Posts Tagged ‘television’

Screen Time

Monday, October 31st, 2016

news

News photo by Todd

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.” Mark Twain

Dipping into the national news for the first time in some months, I found several articles about the American Academy of Pediatrics rescinding most of their previous suggestions that parents limit the number of hours their infants, toddlers, older children, and teens interface with media-blasting computer gizmos with screens. The pediatricians decided they were being too alarmist about how damaging computers and other television-like devices can be to the brains and psyches of infants and children and teens. Now, say the pediatricians, basing their new guidelines on no credible science, parents should feel fine about children watching as much media garbage as they want.

Never mind the myriad studies proving conclusively that bombardment by projected imagery and incessant sound severely interferes with healthy brain development. The American Academy of Pediatrics has now declared that parents need not worry about their children developing healthy brains, so long as they, the parents, encourage their zombified children to occasionally roll their shoulders, eat fruit, get some sleep, and possibly interact with other actual human beings. Possibly.

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

Also in the news: AT&T purchased Time-Warner for a measly 86 billion dollars. This makes AT&T the biggest media something-or-other in the world. Whatever happened to our anti-trust laws? Oh, that’s right. We don’t have those anymore because they were beneficial to the majority of Americans. What a silly concept. And if you already thought your media choices were largely controlled by anti-creative mega-corporations, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

“I am greatly misunderstood by politically correct idiots.” Brigitte Bardot

I know many people who used to think compulsive television watching was unhealthy, but now they think constantly looking at mindless junk is fine and dandy. That is, they do not consider computers, cell phones, pads, and pods to be televisions. But they are.

No, Todd, texting and playing video games and being connected to the worldwide web twenty-four hours a day is a vast improvement over life before we could carry computers with us everywhere. Life was empty and meaningless and we were all desperately lonely. Everything is so much better now that people have been rendered eternally infantile by being tethered to their phones and television-like devices from morning until night.

Remember when you didn’t know anything and couldn’t find out about anything? Now we can, you know, check on stuff constantly. Sure, most of what we access is mind-rotting junk, but there are good things, too, like Wikipedia and, um, restaurant reviews written by idiots and, um, the weather, and blogs. You have a blog, Todd. Quit complaining.

And don’t forget news and sports highlights. Plus you can read books and watch movies, and now Netflix and Amazon and YouTube and Apple and AT&T are producing hundreds and thousands of new shows, incredibly great shows, the best shows ever to go along with every show ever made since the very beginning of television.

And don’t forget YouTube has billions of videos about everything and everything that has ever been filmed, and everything.

Which is why everything is getting so much better. The environment is being saved, and we have wonderful mass transit that goes everywhere so we don’t need cars, and solar and wind and wave power is totally replacing the need to burn fossil fuels, and our educational system is better than ever, and our government has stopped spending money on war, and nuclear arsenals are being reduced and more and more people have good and meaningful jobs, and our culture is thriving. And it’s all because we can watch new shows and old shows and videos about catching flounder and group sex on our various screens from the moment we wake up until we take some sort of pill to help us sleep.

Social networks have brought us all together and made us more tolerant. We’re so much better informed, too. Racism has vanished, violence has decreased, and look at the people we elect to represent us now. Gads, talk about an improvement.

But best of all, our children are growing up so knowledgeable, so thoughtful and generous and kind. So incredibly kind. Those video games that hundreds of millions of people play constantly, those games are all about kindness and generosity and solving problems with logic and foresight and a deep understanding of the fabulous information the web provides for us with the touch of a whatever.

Thank goodness the pediatricians stopped believing those silly studies saying screen time was perilous to brain development. Look how good everything is now that our children are growing up with those screens virtually implanted in their bodies. All those great games and movies and videos of cats running into walls and people wrecking things and…

“The two most common elements in the known universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Harlan Ellison

The pediatricians have capitulated to the conquerors. In the past they tried to sound an alarm about the negative impact of screen time on the mental and physical health of children and other living things, but truth interferes with profits and the doctors have been swayed.

When I lived in Berkeley, I helped raise a boy from the day he was born until he was six-years-old. I was his nanny six hours every day. He and I did not watch television when he was with me because I didn’t have a television. He was fine with that arrangement until he turned six and was addicted to watching television for several hours a day while with his parents.

At my house, he and I contented ourselves with reading, drawing, going on walks, cooking, gardening, making music, playing ball, talking, making up games, telling stories, playing with other kids…things like that. But when I went to his house to take care of him, he screamed and cried and broke things if I didn’t let him watch television, so eventually I capitulated to his addiction and then made my escape to Mendocino.

Afraid Of Silence

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Silence

Dahlia photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.” Jean Arp

I pruned trees for a woman in Berkeley who always had her television on. Loud. She would invite me in after I was done with my work, serve me lemonade, and write me a check while soap opera actors on her gigantic television screen emoted and spoke to each other as no humans have ever spoken to each other except in soap operas and bad plays.

