Posts Tagged ‘talent’

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.

Nonsense

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

andmischief

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their son Mischief painting by Todd

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

“Nonsense wakes up the brain cells. And it helps develop a sense of humor, which is awfully important in this day and age. Humor has a tremendous place in this sordid world. It’s more than just a matter of laughing. If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.” Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

The most successful music of the last twenty years is music that garnered the most views of videos in which that music served as background. The music business is now a wholly subsumed subsidiary of the video business. Original melodies have become so rare in this era of image-conveyed quasi-musical rhythm tracks, that melody, in commercial terms, is essentially irrelevant. Indeed, commercially speaking, to bring out a new album of tunes today without simultaneously bringing out several titillating videos accompanied by those tunes is almost unheard of.

“Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.” William Shakespeare

According to new research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the richest one-hundredth of one percent of Americans now hold eleven per cent of the nation’s total wealth. That is a higher share than the top .01 percent held in 1929, just prior to the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. And keep in mind we are speaking of the reported wealth of the top .01 percent, which is very likely a small fraction of the wealth they have secreted offshore.Put another way, 16,000 people are worth 110 million dollars each. That is to say, each of those 16,000 people is worth 110 million dollars, which is 1200 times wealthier than the average American.

“Forgive me my nonsense, as I also forgive the nonsense of those that think they talk sense.” Robert Frost

Have you mailed anything through the Post Office recently? Quixotic is the kindest adjective I can muster to describe the reliability of postal service since the forces of privatization in Congress began their vicious attack on what was once a strong and reliable component of our social fabric. This is the time of year when I mail packages hither and yon to those daring darlings who purchase my books and music directly from me, and packages sent Media Mail today take many days longer to reach their destinations than packages sent to those same places a year ago. Rates have increased dramatically, dozens of postal hubs have been closed, and thousands of postal employees let go, supposedly to save the system while in effect destroying it.

Several of my customers now insist I use UPS or Fed X to ship their goodies despite the higher costs because they no longer trust the post office to deliver their packages safe and sound and in good time. This is precisely what those Cruel People With Small Brains hoped would happen when they began their scurrilous attack on our beloved PO, a fundamental social service for the majority of Americans that Congress says America can no longer afford to subsidize.

Last week, however, the President of the United States announced he was sending 1500 more troops to help fight the Islamist army in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS, at an initial cost of seven billion dollars. That seven billion is, of course, in addition to the hundreds of billions the United States annually contributes to the coffers of corporations and client states messing around in the quagmire created by American foreign policy in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan.

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

Twenty-five-year-old Giancarlo Stanton just signed a 325-million-dollar contract to continue playing baseball for the Miami Marlins. That may seem like a great deal of money, but the contract is for thirteen years, which comes to only 25 million a year. A paltry sum. Assuming Giancarlo pays a little income tax (perhaps an erroneous assumption) and his agents and managers take their cuts, and he spends some of the money on this and that over the years, he very likely won’t end up among those 16,000 super rich people at the top of the American heap. But at least he’ll have a chance to get there.

“Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable.” C.S. Lewis

An acquaintance recently loaned me a bestselling novel she thought I might enjoy. My head began to ache midway through the first paragraph, a seven-sentence construct devoid of grace in which the word it figures prominently but is never defined. By the end of paragraph two, when a bottle of beer asks a woman if it can buy her a drink (because the man I assumed was drinking the beer was grammatically left out of the action), I could read no further.

However, before I threw the execrable thing across the room, I flipped to the back to see if there was an About The Author paragraph that might shed some light on how this so-called writer had succeeded so famously despite his formidable inability to write anything readable, and I came upon a page entitled Questions and Topics for Discussion. My blood ran cold. I had heard of these kinds of pages but had never opened a book published recently enough and popular enough to warrant the addition of such vomitous bilge. What else to call these questions? Insults to the reader’s intelligence? The codification of stupidity? The death of original thinking?

I only read #1 before thrusting the poisonous volume into the woodstove and spared myself further horrors. Yet though I acted quickly, #1 is still, days later, reverberating in my mind and troubling my sleep. Here it is.

1. Did you like Jack or Sharon? Did you find yourself picking a side? Do you think the author wants us to like them? Why or why not?

“There’s a lot of mediocrity being celebrated, and a lot of wonderful stuff being ignored or discouraged.” Sean Penn

Or as Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

Topics For Discussion: Do you have the capacity to distinguish something mediocre from something excellent? How do you know you have that capacity? Who told you? When was that? Why would someone say something like that to you? Are you feeling defensive about the kinds of books you like to read? Why or why not?

