Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’

Off The Map

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

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

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com

The New Yorker

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

redwood rounds

 Redwood Rounds photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris

Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.

After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.

Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.

“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger

When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”

Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.

Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White

The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”

The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.

“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff

Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.

Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?

“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon

As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.

Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?

No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor.  Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.

“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan

When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.

“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”

“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.

Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

 

 

Self-Loving

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

When Your Heart Is Strong crayon on monotype:paper Nolan WInkler

When Your Heart Is Strong drawing by Nolan Winkler

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

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” David Packard

A friend of mine went to graduate school at Yale in theater management and marketing where his favorite professor was forever reminding his students: “For every hundred queries you send out, you can count on one response. This won’t necessarily be a positive response, but at least it will be a response.”

As a writer and musician who for many years fished, so to speak, in the smallest tributaries of the mainstream before experiencing a few years of success on the cultural Mississippi, as it were, of New York and Hollywood, only to return to the hinterlands where I have continued to cast my line for the past thirty years, I have sent out thousands of queries, stories, songs, novels, plays, screenplays, and music CDs to agents, publishers, producers, directors, DJs, magazine editors, and people randomly selected from the phone book, and in my experience the professor’s estimate of one response per hundred submissions is right on the money.

I was one of those young writers who, for fun and incentive, once papered the four walls of my rented room (from floor to ceiling) with form rejection letters from The New Yorker and Esquire and The Atlantic and Playboy and dozens of other magazines large and small—the collage of hundreds of colored rectangles strikingly beautiful, though the cumulative negativity of the verbiage writ on those disingenuous notes (we carefully considered, we’re very sorry) eventually caused me to burn them all in a bonfire of rage against the machine and in hope of exorcising the demons of self-doubt.

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Nowadays, as a sometimes self-publishing author and musician, I frequently encounter disdain and contempt from all sorts of people for manufacturing my own work. Yes, Mark Twain self-published most of his novels, and countless other revered writers and artists self-published, self-promoted, and self-sold, but the dominant cultural myth remains that self-manufacturing books or musical recordings is pathetic and disgraceful, especially for someone no longer in kindergarten.

This anti-self-publishing sentiment is especially true among people over fifty who were not raised on YouTube, though many people under fifty also make a clear distinction between an artist who brings out his or her own creations and the artist who manages to sell himself, literally, to a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Is this not a form of cultural idiocy? And from whence does this antipathy to marketing our own creations come from?

“This self-love is the instrument of our preservation; it resembles the provision for the perpetuity of mankind: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and we must conceal it.” Voltaire

So there’s Voltaire, the keen observer of social mores, three hundred and fifty years ago warning against public displays of self-appreciation, regardless of the emotional importance of such self-positivity, thus confirming that self-negation as cultural norm is nothing new. And who in our steep-sided pyramidal society and pyramidal economic system benefits most from this bizarre idea that it is shameful and wrong for a free lance artist to manufacture her own art and then alert the world that her art is for sale?

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” Seth Godin

A Seattle publisher recently reissued my novel Inside Moves in a handsome paperback edition after the good book had been out-of-print for over thirty years, and dozens of people who had previously snickered and snorted in derision at my self-published works wrote and called to congratulate me, a few of these brainwashed peeps actually saying things like, “Must be great to have a real book in the stores again.” How bizarre! I was going to say how fucking bizarre, but that would be crude.

 “Self-love is a big part of golf.” Lewis Black

Nine times. Think of the Beatles song Revolution 9 with that annoying voice in the background intoning interminably “Number Nine, Number Nine.” Recent marketing research indicates that busy publishers, editors, DJs, and other persons bombarded with press releases and poems and screenplays and songs and cries of “Look at me jumping!” by millions of Baby Roos (see Winnie-the-Pooh) need to be loudly informed about something nine times, on average, for the thing to penetrate their overloaded cerebrums and get them to take notice. Oy vey. Such postage and envelopes and mailers for the struggling artist!

Speaking of postage, over the last seven years I have sent out rafts of copies of my four piano CDs and the two music CDs Marcia and I made together, these rafts going to radio stations around the country, with one response for every hundred submissions a close approximation of my success rate, whether that means actual airplay for Incongroovity or Mystery Inventions or a terse: Go Away! We Only Play Music Recorded By Famous People.

I hasten to add that these are not large radio stations I apply to, but small ones kin to our own KZYX whereon you will be lucky, indeed, to hear our music, though not for lack of my sending them our CDs. Jamie Roberts, bless him, occasionally plays my recorded fiction, and Joel Cohen has played a few cuts of my piano music—local exposure a special thrill for us. The good people at KMUD are so stoutly unified in their indifference to my offerings, I have ceased to bother them.