“You make my garden look so nice!” the woman shouted over the projections of people talking on her gigantic television screen. “Tamed the wild jungle!”

The third year I pruned her trees, I felt I knew her well enough to ask if she wouldn’t mind turning down the volume on her television while we visited. She reddened and said, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those anti-television people.”

“I’m hard of hearing,” I lied, “and it’s easier for me to visit with you without the television so loud.”

She turned down the television and said, “Truth is I don’t even notice it.”

“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.” Francis Bacon

I was in the Mendocino Market a few days ago, the best sandwich shop in Mendocino, feeling lucky to have placed my order moments before a large mob of ravenous teenagers rambled down from the high school for lunch.

Three girls stood next to me, waiting for their sandwiches, and one of them said, “If they don’t fix my iPod today I’ll go insane.”

One of her compatriots opined, “I couldn’t deal with it. I’d feel so cut off.”

The third girl added, “That’s why I always have at least two I know are working. I totally freak when I don’t have my tunes.”

I was reminded of a woman I was once entangled with who could not bear silence. We would return to our house after being out for a few hours and before doing anything else she would rush to the stereo and turn on the radio or play an LP. If she chose to play a record rather than listen to the radio, the moment the record ended, and often before the last cut on the album was over, she would start another record or turn on the radio.

When she came home and found me sitting in silence, she would immediately turn on the radio or play a record. When we went on walks, she always wore a Walkman so she would have music to walk to. She ignited the stereo in the car before starting the engine and played music as we drove that was too loud to talk over. Whenever I turned the music down to say something to her, she would give me a pained expression to let me know she preferred I shout over rather than turn her music down. When we went to quiet restaurants she would give me a horrified look and say, “Creepy,” and we would leave and go somewhere loud.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Aldous Huxley

A friend who knows of my love of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant recommended the movie Le Plaisir, composed of three films based on three of Maupassant’s short stories. The longest of the three excellent films is about the madam of a popular whorehouse in a coastal city who takes her prostitutes with her to attend the communion of her niece in a little farming town, the six gaudy whores causing quite a stir in the rural village. The prostitutes find the deep quiet of the country so alarming they cannot sleep a wink during their one night there, so accustomed are they to the noisy brothel and the incessant sounds of the city.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” Khalil Gibran

A 2006 study by Luciano Bernardi to measure the effects of music on the brain revealed that impacts of music could be read in the bloodstream via changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. But his most striking finding came about when he randomly inserted stretches of silence between the music sequences. Two minutes of silence proved far more relaxing than “relaxing” music.

In 2010, while observing the brains of mice being stimulated with bursts of sound, researchers at the University of Oregon found that the onset of sound prompts a specialized network of neurons in the auditory cortex to light up, but when sounds continue in a constant manner, the neurons stop reacting.

In 2013, a scientist at Duke University examined the effect of sounds on the brains of adult mice by exposing four groups of mice to various auditory stimuli: music, baby mouse calls, white noise, and silence. The scientist’s expectation was that baby mouse calls, a form of mouse communication, might prompt the development of new brain cells. She used silence as a control and expected it to produce no effect. Yet she discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the seat of memory, whereas the baby mouse calls, white noise, and music produced no measureable cell development.

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” Elie Wiesel

Before I moved to Mendocino, expeditions to the ocean involved long drives through terrible city traffic before reaching the less traveled country roads leading to the sea. On one such expedition to Point Reyes with a friend, we found a lovely spot on a sand dune overlooking a pristine beach and sat quietly for an hour enjoying the revivifying effects of silence.

We might have luxuriated in that divine silence even longer but for the arrival of a couple with a boom box and a little boy who pointed at us and shouted over the blaring hip hop, “What’s wrong with those people? Why they just sitting there?”

Play Ball

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

 play ball

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

“When they start the game, they don’t yell, ‘Work ball.’ They say, ‘Play ball.’” Willie Stargell

The day before Opening Day of Baseball Season 2015, Lon Simmons died at the age of ninety-one. Lon and his broadcasting partner Russ Hodges were the San Francisco Giants radio announcers when I was a boy and a teenager, and Lon’s voice and laconic style are etched in my memory as deeply as the voice of any close relative.

Opening Day 2015 was five days ago as I write this, and in the first game of the new season the Giants eked out a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in our usual nail-biting fashion. Our super hero starter Madison Bumgarner pitched seven dominant innings and left the game with a four-run lead courtesy of our boys hitting singles and doubles in bunches. Our bullpen promptly gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth and we went to the bottom of the ninth clinging to a one-run lead.

Then our closer, Santiago Casilla, struck out slugger Paul Goldschmidt to end the game and we were undefeated in 2015. Until the next night when Bruce Bochy revealed his biggest flaw as a manager—leaving pitchers in games when those pitchers clearly have nothing left in the tank.