Curse Lifted

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

eggs & roots

Eggs In Hands photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“You didn’t have a choice about the parents you inherited, but you do have a choice about the kind of parent you will be.” Marian Wright Edelman

The curse that shaped the life of my grandmother, the lives of my mother and her brother, the life of my brother, and my own life, has finally been lifted. My brother and his wife lifted the curse, and their daughter Olivia, my charming niece, is the prime beneficiary of their heroic reversal of our family pattern, though I feel gifted by that reversal, too.

With the blessings and support of her parents, Olivia is now living in Los Angeles and embarking on a career as an actor. Whether she succeeds in her chosen profession remains to be seen, but the active support of her parents is the force that dispelled the multi-generational curse. Let me explain.

My mother’s mother Goody was born Gertrude Borenstein in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit in 1899. Her father’s last name was actually Baruchstein, but was changed to Borenstein by hasty immigration officials at Ellis Island. Goody’s parents were orthodox Yiddish-speaking Jews fearful of the machinations of the secular world of America. Goody’s father was a cantor reputed to have a voice so beautiful that whenever he sang even the cynics wept tears of joy. Goody not only inherited a beautiful voice from her father, she was such a talented and beguiling little actress and dancer, that when she was seven-years-old her schoolteacher invited a wealthy Jewish matron to come watch Goody sing and dance and act in the school variety show.

The wealthy matron was so taken with Goody’s talent and charm that she went to visit Goody’s penniless parents and told them she wanted to pay for Goody to study with the best music and dance and drama teachers in Detroit until Goody was old enough to go abroad to continue her studies with European masters of those arts, all to be paid for by this generous matron.

Alas, Goody’s parents thought the wealthy matron was an emissary of the devil, for they believed all actors and dancers and practitioners of non-religious music were vile sinners. So they sent the wealthy woman away and forbade Goody to even dabble in music and drama and dance or any combination thereof.

Fast-forward fifteen years to Los Angeles where Goody gave birth to my mother Avis in 1922 and my uncle Howard in 1926. Avis, as her mother before her, was a fine singer, dancer and actress, and my uncle Howard was a marvelous actor and singer and comedian. Both of them starred in plays at Beverly Hills High, both were Drama majors at UCLA, and both intended to pursue careers as actors despite their parents repeatedly warning them that show biz was a terribly iffy business, the life of an actor no picnic, and it would be a much wiser course for my mother to marry a doctor and for Howard to become a lawyer.

When World War II intervened, Howard joined the Army and served in the Pacific and in the occupation of Japan, while my mother abandoned Drama school the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, went to law school, married my father (a non-Jewish doctor), graduated from law school and started having babies. When Howard returned from Japan, he entered law school and eventually became a big shot entertainment lawyer.

Family legend has it that my brother and I both started singing and dancing and telling jokes a few minutes after we learned to walk, and in actual fact, both of us were high school thespians and singers, and both of us aspired to be actors despite the fierce objections and interventions of our parents. My brother persevered as an actor in college and beyond, but eventually gave up the stage to become an Internet Technology wizard while I abandoned the footlights fantastic a few years after high school and became a writer and musician and pruner of fruit trees.

At last we come to Olivia, the fourth generation of talented performers in our line yearning to become actors, and for the first time in over a hundred years there are no parental objections or obstructions to one of us at least trying to make a go of acting, with Olivia’s parents actually helping her make that go. Hallelujah.

“I have also seen children successfully surmounting the effects of an evil inheritance. That is due to purity being an inherent attribute of the soul.” Mahatma Gandhi

Can you imagine being the parent of a gifted artist or musician or actor or singer and doing everything in your power to stop your child from using her gifts? Seems diabolical, doesn’t it? Yet if you believed that art and music and theatre were evil, truly evil, how could you not try to save your child from such evil? If you believed that artists and musicians and actors were sexual predators who used their arts to seduce and molest innocent young people, how could you not try to keep your child away from such monsters?

“We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.” Ethel Waters

In 1980 I was given a big chunk of cash (big by my standards) for the movie rights to my first novel Inside Moves and I used a chunk of that chunk to make a short movie Bums At A Grave, which I wrote and directed and acted in with my brother (you can watch Bums gratis on my web site.) At the world premiere of the movie—a party at my house in Sacramento—the guests were asked to come as their favorite movie stars. To my chagrin, my parents made the long trip to attend the party, and to my surprise and delight my mother came as Gloria Swanson.

Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago in 1899, the same year my grandmother Goody was born in Detroit. Gloria Swanson’s mother was Jewish and married a Lutheran. Gloria was married six times and had several high-profile affairs with powerful men. She was a fiercely independent person best known as an actress, but was also a groundbreaking movie producer, writer, artist, and social activist, as well as a staunch Republican.

My mother’s choice to impersonate Gloria Swanson at the premiere of her sons’ movie puzzled me for many years, and by the time I got around to asking her why she came as Gloria Swanson, my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and did not remember Bums At A Grave or the party, let alone that she came as Gloria Swanson.

