said, continuing to scroll around on his phone. “Much more connected to everything. No more waiting to get news or books or movies. Everything I want fits on these three devices with room to spare.”

He gave me a tour of several apps on his Ipad, took photos of this and that with his Iphone, instantly posted the photos on three social network web sites, and then downloaded an e-book version of my novel Under the Table Books onto his Kindle.

“See,” he said, grinning triumphantly. “We did all that in no time at all.”

And because I love the guy I said, “Amazing! Truly amazing.”

“The twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity.” Edward Hoagland

The late great Juliette White of Albion was a master of the spontaneous dinner party. Sometimes she would invite us the day before the party; sometimes she’d call an hour before the food was ready. To our question, “What can we bring?” she might reply, “Just yourselves,” or “Salad” or “Anything.” Of the twenty or so spontaneous dinner parties I attended at Juliette’s, the largest number of people in attendance was ten, the smallest number was six. The most remarkable thing to me about these gatherings was that there was nothing remarkable about them, yet I always felt I was taking part in Holy Communion.

Humility (from Buddha In A Teacup)

Thomas is seventy-seven. His wife Denise died unexpectedly in her sleep a year and a month ago.

Thomas’s work—the completion of the seventh and final volume of an exhaustive history of the English language—has not progressed a word since Denise’s death. An oppressive sorrow has lain upon Thomas for these thirteen months, and he has little hope of living beyond his grief.

A tall, lean Englishman with pale blue eyes and red hair going gray, Thomas is roused from his stupor at the kitchen table—his bagel and tea untouched—by loud rapping on the front door. His first thought is to ignore the summons, but the rapping persists, so he reluctantly rises and goes to the door.

“Yes?” he says, frowning curiously at an enormous young man with dark brown skin, a shaved head, and muscular arms covered with tattoos.

“I’m Oz,” says the young man, holding out a piece of paper to Thomas. “You the tutor?”

“I don’t believe so.” Thomas peers at the paper and realizes through a fog of despair that his daughter Maureen must have gone ahead and fulfilled her threat to sign him up for after school duty.

“Got the address right,” says Oz, his voice deep and sonorous. “Seven seven six.”

“I stand corrected.” Thomas chuckles at his daughter’s audacity. “Come in.”

“Like a library,” says Oz, stopping on the threshold to gaze around the living room, every inch of wall given over to bookshelves. “You read all these books?”

“Most of them more than once.” Thomas scans the thousands of volumes for any he might have skipped.

“Smells old in here.” Oz wrinkles his nose. “You got a sunny room?”

“The kitchen,” says Thomas, leading the way. “I’ll make a fresh pot of green tea.”

“I ain’t never had no green tea,” says Oz, pausing in the hallway to look at a picture of Thomas as a young Oxford scholar. “Get a buzz?”

“There is some caffeine in green tea,” Thomas replies, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Make yourself at home.”

“Coffee jitters me bad,” says Oz, taking a seat from which he can observe Thomas. “Green tea don’t do that, do it?”

“No, it’s more subtle.” Thomas fills the kettle. “It invigorates in a wholly different way than coffee.”

“You show more accent than your daughter,” says Oz, nodding his approval of the cheerful room. “Me likes.”

“Oh, so you do know my daughter.” Thomas sets the kettle atop the flame. “That was my supposition.”

“Word,” says Oz, grinning at Thomas. “She chose me special just for you.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?” Thomas peruses his collection of teas and decides on a pungent green from Taiwan.

“She flunked me twice.” Oz nods slowly. “But she knows I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re obviously exceedingly intelligent.” Thomas clears away his lunch dishes. “May I offer you something to eat?”

“No.” Oz looks glumly at the floor and cracks his knuckles. “How come you use that word? Exceedingly? Means more than enough, yeah? Like you think I’m very smart. Which I am, but…how come you think so?”

“The way you take things in.” Thomas sits down opposite Oz. “The way you listen and respond. We’ve been in real conversation from our very first moment together, and that’s quite rare in my experience.”

Oz nods. “You write books?”

“I have written books,” says Thomas, studying Oz’s handsome face, the chiseled cheeks and jaw, “though I doubt I will ever write another.”

“How come?” asks Oz, hearing sorrow in Thomas’s voice. “Must be nice to write a good book.”

“I have lost my inspiration,” says Thomas, thinking of Denise and how everything he wrote, he wrote for her. “I’m old now. Tired.”