But I have managed to win over a handful of daring and prescient DJs who now regularly spin my tunes in Warren Vermont, Bloomington Indiana, Arcata California, Fort Collins Colorado and Astoria Oregon. Mazel tov!

“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.” Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I was a preschool teacher’s aide, one of my favorite things about the three and four-year-olds I had the pleasure of overseeing was their unabashed love of their own artistic endeavors and creations: crayon drawings and finger paintings and block towers and sand castles and somersaults and dances and impromptu songs—everything! Countless times an excited little kid would show me his or her creation, and in response to my saying, “That’s wonderful!” the little Picasso or O’Keeffe would confidently reply, “I know!”

But something happens to most American children in the years following kindergarten and continuing for the rest of their lives, some multi-level, multi-layered reprogramming goes on at home, at school, on television, at work, in life, so that by the time children are six and seven-years-old they are much less likely to share their creations with an adult, and by ten-years-old most kids cease to create anything.

From happy self-loving declarations of “I know!” to complete emotional and creative shutdown in just a few short years—the result of our horrifying and incredibly effective system of mass repression.

What are you talking about, Todd? Look at the millions of people making YouTube videos of themselves and their kids and cats and stuff, and the millions of people taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones to go along with their tweeting and sexting.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

In my perusal of sports highlights on my computer, I am required to sit through commercials in order to see brief snippets of games I’ve missed for lack of a television. Thus I have seen many ads for razors, cars, big-budget movies, computers, running shoes, and Disney vacation resorts. In the latest series of Disney ads, people are shown publicly acting out in spontaneous and imaginative ways, and then being judged idiotic or crazy by their families and friends.

In one such Disney ad, a father and his two children are in a hardware store when the father gets the wacky idea of donning a welding helmet and picking up a fluorescent light tube and pretending to be Darth Vader wielding a light saber. In his excitement, the father gets carried away and knocks over a display, a heinous act that embarrasses his well-behaved children and dismays the other people in the store. But in a twinkling, the father and children and their mother are transported to a Disney resort where the father is allowed to duel with real (fake) light sabers and a Disney employee dressed up as the real (fake) Darth Vader—the children no longer embarrassed by their impulsive father.

The Voice accompanying this vomitous series of ads declares, and I paraphrase, “So if you want to be even just a little bit creative and spontaneous and playful without punishment and censure, you must give large quantities of your hard-earned money to the Disney Corporation and we will allow you to be slightly more carefree than you are allowed to be in real life, though we know that even when you come to this totally artificial place, you will be too inhibited to act in ways that will necessitate our having to punish you.”

Helen Gurley Brown

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Photo of 1978 Cosmopolitan by Todd

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

“How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.” Helen Gurley Brown

Why am I writing about Helen Gurley Brown, famed editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and a champion of sexual freedom or a promoter of sexual enslavement, depending on your particular socio-political orientation? Well, because Helen Gurley Brown just died at the age of ninety, and though many people consider her a traitor to feminism, and many others see her as a pioneering feminist and social revolutionary, Helen was one of the very few magazine editors in America in the 1970’s and 80’s who would publish my short stories about the challenges facing men and women in the chaos of sexual and social change that arrived with the birth control pill and the dawn of the feminist epoch; thus I have no doubt about where I stand regarding Ms. Brown’s place in the history of psycho-sexual discourse.

Ironically, or appropriately, I intended all eight of my stories that were eventually published in Cosmopolitan to be published in other magazines, notably Esquire and The New Yorker, for I did not read Cosmopolitan or have any great desire to be published therein. But I was not famous, nor was I a member of the literary society with access to the editors of those seemingly more sophisticated magazines, and so despite the valiant efforts of my incomparable literary agent Dorothy Pittman, I was never able to publish a story in either Esquire or The New Yorker, though we received many flattering rejection letters from editors at both magazines.

The very first short story I ever sold for actual money (as opposed to the mere glory of seeing my name in print) was to Cosmopolitan in 1975 for the staggering sum of one thousand dollars, with ten per cent of that fortune going to Dorothy. In one fell swoop I was lifted out of poverty, for in those days my monthly nut was seventy-five dollars: thirty dollars rent (I was living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon), thirty dollars for food, fifteen dollars for everything else. One day I was surviving on rice and beans and barely making ends meet with minimum wage work, the next day I was writing full-time and buying the occasional chicken to round out my menu.