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Yogi Berra

From 1979 until 1996, with a two-year break from 87-89, Hank Greenwald was the incomparable radio play-by-play guy for the Giants. He was laid back and funny and a wonderful storyteller, and when his long stint as the Voice of the Giants ended, I seriously doubted there would ever be anyone good enough to fill Hank’s shoes.

But a year later the magnificent Jon Miller took the radio reins along with former Giants infielder Duane Kuiper, and five years after Jon took over, David B. Flemming, a young upstart, now approaching middle age, joined the team. Excellent game-callers all, Miller is the top bard and comedian of the bunch and a brilliant imitator of other famous baseball announcers. When the Giants play the hated Dodgers, Jon always does an ear-perfect Vin Scully and makes me glad we have Jon and Duane and Dave announcing our games and not the venerable and uninteresting Scully. That’s a Giants fan talking. In Los Angeles, Vin is God.

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” Leo Durocher

I listen to games on a little silver Sony transistor radio. I take it to the garden, set it on the counter while I’m doing dishes, stand it in the cup holder in our ancient pickup, and frequently take the little thing to bed when games run past my bedtime.

To celebrate the season opener, I empowered my trusty radio with two new batteries and listened to the game under the influence of a miserable cold. As bad as I felt, I was happy listening to the game, and even happier when we won.

With the world going up in flames, the state suffering from catastrophic drought, lunatics and criminals running our government, and over-population synergizing with global warming to spawn more and bigger disasters, why do I care if a man on the radio describes how one team of baseball players prevails over another team of baseball players? I care because I am hard-wired to care, and I did the wiring myself.

I was nine when the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958. Having teethed on Seals games, I was a rabid Giants fan from Day One. I memorized batting averages and earned run averages and home run numbers, and I listened to every single game. Indeed, the ongoing challenge of my childhood was how to listen to night games broadcast after my bedtime.

Transistor radios were not widely available until the 1960’s, and the radio I listened to in the 1950’s was the size of a shoebox, made of steel, and full of tubes that got so hot when activated by electricity that the radio was too hot to touch. Many a night I fell asleep listening to Lon Simmons preaching on that hot box hidden under my covers, the volume so low it was only audible to my ear resting an inch from the hot metal, and therefore inaudible to my mother and father who believed sports were stupid and bad and would keep me out of medical school should I live so long. And on a few occasions, as I drifted off to dreamland, my ear would touch the hot metal and I’d wake with a start, yelping in pain.

“Now there’s three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win or you can lose or it can rain.” Casey Stengel

The Giants, as you probably know, have won the World Series three times in the last five years after not winning a World Series since the Pleistocene. Now that we have won again and again and again, my fellow tribe members and I expect to go to the World Series and win the trophy every year. How could we so quickly forget more than half a century of losing? Must be genetic.

I listen to Jon and Dave and Duane describing nine men playing a game against nine other men and I see the game vividly in my mind’s eye. In fact, the game I imagine while listening to Jon Miller paint word pictures is far more complicated and beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than games I see on television.

Marcia and I don’t have a television. If we had one, I would watch baseball, football, basketball, tennis, volleyball, golf, bowling, and documentaries about tree sloths, though not hockey or car racing. I wired myself to listen to baseball games on the radio, but humans are born wired to watch television. Having figured this out a long time ago, I realized if I wanted to do anything with my life other than watch television, it would behoove me not to have one in my house. Fortunately, Marcia is of the same mind, and she digs listening to baseball games on the radio, too.

Watching and Listening

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

1215beatsthinking350col

beats thinking ©John Grimes fizzdom.com grimescartoons.com

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

“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel

Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.

By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.

Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.

As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.

“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige

Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.

Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra

Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.

Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.

A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.

Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”

That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.

Aggression Versus Intelligence

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

 

 


magician

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

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

“The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man and constitutes the powerful obstacle to culture.” Sigmund Freud

Konrad Lorenz famously defined aggression as “the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of the same species.” How about violence directed against members of the same society? I’ve been thinking about the certifiably insane people in Congress who want to deny tens of millions of poor and hungry people sufficient food and shelter and healthcare. I am referring to those duly elected nutcases willing to shut down the entire government to get their murderously selfish way. We might ask: why are these crazy idiots so pissed off at poor people? But more interesting to me is the question: how did these horrible, racist, sexist dimwits attain positions of such great power? And though it may seem overly simplistic, I think the answer is that in degenerate human societies, which ours has definitely become, aggression is a more successful survival trait, in the short term, than intelligence.

I recently read a report summarizing the calculations of a group of budget analysts and economists showing that if the United States government would spend a quarter, that is one-fourth, of the amount currently spent on our military, all the tens of millions of people currently living in poverty in America would immediately be lifted out of poverty. Now why won’t our government do that? The only feasible explanation for our government’s failure to quickly rectify the grotesque economic imbalance in our society is that the people running our government are more aggressive than intelligent. They would rather attack members of their own species than help members of their own species. In other words, they are moronic goons.