“So why you want to be a tutor?” Oz rises to quiet the whistling kettle.

Thomas is about to reply that he doesn’t want to be a tutor, that this is all his daughter’s doing, that he’s very sorry but he’s just not up to it. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Perhaps I can still be useful to someone.”

“Someone maybe like me,” says Oz, shaking dry tealeaves into his hand to inspect them. “You wanna show me how to make this drink?”

“Ah,” says Thomas, raising a knowing finger. “The art of tea.”

Signs Of Spring

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pruning

Before I touch blade to branch

I walk around the tree,

stopping every step to study

the relationships of the boughs.

 

When I have gone round twice,

and know what I know from the outside,

I climb into the tree and memorize how

the branches emanate from within.

 

So when at last I begin my cutting,

I know how I will enrich

the tree with spaciousness.

 

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.”

Collapse Scenarios

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Our business gets better as the economy gets worse.” Kent Moyer, founder and CEO of World Protection Group Inc.

The business referred to in the opening quote is officially known as Executive Protection, and Kent Moyer is the kingpin of a successful Executive Protection agency providing body guards and small armies and surveillance experts and surveillance equipment and defensive strategies to wealthy individuals and consortiums of wealthy people who are certain they need protection from kidnappers, assassins, disgruntled employees, mobs of poor people, psychotic fans, and the like. Having recently read The Three Musketeers, it occurs to me that the musketeers were a seventeenth century equivalent of one of today’s private armies dedicated to protecting a consortium of wealthy people. In the case of The Three Musketeers, the wealthy people in question were the king of France and his sycophants.

“It isn’t so much that hard times are coming; the change observed is mostly soft times going.” Groucho Marx

Today many thoughtful people are hard at work writing essays and books about the coming (ongoing) collapse of economic, social, and natural systems in North America and around the world. I applaud them for their efforts and salute them for their desire to awaken others to the dangers confronting us. I occasionally go on binges of reading (mostly skimming) these essays and I am variably filled with hope or despair depending on the prognosis presented by the prognosticator. Some of the most popular of these prognosticators are, to my wholly subjective way of thinking, charlatans, some are brilliant visionaries, some are down-to-earth folk with helpful information, and many could use good editors. Dave Smith, by the way, does a great job presenting a constant flow of these kinds of essays and other non-mainstream articles about important environmental, agricultural, and social issues on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

I realize this is probably an unwise generalization (most generalizations are unwise), but most of these collapse scenario essayists strike me as impatient for their predictions to come true. That is, there is a tone in many of these essays of righteous indignation about all the horrible things humans have done to bring us to these points of collapse, and now they (we) will be sorry they (we) did those horrible things and it serves them (us) right for being so horrible and greedy and stupid, and tomorrow, or next week, or at the very latest next year, the various houses of cards will come tumbling down, roving gangs of starving killers will take over the world, internet service will become patchy and then disappear, only obscenely wealthy people will be able to afford gasoline for their armored vehicles driven by executive protection operatives, it will never stop raining in some places on earth, never rain again in other places, and no one with any sense would want to live within a thousand miles of a nuclear power plant because after the economic collapse such power plants will be too expensive to keep cool and they will all melt down and radiate the surrounding territories. Yikes!

“When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” Chuck Palahniuk

I am not saying these collapse scenario essayist aren’t right. Many of them are probably very right. Time is telling. What I’m trying to say is that the gestalt, if you will, of the sum total of these collapse scenario essays is that we, you and I, are doomed to suffer horribly, and soon. Put another way, these presentations strike fear in the reader’s heart, which I assume is the prognosticators’ intention, to strike fear. And my problem with striking fear in people is that fear, in my opinion, is our single largest obstacle to making the myriad substantive changes we need to make in order to avoid or at least soften the impact of the coming collapses we are destined to experience.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
 T.S. Eliot

Tremendous fear, in my experience, may inspire short-term fight or flight, but fear per se tends to paralyze. Indeed, it seems clear that our current overlords employ fear-striking tactics, overt and subliminal, to keep the population acquiescent and afraid to act out against even the most horrific unfair amoral misuses of authority, such as our government handing over trillions of dollars to the very thieves who stole trillions of dollars from us and brought about the current economic collapse scenario we now inhabit. I’m not advocating soft-pedaling the facts and figures underpinning various collapse scenarios; I’m saying that I, selfishly, would appreciate it if collapse scenario essayists would make more of an effort to balance their terrifying scenarios with plausible scenarios of renaissance.