Naively, I thought the publication of Willow, a provocative tale of a woman boxer who gets a shot at the male welterweight crown, would quickly be followed by more sales to Cosmopolitan and other magazines, but the gods did not so smile on me again until those nine hundred dollars were long gone and I had moved to Medford, Oregon to work as a landscaper. But oh how I relished that year of unfettered scribbling, a twelvemonth that saw the completion of my novel The Gimp that would be published three years later as Inside Moves, which publication procured for me a few more years to concentrate entirely on my writing and music.

And so I owe my fleeting success as a writer to Helen Gurley Brown, who, lest we forget, published her wildly successful and influential book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Ms. Brown is also widely acknowledged as the first editor of a mainstream women’s magazine to publish frank discussions about sex and sexuality as ongoing centerpieces of her editorial content. Speaking of which, in honor of Helen Gurley Brown, I unearthed my cache of ancient Cosmos so I might revive herein my story Annihilation, published in the American Cosmopolitan in 1982 and subsequently reprinted in the Australian and Italian editions of that fabled rag.

ANNIHILATION

“Annihilate me,” Alana whispered.

He tried to annihilate her. He tried to be brutish. He had to think of things that made him angry. Income tax. His alcoholic father. Alana’s former lover. He began to lose his erection. He opened his eyes, looked at her belly, her taut little breasts, her dark honey hair, her pleasure-wracked face. He was renewed, yet filled with feelings of tenderness.

“You were marvelous,” she said afterward.

“Thank you,” he said, unable to look her in the eye. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said.

“How am I being silly?”

“Love,” she said, shrugging. “We’re animals. The real pleasure comes when we don’t try to tame the animal with ideas. Just take me. That’s all I want sexually.”

“Which animals are we?” he asked. “Lion, tiger, hippopotamus, bullfrog?”

“Don’t spoil it,” she said, getting out of bed. “Just be the animal you are. And be wild.”

“I cannot be wild on command,” he said to his psychiatrist.

The doctor smiled over her glasses at him. “I like that. Would you mind very much if I used that? For my book?”

“Not at all,” he said. “Glad to be of assistance.”

“That’s one of the big problems, isn’t it?” she said, nodding. “I call it feminist backlash. They finally get the gentle, caring person they were so adamant a man should be, and they find him inadequate. They want what they were lobbying against. To a certain extent.”

“And the solution?”

“Be yourself.”

“And lose Alana?”

“Or lose yourself. And here you are just discovering what that is.”

“Do you wish for annihilation in sex?”

“I really don’t think it appropriate…”

“Sorry,” he said, biting his thumbnail. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Over breakfast one morning.

Alana: You were…you took so long. (A quick smile) I loved every minute of it, but I was wondering if…

Him: If what?

Alana: If you enjoyed it.

Him: Every minute of it. Though I must admit that lately I worry about…

Alana: You worry too much. Everything is fine. Isn’t it?

Him: Is it?

Alana: Of course it is. What’s wrong?

Him: (Blurting it out) Am I wild enough? Do I annihilate you adequately?

Alana: Yes. I was a fool to have ever started talking about it. Forgive me?

Him: Yes, if you’ll forgive me.

(She rises, goes to him, undoes her bathrobe, and cradles his head against her breasts.)

His friend Arthur, a notorious rogue, sat across the table from him at Chez Annihilation and gave him a rundown on the week’s activities.

“Monday night I destroyed the little brunette who sells skin cream. Massacred her.”

“Tuesday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Tennis for two hours. Early to bed. Saving myself.”

“For?”

“My day off Wednesday. Bombarded Sarah from nine till noon. Then, finally made it with You Know Who in the late afternoon. Decimated her.”

“Dare I ask about yesterday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Stayed in bed last night. Watched television. Great National Geographic show—Life and Death in Africa.”

“Anything on for tonight?”

“What’s Alana doing?” He laughed.

“Leave her annihilation to me, please.”

“It’s depressing,” he said, turning to the woman beside him at the bar.

“That’s an interesting opening line,” she said, winking. “But tell me, how did you know I was a neurotic?”

“Four gin and tonics at three in the afternoon?”

“I might just be an alcoholic.”

“True,” he said.

“What’s depressing?”

“The whole notion of sexual annihilation.”

“Nihilism?”

“Annihilation.”

“Ooh,” she cooed, her eyelids fluttering. “Sounds divine.” She moved closer. “You’re quite attractive, you know.”

“Why?”

“Well, among other things, you have very nice eyes.”