Consider this. If you and I got together with two other people, and you had hundreds of eggs and eleven big bags of potatoes and I had thousands of carrots and seventy-three loaves of bread, and the other two people had nothing and were very hungry, what do you think we would do with our abundance of food? Well, if we were even moderately intelligent and just a tiny bit compassionate we would share our food with those less fortunate people. But if we were very aggressive and extremely stupid, we would not share our food but do everything in our power to keep those two people from having anything to eat. This is what we are living through right now on a national scale. We are witness to and victims of a few hundred senselessly aggressive people trying to hoard everything for themselves rather than give anybody else anything. Defies belief, but there it is.

What went wrong? How did we, the people, allow our society to degenerate to this critical point where so few have so much and so many have so little? Another recent article reported that over 75% of the American people have no savings whatsoever and no money beyond this month’s paycheck, if they are fortunate enough to have a paycheck. That’s three out of every four people in the country on the verge of hunger and homelessness. So how is it that we haven’t elected a Congress to represent this vast majority of the population?

In thinking about aggression versus intelligence and why we handed over the reins of power to a bunch of heartless jackals, I am reminded of Marshall Mcluhan saying, “The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf.” I interpret this to mean that adults infantilized by mass media (and raised by parents infantilized by mass media) are as powerless to defend themselves against the aggressive depredations of the corporate rulers and their government lackeys, as children are powerless to defend themselves against the depredations of violent adults.

Whenever I think of Mcluhan I also think of Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self. Lasch said, “The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.” This crucial observation was especially prescient since it was made before the advent of cell phone computers and Ipads and their ilk, apparatuses that purvey the addictive flow of mind-altering media while the devices themselves are as addictive as the gunk they purvey.

Lasch also said, “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” So what does it say about our underlying character structure, the American character circa 2013, that we, the people, would consciously choose hyper-aggressive idiots to run roughshod over our nation and the world? I think it says that we, the people, have been lobotomized by mass media and the insidiously invasive technologies purveying that media to the point that we are now, for all intents and purposes, collectively supine and passive in the face of the pathological aggression of a tiny minority of raving bullies.

I think it is crucial in any discussion of media manipulation of the masses to recall that television in its most primitive form did not become ubiquitous in American households until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and it was not until the 1990’s that television and television-like media were empowered by the internet and internet gizmos to go everywhere with us. Think about what has happened culturally and politically in synch with this television-based takeover of our lives and our society. Our public education system has entirely collapsed, our industrial base is gone, meaningful journalism has been replaced by sensationalist propaganda, our food supply is controlled by chemical companies, our largest banks are owned and operated by unregulated criminals, and we now have a vast underclass, hundreds of millions of people living in or on the verge of poverty, whereas in the 1960’s homelessness and dire poverty were essentially non-existent in America. There is a clear and direct connection between the conquest of our homes and minds by television and mass media, and the collapse of our society—a conquest that took very little time at all.

We the people are perpetually entranced now, the images and sounds and special effects and hypnotic suggestions brought to us minute-by-minute and hour-after-hour carefully designed and calculated to amplify our yearning for friendship and community and adventure and love and health and meaningful work. But rather than actually help us fulfill our desires and satisfy our yearnings, the media never ceases to whisper that fulfillment comes from watching enactments of other people fulfilling those desires. We needn’t do anything but get the latest and fastest and highest definition devices for displaying those constantly reiterated myths we so greatly desire to inhabit. By watching actors and athletes and celebrities and lucky winners attain their goals and live their dreams, or at least lead lives more exciting and colorful than our own dreary lives, so shall we be satisfied.

But only if we keep watching. Should we ever cease to check our phones or our portable screens every few minutes to get an update, a quick fix, or if we miss an episode of that gritty drama comedy murder mystery series we are now hopelessly addicted to, we will fall into a bottomless pit of fear and depression from which there is no escape, no return. Happiness is maintaining a strong clear high-speed connection anywhere and everywhere 24-7. Got it?

And while we’re imbibing remarkable graphics and awesome surround sound and never-ending car crash sequences and fascinating presentations about all the things we’d really like to be involved in if only we had the time for those sorts of things (but we don’t), we are too distracted to pay attention to those maniacs looting the nation and tearing the heart out of what might have been a great society, because whenever we do pay attention we feel, you know, bummed out, because there’s nothing we can do about those unpleasantly aggressive men wrecking everything. That’s just the way things are. Don’t the most popular television shows glorify amorality and violence and stupidity and drug dealing and serial killing and out-of-control aggression? Haven’t things always been that way? Haven’t violent bullies always wrecked everything for everybody else? That’s never going to change, right?

Even so, here’s a wild idea. The next time you go for a walk on the beach, don’t take your phone with you. I know that sounds crazy and reckless and dangerously daring; but do it anyway. You’ll be okay. I promise. And when you’re way out there on the sand, have a seat and watch the waves and just hang out for a while and see what happens. See what you think.

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

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

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.