“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” Goethe

I realize that many collapse scenario essayists are making the point that there are no plausible scenarios of renaissance. Our window of opportunity, they explicate, has closed. We’re doomed. The end. Discussion over. Humans blew their chances. But how interesting is that, especially after the third or fourth or fiftieth proclamation of the irreversible nature of our catastrophic situation? Does it ever occur to these doomsters (I’m sure it does to some of them) that our thoughts have an enormous impact on what manifests as reality?

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Gertrude Stein

Yesterday, as I was parking in front of the bulletin board fence on Ukiah Street in Mendocino, I counted seven people arrayed along the sidewalk, their backs to the bulletin board, gazing into flat little cell phones. These people were not engaged in phone conversations but were staring silently at their tiny screens. Something about the solemn eerie scene held me in my truck until one of the seven moved, and this movement did not occur for a short infinity. These seven were transfixed, each lost in a different scenario being presented to them on a tiny screen. When one of the seven finally lowered her phone, she did not put it away in her purse or pocket. She simply held onto the thing as if it were the hand of an invisible friend—something to cling to on her walk through life. Then another of the seven lowered his phone and moved away, and he, too, did not put his phone away, but held onto it as one might clutch a gold coin too precious to entrust to a pocket.

The other five remained unmoving, their eyes glued to their little screens; and so I got out of my truck as quietly as I could, not wishing to disturb the funereal atmosphere of the silent watchers in the fog of Mendocino. And for the rest of my round of errands in the village, I encountered more and more of these people who never put their phones away, but hold onto them constantly, as if fearing to separate for even a moment from the flow of information and the illusion of connection their little gizmos provide. I hasten to add that these were not exclusively young people, but people of all ages.

Having completed my errands, the last of which was to fill my basket with tasty comestibles at Corners of the Mouth, I was hoisting said basket into the bed of my old pickup, when a young couple came by pushing their cherubic two-year-old in a state-of-the-art ergonomically-boffo royal purple baby buggy. The young mother paused in front of the former church that is Corners and asked her husband, “What is this place?”

“That,” he said, gazing into the phone he carried in his hand, “is a grocery store specializing in organic produce and run by hippies.”

“Want to go in?” she asked, smiling hopefully.

“I don’t think there’s anything in there for us,” he replied, continuing to stare at his tiny screen. “Want to get some lunch?”

“What is there?” she asked, gazing longingly at the little red church.

And I was about to call out, “Looking for a good place to eat?” when the husband, reading from his tiny screen, said, “Well there’s nothing in the direction we’re going, but back the way we came there is a three-and-a-half-star hamburger joint based on twenty-eight reviews, an almost-four-star café based on seventy-eight reviews, somewhat pricey, and…”

So I did not call out to them. We did not converse. They did not get to meet me, nor I to meet them. The natural, fascinating, enriching, expansive proclivities of human beings were circumvented by the latest greatest tool of isolation and alienation.

Slow Going

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin

Five years ago, a few weeks before I made my move from Berkeley to Mendocino, I came within a few inches of being killed by a young man who was driving his pickup truck very fast while simultaneously using his mobile phone. I had just stepped into the crosswalk at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Avenue, having been given the go ahead to cross by the illuminated symbol of a human being taking a walk. The young man who was driving his pickup very fast apparently did not see the red light or me or possibly anything as he sped through the intersection with his phone pressed to his ear. I don’t know if he was talking to someone or listening to someone else talking, or perhaps he was listening to music; I am only certain he was pressing his phone to his ear as his two-ton missile shot by within inches of my puny little flesh and blood body. And whether there is such a thing as fate or whether life is a muddle of meaningless happenstance, had I been one step further along at that moment, I would have been smashed to smithereens.