“No, why does annihilation sound divine?”
“Because to be annihilated is to be totally lost, and we only totally lose ourselves when we let go of everything, and we can only really let go when we are overwhelmed, when we simply lack the strength to defend ourselves, and have no choice. The decision is made for us by the overwhelmer. We escape our fears by becoming our fears. Ecstasy through annihilation.”

“You say that with such sureness,” he said.

“I know when I’m happy.”

That evening.

Him: (As he takes the glass of wine from her) Alana, have you ever…that is, since we began sleeping together, have you ever wanted another man?

Alana: (Eyeing him suspiciously) Have you?

Him: I prefer females.

Alana: Other females?

Him: I asked you first. Have you…

Alana: Of course. But as Mae West used to say, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, just so long as you eat at home.”

Him: And where exactly do you get your appetite?

Alana: At the movies, in the car, when I close my eyes, when I see you, when I don’t see you, when I look at pictures of naked women, when I…

Him: Really? Naked women?

Alana: Naked women. There is nothing so erotic as a beautiful naked woman.

Him: Naked men?

Alana: In my mind, yes. And you. Otherwise no.

Him: Why naked women?

Alana: Perhaps by seeing an idealized picture of myself, posed ideally, I can more easily see the ways in which a man might…

Him: Annihilate you.

(Alana closes her eyes, sighs deeply.)

Annihilate: To reduce to nothing; to cause to cease to exist; to destroy completely; to exterminate.

Professor Cardin was speaking on the sexual basis of war.

“Long ago,” began the professor, addressing a full house, “the connection between fighting and mating was obvious. One had to win a mate. Not only did one have to defeat other males, but the female had to be subdued, too. This is genetic reality.”

Several women in the audience booed.

“I am not saying that this need be manifested in a purely physical way. Courtship, after all, can be largely non-violent, but consummation must be satisfactory, and this usually calls for a modicum of physical strength.”

Several women in the audience applauded.

“With the advent of a social order wherein weak, as well as strong, individuals could survive, the population began to expand at the phenomenal rate that continues to this day. Yet, the genetic need to conquer, especially that need in the more aggressive males and in females wanting those males, began to manifest in warfare.”

Several men in the audience booed.

“Yes, gentlemen. It is threatening to realize that the major wars throughout history have been fought because of the inadequate sexual identities of a handful of men.”

Several more men in the audience booed.

“Furthermore, we stand on the brink of complete annihilation because a handful of sexually frustrated old men with severe personality disorders hold the reins of power in this country and abroad. What should be a fierceness and physicality in bed is transmuted into bullying and genocide on a global scale.”

Several people in the audience applauded.

“The solution may be in a true sexual revolution. One in which the frequency of intercourse becomes as important as the orgasm.”

The audience reaction was greatly mixed.

“Well,” said his mother, serving him a bowl of ice cream. “When are you planning to have some kids? Soon, I hope.”

“Kids are not so much the issue,” he said.

“No. What is?”

“Well, I’m not so sure I’m giving her what she wants.”

“You’re speaking of sex?”

“Not sex so much as the kind of sex.”

She sighed, then sat down and shook her head. “I never told you this, but your father…” She hesitated. “He was extremely tender when we made love.” Her eyes filled with tears. “He couldn’t help it. I learned to accept it.”

“You were taught to be accepting,” he said, pushing his ice cream away, his jaw tightening. “Times have changed.”

“Now,” said the instructor, a Burt Reynolds look alike, “hitting is not a good idea. However, shoving, grabbing, spanking, shaking, and pulling are all techniques we’ll be investigating and practicing.”

“What about verbal abuse?” someone asked.

“The entire third and fourth sessions are devoted to that,” said the instructor, nodding. “But the main thing we’ll be working on is attitude.” He pounded the blackboard with his fist. “The first thing I want to hammer into your heads is that through disdain and contempt, by learning to be an emotional brick wall, you’ll have women crawling all over you. It’s attitude, attitude, attitude.” He scowled. “Now, sure, some women want a little warmth, a little sibling give and take, but they’re the exceptions. You can handle the exceptions once you know the rules.”

He practically kicked the door down. He flung the flowers at her feet. As she knelt to pick them up, he placed a foot on her shoulder and pushed her onto her back. She looked up at him, her eyes filled with terror. He was undressing. She started to get up. He growled. She lay back down.

“Take off your clothes,” he whispered fiercely. She did. He dropped to his knees, took her roughly in his arms, and annihilated her.

“Darling,” she said in the darkness, “you exhaust me.”

“So?”

“I’m sorry.” She touched his shoulder. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said.

“Anything,” she said, pleading with him.

“Prove it,” he said. “Annihilate me.”

••

 

 

 

 

 

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.