Going Postal

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Saroyan Envelope by Jenifer Angel

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

“I claim there ain’t


Another Saint


As great as Valentine.” Ogden Nash

The notices currently taped to both sides of the glass doors of the Mendocino Post Office proclaim that starting February 14, 2012, our post office will henceforth be closed on Saturdays, and postal business shall only be conducted Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 4 PM. That our government, otherwise known as the Council of Evil Morons, would choose Valentine’s Day to kick off this latest contraction of our terrific postal system strikes me as ironic and cruel, as well as evil and moronic.

I and most Americans over fifty first learned how the postal system worked when we were in First and Second Grade and our teachers helped us create and operate our very own in-classroom post offices for the purpose of sending and receiving Valentines to and from our classmates. At Las Lomitas Elementary School we had actual post offices (built by handy parents) that took up big chunks of classroom real estate. These one-room offices featured windows behind which stood postal workers from whom we could buy stamp facsimiles (fresh from the mimeograph machine) to affix with edible white paste to our properly addressed envelopes. These envelopes contained store bought or handmade Valentines, and we would drop these childish love missives into cardboard mailboxes located across the rooms from the post offices. Then every hour or so postal workers would open these mailboxes, empty the contents into transport bags, and carry the mail to the post offices wherein the letters would be sorted into cubbyholes bearing the names of the recipients. And we, the children, got to be the postal workers and do all these fun jobs. How cool is that? For a six-year-old, way cool.

These Valentines postal operations stimulated many other sectors of our classroom ecology. Making art took on new and urgent meaning, as did writing. Anyone could send a regular valentine, but only artists and poets could make valentines covered with glitter (affixed to that same edible paste) bearing heartfelt original (or accidentally plagiarized) rhymes. Roses are red, violets are blue, please be my Valentine, shoo bop doo wah.

Valentines were the gateway drugs that turned me into the snail mail addict I am today, which is why I am so sad and angry about the decline and impending fall of our beloved postal system. Yes, I appreciate a good email missive, one without typos or grammatical errors; but the best email pales next to a mediocre piece of real mail found in my post office box, a one-of-a-kind Easter egg of love waiting to be discovered amidst the bills and junk mail, something made just for me that took someone more than a few seconds to compose and send, something steeped in what psychologists call “quality time”—loving attention undivided.

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

Get over it, Todd. No. I take Marshall McLuhan’s observation “the medium is the message” as a warning that what we think we’re doing may not be what we’re actually doing. McLuhan was speaking about mass media, television in particular, a medium through which I thought I was watching shows I wanted to watch, when in actuality I was allowing myself to be seduced by processes designed to entrain me to think and feel the way our corporate overlords want everyone to think and feel. Television is a medium of conquest and control. The message of that medium is “Do and be and buy what we tell you to do and be and buy or you will never be safe and happy. Ever.”

So it came to pass that I and many other people figured out the real message of mass media and television and broke free from that enslavement and stayed free long enough to help engender and partake of a brief renaissance of creative freedom known as the Sixties, a cultural revolution largely defined by its independence from mass media and corporate control. Some say the Sixties lasted into the 1970’s, and some say reverberations of that renaissance continued into the 1980’s, but for however long the groovy vibes of the Sixties kept on vibing, the important thing to know is that the innovative energy and expressions of that renaissance were eventually captured and drained of their power by the corporate media apparatus; and the next iteration of television was the computer and the internet and all the attendant satellite devices that define this digital age.

When I quit watching television in 1969, very little else changed in my life. My arts of writing and music were independent of television, and communications for personal and business matters were fast and effective by telephone and through the post office. But a couple years ago when I came out of a trance to find myself watching a basketball game on my computer, having sat down with the specific intention of rewriting a story, it suddenly dawned on me that computers are nothing more than interactive televisions, and now, oops, virtually all my personal and business dealings are inextricably bound to the use of the computer. Today I send my essays to the Anderson Valley Advertiser and other prescient publishers via email, I offer my music and books and art for sale through the internet, and to abstain from using my computer in the same way I abstained from using television would render me immediately and entirely removed from all but the most local of cultures, counter or otherwise.

Yet to stay hooked up to my computer is to be an active and addicted user of a medium that is the message, “Do and be and buy what we tell you to do and be and buy or you will never be safe and happy. Ever.” Except just as there are more layers to the computer/internet interface with our lives than there were with that earlier version of television, so are there more layers to the new medium’s message. Now, along with being told a million times a year what to do and be and buy, we are also compelled through the brutal elimination of alternatives to spend most of our time peering at our computer screens if we wish to feel connected to what we think is most important and meaningful, i.e. what is happening right now in those fields of endeavor we are most interested in.

Post offices, in my view, are among the last few vibrant vestiges of the non-computer way of doing and being, which is the real reason the Council of Evil Morons wants to strangle that marvelous system; so there will be no alternative, none at all, to computers and the internet as a means of doing and being, except on a local basis—very local. Which brings me to my latest idea for kindling the next cultural and social and political renaissance that will save the world and usher in the long awaited age of global enlightenment, which then may or may not precipitate contact with brilliant aliens who have been waiting for us to make the evolutionary leap from stupid selfish poopheads to smart generous sweetie pies.