So today I’m driving our old truck into our soggy hamlet to get the mail and groceries, a cold rain falling, and because I am the unelected president of Mendocino Drivers Not In A Hurry To Get Anywhere, I’ve only gotten a few hundred yards down the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway before my rearview mirror is filled with the sight of a pickup closing fast upon me. As is my custom in these situations, I move to the outer edge of the road and slow to a crawl, timing my move so that whoever is driving that oncoming pickup will have an easy time passing me—the road ahead empty, the broken yellow line entirely on our side. But this particular pickup (going at least seventy miles per hour) zooms to within a few feet of my bumper before swerving around me and becoming a dot in the distance; and I, frightened and angry, unleash an obscenity-filled and punctuation-free description of this person’s intelligence, sexual predilection, and everything I wish to befall him in the near future.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Mohandas Gandhi

Seriously, folks, the village of Mendocino is not, I repeat, not a city. I’m not even sure we qualify as a town given we only have one criminally usurious gas station and nary a Mexican restaurant. Yet on most Fridays, some Mondays, every summer weekend, and unpredictably throughout the year, people drive around the village as if they are in Santa Monica at lunch hour late for I don’t know what, surgery? and in mortal fear of not finding a parking place and therefore doomed to die in their cars.

At first I thought these lunatics had to be tourists or weekend residents bringing their urban neuroses to our hinterlands, but over time I have come to realize that such irrational behavior is contagious, that locals participate, too, and that even I, determined to honor my inner slow poke, do at times react to this transplanted insanity by momentarily joining in the madness.

“Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place.” Mark Twain

A good friend recently visited from San Francisco and accompanied me on my errands in the village. He was envious there was no line at the post office, and he was impressed that the postal employees knew me by my first name, but my gabbing with Jeff and Patty at the Mendocino Market as I lollygagged in front of their delectable fish and fowl drove my friend mad with impatience. And as Garnish struck up a conversation about opera with me as he rang up my purchases in Corners, and I having already complimented Sky on the fabulous cauliflower and blabbed at length with Deborah about the benefits of cocoanut oil, my friend began whirling like a dervish and I had to send him outside to wait for me, though he is sixty-one and should know better.

“Teach us to care and not to care.” T.S. Eliot

I first delved into Buddhism in the late 1960’s when I ran into Buddhist references in the poetry of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, my favorite San Francisco Beat poets. For many years thereafter I read essays and books by American, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, and Korean Buddhist teachers discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of Buddhist dharma.

Nowadays I’ll go a year or two at a stretch without reading any dharma, and then a book will befall me or I’ll be hunting for something in my bookshelf and pull out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki or White Sail by Thinley Norbu, and the next thing I know I’ll be deep into a refresher course in mindfulness and the wisdom of no escape.

Most recently I couldn’t resist buying a brand new hardback copy of Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, his four-hundred-page treatise on Buddhist psychology for only a few dollars from the Daedalus Books catalogue. Such a deal! One of my all-time favorite Buddhist texts is Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker, a brilliant illumination of both Buddhist psychology and western (derived from Freud) psychology in which Epstein compares and contrasts these two very different yet complimentary views of human emotionality and behavior. So far, I have only read sixty pages of Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, but the text has already proven to be a good kick in my mental ass, so to speak, to slow down and smell the moments.

So this morning I decided to walk very slowly on my way to pick up the morning paper at the mouth of our driveway. As I took my slow and mindful steps, I focused on what I was stepping on. Lost in fascination with the conglomerations of pebbles and soil and dead leaves and tiny green shoots of new life composing my path to the highway, I arrived at my destination in no time at all. The newspaper in its plastic sheath seemed enormous and prophetic, and my hand as it entered the frame of my vision to pick up the paper seemed incredibly complex and beautiful—everything shaped by the quality of my focus.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

I have been practicing the piano every day for forty-five years. Of late, I have been playing tunes as slowly as I can without entirely abandoning their rhythmic forms, and in so doing I have discovered tunes within tunes I would otherwise have never guessed were there.

“People ought to listen more slowly.” Jean Sparks Ducey

In 1972 I attended a single meeting of a group practicing Therapeutic Conversation. Had I been a bit more emotionally evolved, I probably would have attended several more of their meetings, but one of the members so repulsed me I never went back. However, I learned such valuable lessons from that one meeting, I was changed forever as a conversationalist.

The first process of the evening was Circle Talk, in which we took our turn speaking after the person to our right had finished saying whatever he or she wanted to say. However, we couldn’t just jump right in the moment the person finished speaking. We had to wait a full minute before we spoke, the time being kept by the leader. And I discovered, in the silence of that incredibly long minute, that what I initially thought I wanted to say was almost never a real response to what the previous speaker had said, but something only tangentially related. Yet if I could be patient, a true response would rise from the depths of that short infinity.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com