But now I think I know why she chose to impersonate Gloria Swanson. For one thing, my mother’s middle name was Gloria, and for all I know Goody gave her that name in honor of Gloria Swanson. But beyond the name, Gloria Swanson was the kind of woman my mother might have been if not for the family curse. Gloria Swanson’s family helped and encouraged her to get into show biz, and once she was in the biz she succeeded despite a thousand obstacles.

“The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” Arthur Miller

I will never forget the night my mother came backstage after our high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, speaking of Jews in hiding, in which I played Mr. van Daan, the character most disapproving of the high-spirited Anne Frank. My parents had come to the play the previous night and damned the performance with their faint and phony praise, but the night of which I speak my mother came alone to see the play.

My mother was always much more present and grounded and warm and relaxed and happy in the absence of my father—so much more honest and forthcoming.

Taking my hands in hers, she looked into my eyes and said, “You were great, Todd. Amazing. I don’t know where you learned all those subtle things you do, but…you’re a great actor.” Then she looked around the stage and out at the hundreds of now empty seats and added, “But you do know, don’t you, that all the other boys are homosexuals and all the girls are whores.”

“Mom,” I said, squeezing her hands, “that’s not true. Some of the boys are homosexuals and some of the girls like sex, but I’m not a homosexual and I’m not a whore.”

“You’re a child,” she said, sadly. “And school is not the real world. The real world is those Nazis coming at the end of the play and killing all the good people.”

Aht & Cultcha

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

andmischief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet.” Will Holt

Lemon trees growing near the kitchen. What a wonderful idea. So we chose the perfect spots on the south side of the house for two goodly Meyers, the warmest and sunniest place on our property, only to discover that one of those perfect spots was home to the root mass, still very much alive, of a gargantuan shrub I removed nine months ago. Thus a Herculean task awaited me, one I would postpone until I brought the lemon trees home and their presence inspired me to extricate the massive tangle.

And so on a sunny Saturday, homeward bound after pruning a gorgeous green-leafed Japanese maple, a crab apple, and a plum, I stopped at the admirable Hare Creek Nursery on the south side of Fort Bragg and bought two little Meyer lemon trees. The friendly folks there cautioned me not to plant the lemon trees in the ground, but to grow them in tubs. However, Marcia and I are not after bonsais; we’re aiming for large trees festooned with hundreds of delectable yellow orbs, and I figure with global warming proceeding apace, the Mendocino climate should henceforth be perfect for growing citrus in the ground.

With the little beauties sitting nearby and crying for release from their plastic pots, I began digging around the root mass and confirmed that my nemesis was gigantic, well connected, tenacious, and uncooperative. To borrow from Bogart, I have met a lot of root masses in my time, but this one was really something special. After an hour of heavy labor using shovel, mattock, pick, trowel, axe and crowbar, the mass remained unmoving, as if I had done nothing. This depressed me, so I took a break, had some water and a handful of almonds and tried not to take the root mass’s indifference personally.

“The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.” Blaise Pascal

When I lived in Berkeley, and before I discovered a secret post office where I never had to wait, I frequently stood in long lines to mail packages and buy stamps. And on many such occasions, people in line with me would take it personally that they had to wait more than a few minutes to do their postal business, and they would say things like, “This is an outrage,” or “No wonder they’re going out of business,” as if the postal clerks were intentionally taking as long as they possibly could with each transaction.

Having made a careful multi-year study of the service in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and El Cerrito post offices, I have no doubt that the real cause of the slowness of service was the alarming number of befuddled and dimwitted customers who would, upon their arrival at the counter, act as if they had no idea how they came to be there or where on their persons they had secreted their wallets or how they wanted to mail whatever it was they wished to mail. The postal clerks would patiently explain the various shipping choices and how much each choice would cost, and the befuddled dimwits would stand in frozen dismay for minutes on end pondering such deep philosophical questions as “Priority or Media?”, “Would you like to insure that?” and “For how much?”

One day at the Albany post office, a man several places behind me in line shouted at the two harried postal clerks, “Has today’s mail been delivered into the boxes yet?”

The clerks had their hands full helping befuddled dimwits, so neither replied to the shouting man.

Their indifference enraged the man and he screamed, “Has today’s mail been put in the boxes? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”

One of the clerks said wearily, “Yes, the mail has been put in the boxes today.”

“Bullshit!” screamed the man. “I know a letter arrived for me today and you are intentionally keeping it from me. I demand that you give me my letter or I’ll call the police!”

The two clerks exchanged glances and one of them said, “Go right ahead, sir. Call the police.”

“Fascists!” screamed the man. “Thieves!”