My idea is that we start our own local post offices, without the aid of computers. We can use telephones to get the ball rolling, but not cell phones. These extremely local post offices will be adult versions of the post offices we had in First and Second Grade, manned by fun loving volunteers. Stamps created by a wide range of local artists will cost a nickel. You will need one stamp for every ounce of mail you send. Post office boxes (cubbyholes) will rent for ten dollars per year. The money collected from selling stamps and renting cubbyholes will go into maintaining the postal buildings with their clean and commodious adjoining public restrooms and teahouses.

Among the many cool things about these local post offices will be that they will be open seven days a week from morning until night, they will have tables and chairs where people can sit and write letters and decorate envelopes and gossip, of course, and they will have multiple gigantic well-maintained bulletin boards whereon anyone may post anything. Neato one-of-a-kind rainproof mailboxes created by local artisans will be scattered throughout the local watershed—and mail will be collected from these neato mailboxes several times a day and transported to the post office in colorful burlap bags. Then the letters will be sorted into our cubbyholes throughout every long day, thus making everyone feel safe and happy.

Yes, it would be easy to set up this kind of local post office using computers, but making something easy doesn’t necessarily make it good.

Todd’s snail mail address is P.O. Box 366 Mendocino CA 95460

 

 

 

 

What’s Going On?

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

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

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” Malcolm X

One of my guilty pleasures is watching sports highlights on my computer, many of which are prefaced by thirty-second ads for shoes, cars, beer, and the Army. I have become adept at turning off the volume and relaxing for those thirty seconds before each highlight, but occasionally a new ad grabs me and I’ll watch and marvel at the senseless inventiveness of capitalism. The last Army recruitment ad I watched began with a video-game-animation of Caucasian American soldiers morphing into actual Caucasian American soldiers interdicting and arresting impoverished American black men, brutally and at gunpoint.

I haven’t the slightest doubt that twenty years ago such an ad would have caused a huge public outcry for its racist violence and for the implication that American armed forces are servants of a racist police state. But this ad, I have since been informed, has been running for several weeks through several mainstream media outlets, and no outcries are being reported (which, of course, doesn’t mean outcrying isn’t going on.)

“I think I’m an actor because I have a very strong imagination and empathy. I never studied acting, but those two qualities are exactly the qualities that make for an activist.” Susan Sarandon

As I was pondering this latest indication of the thorough conquest of our media by the corporate state, my brother sent me a link to an article about a large new study by the American Red Cross that reveals nearly sixty percent of American teenagers (both male and female) think brutal torture of suspected enemies is acceptable. And more than fifty percent of teenagers also approve of killing captured enemies on the spot in situations where the enemy is thought to have killed Americans. If that doesn’t creep you out, consider that forty-one percent of American teens thought it was fine for our enemies to torture Americans.

The study further reveals that a large majority of older Americans are opposed to torture under any circumstances. So what’s going on? We might simply blame television, but the parents of today’s teenagers watched as much television as their children, and they, the parents, do not largely approve of torture. So perhaps it is the nature of television and mass media today in contrast to how it was twenty years ago. Or we might blame the new generation of extremely realistic video games, most of which require the player to slaughter as many enemies as he or she can slaughter before they, the enemies, slaughter the player.

However, I think it is naïve to say that too much television and too many violent video games are the causes of our teenagers lacking empathy for others. For though television and video games certainly may influence our thinking and behavior, to a much larger degree television and video games reflect the larger social and political scenarios into which today’s teenagers were born. I think it is crucial to remember that virtually all of our individual prejudices and emotional inclinations are thoroughly hardwired by the end of the first four years of our lives, long before most kids make their first video kills.

What I and many others theorize is that the social fabrics woven of direct human connections and human interdependencies that have defined and supported people for millennia have been largely replaced by a technological fabric purporting to connect us, but that in reality keeps us terribly isolated and starving for emotional fulfillment. I view the cell phone/computer as close kin to the tracking devices affixed to convicted felons serving their sentences at home. Indeed, a growing number of people I know have become so neurotically attached to their mobile phones that their lives seem to be little more than extensions of that attachment.

“Touch has a memory.” John Keats

When I was a young man, an older man I knew and admired was convicted of statutory rape and sent to prison. I was so devastated by this wholly unexpected (by me) turn of events that I sought solace in reading everything I could get my hands on about rapists and criminals and prisons. And in almost every book and study I read, there were two points made again and again that struck me as most telling: that the vast majority of those who are sent to prison were deprived of loving touch as children, and rapists in particular were, for the most part, extremely unimaginative and had great difficulty satisfying themselves sexually through fantasy and autoeroticism.