Then the poor fellow ran out of the post office and the woman behind me murmured, “Thank God he didn’t have a gun.”

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Returning to the root mass, I resumed my digging and picking and chopping and clawing, and soon enough the mass began to move when prodded, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope of eventual success. After another hour of digging and chopping, there remained but one fat root connecting the root mass to the earth. I rose from my knees, took hold of my axe, positioned myself above my target, and was about to swing the axe high, when I felt a pang of empathy for the root mass and decided to wait a moment before severing that last life-giving tendril.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Kahlil Gibran

Speaking of roots, I was thinking about homegrown carrots the other day as I was making pancake batter using eggs we got from our neighbors Elias and Emily, who also provide us with exceptionally yummy goat cheese. Emily and Elias’s eggs come from their herd of happy-go-lucky free-ranging chickens whose eggs are so delicious they make the best organic mass produced eggs seem tasteless and tawdry in comparison. Indeed, these Emily and Elias chicken eggs make my gluten-free pancake batter so rich and tasty I dread the day when I have to resort to store bought eggs again. But why did Emily and Elias’s grandiloquent eggs make me think about homegrown carrots?

Because there are few things in the world as delicious as a well-grown carrot in its prime just pulled from the friable earth of a wholly natural garden. Indeed, so sweet and delicious is a just-pulled homegrown carrot, that the very best organic carrots money can buy are but pale imitations of the homegrown variety. Just-pulled is a large part of the answer to why homegrown carrots are so superior to even the best store or farmers’ market-bought carrots; the delectable sugar in just-pulled carrots has yet to turn to starch. Ergo, Emily and Elias’s eggs are to eggs what just-pulled homegrown carrots are to carrots.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

The roots of our culture nourished by art. Society setting artists free to follow their visions wherever those visions may take them. Can you imagine such a society?  Kennedy spoke those words on October 26, 1963, less than a month before he was assassinated, and I’ve often thought his words were prophetic of what was to come and ever after be called The Sixties, a brief era when more artists freely followed their visions than ever before. And it took the overlords of our society a good decade to get control of the situation and put a stop to most of that status-quo-threatening socialistic vision following.

“My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler

Who are your chosen ancestors? What are the roots of the decisions you make that direct the course of your life? The root mass got me thinking about roots, the ones we spring from and the ones we create for ourselves. Some root masses are inescapable, some allow for the intrusion of new roots, and sometimes we have to excise the present root mass to make room for the new.

I know I was emboldened by the poets Philip Whalen and David Meltzer and Lew Welch, the example of my uncle David, the movies The Horse’s Mouth and Zorba the Greek, and the powerful societal ferment roiling northern California in the 1960’s to drop out of college and follow my visions, much to the chagrin of my parents, speaking of root masses. My father and mother strove mightily to convince me to change my mind and return to the straight and narrow and safe, but I would not change my mind.

After two exciting, challenging and exhausting years of vagabonding, I found myself with a terrible cold, a worse cough, and barely surviving on rice and lentils in a badly insulated room in Ashland, Oregon. I was in the throes of writing my first novel and loving the work, but I was so lonely and sad and tired of being poor that I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel and return to the ease and comfort of college. And then at the absolute nadir of my despair, I received a letter from my father, the gist of which so surprised me I had to read the letter three times before I could even begin to believe what he had written.

My father wrote in black ink on light orange stationery that he was both jealous and proud of me for doing what he had always longed to do but never had the courage to attempt—to leave the straight and narrow and go a’ wandering with pack on his back, following only the whims of his heart and intuition—those words from my greatest critic providing the inspiration I needed to continue my uncharted course.

Some years later, I mentioned this remarkable letter to my father, and he snorted and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never have written such a thing to you because I have never for a minute been jealous of you and I am not proud of you pissing your life away on your delusional infantile fantasies.”

“Oh, but you did write that, Dad,” I said, not at all surprised he didn’t remember writing such words to me. “And you sent the letter, too, along with a twenty-dollar bill that bought me chicken and eggs and almonds and cheese and cookies and a wonderfully warm jacket from the Salvation Army.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and filling his wine glass yet again, “making shit up to fit your fantasies.”

“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Carl Jung

Now the little lemon trees are planted in the good earth and sending forth their new roots—the gargantuan root mass gone. Emily and Elias’s chickens are foraging in the meadow, their just-laid eggs awaiting discovery in the coop. Carrot seedlings are emerging in my carrot patch, and soon I will thin the rows of promising babies, only one in a dozen to be spared to grow beyond the first culling.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

The Death of Literature

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.

In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.

Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.

Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.

So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.

The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.

It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.

Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.

And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.

Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.

By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.

What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.

There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.

Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.

In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.

Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?

Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.

But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.

Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.

But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)