Well, you probably see where I’m going with this. If instead of love and lots of physical and emotional interaction with us and other people, we give our children gadgets and videos that take the place of and inhibit the development of their imaginations, and we isolate them so they grow up socially and verbally inept, and we ourselves are hooked into our computers and phones, thus modeling for them what it is to be a human being, the scene is set for a collective criminality, if you will, criminality defined as a lack of empathy and compassion for others—a wholly self-serving mode of survival.

“How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.” Buckminster Fuller

This may seem like an unlikely segway, but have you noticed that the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan has suddenly vanished from the news? The same folks running recruitment ads using violent racism as bait for desperate teenagers without imaginations have decided that in-depth news about the multiple nuclear meltdowns might interfere with corporate profits both in the short and long term so…

But in Germany, as a result of the Fukushima disaster and ensuing public and electoral protests, the German government has announced they are going to phase out all their nuclear power plants as soon as possible and aim those billions of Euros instead at energy efficiency and the development of alternative energy sources. And I guarantee you that when their shift away from nuclear power proves to be wildly successful and surprisingly profitable, we won’t hear a word about that success on NPR or ABC, just as we don’t hear any words about the marvelous success of Single Payer healthcare in Canada and England and Europe.

Who are these people controlling what we get to hear and see? Weren’t they, too, sweet innocent babies in the beginning? How come they grew up so angry and disconnected and cruel?

“Either war is obsolete, or men are.” Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller suggests that there are two massive forces competing for supremacy on earth at this time in our human and planetary evolution. He called them the forces of Weaponry and Livingry. Bucky coined the word livingry, a word my computer’s dictionary does not recognize as legitimate, but what does it know? Only what it was told to know.

These forces of Weaponry and Livingry are fueled by the actions of people, and as events in Germany demonstrate, people can change a nation’s course in almost no time at all if they are permitted to express their collective will. This is the vision I am holding right now; that despite the sudden news blackout in America about what’s really going on in Japan regarding the Fukushima nuclear power plants and the irradiation of an entire nation (and to a lesser extent the entire world), the forces of Livingry have been given a great gift, and the forces of Weaponry are now more vulnerable than ever.

And the other vision I’m holding is that out of the ongoing economic devastation visited upon this country by the criminal overlords (criminal as in unloved sad lonely emotionally starved insatiably greedy) will come a revival of the ancient and natural way of living that requires no microwave cell towers, no nuclear power plants, and absolutely no torture. Bucky called this Livingry, but I’m confident we can come up with even more beautiful words for what he meant, along with dances and songs and ceremonies and celebrations.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com

Art Rant

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Books

Rae’s eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor.” from Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott

The silence of the eyes rings true, and the eyes being side-by-side seems plausible, but how in heck did those eyes get onto that couch without Rae?

I was thirteen and had devoured a thousand books before I discovered the first typo of my reading career, an error that struck me as a scandalous affront to the artistry of writing. I was an insatiable reader, and wanting to be a professional writer I did not skim, but read every word. And when I found passages that wowed me, I copied their lines longhand to teach my sinews the feel of great writing.

“The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.” from Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Nowadays I am surprised if I read a book from a corporate press and don’t find grammatical errors galore with typos sprinkled throughout. I was recently told I must read the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, a current darling of the New York literati, a writer with myriad awards to her credit, including a Pulitzer. I dutifully ordered her most revered collection of short stories, and after wading through several introductory pages of praiseful blurbs from influential magazines and newspapers—the word miraculous appearing in several of the blurbs—I entered a grammatical minefield that rendered her half-baked stories unreadable for the likes of me.

I complained of Ms. Lahiri’s failings to Marcia, my wife who is so patient with me when I rant about the decline and fall of our culture. Marcia calmly considered my condemnation of the writer and said, “Maybe you just don’t like her style.”

Indeed. Clunky composition featuring profligate use of the word “it”, pronoun confusion, place confusion, time confusion, inadequate descriptions of people and places, and lame depictions of action do add up to a particular style, but who needs it? And why would reviewers describe such stuff as miraculous? In two words: culture collapse.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Lamott and countless other contemporary authors contracted by the corporate presses should be ashamed to publish books that have not been thoroughly and thoughtfully edited. Why aren’t they ashamed? You tell me.

Radio

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” Marilyn Monroe

In 1966 I was lead singer in a rock band of sixteen-year-old boys. By our third rehearsal we knew we were fantastic and would soon be opening at the Fillmore for our favorite bands Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Joy Ride, though I was never certain if we were The Joy Ride or simply Joy Ride.

This was long before the advent of cassette tape recorders (now obsolete) so we recorded our loud songs on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the one-of-a-kind tapes to Warner Brothers and Columbia Records so we would be discovered and made famous and have beautiful wonderful girlfriends who wanted to have sex with us day and night while maintaining their brilliance and creativity and innocence.

We had one gig before (The) Joy Ride broke up. The gig was a battle of four bands in a cavernous high school gymnasium. We were awesome, yet we lost the battle. The only possible explanation for our defeat was that the airheads didn’t get where we were coming from. Our one stalwart groupie said we reminded her of Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds rolled into one. No wonder we knew we were fantastic.

Embittered by our rejection by the airheads, I joined forces with a guitar player and wrote eleven amazing songs. We recorded our masterworks on that same reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the tape to A&M Records because a friend of ours had a friend who knew someone’s friend’s cousin or uncle who worked there. Maybe the tape got lost in the mail, but more likely the record company airheads just didn’t get where we were coming from. In any case…

Fast-forward forty-five years. Having just produced two new CDs, I have been questing for likely DJs at likely radio stations to send our music to, my goal being to send forth a hundred packets, each containing our CDs and a heartfelt handwritten letter aimed at a specific DJ. So not Jazz is my collaboration with the aforementioned patient wife Marcia, her exquisite cello improvisations elevating our jazzy instrumentals and songs into the sublime, while 43 short Piano Improvisations is my solo adventure in musical haiku.

Whilst pursuing those rare DJs who might be open to music from the likes of us, I have visited over a hundred public radio station web sites and scrutinized several hundred DJ profiles and play lists. As of this writing, I have sent out sixty-seven packets and gained three DJ fans: one in Fort Collins, Colorado, one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Astoria, Oregon. They have each played a tune or two of ours, and promise to play more. We are, in a word, thrilled.

As a result of my copious research, I have learned that if a radio station is an NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate and airs All Things Considered, they will probably be a kind of public radio Clear Channel with canned programming and zero interest in independent artists. But if a station airs Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, there is a fair chance they will harbor one or more zany, curious, eclectic programmers. And then there are the entirely student-run college stations. I do not intend to approach any of these stations until our hip-hop metal reggae album Dread Metal YoYo is ready for release.

Movies and Plays

“Television has raised writing to a new low.” Samuel Goldwyn

John Simon is the author of my favorite one-sentence film review. In response to the movie Tommy, he wrote in Esquire, “Anyone who has anything good to say about this movie has nothing to say to me.” I feel this way about nearly all the American movies I’ve seen in the last thirty years, and that is because I have not been programmed to digest contemporary theatrical offerings.

Contemporary movies and theatre in America are now entirely conflated with television, the essence of which is physical and psychic violence, emotional superficiality, sexism, the deification of morons, verbal abuse disguised as humor, and non-stop brainwashing. Because I ceased watching television in 1969, the programming of my brain has not kept pace with the changing cultural mores. Thus contemporary American plays and movies, even those purported to be brilliant and deep and meaningful, almost always strike me as trivial and/or toxic.

I remember the precise moment I decided to forego television for the rest of my life. I was nineteen and on the verge of dropping out of college—academia antithetical to the likes of me. I was wandering the halls of my dorm looking for someone to accompany me on a late night stroll when I came to a lounge wherein a dozen young men and women were watching television. As I stood in the lounge doorway and watched the watchers, I was struck by the realization that these promising young people, four of them my best friends, were being lobotomized by the rays emanating from the television, their faces fixed in helpless idiocy.

Over the last thirty years, I have attended some two hundred plays in theatres large and small in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco, and most recently Mendocino, and I cannot bring to mind a single contemporary play written by an American that I believed in for more than a moment or two. Of the few hundred American movies I’ve seen since 1980, I can think of a handful I would call good, only a few great. Thank goodness we have access to foreign films (I consider the British foreign) so I do not entirely starve for good movies, though I am frequently hungry.

I am certain (having been privileged to read such manuscripts) that fine plays, books, and screenplays are still being written in America, but they are not, as a rule, produced or published or widely disseminated. And, yes, I have on rare occasions over the last forty years watched television, usually at the request of friends urging me to sample shows they say are fabulous, only to have my sense of the ongoing devolution confirmed.

Renaissance

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

If you so desire, you can overcome the televisionization of your psyche and revitalize your aesthetic taste buds. Having worked with many teenage and adult writers who were initially incapable of writing original stories with non-stereotypical characters and natural-sounding dialogue, and knowing the causes of their dysfunction to be television, corporate fiction, and contemporary American movies, I found that if I could convince my charges to eliminate these influences from their lives, creative rebirth was a virtual certainty. For teenagers, such rebirths may occur within weeks of their ceasing to imbibe the media opiates. For adults, such rejuvenation may take months. And I suppose the modern variants of television, iPads, cell phones, YouTube, etc. should be included in the list of influences to be minimized.

Our brains, in much the same way as ecosystems, will regenerate once persistent toxics and stresses are removed, and once you end your addiction to the opiates of the masses you will be astonished by the dramatic shift in your perceptions. However, there is the strong possibility you will feel left out of the cultural discourse about celebrities and the latest movies and books you can’t remember shortly after you ingest them, and you may feel isolated and lonely and desperate in the absence of all that you have become accustomed to. Fear not. Falling off the wagon is but a click of the On button and a badly written bestseller away.

[Todd reads books written by dead or very old or unknown authors and watches foreign films (and the occasional teen flick) in Mendocino.]

This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010